The best night of Rodney McKay's life was when the Night-Owl started serving five-cent coffee after the government ended two years of ration restrictions. As it turned out, it would also be the night he encountered John Sheppard, and even much later there were times when he was still not wholly convinced that it turned out to be a good thing.
Most people in McKay's line of work got by on coffee and cigarettes, but even the thought of smoking made his lungs seize like a stalled-out Crosley. For almost two years, McKay's coffee pot had lain dormant three nights out of seven because he couldn't make his or Teyla's coffee rations stretch that long and three nights a week he choked down poison dispensed from the Owl's coffee urns. During those same two years, the Owl closed down at nine, and during the day it served Postum, besides. Postum, in McKay's opinion, was liquefied cereal masquerading as coffee, made by the deceiver to convince people they weren't being deprived, or depriving themselves.
Whether McKay liked it or not, though, the Owl served it, so he almost never went there except for lunch and dinner whenever he didn't, or couldn't, drag himself home before midnight. They were dark years, but light returned when the Allies landed in Normandy and the ration board celebrated by lifting the coffee restrictions, and a few months later the Times said it was five-cent coffee for all.
On that night, for the first time in three years the Owl spilled a curved L of fluorescent light across two intersecting streets and through the window of R.D. Bonds and Bail Services. A sliver of it penetrated the otherwise lightless apartments and offices above, running fine lines across carpet and furniture, but not giving enough light to see by. At this time of night, the only things that moved were McKay and the other people in the diner; other than the guy behind the counter trying to pour coffee and flirt with a customer, they weren't moving much.
The diner had a cigar advertisement that faced the avenue and a Coca-Cola advertisement that stared up into McKay's second-story office. At night, he could see the girl and her jaunty smile and her soda in what light strayed outside its boundaries. The girl's pale face had almost faded into the wood and her red curls had chipped away into manginess, but in broken, painted letters she still advised him to take a minute to refresh, and like a lot of girls (and, he'd think later, like Sheppard), she ended up being more trouble than she was worth.
Working toward one o'clock in the morning, though, McKay needed something more, and with a sigh of relief hunched over his third cup of coffee-Postum hybrid. His third five-cent cup of coffee, the first in two years, and he gazed fondly at the two silver urns resting on the countertop, their polished and shining surfaces marred only by the fingerprints of the white-shirted waiter who wandered around refilling glasses and occasionally telling the run-down looking man he needed to leave.
The run-down looking man slouched on his stool, his weight resting on his elbows and his hands splayed on the countertop as though he couldn't be bothered to restrict himself to the two feet of space allowed per occupant. He wore a dark coat and white shirt, but if he'd started out the evening with a tie, it was missing now and his undone collar offered a hint of skin and Valentino-like danger. His hair, defying the merciless rigidity of wartime fashion and unwearied by the late hour, stood up in excited and uncultivated cowlicks. Maybe it was sucking up all the man's energy, like the energy vampires from the issue of Astonishment! Monthly that had just come out. McKay still hadn't finished reading that, and wished he'd brought it with him; when he'd left off, things weren't looking good for Space Captain Astar, and McKay hoped he'd get through okay; he had a lot of sympathy for Space Captain Astar, a lone wanderer (like McKay) up against impossible odds (like McKay). Years had taught McKay that one usually didn't feel heroic being a private eye, and Space Captain Astar never seemed particularly heroic either; usually he seemed tired and frustrated, even if the princess of Planet Orgasm offered to become his concubine. McKay could relate.
Besides the run-down space captain and McKay, only two other people occupied the diner's twenty seats. They were a man and a woman, the woman all brassy reds and oranges except for the blue shadow over her eyes, the man in a suit as navy and anonymous as McKay's. Not anonymous enough, though; McKay recognized Simon Wendover from the photo on Elizabeth's desk. He was almost tired and angry enough to say something to the man, or maybe shoot him, but he'd left his gun in the office, along with Astonishment! Monthly.
"Do you have a problem?" Wendover asked from under the shadows of his hat. His voice didn't match the slightly beat-up diner, the late hour, or the woman sitting next to him. It belonged in Harvard or Yale, or some place with ivy and rich people.
"No problem," McKay said and looked down at the evening paper. No problem except that your fiancée has been missing for six months and you've moved on. The next sip of coffee was bitter and tasted like Postum and McKay shook his head.
"Bud, you can't stay here all night," the waiter said to the space captain. "You got to go."
"In a minute," the space captain said. "Let me finish, okay?"
The man had been drinking the same cup of coffee for the past hour. Postum got worse the longer it sat; it must have been like drinking wheat-flavored sludge. McKay watched as the man took another sip, hoarding it for a moment before swallowing, and this time the bitterness in McKay's mouth was the unfamiliar taste of a guilty conscience. He waved the waiter over.
"Another?" Brown and bloodshot eyes peered at him incredulously as the waiter wiped his hands on the rag stuffed into his apron. "Yes, another," McKay snapped, "because why else would I summon you over? For a massage?" He set a nickel on the counter and gestured with his chin to the space captain and his cold cup of coffee, and mouthed for him in case the waiter didn't get it.
The waiter did and sighed at McKay's encouraging the riffraff, but he pocketed the nickel and turned to where his nemesis sat near the apex of the triangle-shaped bar. He grabbed the mug before the space captain could do anything but glare at him and swear. The waiter said hey, bud, relax, it's a refill, and topped the mug and put it back down.
"I didn't ask for one."
"Yeah, well, thank St. Francis of goddamn Assisi over there," the waiter said, jerking his chin in McKay's direction. "But when you finish that, you're getting the hell out of here."
"Sweet charity," the space captain said sarcastically. He crossed himself sarcastically, too. The waiter frowned at him, but wiped his hands on his dishrag like Pilate drying himself and went back to flirting the woman away from Simon Wendover.
Despite the sarcasm, the space captain drank his coffee, shoulders drawn over it as though to keep it warm, as though the leftover heat from the day hadn't wandered inside and raised fine sweat drops on his temples. His fingers curled around his cup, tan, capable-looking against porcelain, although they shook a little and a small drop splotched on the countertop. He knew that exhaustion, McKay did, way down deep in the bones where it lived.
McKay realized he was staring, and space captain realized it too, because he wasn't staring down into his coffee anymore, but instead was looking straight at McKay with green eyes that sharpened into focus, paring off the blurriness of exhaustion. The look McKay got was flat, not precisely hostile but not friendly either, and he looked away in case the going rate for being a Good Samaritan was a bullet or a knife in the ribs. It was why he made it a policy to be as unaltruistic as possible, McKay reminded himself, and he spent the next twenty minutes concentrating on his own coffee, until the space captain stood up and left.
On the way out, he brushed close by McKay in a rustle of fabric and sweat, contrails of cologne McKay thought was supposed to be expensive.
McKay turned to watch him go, the man's footsteps soft on the tile and the metallic jingle of the door opening, six steps of watching the man's shoulders play under his jacket before he crossed the line dividing the light from the dark and vanished.
He didn't even say thank you or make the empty gesture of offering to pay McKay back, and McKay reflected with uncharacteristic philosophy that generosity inevitably leads to disappointment, if not worse, and swore to himself that he would never, under any circumstances, try to be a decent human being again.
On the way back up to his office and the sofa bed, Rodney told himself this, and ignored how the night pulled at him, and difficulty, and seven months of Elizabeth being gone, too many years, too much tied up in sloped shoulders and strange, understanding eyes.
A week later, the week before McKay saw him again, a girl was raped and murdered in her El Palacio apartment. A girl, but with curly brown hair like Elizabeth's and, rumor had it, she'd been thinking about cutting out of town and anxious to do it before someone got to her. By the time McKay talked his way past the detectives – Carter and Kavanagh, Carter eyeing him distrustfully and Kavanagh with his own measure of disdain that McKay ignored – the apartment had been rented to a new girl, a Nancy Callahan, and all that was left to see was a skim of blood on a baseboard and the marks from the feet of the bathtub.
"You shouldn't be here, McKay." Sam Carter was still blonde and beautiful and McKay said as much. Her only answer was to say he really shouldn't be here.
"Yeah, well, those morons you've got working for you downtown haven't figured it out yet," McKay said, ignoring her in favor of staring at the scrubbed-pale arc of blood on the wall. The girl had had her throat cut; the blood that hadn't ended up on the wall had, according to Kavanagh's reluctantly-given information, slicked the bottom of the tub they'd found her in.
"And I suppose you will?" Carter asked lightly, voice cool against the heat in the apartment; the reminder that he wasn't one of hers, a bureau detective, rode under the derision in her tone and skimmed through the sweat prickling McKay's neck. "You have five minutes, and after that, you'll cool out downtown."
"I'll put you there myself," Kavanagh added from his corner, pressed in against the medicine cabinet. "Yeah, and that turned out so well for you last time," McKay replied, which made Kavanagh go dark red and indignant, and that alone almost made an otherwise wasted trip worth it.
The only useful information McKay ferreted out that day said that Simon Wendover had been with the red-headed woman that night, the same one who'd been on his arm in the Night-Owl, a girl name of Sora Tyrus. He got this not from Carter or Kavanagh, but Ronon Dex.
"Her father's got some weight in the city council and the P.D.," Dex said the second McKay walked in the door. "Don't know how, exactly, but he does. I'd be careful."
Dex recommending caution? Dex was well over six feet tall with a mane of dark hair and fear of absolutely nothing. McKay stared hard at him for a moment, but Dex remained inscrutable. Over his shoulder, smog brewed in the late summer heat and blurred the skyline, and the hills looked sick and brown. McKay shivered, even though sweat made his shirt stick to him, and promised he would be.
"You'll keep looking?" he asked.
Dex studied him, a massive presence only tentatively contained behind a battered desk and folders McKay was sure Dex only kept for show. He wore his .38 special in a shoulder holster; McKay had never seen him without it.
"Yeah," Dex said at last.
McKay nodded and left; he wanted to slam the door behind him, but he didn't, and he stood in the hallway, shoulders tight and hand closed hard around the doorknob, eyes shut. One breath, two, a curse against the fucking stupidity of the world and he let go and opened his eyes.
Ahead and behind him, the aisle stretched out in its endlessly repeating pattern of red and tan triangles, the tan stained here and there and the red washed out where the cleaning woman had spilled bleach one night. Five offices sat cheek-by-jowl on each side, their occupants veiled by the frosted glass windows set into the doors. Other than the name and office number, all that distinguished Weir and McKay Investigations was the unrepaired bullet graze in the doorframe, the splinters pale where a .45 had dug them up from underneath the varnish. On his way to the elevator he walked through the neat block shadow that Weir and McKay Investigations wrote on the floor, and then Teyla Emmagan, Atty at Law.
He didn't bother going back to his office; Precious would take care of the phone and the few clients he had these days. Fewer than usual came by now, not that people were becoming any less evil, manipulative, and greedy, but the people who'd taken Elizabeth were worse than most and took up most of McKay's time. Elizabeth's disappearance was common knowledge, too, swallowed up under the shadow of the war and the more pedestrian, domestic crimes that haunted L.A. like unpleasant spirits; even Elizabeth, a former member of the detective bureau – and, unlike McKay, a respected former member – had vanished twice, once with Kolya and again when the department declared her case cold and unsolvable.
She stayed stuck in his head the way he'd seen her the first time he'd met her properly: small, fine-boned and delicate, tucked in behind her desk, looking up when he opened the door, her smile thoroughly unexpected after a month of unemployment and the sullen glares of his ex-colleagues.
Hello, Rodney, she'd said, and shaken his hand and overwhelmed him with simply offering him a chance.
He almost hated remembering her like that, because dammit, it still hurt and somewhere deep down there was fury, how she'd vanished right out from under him, disappeared as trackless as Jeannie had. All he had left of her lived in that office, her desk, her case notes, a picture of her dog.
Dirty white marble paved the lobby, decorated with more red-and-tan rugs and the strawberry-blonde receptionist, whose lipstick matched the red triangles of the carpeting and the roses on her desk. She ignored McKay the way she always did and turned the page of her magazine.
Not even one step out the door and the heat sledgehammered him between the eyes, and the glaring light washed out everything except for sharp-edged shadows here and there. McKay squinted painfully up Sunset Boulevard and wished for sunglasses.
And then McKay saw him. Him, space captain, same hair, same slouch, same everything even though his face wore shadows in the cruelly angled sun and the light took the tan from his skin and turned it into bronze instead of the washed-out yellow from the diner. McKay was close enough to see the same quietly festering expression, hinted at in the lines that creased the man's forehead, shadows under his eyes that had nothing to do with the sun. His shoulders still wore the same tired slope from two weeks ago, unchanged along with his jacket.
A woman – that was the main difference – hung on his arm, hand resting on his wrist, a knockout wearing long brown hair and curves and a black dress. She was saying something, pulling on his wrist; it won her a smile that wasn't much of a smile, but she didn't give up. There was a ring on her left finger; McKay couldn't see if there was one on his.
Still. He frowned against the twisting in his chest and tried to make himself look away. The man kept staring into the pawnshop window despite his companion's impatience; when she tugged too hard, he pulled his arm free and said look, just go, clear enough for McKay to make him out through the hum of traffic and footsteps. She didn't like it, shoulders squaring to argue, but there was a certain immobility about the man that said, stupid hair and slouch or not, he wasn't about to be persuaded by long brown hair and curves.
"Please," she said, voice high enough to break through city noise. "Please, John – "
Two cars almost collided and the drivers exchanged curses, drowning out the woman's reply. McKay watched, reminding himself that a five-cent coffee didn't tie him to this man, that he was the one owed five cents and gratitude, not the brief flash of anger on that fine face and some private argument that was none of his business.
An old cane-wielding woman bumped into McKay, and used her cane to express her displeasure. McKay yelped.
By the time he looked up from his throbbing, doubtlessly bruised shin, the old woman was halfway down the street and the knockout was crossing Hollywood Boulevard.
And the space captain – John, his name is John – was staring at him, hands in his pockets, and he knew, he knew who McKay was, and was surprised to see him. The slight widening of his eyes, evident mostly in the arch of one eloquent eyebrow, did for both recognition and shock, but he didn't move, or speak, or do anything other than watch Rodney watch him, shadowed even though broad daylight lit him up, and in that daylight, was utterly unfamiliar.
Rodney told himself the smart thing to do would be to move, to look away, because it was only a nickel and not worth this – this standing and staring, and not worth wondering what Space Captain John had been doing with the brown-haired knockout. Something not good, he thought, because faces like that, that managed beauty under a diner's lights or the slanting chiaroscuro of Los Angeles sun, hid too many dangerous things.
Faces shuffled in and out of his thoughts: Jeannie, his old Principles of Nuclear Physics professor, Elizabeth, Space Captain John. McKay shuffled through his folder on Elizabeth, every dead-end clue, everything missing, every phone number and address he'd chased down, the names of people too frightened to talk to him.
Another face: Acastus Kolya; another name: the Genii. The photograph, grainy, taken by chance, had crumpled and been smoothed out too many times, fine white lines scoring a face already marked by pock-shaped scars and dark, dark eyes whose malevolence the camera somehow managed to capture. Or, Rodney supposed, that was his mind, his memory, a cold, dark place and Kolya's face devouring the light and bending close over him, and what light was left after Kolya took it had been given to the blade in his hand.
He shut the folder on Koyla's face, not on memory, not on conviction. Eight months he and Elizabeth had tried to chase down missing Mexican immigrants, seven until they'd tied the disappearances to the Genii, one month left until Kolya had come in the night and Elizabeth had vanished.
Drug running, smuggling, weapons… Rodney had said, when they'd been bent over their folders and charts together, Elizabeth's delicate hands clasped around a cup of tea. Who better to kidnap than someone who won't be missed?
Of course, Elizabeth had said, touching the corner of the folder dedicated to Miguel Escobar.
They're dead now, you know, Rodney had told her quietly, because no way would the Genii keep around incriminating witnesses, and he'd imagined it, men and women being told what would happen to their families, being kept alive on promises, and not a month after that he'd been left alone, and Kolya's threat – you'd be too difficult to kill, McKay, and not worth the hassle – and a deep cut on his arm one of the few things left to him.
"You going home some time tonight?" Ronon's face now, peering around the open door. Precious had long vanished. Ronon and Teyla, the reason he was still alive and still in this office; they'd found him that night, Ronon's big hand there to keep the blood in even though it hurt, until he got a makeshift bandage around McKay's forearm. Out of all the memories of that night, and the morning spent under harsh hospital lights with Teyla glaring him into submission, the cut was the one that hurt the least.
"Yeah," McKay said, but didn't move until Ronon herded him from his chair.
"I haven't been able to find her yet," he informed Ronon, as though Ronon might not know this, and Ronon didn't say what a remarkably idiotic comment that was, only shrugged. And it didn't make sense, Rodney had always been able to find the unseeable, the invisible links between phenomena, and now he couldn't find one woman.
"C'mon," Dex said, hauling Rodney along by the scruff, "you're not walking."
The cab Dex commandeered for him took McKay home to his La Cienega apartment and his cat. The cat, a nameless and nondescript brown tabby McKay had found in a trashcan, yowled impatiently for his food. McKay fed him and then fed himself, and made the last of his – or Teyla's, rather – coffee. Outside his window, the city wound slowly to its agitated half-wakefulness, the lights still bright in the cinema district, punctuating the hills and rising in a golden haze from the streets. McKay stared out at the world, tugged his tie loose from the stranglehold it had on his neck, his coat long since abandoned on the sofa. On the other side of his wall, someone's had turned their wireless up to glass-shattering volume; McKay thumped on the wall, and the wireless faded enough for someone to yell at him to fuck off, then came back louder than before.
Grumbling to himself, McKay collapsed at his piano, a 1920s Heintzman he'd hauled down from Vancouver. He worked desultorily through Czerny's School of Velocity, barely noticing the path of his hands over finger-smoothed ivory. The person on the other side of the wall hollered at him to stop the goddamn banging; McKay played harder, missing notes and not caring enough to stop, until even his own mistakes got to be too much and he made himself concentrate.
Elizabeth wove her way in between chords anyway, a reminder that she was probably a body now, and that the living had their demands, and so did the dead. McKay rolled down his shirtsleeve to hide the knife scar, even though the fabric was scratchy and clung to his skin uncomfortably. It didn't help; McKay slammed the lid shut and pulled off his shirt entirely and sat there in his undershirt, boiling.
He glanced at his bookcases, crammed full of magazines, a handful of periodicals, Journal of Applied Physics and Annalen der Physik next to the books he kept to torture himself and because he couldn't bear to get rid of them, student-day relics and Space Captain Astar next to each other. They gave him a headache.
The rest of his night passed as an exercise in futility. The cat ignored him until he climbed into bed, and then jumped up on his pillow and hissed when McKay reached for it to shake him off. He tried to go back to Space Captain Astar, who had been trapped by the vampires from Dimension X, but Astar's usual heroism and bravado fell flat, empty words on the page. McKay tried the new Asimov, another Foundation story, interesting and he would kill to get his hands on some of that technology, but not interesting enough to keep him awake.
He dropped the magazine on the floor and turned off the light, and watched as the yellow bulb faded and darkness, barred with silver and neon from the city, took over.
The next night, he didn't bother going home, but fell asleep at his desk and dreamed about his sister.
She followed him around in the way she'd always done when they were younger, stringing a parade of why why why behind her as she trailed him around the house, the park, the zoo when their mother had gotten sick of having both of them underfoot and she'd decided he was old enough to take Jeannie out alone. Why why why Jeannie asked him, why is the sky blue and why can't Einstein's theories of relativity be reconciled with Newtonian mechanics and where is Elizabeth and where am I, and the questions washed over him until he realized she had long since stopped asking them.
The realization woke him up with a jolt as harsh as the pain in his neck. He stared into the silver-shot darkness, afterimages flickering purple-green and he tried to blink them away, the room resolving into his office, the bars and sashes of the windows, the letters, the bulking, shadowy shapes of Elizabeth's desk and her long-locked file cabinets. Slowly, slowly, his heart unknotted itself, his breath came to him without that asthmatic, nightmarish tightness, his hands – fingers drawn tight, nails cutting close to his palm – loosened and spread across the warm surface of his desk, the worn edges of his blotter.
"It's okay," he told himself. Outside the window, the Coca-cola girl smiled her reassuring smile. It was okay. The lights from the Night-Owl shone on. McKay stood, gunshot-crack of his spine, took the five steps he needed to slouch down on the sofa, just a dream.
When he woke up, he woke up to threatening warmth and a breeze from the desert that tasted like sand and gritty frustration. The diner lights across the street had faded into the harsh brilliance of a Los Angeles morning, cruel already despite the long shadows, and people bustled up and down the streets, women clattering by on high heels and most of the men identical in dark suits and coats. An idiot tried to jaywalk at Hollywood and almost got hit by a Chevrolet. McKay jumped at the screech of tires, tried to rub the exhaustion out of his eyes.
"You did not go home last night, did you?" Teyla Emmagan loomed over McKay's desk. She managed this despite being what Ronon referred to charitably and concisely as "short," but she also made hardened criminals and bloodthirsty murderers tremble, and made Rodney McKay sit up and be respectful.
He pushed aside a back issue of Amazing Tales from Beyond, shoving it under a pile of folders Precious hadn't filed yet. She had become suspiciously sloppy and insolent in the past few months, and McKay took a moment to consider replacing her, but Teyla was right in front of him, radiating disapproval; sighing, he put aside thoughts of firing Precious and turned back to Teyla.
"I did, as a matter of fact."
"If you did, then you did not sleep." Teyla's frown didn't dissipate, but concern tugged at her disapproving frown, softening it fractionally. "You know that Ronon and I worry about you."
"Yes, well, just because you saved my life does not mean you get to interrupt my work," McKay snapped. He ignored Teyla's meaningful glance at his magazine, and the equally meaningful one at the half-eaten sandwich resting on top of a folder labeled Elizabeth. Teyla reached for the folder, but Rodney pulled it back.
"She is my friend too," Teyla said, as though Rodney didn't know. She glanced at the sign in the window and tugged on the collar of her shirt. She wore a suit, elegant as Dietrich in white and black, and as mysterious. "We will find her, Rodney."
"Yeah." McKay stared at the floor beyond Teyla's crossed legs. "Weir and McKay Investigations" was written in shadow across the carpet, set between the margins of Teyla's chair and the rows of bile-green file cabinets.
"I'm supposed to find things, Teyla," he said, and hated how hopeless his voice sounded.
"And you will find her," Teyla said calmly.
Rodney wanted to explain to her that the important things, the things he needed to find – people, his people, not clients. Jeannie too long gone and out of reach of anything except a miracle, and now Elizabeth.
I could use a former bureau detective, Elizabeth had said when they'd met, and Rodney had, absurdly, stubbornly, wanted to tell her exactly why he'd been fired, how very not-well he got along with other people, his dislike of teamwork and procedure, and Elizabeth had waved that aside. My second desk's been empty too long was all she'd said, and then she'd shaken his hand and that had been that.
Precious appeared a few seconds later, all frazzled brown hair and big eyes magnified by her glasses.
"You have a potential client," Precious said. "Are you still sulking, or will I send him in?"
McKay glared. "Send him in."
Precious vanished back through the door; Teyla frowned at McKay but stood gracefully. "You do know that Precious," she said slowly, "is not, in fact, his name?" For a moment, McKay wondered if she would lecture him in front of a potential client, or do something else similarly embarrassing, but her lips thinned around whatever else she wanted to say, and she walked out without another word.
McKay sighed and leaned back in his chair. The old joints creaked in protest, an arthritic wail that sent chills up McKay's spine. Above his head the ceiling swirled in unhappy taupes and beiges and the faded coffee-color mark of a water stain; McKay stared at it, wondering if blood was mixed in with any of that. There was still some on the windowsill, where the police and then the building supervisor hadn't gotten it all, and some of it was probably his.
McKay unconsciously touched his right arm and shivered again.
The voice brought him crashing back, heels and the wheels of the chair slamming on the floor.
It was the space captain.
He'd gone back to being disheveled in a rumpled suit jacket and stained shirt, voice still whiskey-three-a.m-rough even though midmorning light poured through the windows. His hair remained undefeated, not black but closer to dark brown, disheveled in a way that suggested sex and illicit things, his body carrying the same suggestion, leaning in the frame offered by the open door, sine wave of shoulder and flank and hip, long and graceful run down thigh and calf to the feet in scuffed shoes.
McKay stood automatically, and accepted the offered hand in the same way. The palm was rough, capable, not a match for the fine material of jacket and pants, however disordered they were. Not much of the man was a match for anything, unforgivable hair and laziness and that jacket, and underneath it all his body drawn to wire tightness, tuned and tense and ready to break. He wasn't even a match for McKay's memory of that first night, when that entire body had been about defeat, something McKay's body knew well, but that tiredness still lurked, or maybe that was Rodney's own.
"I'm John Sheppard," the space captain said.
McKay almost said I know, but he'd only be half right.
"Rodney McKay," McKay said, even though the door labels would have made that obvious to anyone literate or paying attention.
"I know," Sheppard said, with an odd quirk of his lips that suggested he knew what McKay was thinking. He straightened a little, moved closer – not really moving, only a shifting of torso and slim hips that brought him into McKay's space, close enough for expensive cologne and sweat and memories of harsh overhead lights washing all color down to paleness, the spin of a nickel on a countertop.
"Are you here for some purpose beyond finding a new place to stand?" McKay snapped, tangled up in brown-green-gold and a patch of stubble Sheppard had missed while shaving, and not liking it.
"Always heard you were a bastard, McKay," Sheppard said, the mind-reader. He moved away, elusive, which only made Rodney want to touch him, his characteristic impulse to reach out and grasp untouchable things.
"I've heard that before," he said instead.
"And that you're the best." Sheppard turned to him, a safe three steps away now, but his gaze was intense, a challenge.
"I've heard that before, too," McKay said, "because it's true."
"And the arrogance works so well for you," Sheppard remarked, glancing around McKay's office, the dust on the cabinets and the broken lock on the door.
"Yeah, well, better than for some other people, and it isn't arrogance if you can actually do it." McKay eyed the stain on Sheppard's chest, the uncertain purple of wine. Sheppard glanced down, rolled his eyes and smirked at McKay, said something about how coffee wasn't cutting it.
"It's about time for me to ask you to justify wasting my time," McKay said, off balance and hating it.
"It's a..." Sheppard coiled in on himself and got up, paced to the window to look out. His shadow stretched across the floor, longer and leaner than the spare body it belonged to. "It's a personal effect." His mouth thinned, twisted, and his voice – quiet, rough, always two in the morning for that voice, a long night spent doing things that made McKay's mouth go dry to think of – flattened with sarcasm. Personal effect, how Rodney would write it, not how Sheppard would think of it. "Someone stole it. I'd like you to find it for me."
"And you didn't file a police report." Rodney looked up from his notes. "Because that's what most normal people do, you know."
"That would be a no." Sheppard stared out the window, as though McKay were levitating in the air beyond it and not behind his desk. "The police are pretty useless." And they won't give you the time of day, because they never did, when confronted with someone as down-and-out as Sheppard.
"Tell me about it," McKay muttered. That won him a quick, surprised grin, and a loosening of Sheppard's shoulders. "So, are you going to tell me what incredibly valuable and/or emotionally or personally significant item it was that you had stolen, or do I get to guess until I get it right?"
Sheppard rolled his eyes and was silent for a minute, enough time for McKay to distractedly appreciate the careless sine curve of his back, the hand playing absent, nonsense chords against one thigh – one of those people in perpetual motion, and Rodney felt his own fingers on his desk, tapping out counterpoint. He hated being still, too.
"I'm not sure what it is," Sheppard said at last.
"Oh, that helps a lot." McKay stopped tapping and pushed back in his chair. "Was it by any chance located between your ears? It's called a brain; most people are gifted with one at birth, but at this point, I doubt that you ever had one."
"I like Captain Astar too," Sheppard said. "Did you finish the one about the space vampires?"
Sheppard nodded at the corner of McKay's desk; Rodney looked and went helplessly crimson when he saw Amazing Tales from Beyond still mostly uncovered by the folder he'd tried to hide it in. He shoved both the file and the magazine into a drawer and slammed it shut.
"Back to the valued possession," Rodney snapped.
"Yeah." Sheppard's drawl stretched out on the over-warm air of afternoon, turned McKay's bones to something liquid and uncomfortable. "I don't know what it is, but I can describe it. It's a jewel. I think."
"So you don't know what it is... but it's a jewel." McKay pulled out a pen, toyed with it before putting it back.
"I think," Sheppard repeated, glaring. "It's hard, like a gem, and cut like one. It's green, but it's not an emerald." He fumbled with the description some more, almost this, but not quite, had been in the family for ages, no one ever wore it that he could remember, except for his mother, and he'd inherited it on her death.
"That's very touching," Rodney sighed, "but all I'm getting out of this is that someone stole a fake emerald."
"It's not just that!" And for a moment Sheppard's body came alive with agitation, then it was calm, calm, calm again, shoulders sliding into their elegant curve. If his next breath was too deep, and shook too much, the one after came calmly, and the only hint of anything wrong might – might – be in Sheppard's confusing green eyes. "Look, are you going to help me or not?"
"I'll help you," McKay said before he could even think about it. It was easy to help Sheppard, he thought, to want the quick, lightning-bright flash of gratitude before Sheppard closed off into somberness again.
Sheppard nodded, as though he'd known all along what McKay's answer would be, but he couldn't turn fast enough to hide the relief, because McKay was pretty clearly the end of a short line.
McKay tried – he did – not to let that aggravate him, but instead asked more questions about the jewel: what it was worth (no idea), how long John had had it (I told you, McKay, family heirloom, to which Rodney replied Sheppard hardly seemed the type, given his aversion to showering), where it was last stored (Sheppard's apartment off Sunset, sock drawer because sock drawers were so well known for their security), who might have known Sheppard had it.
"I just moved here," Sheppard said. The finger playing scales on one strong, curved thigh moved to his pocket. "So far as I know, no one knows I'm here. I'm... on the outs with my family at the moment."
"Very touching," McKay grunted. So many people had sordid stories behind their requests for help that nothing was really sordid anymore, only varying levels of uninteresting and average. "So I guess I can rule out revenge against the prodigal son?"
"My dad has a lot more important things to do than come out to California to make my life miserable," Sheppard said, with a weird matter-of-factness.
"The woman you were with."
"Try very hard not to be stupid, and to remember that other people are not morons simply because you may be." Rodney drew one breath for patience, another for theory, a third tight and desperate one to brace against disappointment. "You were with a woman two weeks ago, standing in front of Lucius's Pawn and Gold. I'd bet a lot of money you were arguing over your not-emerald, and whether or not to pawn it. So, who is she? Ex-wife? Current wife? Girlfriend? Lover?"
"The first," Sheppard muttered. McKay had to fight exultation at being right, relief that she was his ex-wife, the irrational possibilities Sheppard's aloneness suggested. And, McKay realized with a start, Sheppard was alone, not like the private, festering futility of the people who huddled in on themselves in the streets, the isolate struggle for money or success, but like... like something Rodney couldn't quite recall ever seeing before. Having nobody, he thought, no ties, not even anyone to talk to beyond – maybe – a heartbeat in a late-night diner.
"She wanted me to, and I probably should have," Sheppard was saying. "I was – am still – pretty broke, but I couldn't do it. Wouldn't," he amended, a brief and boyish smile as though he couldn't help himself, but then the solemnity settled on him again.
"What's her name?" McKay asked, and told himself that, just because Sheppard was a moron, that was no excuse for him to be.
"Nancy," Sheppard said, "maybe Sheppard or Callahan; she didn't tell me if she'd changed back to her maiden name." He paused, turned back toward McKay as though the spell of whatever was beyond the windows – the rest of Hollywood, the downtown, the far mountains – had lost its hold. "Are you saying she took it and tried to pawn it for me?"
"I never believe people are so altruistic," McKay said, and that was true enough. "You might have been sitting on a gold mine, and she knew about it. People are like that."
"Tell me something I don't know," Sheppard said sarcastically.
"Your hair is unforgivable," McKay told him. "Now go away; I have phone calls to make. No, wait! Wait!" The one-two-three snap of his fingers had Sheppard freeze, mid-stride. "I need to see your apartment, hunt for clues, get Precious to take a sketch based on your description. You know, things the police normally do."
"They wouldn't do that," Sheppard said quietly. His face was a code, top-secret and confidential, no way to break it. "Not this time."
"Well, I will," McKay said, and watched as Sheppard looked sharply up at him, made himself stay still and let Sheppard see whatever he saw.
Sheppard looked at him, looked, something not many people did these days, and whatever he saw – McKay stood there, pinned to immobility by the unexpected keenness of those eyes – had him relaxing minutely, soft words that sounded like I know, not meant for McKay's ears.
Rodney had other cases that day, small and annoying things that would have solved themselves if the clients hadn't been morons; Dex's lack of news on Sora Tyrus and her father, other than that it was going slowly, he didn't have those sorts of connections; his own preoccupation and the constant looping back to the few notes he'd taken on John Sheppard's mysterious not-emerald.
Or, he supposed, to John Sheppard himself, a more important mystery than the object he'd commissioned Rodney to find, all sorts of dangerous and for all sorts of reasons. And Rodney was it for him, his one and only shot at finding something that mattered to him, something with an importance that went way beyond most of the things Rodney had been sent to look for in his life, an urgency despite Sheppard's slouch that had Rodney's mind working faster than it had been in years, light-speed like back in his old labs, when discovery had been easy and hadn't meant blood and pain.
They met at Sardi's on Hollywood at five, the light over the bar still off and the glasses still clean, the air still acid with layers of cigarette smell that never dissipated. Around him the bar drowsed in the half-dark and the pre-rush silence, the bartender eyeing McKay in silent hope that he might be another paying customer, a few more men ignoring him, a blond woman shrugging when McKay ignored her, and she bent low over the bar to accept a light for her cigarette, and the shadows did interesting things do her décolletage. Sheppard, already in a booth at the far end of the room, looked as though he'd been there forever.
"Are we drinking, or are we going to your apartment?" McKay demanded.
Sheppard's smile was whiskey-slow, hot and drowsy like late afternoon. He swirled his drink once so tawny liquid lapped the edge of the tumbler and his fingertips.
"We could do both," Sheppard said.
"We could," Rodney agreed and yeah, he wanted that, with a ferocity that startled him and embarrassed him at the same time. He shouted at the bartender to cover it, had the uncomfortable sense that Sheppard could read his thoughts. Sheppard's arms took up an unlikely amount of space on the tabletop, teenagerish elbows and careless wrists, deliberate fingers that Sheppard licked clean of whiskey.
"Never cared for the stuff," Sheppard said, frowning at his glass. His eyebrows did something unlikely that McKay found unexpectedly amusing.
"You drink it pretty well."
"Not well," Sheppard corrected. He pushed the glass to the side and smiled, the all-American sort of smile McKay had been accustomed to seeing on draft posters, that promised wholesome things like apple pie and hot dogs and baseball, even though what lived in Sheppard's eyes was dangerous and elusive and nowhere near so honest.
"So the Night-Owl, that wasn't drinking off a hangover," McKay said, and wondered how much of that elusiveness was for him, if the jewel, Sheppard's reasons for hiring him, were covers for something else.
It wasn't, Sheppard agreed around the rim of his glass, but he didn't say what else he'd been doing if not staggering home from too many rounds of drinks. "Finish this?"
He pushed the tumbler across the table, and McKay accepted it automatically, drank before he could think too much about the faint marks from Sheppard's mouth. The whiskey burned like Sheppard's eyes, slow wash of it down his throat and spreading out the deeper it went, deep deep down until McKay had the sense it was another heat entirely.
"We should go," McKay said, only one sip of whiskey but Sheppard had gotten to him, smile not even pretending innocence now.
"I didn't know you were that much a lightweight."
McKay put a dollar on the bar. "I'm not," he said, "but you did hire me to do something for you, if I recall, and I don't drink on the job."
"You must be the only detective that doesn't." Sheppard loped through the door and down the street, peering over his shoulder for a streetcar. He was one of those people who moved effortlessly, long stride so easy McKay almost missed the speed, the wanting to get on with this.
"Which would explain why our law enforcement system is in the abysmal state it's in." And it would; McKay's blood pressure ratcheted up, thinking about the endless tangle of bureaucracy and the detectives who drank, cheated, bribed, grafted their ways through to promotions and left too many cases unsolved. Carter had never been one of those, still wasn't he hoped; Kavanagh probably wasn't either, but he made up for it by being a moron.
A car pulled alongside and Sheppard flowed on board. McKay clambered on and paid the carfare.
He remembered the last time he'd had a drink in his office, casual as Bogart, although he wondered if Bogart wasn't casual so much as exhausted. Rodney had been in the days after Elizabeth disappeared, exhaustion made worse by an interview with Simon Wendover and a useless appeal to the police.
That night he'd gotten the scar on his arm, too tired to think straight or remember his gun.
"We're here," Sheppard said, nudging him. Rodney froze, remembered his gun was back in his office, locked bottom drawer on the left side of his desk. Sheppard looked at him curiously; Rodney ignored him and gestured impatiently for Sheppard to get out.
Sheppard's apartment building loomed in chill, dark-barred white brick foreboding on a forsaken corner lot off Franklin. The palm trees hunched in its shadow, bending over small gardens of trash that had collected at their feet. As they drew closer, Sheppard closed in on himself, brow creasing again, and just like that he was a million miles away, farther distant than Captain Astar's jet-powered spaceships could take him.
They trudged three flights up to Sheppard's rooms, three flights of tiles that squeaked and three flights of desperate, quiet people who stared at Sheppard and McKay as though at aliens or wild animals. Sheppard's hall was musty and dusty and probably infested with mold; McKay sneezed five times just thinking about it. The F on his apartment door hung off on one screw, the other holes forming bulls-eyes in the center of rings of rust and flaked paint.
"Housekeeping," Sheppard muttered in distracted apology.
"Or lack thereof," McKay said, and pushed by Sheppard into the apartment. He felt Sheppard go still next to him, and in the corner of his eye, saw his face go flinty, frightening because he hadn't seen anything like that on Sheppard's face before, that tenseness, muscles and tendons gone to steel and drawn tight as tension wire, ready to break.
Whoever had done it – Nancy, Rodney thought, and he knew, deep down where he knew physics and the single clue a case turned on, knew it was her. She did it, and you know it – hadn't missed anything, not that there were many places to look: the cabinets, the one bookcase with its contents tumbled out, the bed, sofa, chair, everything upended, the dresser drawers. Yet McKay suspected that, if Sheppard were ever to restore this place to something like order, the apartment would be almost bare.
Sheppard stood in the middle of the living room, hands in his pockets, anger locked away, surveying the disaster and McKay's inspection of it with a detached sort of interest.
"Any clues?" he asked, toeing a sock up off the floor.
"No," McKay grunted. "Your… your ex – " and Rodney was startled to feel how much he didn't want to acknowledge that there'd been someone with Sheppard before, even though Sheppard's face and body said there'd probably been dozens, "your ex is probably the way to go. I'm going to have to track her down and interview her."
"Okay," Sheppard said with quiet agreeableness, as though his imaginary tab hadn't just increased by the amount of research McKay would need to do, McKay's mention of his ex-wife's possible guilt sliding off him. It occurred to McKay again that his chances of ever seeing any money from this were slim to none, that the jewel, whatever it was, was probably fake and even if it had value Sheppard would never give it up.
Money, another thing he'd never see again, after Jeannie and Elizabeth.
"You should get some sleep," Sheppard offered, hovering in the derelict shadows, as out-of-place here as McKay was.
"I should." McKay's eyes stung, far too little sleep, the edges of dreams and Sardi's native smoke still stinging him. "I'll… I'll start looking again tomorrow."
"Okay," Sheppard said again, and, hand warm on McKay's elbow, steered him toward the door, and his body was something unexpectedly firm against McKay's where they pressed close together.
The next morning, McKay looked up Nancy Callahan. He saw Sora Tyrus at the Night-Owl, drinking coffee, with no Simon Wendover on her arm but remembered that Dex had told him to be careful, and that was advice McKay didn't really need to hear. He tried not to look at her, and instead flipped through his notes on Nancy Callahan: twenty-nine, a secretary with the United States Army Air Forces administration in L.A., her old address inhabited now by a surly old man, engaged to a lawyer with the War Department, which Sheppard hadn't mentioned.
He noted that, and noted that he needed to extract from Sheppard whether or not he knew that Nancy had been engaged again. When he cornered Sheppard in the Night-Owl again, Sheppard only shrugged.
"She mentioned it the one day we were out together," he said reluctantly, and stared down into his coffee. A plate of toast, mostly forgotten, lay cooling at his elbow. "He sounds like her type," and the smile he gave Rodney managed both a certain lasciviousness and resignation, "you know, not wild."
"Did you have an affair?" McKay glared ferociously at the Postum-laced coffee and a crumb of toast that had somehow migrated into it.
"No," Sheppard snapped. His hand shook; coffee slopped out of the cup, and Sheppard set the cup down. Some of the coffee soaked into the toast, turning it an unpleasant, mushy brown. "I just… I was never there. We parted on pretty good terms."
"So good she might have tried to steal from you?" Rodney asked, because hell if he knew where Sheppard was in all of this; he could have slept around on her, he could have hidden the jewel himself, could have done any one of a thousand things Rodney couldn't make himself believe Sheppard would ever do.
Sheppard left. Just like that, pushed away from the counter and stood and left, brushing insolently close, still smelling the way he'd smelled that night, pulling a pair of sunglasses from his coat pocket as he left, an affronted movie star with Valentinian slink.
"You should take better care of him," the blond crewcut said. "That's fifty cents, by the way."
"He's not my goddamn responsibility," McKay snapped, because Sheppard wasn't.
He wasn't, he couldn't be, even though he already hung out around the edges of McKay's life, his thoughts, worked in there with the going-nowhere case of Elizabeth.
The waiter shrugged and extracted fifty cents from the pile of change McKay slammed down on the counter. McKay pocketed the rest.
Two more days passed, heavy with the bitterness of futility, and McKay reflected that he was getting used to the flavor.
The badges were out in force around the Canyon apartments. A breeze came down from the mountains, promising a coolness it never quite brought, and in the chaos of lights and reporters and pushing through the line of sweat-perfumed detectives, Rodney took a moment to wish for Vancouver.
"Hey bud, you think someone's stalkin' the girls here?" a reporter asked. A dozen more clamored on top of him, each shouted question more insane and irrational than the last.
The walk through the apartment was familiar, only the light uncertain, surreal with the body's knowledge that it was two in the morning and McKay had been woken by a call from Precious.
"You're fucking kidding," McKay had said, almost dropping the phone as he sat up. "Jesus, Precious."
"My name is not Precious," Precious had huffed into the phone. "But you are welcome."
McKay walked through the kitchen and dining area, anonymous in sober suit and trench coat and the late-night stubble all the men there wore. Other than the photographers and the lightning-bright flashes of the news cameras outside, the only light came from a five-bulb chandelier with one bulb burnt out. It faded out as McKay slid into the narrow hallway and then became the chill of illuminated white tile.
Nancy Callahan lay, bled out, in her bathtub, a knockout in curves and black dress and brown hair soaked to blood-auburn. The crime scene photographer's flashbulb popped; the light bounced off empty pupils, blood, the enamel of the bathtub. One of her high heels hung off her foot; McKay felt the urge to push it back into place.
"McKay!" Kavanagh's shrillness cut through the haze of blood and early morning. "Get the hell back behind the line!"
"You better have brought coffee," McKay said, not looking away from Nancy Callahan's body. One knee was hooked over the rim of the tub, a tear in her stockings following the curve of her thigh up to the demure folds of her dress. "How many years do you think it's going to take you to solve this one, Kavanagh?"
Kavanagh scowled. "I'm arresting you in ten seconds if you aren't back behind the damn police line. This is a murder, McKay."
"Really? It looks more like a robbery to me." McKay straightened and made himself look away from Nancy, who had one hand stretched out, fingers knotted in the shower curtain as though she'd tried to pull her failing body back up. He pushed past Kavanagh, who grunted indignantly, thank god he'd got out of there, he hated blood – his own worst of all and had the scars to prove it, but this was almost as bad – and give him the chaos of a trashed apartment any day.
And yeah, it did look like a robbery, but before McKay could chase after that thought, another detective bumped into him and spun him around, and Sam Carter was right there, blonde and furious. She glared at him, eyes flashing and face flushed, every reason why it was dangerous to think of her that way right there in front of him.
"Get out, McKay," Carter growled. She seized his coat and dragged him back through the living room and out into the vestibule, where they had to crowd close in the seethe of other detectives. "You were never great at the rules, McKay, but come on." Her breath tasted like old coffee.
"That's because the rules were made by idiots," McKay said, which was the truth. It used to make Carter smile, even in frustration, and the hell of it was, she'd almost always gone along with him, had even been the one to bend regulations when they needed bending. Now, though, she eyed him coldly, the blood-freezing expression that cowed even murderers in the interrogation room.
"For once, McKay..." Carter sighed, stepped back to let a faceless detective through. "Let's talk about your new client, John Sheppard."
Kavanagh's weaselly face sharpened. "He was seen in the area recently, and we took him in. He's downtown."
"The hell?" McKay
"We have reason to believe – " Carter began.
"Nancy Callahan was getting remarried," Kavanagh interrupted. Carter glared at him; Kavanagh's sphincter-like face screwed up even more, but he kept going. "We found wedding and honeymoon plans on her kitchen table. She didn't have a lot of money, but she did have a hell of a lot more than Sheppard."
"Money isn't his thing," McKay snapped, thinking of Sheppard's indifference to everything most normal people counted as important.
"And you know him so well," Kavanagh said, and yeah, McKay did, and no he didn't, but he knew enough to know Sheppard didn't want money and he didn't want help, and that he did have pride. Too much of it. "Come on, McKay. Why'd he hire you? To keep track of her?"
"You know I don't have to tell you that."
"You're going to wish you did, by the time we have you locked up next to Sheppard as accessory," Kavanagh said.
"You and what warrant?" McKay turned to Carter, who was watching with barely restrained irritation. "Has he actually gotten dumber since they let him in the bureau?"
"McKay, we should probably take this downtown," was Carter's answer, delivered in the tone of voice McKay recognized as the one that indicated she was rapidly running out of patience with him. He pushed down the small voice that said, back in the old days, she'd been right more often than not, and he'd been difficult more often than he'd gone along with her.
Old days. He didn't entirely know the woman standing next to him, with her practical haircut and hostility.
"The only way I'm going downtown is to get my client out on bail," McKay told her, "and no way in hell am I going to answer any of Kavanagh's questions; if I wanted to waste my time, believe me, I'd happily subject myself to his idiocy, but seeing as I do, in fact, have important things to be doing... No."
He left Carter fuming silently and Kavanagh working up to a rant, tried to think about Sheppard and the complete and utter lack of judgment that would be required to have him wandering down by his ex-wife's apartment at an hour usually reserved for pimps, prostitutes, and murderers. His mind circled idly through thoughts of Sheppard, Sheppard's hair, complications, Carter and how they suddenly seemed to be on opposite sides of the law, Nancy Callahan dead in her tub.
Sheppard somewhere in between, maybe, caught up in all of this, and everything had gone way past a cup of coffee, and Sheppard wasn't McKay's responsibility, McKay told himself this, but couldn't believe it, not down deep where it mattered. Only, he wasn't, not a responsibility or an obligation or a client, something else that touched on all three of these things, Rodney's in some obscure way.
McKay rode the loop-the-loop of case and former partners and impossible clients; it let him off when the taxi dropped him at the county jail, long enough for him to gather his night-knotted thoughts and wonder what he'd say when he saw Sheppard for the first time.
They'd tossed Sheppard in the drunk tank because the felony tanks were full. They gave him space to share with a huge, genial man who smelled of whiskey and introduced himself as Lucius and clapped Sheppard on the back hard enough almost to knock him off the bench. Sheppard coughed and smiled weakly.
"Hi," he said, and ran a hand through his unforgivable hair. The sunglasses dangled from his jacket's breast pocket.
"Don't give me that," McKay growled. He stood back from the cell when the policeman frowned and crossed his arms; Sheppard rested his forearms on the crossbars, leaned heavily forward so his spine described a shallow arc of exhaustion and improbable grace.
"Do you know the precise factor by which you have managed to complicate my life in two days?" McKay asked.
Sheppard regarded him hazily. "A lot?"
"More than that." Rodney tried to work it out for himself, came up with an answer somewhere around a million.
"Do I need to explain to you that being picked up as a person of interest in the fairly gruesome murder of your ex-wife is not a good thing?"
"I don't think so," Sheppard drawled. He scuffed a foot on the floor; the sole grated on cheap cement and layers of grit and god only knew what. "I'd gone to ask her about the – you know," a quick look at Lucius, "what we talked about."
"Also not a wise move." McKay considered the man in front of him; Sheppard's eyes had gone bloodshot, a vague green that didn't sit well with McKay's sense of the rightness of things, and he was working on a beard instead of stubble, small patches of silver coming out in the overhead light. McKay wondered how old he was.
"You know any lawyers?" Sheppard asked. "It'd be nice not to spend the rest of my life in here."
Lucius made a small, injured sound.
"I'll call Teyla; she's used to this sort of thing by now." And 'this sort of thing' had probably become routine to Teyla, who had somehow become Rodney's lawyer, bodyguard, and voice of reason. Just because you save someone's life does not give you the right to follow them everywhere, he'd told Teyla, but on that she'd shrugged and put away his files on Elizabeth and the Genii, and helped him back up to his office and the sofa. "I'll post your bail myself, if I need to."
"It's just an interrogation," Sheppard grunted and eyed him stubbornly. Just an interrogation, an interview, something everyday, and Sheppard's eyes had gone fierce and cold again, and he gazed past Rodney's shoulder to where Carter and Kavanagh lurked behind brick and concrete. "And I don't want to owe you anything."
"You're the one in the cell," McKay said. "And you still owe me coffee."
Sheppard allowed that this was true and suggested that Rodney add it to his tab, and despite being on the other side of iron bars, just an interrogation, had to smile.
John had held out, refusing to speak, and the tenth I plead the Fifth had driven Kavanagh almost to aneurysm. Teyla came the next morning in her suit and visitor's badge, and on her way in spared a look for Rodney that asked him how, precisely, he managed to get into these situations.
"Don't look at me," McKay said, "look at him. He's the one who's going to be interrogated."
Teyla transferred her frown to Sheppard, who, bruised and pale, was slightly the worse for wear, and predictably, her expression softened.
"Are you well?" she asked, and Sheppard looked surprised by the question. Teyla smiled encouragingly, the smile that had had even Rodney trusting her, and Sheppard seemed to struggle for a moment before coming to the same conclusion.
"Just fine," Sheppard said once he'd recovered. He tried out the smile that had likely won his way past Precious and onto Rodney's client list, but Teyla was immune; she merely smiled and set her briefcase down and asked Rodney if he wouldn't mind excusing himself.
"She'll, uh – she'll take care of you," Rodney said impulsively, and felt his face go warm when Sheppard looked at him. Teyla shook her head, took Rodney's arm with a care that didn't go with the strength he knew she possessed, and steered him to the door.
"You would not wish to hear anything incriminating," she said kindly, hand on his wrist in that steadying way of hers. "I do not doubt his innocence, but anything we say here could put you in an uncomfortable position. Ronon is outside; you should perhaps find some coffee with him."
McKay had to admit coffee sounded good, even in Dex's taciturn and unnerving company, even with not wanting to leave Sheppard alone. And sure enough, Dex lounged dangerously on the other side of the prison door.
"You look like shit," Dex said with surprising kindness.
"Coffee," McKay mumbled and tried to ignore Ronon being nice. He slid a sidelong look at Ronon, who still had his .38 and his knife, and probably numerous other well-concealed weapons on him; he hadn't met a desk sergeant that had the balls to ask Dex to give his weapons up at precinct doors. Dex caught his look and said, "They don't do you any good if someone else has 'em," which McKay had to admit was very true.
"You need to carry," Dex said while they waited for coffee at a small joint near the jail. He fished in his pocket for his wallet, pulled out a wicked-looking pocketknife at first and had to try again. "I can't follow you around all day, you know."
"Did Teyla put you up to this?" McKay demanded, eyeing the waitress and her unnecessary slowness.
"She told me to," Dex said. He shrugged. "No big deal to do it."
"Since you're here, you might as well talk and make yourself useful." McKay contemplated toast. "Have you found out anything about Tyrus?"
"He's got connections." Dex's brows knitted and he scowled behind his beard. "He and one of the higher-ups in the commissioner's office, Cowen, they're tight." He held up crossed fingers to emphasize this. "And Cowen... I've got a guy who might know about him. Shady character, he posts bail for petty thieves, I've run into him a couple times trying to track guys down."
"Does shady character have a name?" Pulling information from Dex was, perhaps more impossible than pulling teeth. Dex felt no pain, so far as Rodney could tell, and laughed at dentists.
"You're not going after him, McKay."
"You can come with me, if safety's so important to you."
"Not happening." Dex was not going to be moved on this, to McKay's extensive irritation.
"If this guy has something to do with Elizabeth's disappearance, I need to know about it." He stared at Dex, willed him to understand this, how he'd run up against dead ends in his own files on Elizabeth, Kolya, the few notes he'd gleaned from Elizabeth's folders on the cases they'd been working that hadn't matched his own. "I need to find her."
"Ladon Radim," Dex said at last, glowering at McKay from under his eyebrows. "And I'm telling you that on condition that, if you want to track him down, we go together. This guy is tied up in something a lot bigger than idiot teenagers knocking over diners."
"Fine," McKay said grudgingly, but Dex appeared satisfied, and even more so after he informed McKay that if he didn't steer clear of Radim, Dex would make the scratch on McKay's arm look like a beauty mark.
"Fine," McKay said again, because there wasn't anything else to say to that.
"So, you and Sheppard." Dex drained his coffee in two gulps and set the cup back in its saucer. He did this with a care McKay had never really associated with him. "You're helping him out."
"I am, much to my chagrin," McKay sighed. "No good deed goes unpunished, you know."
"Why do you do it then? You were supposed to be some kind of scientist."
"Temporary, grief-induced insanity with permanent consequences?" McKay steered clear from thoughts of Jeannie, the far-too-complicated tangle of Sheppard. "Do you mind if we change the subject?"
"Nope," Dex said, and fell silent. The waitress came by and refilled Dex's cup and McKay's with a shaking hand; Dex rumbled thank you and sent her scurrying behind the counter.
"'Change the subject,' doesn't mean 'not talking,'" McKay said after two more minutes of intolerable silence.
Dex shrugged. "Not much to say. We've got time to kill, though. Carter and Kavanagh aren't going to let him go that easy." He emptied his coffee cup again, a respectable pace just behind McKay's. "Why you helping this guy anyway?"
"That isn't changing the subject," McKay said, "that's beating a dead horse."
"Good-looking dead horse," Dex said idly. "He looks pretty rough."
"I think he is," McKay said, and secretly thought contradictory was a better word for what a five-cent cup of coffee had ended up being, and someone not tied to Rodney at all had managed to snag him, somewhere deep.
Teyla had done it, which Rodney should not have doubted; done it, and something more, kept Sheppard out of jail and kept him safe, which should not have been a concern of Rodney's, but had chewed at him through Ronon's many silences.
"I told you I would manage it," Teyla said quietly, affectionate smile for Rodney and Sheppard. "I will contact you should anything changes."
"Better you than the police," Sheppard said, and said thank you with a sincerity that staggered Rodney but didn't appear to surprise Teyla, who inclined her head formally, the half-bow that John answered with a half-bow of his own, as though he'd met her before.
In the end, McKay saw Sheppard back to his apartment, had to tear himself away because Sheppard's shoulders and silence said he wanted to be left alone. McKay thought seriously, and not for the first time, about asking Dex to look in on him; Teyla was in court the rest of the day, representing clients who were not McKay and his complicated client, and McKay had a bad feeling about letting Sheppard brood alone in his apartment.
"I know you didn't do it," McKay said helplessly, because other than what the hell is wrong?, he couldn't think of anything to say and needed to say something.
"Yeah," Sheppard said, his voice quiet. "It was convincing those detectives otherwise problem." He paused. "Does Detective Kavanagh's face look like a sphincter to you?"
Rodney laughed, unexpectedly, really laughed. And Sheppard laughed too, a horrible and ear-wrenching sound that made Rodney stop and stare until Sheppard subsided and looked back at him, eyes a little brighter and all of him extraordinary in the disheveled plainness of his room.
"This was supposed to be finding a stupid fake jewel, you know," McKay reminded him, in case Sheppard had forgotten, reminded himself, because clearly he was forgetting, too. And possibly he had, because half the time Sheppard seemed to be in the past, or another universe, distant and unapproachable like that, and McKay… Rodney needed him on Earth, needed him and another universe or not, Sheppard needed him too. "Getting Teyla downtown to keep you from talking your way into a prison sentence was not in the plan."
"I'll pay you back," Sheppard said absently, still on the planet where Space Captain Astar was being held by the diabolical ruler of the space vampires. He peered at the disaster of his apartment as though it had happened while he'd been away. The only thing that had changed was the bed had been cleared off and the blanket and sheets tangled at the foot as though pushed there by anxious dreams.
"No amount of money in the world could make up for tonight, believe me." McKay rubbed his temples and wished for an aspirin.
"Why're you doing this, then?" Sheppard asked, and suddenly he didn't look nearly as tired as he'd been a few seconds ago.
McKay left. Downstairs, he browbeat the mummy at the front desk into letting him place a call. She glowered funereally at him, handed him the phone with a reminder to keep it short. McKay dialed Precious.
"Any calls, Precious?"
"My name is not Precious," Precious said automatically. She sounded hoarse; McKay hoped it wasn't catching. "But yes, one from a Mrs. Van Horn about perhaps being a new client, and another from Detective Carter. She sounded extremely... annoyed."
"My name is not Precious," Precious said, and hung up.
Instead of heading back to the office, McKay took a taxi out to the El Palacio apartments. They had the oppressive, quiet air of a building in which someone has just died, secretive with the shades drawn and the awnings like heavy eyelids. A pair of police cars lounged out front, the lawn was churned up and two palm trees wore ropes and tape to keep out trespassers.
Detective Lee was there too, a small, wide man whose stomach made his tie seem shorter than it was, and strained the second button on his coat. Lee saw McKay, seemed unable to decide whether to fumble with his hat or his gun, and settled for striding up to him.
"Rodney, c'mon, you can't go in there."
"It sounds like you guys have the case locked up." McKay took off his own hat, rubbed at the thin line where the material inevitably chafed. His coat followed next, the shirt underneath clinging uncomfortably to his arms, patched here and there with sweat. "I mean, considering you're massively, spectacularly wrong about who did it, and what the motives were."
"We're – that is – Detective Carter is – she's very confident Mr. Sheppard is the man responsible," Lee stammered. He adjusted his coat and the button came undone. Lee sighed. "But you still can't go in."
"Watch me," McKay said, and shouldered Lee aside. Lee bounced like a small ball and squawked indignantly that McKay couldn't, the Chief of Ds, Hammond, would have his head and probably other limbs, and McKay was afraid of a lot of things – bees, lemons, dames bearing citrus-spiked death and delivering him to torture – but Hammond had never been on the list.
Lee subsided into anxious whispers and bitten-off remarks on the illegality, and how he'd have to call for backup if McKay didn't leave right now. McKay prowled the apartment, everything frozen as if in amber, her furniture and clothes, her coat over the back of a kitchen chair. Items everywhere, the kitchen a total chaos, much like Sheppard's place had been.
Her bedroom was plain, a single girl's place, with bed and dresser and dressing table. Her nightgown draped over the padded chair, easy to imagine her sitting in it, arranging her hair and makeup. Rouge and eye shadow dusted the floor, red-blue-black smears and half a footprint in crimson.
"Did they print this?" Rodney demanded.
"They did," Lee said miserably, but wouldn't budge when McKay asked him if the shoeprint had been matched to Sheppard's. Probably not, otherwise Carter and Kavanagh would have done a whole lot worse than ask questions Sheppard had probably answered with a slouch and a shrug and insouciance.
Perfume clung rankly sweet to the air around the table, teasing a headache from McKay's sinuses, its stickiness on the tabletop. Of course they'd come here, if they were looking for something, if they were looking for a jewel. Where else would a woman keep it?
"Except she wasn't an idiot," McKay muttered. "Unlike a lot of people."
She wasn't. She'd wanted the jewel from Sheppard and gotten it somehow, or else whoever broke in here and killed her thought she'd gotten it and still had it. Except she was dead, her blood still splattered in the bathroom, and either they'd gotten what they wanted out of her or they hadn't, no way to tell.
They, they, he was thinking in plurals. It could have been a he – her fiancé for some reason, Sheppard, even though McKay refused to believe that for an instant, some random guy who'd followed a good-looking girl home – or even another woman – jealousy, an affair, for the hell of it. But they stuck anyway as McKay impatiently prowled the rest of the bedroom and pushed by Lee on his way out.
It was the jewel: Nancy had wanted it bad enough to steal it, Sheppard wanted it back bad enough to avoid the police and approach a disgraced ex-detective in his hole-in-the-wall office, these people wanted it enough to kill. The way Nancy Callahan had died, McKay's brain clicked along, like the girl from a week ago, horrific but not quite right; the other girl's apartment had been untouched, her body had been the only thing worth taking.
McKay paused by the small side table. A disconnected phone sat on top of it, and next to it a water stain from a vase that had been knocked over and a pad of stationery with a few papers torn carelessly out. The stationery was fine, expensive under McKay's fingers, thin enough that even layers and layers down he could read the impressions of a name and phone number.
He memorized name and number both and tore off ten more sheets just in case, shoved them in his pocket while Lee choked unhappily behind him. The wastepaper basket underneath had a few small scraps of paper; McKay pocketed those too, a receipt and another piece of stationery
"Please, Rodney," Lee began.
"Relax," McKay said, rolling his eyes. Lee was another example of where the bureau had gone wrong – Kavanagh being the prime piece of evidence – an organization clueless enough to shoot itself in the foot. McKay stared at the dirty carpet, thinking of rouge footprints, that had been careless, and yeah, yeah – there had to be other signs.
He found it after five minutes' obsessive searching, next to a spent flash from a camera and half-hidden under the sofa.
She'd fought, McKay remembered, bruises on her wrists and scrapes on her knuckles. She'd grabbed her attacker by the cuff or jacket and pulled, and a button had come off.
It was a brass button, modeled with a care not spent on clothing these days, a G raised in relief against a black enamel background.
Oh god, no curse, no thought big enough for the small thing in his hand, he could see that same shape in the corner of his mind's eye, hazed over with blood and sweat, catching the same light as the knife in Kolya's hand. McKay sat back on his heels, graceless and too shaken to care, fucking Genii insignia, uniforms like they were the Army – that arrogant, that open about who they were – and the button had warmed in his hand, solid, heavy despite its size.
"Oh god," he said, his own rough voice this time. He thought of Nancy, beautiful and blood-covered and dead, and Elizabeth, a ghost, and they were together now, tied up – fastened together by brass.
He pocketed the button, swallowed the unpleasant burn of memory and willed away the twinge in his arm, think, dammit, think, he'd made almost two careers out of it and suddenly he couldn't. The stationery in his pocket rubbed him the wrong way, sting of a paper cut.
"Look, you really really really need to leave," Lee was burbling. McKay told him to shut up, okay, he was going now, and gathered his hat and coat, but Lee didn't stop vibrating until McKay was out the door and past the police tape. "No hard feelings?" he asked as McKay shouldered into his coat and slipped his hat back on.
McKay started to say of course there were, don't be an idiot, when he saw something across the street – a quick, barely-there something, a flicker that belonged to the shadows and, even as McKay registered it, turned to flee. He paused on the edge of going after it, but no no, so much else to do now, to put Nancy Callahan's dead face next to Elizabeth's and wonder what the Genii wanted with one woman, where they had taken the other.
Rodney didn't go back to La Cienega right away, but back to his office. Precious had left at six precisely – she'd left a note saying she did not get paid enough to stay after hours, which irritated Rodney beyond all measure – and the office lay in sullen silence. Opening a window let in more smog than coolness, the acid sting of the day's heat and the fumes from downtown as the city baked slowly into August. McKay shut it again and the heat and light sulked outside the glass.
The mail had nothing interesting to say, only bills Rodney ignored. Amazing Tales from Beyond fell out of his folder on Elizabeth, hit the floor with a slap that startled Rodney's heart into an anxious gallop.
There was still the .45 gouge in the doorway, probably blood somewhere. Rodney rolled up his right sleeve and studied the scar on his arm, a wicked, raised curve slightly paler than the rest of his skin. When he forgot and wore only shirtsleeves out in the sun, the curve stayed pale even as the rest of him turned red, a reminder Rodney didn't need.
"We're fucking private investigators," McKay told the empty office. He turned on one light as the darkness lengthened, moved the folder more fully into the little circle of illumination it provided; after digging in his pocket, McKay added the button and stationery to the pile of clues that led nowhere, thought for a moment and moved the button to its own place, the clue that led down dangerous paths.
"The Genii," he muttered. He got up, no way to stay still now, he had to move and walk it out, his steps the quickening pulse of thought as the case wove, untangled, and rewove itself. "They want that jewel. Why?"
Answer, maybe: He and Elizabeth had been investigating disappearances linked to Genii drug-running and weapons dealing. Jewel smuggling now? Rodney touched the dogeared corner of Kolya's photograph, the voice behind those orders, and the hand more than capable of carrying them out. That hadn't been him in Nancy's apartment, too sloppy – an underling, fine, still Genii, the jewel valuable enough to send someone after it and accept blood in exchange.
Kolya had taken Elizabeth to knock her off the trail, had vanished himself, and no help from the police tracking him down. Your own health and safety are strongly contingent upon your not pursuing your investigations any further, Kolya had told him. Would pursuing Nancy's death count? Chasing after that jewel?
The apartment had been tossed, which meant either the murderer had arrived before her and ransacked the place, been surprised by her coming home early, or else they'd killed her hastily – it fit with the bootprint, the forgotten button – and then gone through everything when they'd realized she was dead and not saying anything.
Had they found it? No answer to that, and if they had, Rodney would have to find them.
Rodney walked out into the lobby and picked up the phone. It smelled odd, cologne-like, not at all like the pomade Precious doused herself in despite Rodney's protests about the stench. Holding one piece of paper to the light, he dialed the number printed on it.
The phone rang and rang. McKay grunted irritably and hung up, tried information with the name and number. A score this time: Carson Beckett, a doctor at the Navy general hospital in Pasadena.
Back to the folder, the other scrap of evidence. The receipt had been torn, the top half of a Union Train Station slip, nothing left saying for what. Maybe she'd been trying to leave town, had tickets for a train out, but the police would have them now, and no way hell, McKay knew, was he getting to those.
For now he had Carson Beckett, the Genii and the murder of a – relatively – innocent woman who might have been trying to escape. Rodney collapsed back into his desk and picked up the button, ran it over his fingers, and brass warmed quickly against his skin. When he set the button down, the engraved G caught the light and glittered malevolently at him, and Rodney swallowed.
Immigrant men and women, kidnapped because no one important would miss them. Elizabeth, taken for caring. Nancy Callahan, white and beautiful and engaged, who wouldn't have told anyone about a jewel she'd stolen from her ex-husband.
"How'd she get mixed up with the Genii?" McKay touched the one picture he had of Nancy, then Elizabeth's folder. If Nancy Callahan was mixed up with the Genii, then Sheppard was too, and there was no way McKay was ever going to escape from them.
"It's your bad luck, and hers, you got mixed up in this," Kolya had sighed. His breath had smelled of old coffee, and the rest of him, clad in a nondescript brown suit, had smelled of sweat and gunpowder. "I told her she needed to stop; the police had sense enough not to interfere, but she didn't, and you didn't either. But for your sake, I won't tell you why you need to let her go, only that you need to, if you want to stay alive."
McKay moved to stand in front of the window, leaned against the cool of the file cabinets, which warmed quickly underneath him. The city slunk into repose beyond, the towering buildings of downtown darker pillars punctuated here and there with light, the mountains bulking in the distance with their tops swimming in vague clouds.
The Night-Owl's lights came on almost beneath his feet, the pale wash of them spilling across the sidewalk and out onto Hollywood Boulevard. Signs for bars and restaurants popped up, reminding McKay he was starving and needed to eat, and needed to check on Sheppard.
Why? he asked himself irritably. Sheppard didn't need a keeper, and he didn't have a goddamn claim on McKay's time beyond the money he wasn't paying him, except that McKay had, when he wasn't looking, tied himself to Sheppard with one five-cent cup of coffee, or Sheppard had tied himself to him with a slow, lazy smile and desolate eyes.
And speaking of... McKay parted the blinds with his fingertips, leaned forward as though the two centimeters gained would allow him to see more clearly.
Two bright disks hovered above the Coca-cola girl sign, wavering only slightly. Cat's eyes, McKay thought or a wolf's when it's dark and they look into the light, burnished gold and uncanny, and even in the featureless dark, McKay knew they were looking at him, that they were eyes.
He stepped quickly away from the window, the blinds snapping back when he let them go; the desk was behind him, reminding him with sharp edges against his thigh. The hell with it now, he pulled his gun out – Dex had been on him about it, and McKay had refused but now, there was really no point to holding out any longer – and fumbled the shoulder holster on, the .38 tucked inside and hidden by his jacket when McKay slipped it on.
Around him the office building slumbered, the cleaning ladies' machine-gun chatter erupting at odd intervals to break the silence and shave another layer of McKay's calm. He hadn't been meant for this, this wasn't his life, or wasn't supposed to be, except in the space between gunshots it had become this, or the road to it, his shoes squeaking quietly on the tiles and the rear exit door sounding like fireworks when he pushed it cautiously open.
There was no way he was going to look to see if the eyes were still there or if their owner had moved on. Instead, McKay crept down the alley, kept close to the wall and both hands on his gun all the way to the lights of Franklin Ave.
Foot traffic engulfed him, people hustling home after a long day, and McKay wove into them, head low and shoulders hunched against that invisible stare.
A taxi idled by and McKay rapped the hood, climbed in before the cabbie could reach for the door.
"Where you want?" the cabbie asked.
He hadn't thought of that. Not his apartment, maybe a restaurant, he was fucking starving and a tension headache had started to work back across his skull and down his neck. Dex's place, maybe, or Teyla's, but they lived down near Wilshire and farther away than McKay's wallet could take him.
Police cars howled past, sirens blaring. People caught in the crosswalk scattered like chickens.
"Follow them," McKay said, and crouched lower in his seat.
The cabbie was staring at him, and McKay realized he still had his gun in one hand. He holstered it quickly, wincing when the barrel caught on leather and wouldn't go in at first.
"Turn around and drive!" McKay barked.
The cabbie hit the gas and the taxi leaped forward. They raced down Franklin, down and down with the sirens elusive just ahead, faster, faster with the cabbie making anxious noises about his permit and McKay looking over his shoulder, as though the watcher were crouching on the car's trunk, peering in through the rear window.
"We're here, bud," the cabbie squeaked. He wiped his face with a handkerchief of surpassing hideousness.
"Sorry, sorry," McKay said, fumbling for cash and goodwill he didn't feel. He dropped the bills on the front seat, ignored the cabbie's squeals of protest at being shortchanged, clambered out of the car and into a conflagration.
A fireman shouldered past him with an order to get the hell out of the way, pal. McKay got the hell out of the way, stared up at the burning building and dragged in a lungful of scorched-brick smoke. Commotion bubbled around him, shouting, shoving, an arc of water from a fire hose, the police trying to keep nonexistent order, and out of that confusion slowly rose the awareness that this was Sheppard's apartment building.
Despite the furnace and light against his face, Rodney felt cold twist in him, sickness that threatened like the worst kind of bile, too late, too late, and the Genii had won a game Rodney'd only just realized they were playing. Anger – irritation, easier to call it that – chewed away at someplace deep.
"McKay! Hey, McKay!"
That voice, only a few days in its presence and he'd know it anywhere, smoke-roughened as it was. McKay turned, and there on the south side of the street – yeah, there he was, clear and sharp against the blur of the fire crews and gawking passersby.
McKay stalked up to him, and shoved a fireman aside to do it.
"Hey, McKay," Sheppard said, and coughed. He tugged at his shirt collar, exposing the soot-stained line of his neck, and swiped at it ineffectually with a grimy-looking handkerchief. "A bit hot."
"Oh, really?" McKay allowed himself a moment of disbelief and overwhelming relief that Sheppard was alive, alive and slouching back against a parked car, hands in his pockets as casual as he'd been in McKay's office. Smoky, living, beautiful, and Rodney's heart did something cruelly improbable in his chest.
A stranger stood with him, blond-haired and wearing glasses and his hat tucked under his arm, and possessed of a youthfulness and earnestness that only made McKay feel old. He held a pen and pad of paper, and gazed at Sheppard with an avidity that both unnerved and annoyed McKay. For his part, Sheppard looked... like Sheppard always did.
"Daniel Jackson," the bespectacled man said in reply to McKay's demand to know who the hell he was. He held out a hand that Rodney pointedly did not take. "Reporter with the Sun."
"How lovely for you," McKay grunted. He looked at Sheppard, who was disheveled and smelled terrible, a streak of ash down his face and raw skin on his hands. He stared at those hands a moment, hypnotized by the sweat on Sheppard's knuckles and the ash settling into the fine lines and under the dark hair on his wrists. Sheppard studied him silently, that maddening near-smile almost present enough for McKay to want to smack it off.
"Guess I don't need to worry about straightening up the place," Sheppard said idly. He peered up at the building, shadows and light alchemizing his eyes, the line of his cheekbone into a stranger's face. The smile he wore managed amusement and resignation, and McKay's skin tightened in a way that had nothing to do with the fire at his back.
"I'm taking you home with me," McKay informed him, "and while it isn't Beverly Hills, it isn't a tent under the parkway."
"I'm not finished asking Mr. Sheppard some questions," Jackson objected.
"Yes you are." McKay seized Sheppard's shirtsleeve, tug on the material that turned into holding on to Sheppard's bicep. "I've got stuff you can change into," he told Sheppard, "believe me, there's nothing left up there, not now."
"I was at Don's," Sheppard muttered, scrubbing a hand over his face. Wrinkles had materialized at the corners of his eyes, crow's feet that kept Sheppard's face hovering between improbably youthful and unbelievably old. "I'd gone out at the last minute, couldn't stand staring at those fucking walls anymore."
McKay remembered soul-deadening brick, the one potted plant that had given up hope, and shuddered to think of Sheppard there. He doesn't belong, McKay thought, Sheppard didn't belong anywhere or to anyone, least of all in McKay's house or to McKay, no matter how many cups of coffee McKay bought for him. He reminded himself of this, even as Sheppard flowed in effortlessly next to him and offered to pay for the cab.
"With what money?" McKay demanded.
"Had to offer," Sheppard said, all stiff and prickly pride, and stared out the window for the rest of the drive to McKay's apartment.
Sheppard looked around with some interest once McKay navigated them through the lobby and up to the second floor. He stroked the cat, which repaid him by trying to put furrows in the back of his hand, and examined the McKay vs. Alekhine chess board.
"I'll checkmate him in four more moves," McKay told him.
"The Lucena position," Sheppard murmured. His fingers trailed over the head of the knight, the battered mahogany edging of the side table the board rested on. "I like your place."
"Thanks," McKay said, surprised into meaning it. "Although probably anything is better than that hole you were living in."
Sheppard allowed that this was true, but still he regarded Rodney's living room with interest, especially the new Astounding Science Fiction and the piano, helped himself without asking to the decanter of whiskey and the tumbler sitting on top of it.
"You got to go to Don's; I didn't," McKay told him, and swiped the glass back after Sheppard managed to down half of it in one spluttering gulp.
"Usually not one for the sauce," Sheppard said, with an oddly shy, apologetic look. He wore it well, the way he wore laziness and determination and the unbendable pride housed in an otherwise flexible spine. "But its... it's been a day for it, I guess."
"Yeah." McKay tried not to think about Sheppard's fingers brushing electric over his, burning as the whiskey down his throat. This close, McKay saw faint freckles hiding under Sheppard's tan, more laugh- and sun-lines, the shine of burned skin as though Sheppard had turned his face up to the flames. "You weren't... You were out."
"Like I said," Sheppard said. His head tilted, examining, way too much perceptiveness in red-rimmed green eyes for McKay's comfort. He looked away. "You think it's related to the jewel? The fire?"
"No, it's completely random chance that you hire me to look for some very important not-jewel, then your ex-wife – who may possibly have stolen the not-jewel in question – dies two days later and, once you're out of jail, someone tries to turn your rather remarkable hair into a torch."
"When you put it like that..." Sheppard rolled his eyes, a vaguely hideous expression given the soot smudges on his cheekbones, and the pallor under tan, occasionally singed skin.
"Yes, well, there are no stupid questions, only the stupid people who ask them." McKay tossed back the rest of the drink, swallowed heat that flowed down to his gut, came back up to his brain as recklessness and incoherence. He had to ask about the jewel, tell Sheppard what he'd found, because neither of them were safe now, but his brain tangled around the words and his tongue, for the first time in a long time, failed him altogether. "We should get – get to bed."
"Sounds good," Sheppard said, and made a move toward the sofa.
"Shower first," McKay instructed. "I'm not going to have my sofa smell like a federal disaster area. There's... I have a spare towel in the cupboard there. And shaving things."
"Thanks," Sheppard said, and the quietness threw McKay for a moment.
Twenty minutes later Sheppard came out, clean and clean-shaven, hair undefeated by the water, body scarred and flawless both at once and kept modest only by Rodney's towel. He moved like the city moved, rough-raw-smooth and hypnotic, no Valentino about him – nothing that distantly perfect, but close enough to cut with the play of light down his shoulders and the one persistent waterdrop clinging to his arm, dislodged and sliding down the hook of his elbow, his forearm, the groove between the veins and tendons in his wrist. Rodney swallowed, throat catching on the knot of sudden wanting, weeks of Sheppard threading through his thoughts twisting together suddenly, coalescing into this, into Sheppard under the dim lights of Rodney's apartment.
"I need clothes," Sheppard announced.
"Clothes," McKay muttered, and had to drag his eyes away from Sheppard's torso, the mark along his left flank, the eloquent, functional hitch of his hip that kept the towel from slipping. The breath he needed to take had the smell of his soap and warm, clean skin.
Despite Rodney's distraction, he managed to scrape up pajama pants and a shirt from the questionable order of his room, gadgets and books and more clothes, too much randomness for so small a space. Outside the window, the morning threatened rain, the bitter rain that stung the nose when it evaporated off the pavement. The San Gabriels brooded in the murk.
The pants ended up being too short on Sheppard, his ankles poking out bony and pyramidical from under the cuffs. He had hair on his toes and dusting the top of his feet, which McKay found strangely hypnotic, an imperfection that wasn't an imperfection at all.
Sheppard stripped off the towel and dressed with a practiced economy and complete lack of modesty, flash of the rest of what Sheppard's jacket and pants covered up, prominence of his hip and the long flat run of his thigh, the delicate-looking flesh at the back of his knee. To cover himself, McKay found extra blankets and a pillow, and delivered these to Sheppard silently.
"G'night, McKay," Sheppard said, and was looking at him again, puzzled and intent and oddly expectant, but what he expected and what the puzzle was beyond a green jewel, McKay had no idea.
"Yeah, good night," Rodney said, when he couldn't stand it any longer. Sheppard's hair looked stupid, his face anything but, completely different every time McKay looked at him.
Rodney left, trailed by his cat, who hopped onto his pillow before Rodney could lie down. Automatically he shooed the cat away and collapsed into bed, aware that he smelled like smoke and the sweaty, electric panic of his own thoughts, and he stared up into a darkness that held only Sheppard's body and a face he couldn't understand, and no sleep at all. He lay there, tense, shaking and shaking his head to deny what he'd seen, no no, not like this, please, and Sheppard standing sharp and clear, as if in relief, against Rodney's private darkness.
Rodney woke up tense, unsatisfied lust coalescing into a tightness in his groin and a headache that inhabited the space behind his left eye. He lay there, hand tight on his thigh, listening to Sheppard move and breathing unsteadily.
Sheppard made terrible coffee and left Rodney's bathroom a humid mess that smelled like Rodney and smoke and Sheppard's mysterious scent. Rodney stood and stared at his fogged-up reflection for a moment, listened to Sheppard padding around out in his living room, and wondered if he was going insane.
Insanity, he supposed, brought on by exhaustion; his shoulders didn't want to support themselves, and slumped when he tried to straighten them. In the back of his mind there was the kid from CalTech, broad-shouldered and sturdy and who only needed whatever secret energy teenagers had to keep him up all night. McKay wanted him back, that energy, the not-knowing that, some day in the future, those days would end and transform to something else.
He walked out of the bathroom without an answer, with more questions, how a search for a stupid green stone had become a murder and a three-alarm fire, and a space captain crash-landed on his couch. Darker, heavier currents flowed underneath, suggestions of danger that made the skin on the back of Rodney's neck prickle and crawl, pulled tight on threads of probability that twined themselves around the man wearing a pair of Rodney's undershorts and an undershirt, inspecting the bookcases.
"What are you doing?" Rodney snapped, uncertainty and a bad night making him short-tempered. Sheppard glanced up and smiled, catching Rodney's bad mood and deciding to be immune to it; for his part, McKay retreated to the kitchen to pour more atrocious coffee.
"Very impressive." Sheppard surveyed the wireless Rodney had set up underneath one of the bookcases, a questionable arrangement of wires and metal plates and dials. He pressed a button and the news clicked on, depressing static and a neutral voice cataloguing the previous day's disasters.
"I built it myself; any idiot could. You pay for stupidity and the wood to make it look pretty." McKay took a truculent swallow of coffee and winced at the burn and Sheppard's smile. "Do you want coffee or not? We have things to do today."
"Sure," Sheppard said distractedly, staring at the wireless as though that would give him better reception. Sighing, McKay stalked out to the kitchen to make breakfast, since he had apparently become a halfway house when he wasn't looking.
You're not my responsibility, he wanted to say to Sheppard, who had insinuated himself into the doorway leading to McKay's closet of a kitchen, leaning against the post, you're not my obligation. You're more.
"You're my client," he said out loud, dumping ersatz sausages into the frying pan. They hissed and steamed, and hot grease caught him on the arm.
"I know," Sheppard said, his voice small and tight.
When McKay looked up, he was there, backlit by what dawn light came through the window and the half-hearted yellow lamp. And yeah, Sheppard was a client, and owed Rodney a bit of money and a cup of coffee, and he had nowhere to go and he needed someone, for all the neat compression of his body, folded in on himself and carefully neutral, said otherwise.
Sheppard straightened, the shallow curve from chest to flank to hip flattening out, and he vanished back into the living room. McKay stared down at the sausages and poked them desultorily, wondered who the hell Sheppard was and how he went from space captain to a space captain with the brunette knockout on his arm to the homeless guy who drifted around Rodney McKay's apartment.
That, he decided, was another thing to find out, but the silence from the living room was forbidding, a reluctance there that had to do with real pain.
The voice on the other end of the wireless had moved on from the war to closer to home: "The Las Palmas at Franklin and Madison in Hollywood caught fire last night," it said. "Of the thirty residents, the county has confirmed ten are dead. Fire inspectors..."
"Ten," Sheppard said hollowly. He turned to Rodney. "Ten people."
"I heard," Rodney said, but without force. He stared hard at his distorted reflection in the coffee maker, his nose and mouth gigantic and his chin vanishing like his hairline. "I'm... Well, apologies are all I have, but they aren't much." He'd never gotten apologies for Elizabeth, except from Teyla and Ronon, hadn't wanted them beyond a sign that people had acknowledged her.
"They never are." Sheppard was silent aside from the scuffing of bare feet on the carpet and the creak of his chair.
When Rodney came out with the coffee, toast, and sausage, Sheppard had rearranged himself at the table, dressed in a pair of Rodney's pants and a shirt that hung loose at his shoulders and gaped at the collar. The pants came up past Sheppard's ankles when he sat. McKay fascinatedly examined the line of Sheppard's throat, the shadows that traced it.
"That smells good," Sheppard said, and inhaled a mouthful of toast.
"So, why're you out here anyway?" Rodney asked.
That earned him a wary glance and a pause in Sheppard's methodical dissection of his sausage. The kitchen table had become something like the table in a department interrogation room, and Sheppard must have sensed it, leaning back and setting his fork down, a long and careful silence while he studied McKay, face still inscrutable. The blankness in it said enough, a tell on its own, and McKay scowled.
"If I'm going to put a potential murder suspect up in my apartment," he said at last, "I think I deserve to know what the hell he's doing out in Los Angeles, other than looking for beautiful young women to murder." More than that, you're in my home, you need to trust me, and no way was he going to say that.
"Surfing," Sheppard said at last. "But things... caught up with me."
"They always do," McKay observed, and Sheppard laughed, and had difficulty swallowing his coffee.
"What things?" McKay asked once Sheppard had recovered.
"Oh, you know…" Sheppard's gaze drifted over to the window on the far wall, went through it to some place way past the mountains. "Things. Life."
"Yeah," McKay muttered. He resisted the urge to turn around, to see what Sheppard was seeing, even though whatever Sheppard seemed to see, it wasn't the apartment buildings across the way, or the skim of smoggy sky visible beyond them. "Life wouldn't be a sentence for murder committed elsewhere, would it?"
"No," Sheppard said, softly but emphatically. "Nothing like that."
And McKay found he could believe that, and the tension in his shoulders slackened and allowed him a smile that Sheppard returned, a quick, shy twist of his mouth, before he returned to his coffee.
Against his better judgment – which, McKay decided, he needed to start paying attention to – he took Sheppard out to Pasadena with him to see Beckett. Part of it, McKay suspected, was the dangerous illogic Sheppard inspired in him, and the other part was not wanting Sheppard by himself, the precaution whose necessity justified dangerous illogic in the end.
"Believe me, you're not staying by yourself at my place," McKay had said, when Sheppard had protested. The Genii and the jewel and the fire, no way those weren't coincidence.
"Fine," Sheppard had said, tolerantly amused by McKay's insistence on his safety.
Sheppard had recovered himself, possessed again of his suit and shirt, smoke and sweat laundered away and a tear at the elbow repaired. He watched the world from behind his sunglasses, watched McKay from behind them too, and as intently. The studios and palm trees rolled by, the houses, the yellowing slums and the apartment buildings, streets lined with sailors and soldiers, the palm trees in their regimented rows, and Sheppard looked away from them, mouth going thin although his eyes were still invisible.
"Let's get this over with," he said after the car dropped them at the doors to the Navy hospital.
The hospital twisted in an endless path of tiled floors, receptionists, and bureaucracy, and after two hours the road ended in a small, Spartan office with a desk overwhelmed by paper and a stocky man sitting behind it. He rose to take their hands, soft-voiced and polite in the way McKay tended to associate with doctors when he introduced himself.
"Aye, Betsy said you wanted to speak to me." Beckett tugged at the lapel of his white coat. He was sturdy, reliable-looking and kind. "I'm quite busy, but I'll try to answer your questions."
"A woman came by here, maybe a week ago," Sheppard said, before McKay could get in a word. "Nancy Callahan?"
Beckett glanced sharply at him. "Aye, I heard of her death. Tragic thing."
"But she came here," Sheppard persisted. His shoulders had gone tense despite the casual sprawl that had him taking up most of a relatively spacious leather chair, trailing legs into McKay's space and underneath Beckett's desk.
"She did," Beckett said reluctantly.
"How did she know about you?" McKay asked.
"She worked for the military, and as you can see, so do I," Beckett said, sounding deeply unhappy. "I've not been here long. More than that, I can't tell you."
"You're not American."
"Aye, I can see that, laddie." Beckett leaned hard on the laddie, sarcasm stretching out the vowels. "I'm on loan from the RAF. Temporary arrangement."
"You hope," McKay snorted, just as Sheppard asked, "The RAF?"
"That's what I said." Beckett made a harassed sound. "I was stationed in London during the Blitz; the United States hired me on here in '43."
"They just let you go," Sheppard said doubtfully. Beckett's face was too blank to be anything but cautious, and his reply, "I suppose they did," said a lot more hid behind what Beckett was giving them, and Beckett's face – lined but still young, wide-eyed and all but protesting innocence – made Rodney's stomach go sour with suspicion.
"Did she ask you about anything?" Rodney asked. "A jewel, for instance?"
"No, although why you think she would, I have no idea" Beckett said, frowning. Then his voiced firmed. "If she did ask me anything, I wouldn't tell you, would I? I don't know the pair of you from Adam."
"Doc." Sheppard leaned forward – that was all, leaned forward, but he had Beckett inching away, and that was another impossible, split-second metamorphosis, Sheppard all lazy grace and danger, effortless when McKay had to struggle for some place deep down, where Jeannie and Elizabeth were, to make his voice even-planed stone.
"C'mon, Doc," Sheppard said, green eyes flatly intent and fixed on Beckett.
"I sent her over to Dr. Simpson at CalTech," Beckett sighed. His fingers had gone white where they gripped the desktop, tendrils of bloodlessness working up his knuckles. "She, ah, she asked me not to speak of her visit, you see."
"Thanks for making an exception, Doc," Sheppard said brightly, only a razor rode the edge of his smile, cold and distant and Beckett shivered.
"Any time." Beckett loosed a dry-sounding cough. "Now, before you give me a stroke, could you please show yourselves out?"
They could, thank you, and McKay made himself not say, "not helping at all." It helped that Nancy had wanted this kept secret, that she'd gone to a doctor of medicine in the first place, and not an estate appraiser to get an evaluation.
"That was impressive," McKay hissed at Sheppard as they wound their way back through the hospital. He had to tug Sheppard's sleeve to keep him from turning off into the surgical ward, and then again when Sheppard threatened to go the wrong way into the nurses' station. "Were you in the academy too?"
"You learn things," Sheppard said, voice chilled, shut-down. "You know how to get to CalTech? I'm new here."
"Yeah, I do." He did, really well, the streets busier, more shops, but not much different from his days here. "I, um, I was here for a while."
"In the police department?" Sheppard asked. He shifted to idle to inspect the contents of a store window.
"No." McKay could shut down questions too. "Come on, this way."
CalTech had changed since his student days, more buildings mostly from the money that had poured in, the war effort an unexpected source of funds even though military projects had drawn off many of the physicists and engineers. That chafed him raw, grit and splinters and glass ground in over a knife wound. The best years of his life here, in classrooms and labs, he'd been meant for this place in a way he'd never been meant to be anywhere before.
"You okay?" Sheppard asked.
"Fine," McKay said emphatically, and tried to ignore the way Sheppard seemed to be peering inside his skull. "Come on, we haven't got all day, even though you seem to think we have time to get lost and stop randomly."
Sheppard followed him up to the engineering building in bemused silence, peering up at the polished, shell-smooth walls with their black punctuations of windows. Yeah, all this was the same too, as though the memory inside McKay's head had transplanted itself into the real world and become squeaking tiles and the faint chalky academic smell, the occasional murmur of voices over a blackboard. McKay hurried past a couple offices, despite the dead, empty light beyond the glass that said their occupants had gone, almost missed the office sign for Mallory Simpson.
Mallory Simpson was just how McKay had liked them before Sheppard and complication had ambled into his life: tall, blonde, curves not quite contained by the severity of her suit and not in the least masked by her expression. She handwaved them impatiently through introductions, saying her office was far too small for her and two other people, although McKay had noticed M. Kusanagi on the door.
Sheppard asked about the jewel again, all snake-hips this time, leaning against Simpson's desk.
"Whatever it is," Simpson said, "it's not a jewel. I'm not sure what the material is, but it definitely doesn't match the profiles for standard gemstones of that color."
Not a jewel. Mistaken identity, then? The Genii had killed Nancy over a fake? McKay kept the thoughts to himself, felt Sheppard go quiet beside him. Simpson kept talking, a device of some sort, she said.
"Device?" He couldn't help the half-step forward, the quicksilver run of interest through him. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, a device," Simpson said dryly, but she smiled anyway. "Here – " She pulled a piece of paper to her and sketched a shape close to that in Rodney's notes, hexagonal, but without the jewel, a quick schematic of wires. "See? The crystal is only a housing for the wires and what appears to be the power supply, although I've never seen anything like it before."
"What's it do?" Rodney asked, half-aware he'd elbowed Sheppard aside and not caring.
"I couldn't get it to work," Simpson said. Her mouth curved in a frustrated scowl; Rodney could relate. "Possibly it's broken, but I couldn't say. My closest guess? It was for generating a field of some sort, maybe electromagnetic in nature, but what the purpose might be..." She shrugged. "That, I have no idea."
"Thank you for not helping," McKay said, because his patience and forbearance only extended so far. "It's great to see that Caltech's kept up its tradition of rigorous research."
He left before she could say anything, before he had to spend five minutes more in the corridor he remembered way to well for the memories to be anything but painful, way too mixed up with the brief flash of excitement, the discovery of something new and strange. He fled to the restroom before Sheppard could ask any questions, either.
There's a time to answer questions, he thought, staring at his reflection in the mirror and trying not to breathe too deeply. And this... maybe, maybe he'd trust Sheppard with the reasons why, but not now.
Sheppard, lounging against an empty office door, flowed gracefully back to vertical again when Rodney came up to him, and fell into step beside him when Rodney didn't stop, hands in his pockets, lazy as the few students trapped on campus for the summer.
"You okay?" Sheppard asked.
"Fucking wasted trip, and no, I'm not okay." McKay jerked his head over his shoulder, indicating the hallway and outside and anywhere-but-here. "Let's get the hell out of here and get some food; that might – might – possibly redeem this day."
He didn't wait for Sheppard's agreement, took it for granted that Sheppard would follow, and yeah, there he was, loping alongside him with a casualness McKay knew he could never master. Slow down, Rodney, Elizabeth would say every now and then, This isn't a race, although she knew that a lot of times it was, and McKay's speed was speed born from impatience with the slowness of things.
CalTech stretched on endlessly in a procession of too-familiar buildings and paranoia. McKay tried to imagine himself, younger and thinner and with a lot more hair, three years from knowing what would happen to his family, and couldn't do it.
Sheppard kept to himself over lunch, staring into his beer and turkey sandwich as though into the depths of space. McKay tried Space Captain Astar, which made Sheppard somewhat more animated; Rodney let the conversation go where it would, too distracted by the device, the need to go back to his bookcases again and work it out.
"You there?" Sheppard was asking, waving a hand in front of Rodney's face.
"Here," Rodney said automatically. He returned to his sandwich and to silence as Sheppard cleared off his own plate, and wrapped up in the fingers Sheppard was inspecting for ketchup was that jewel – the device – and the Genii and Sheppard himself, a piece of human randomness tossed up on Rodney's doorstep.
A lot of people came to Hollywood with nothing, but Sheppard seemed to have come with less and more than most; his face flickered between twenty-five and ancient: and between Jeannie, lost opportunities, Elizabeth, too many other regrets, McKay knew that what Sheppard had with him wasn't the kind that ever went up in flames or could be left behind.
Rodney didn't want to wait until his office, but left Sheppard to gather food and sat down at his desk with his texts. He copied down Simpson's schematic from memory, like it really helped, notes on her hesitant conclusions, and for a while it was easy, easy, easy, to lose himself in the clean lines of his drawing, theories, like a runner stretching into his best speed, this is what I'm supposed to do.
"Not a jewel," he muttered to himself, the green crystal only a casing, what was important was what was underneath, then. The Genii ran weapons, not small handguns but the heavy stuff, military, stolen from army depots and then run across the border to be shipped overseas. So a weapon, then?
"What the hell would you do? Throw it at someone?" McKay muttered. He stared at the lines. Conductors, maybe; the box, Simpson's power supply. The wires ran together to one focal point, twining together almost as if alive, a lens at the center of them. Power would run along the wires like so, like McKay's pencil-line arrows, the lens would focus it.
"You think you can figure out what that thing does?" Sheppard asked with elaborate carelessness.
"I studied this in school; more importantly, I'm good at it." Rodney leaned back and eyed Sheppard, schooled enough in him now to recognize the tension in Sheppard's shoulders. "You can tell me now, or wait for me to figure it out," Rodney said, "and you know it's only a matter of time."
"I have no idea what it does," Sheppard said quietly, and got up. "But you'll work it out."
"Of course I will," Rodney said, and turned to his work again. If a weapon, what sort? Small, compact, clearly not projectile, something that hadn't made it into the American soldier's standard issue, something small, smaller than bullets.
Atoms? He reached for the essays on the photoelectric effect and photons, and hesitantly stretched into the math of it, rough after years of not thinking about it, trying not to think, but it caught him up, caught him good, this is what I do, and by the time Sheppard had dozed off on the couch had something approaching an answer.
"No wonder they want it," Rodney muttered. Sheppard stirred but didn't wake, amazing considering Rodney's heart racketed in his ears, loud enough, surely, for Sheppard to hear.
A force weapon, maybe, at a guess, but that was what the Genii would want badly enough to kill for. Supposedly it was old, but Sheppard could be lying about that, or the housing could be old, meant to hide what was really important and Sheppard didn't know what it was he had, only knew that it meant something to him.
It meant a lot to a lot of people. To Rodney, it meant someone dead and a lapful of scribbled calculations and dusty books, the race of adrenaline and under it the stillness of knowing, something no case had never managed.
He woke up to coffee already made and the oddly reassuring sounds of Sheppard stirring in the bathroom, the puff of humid air across his feet when McKay walked by. Outside the city seemed almost clean, lazy in the early-morning lull before the day began for real with only the late-night stragglers stumbling home through long shadows, faceless people in the high-rise across the street leaning out their balconies to taste the air before fumes got into it.
A rustling behind him and feet padding quietly on the carpet, and McKay turned, and there was Sheppard again in all his immodesty, reaching for more of Rodney's clothes, not even bothering to turn around, and if he wasn't going to bother, McKay wouldn't, and he watched the flex of Sheppard's body from the corner of his eye, the divot in his hip catching the light, letting it go in a long spill down his thigh.
"Think I'll go out today," Sheppard said from underneath the folds of his shirt. His stomach muscles flexed, went concave, smoothed out. "I've gone through most of your collection already, and the woman in the apartment across from you told me she'd kill me if I tried to play your piano again."
"It isn't safe," McKay muttered into his coffee mug.
"Not safe," Sheppard said, and rolled his eyes. "I can take care of myself, you know."
"I'm sure you can, but I don't think you can fully appreciate the extent to which people seem determined to murder you or burn you alive," Rodney snapped, and he wanted to say something about how Sheppard seemed unable to fully appreciate the extent to which Rodney was determined not to let any of that happen to him, but the phone rang.
It was Precious, impertinent as usual and unwelcome, and McKay said this. Precious ignored him, also as usual.
"You have a client," Precious said with a slowness that could only be sarcasm. "Shall I tell her that you have no wish to make money?"
He left it that Sheppard could go out if he wanted, if he was stupid enough; it wasn't like Kolya couldn't find him, and Sheppard… Sheppard's sort of isolation meant he'd learned to take care of himself.
Precious and Mrs. Van Horn waited for no man, so McKay dragged himself in and made himself listen to Mrs. Van Horn's twittering on about her conviction her son-in-law was stealing from her, had walked into her house and taken her calico cat collection and some ration coupons, even though her son-in-law lived in New York.
A couple more clients came in, Precious – who had decided to award herself half-days on Fridays – left early, and that, minus Sheppard, was the life of a private detective, a small parade of woe and greed and distrust that ended temporarily with McKay shouting over the phone, "oh for god's sake! If your calico cats really are that important to you, find them yourself!" when Mrs. Van Horn called back.
He collapsed at his desk, surrounded by piles and piles of futility. Frustration chewed at him, a burn low in his gut that traveled up through knotted shoulders to his temples. Clients he didn't want, a life he didn't want but was somehow his, and Sheppard lounging at home, helpless anger and interest when McKay thought of that.
Inevitably, his thoughts bounced between the jewel and Elizabeth and Sheppard, the certainty that the Genii were connected to all three of them and the fear of that certainty, he'd tried to explain that to Sheppard and had been rebuffed every time. Despite knowing that Sheppard could handle the Genii – thoughts now of Sheppard almost interrogating Beckett, as effortless as McKay had ever done it himself, or seen Sam do it – Rodney found himself reluctant to tell him.
Footsteps sounded in the outer office, the click of the hallway door closing. McKay started, caught the thread of a memory that said he'd locked that door once he'd gotten rid of the last client, and that the CLOSED sign had been turned out to the corridor.
A shadow moved on the other side of the frosted glass; McKay moved carefully for his .38 in his desk drawer.
"Hello?" A woman's light, hesitant voice. "Hello, is anyone there?"
Rodney stayed silent, hoping she would go away, but the shadow moved closer, a silhouette of sculptured hair and hat, high heels shuffling in the carpet. McKay pulled the .38 from his desk, checked the chamber, a click hidden by the door handle turning.
"Hello?" the woman asked again, her silhouette turning to precise, red curls and a thin pale face McKay had seen at the Night-Owl: Sora Tyrus, in a secretary's prim jacket and skirt this time, lips still crimson and eyes still shadowed. "Are you busy?"
"Yes," McKay said, standing, careful to keep his gun hand behind the desk.
"I apologize for intruding." Sora introduced herself, which almost made McKay laugh, and made herself comfortable, which made him frown.
"As I said, I'm very sorry," she said, all soft sincerity and blue eyes set in her china-fine face. "But I wanted to speak with you right away; my fiancé, Simon... He didn't want me to come, but I knew I had to."
"About Elizabeth Weir," McKay said. The gun burned in his hand, Dex's warning in his mind.
"Yes." Sora nodded. Her purse, gigantic and vintage leather, rested in her lap. Her knees crossed demurely, pale next to the navy of her dress, her wrists vulnerable in manacles of gold bracelets. "I have reason to believe he may have had her kidnapped and killed."
"Do you have actual evidence of this?" McKay heard the question come from far away, filtered through relief and finally, the voice that told him not to believe it.
"I do," Sora said, indicating her purse. "I'll just – "
McKay started to say no, he'd look, he should have frisked her first thing and never mind her modesty, but her hand was in and out of her purse as he raised his gun to warn her off, and she held a wicked-looking device, snaky, coiling up from her hand, and that was all McKay registered before there was light and a terrific pain in his chest and then nothing.
He came to with a thundering headache and a handkerchief pressed to his forehead, pins and needles in his chest. His vision spun sickeningly, shot through with whirls of green and violent afterimages and the blurriness of nausea. Under his right cheek, his desk had become moist with spit and the warm blood that had escaped the handkerchief.
Sora Tyrus was gone, and in her place, in the shadow cast by the wall sat a man.
"Before you complain, I highly doubt any of your extremely valuable brain cells have been damaged; your skull is harder than your desktop, I believe."
"Kolya." McKay struggled to sit up; on the second try he managed it although his vision greyed and his head lolled as though too heavy for his neck. His mind fumbled after the connection; that was it, he didn't need Dex's contact, he'd had the connection made for him.
"So nice to hear your grating voice again," Kolya said. He studied the shadowed corners of McKay's office for a moment, got to his feet and paced around the side of McKay's desk, shark-silent and smiling.
His gun was there, just under the edge of his desk, so close and so far away, and Kolya knew it, kneeling close even as McKay reached uselessly for the .38, as snaky as that weapon Sora Tyrus had shot him with, a knife at his arm again and a gun pressed to his head.
"What the hell do you want this time?" McKay demanded. Anger came, sharper than the knife and more dangerous than the gun Kolya had nosing his skull.
"Nothing much." He felt Kolya shrug, the unlikely power of muscle on the other side of the seat back. "Something... small, in comparison to what I took from you last time."
"Are you honestly this stupid, or do I get the special treatment?"
"Not a wise thing to say to the man with the gun at your head, McKay."
"If you'd wanted me dead," McKay said flatly, "you'd have killed me along with Elizabeth."
"Oh," Kolya sighed, "I do want you dead. But do me the honor of allowing that I do have some self-control, and some respect for those who employ me."
"Since you don't seem to be getting it, I'll ask again: What the hell do you want?"
"You're looking for something I'm looking for." Kolya's bog-brown eyes swallowed everything and gave nothing back. "I want the green jewel."
"I have no idea what the hell you're talking about, and I think you don't know either."
"You do not lie well, Rodney McKay," Kolya sighed. "I know John Sheppard came to see you, and I know what was stolen from him."
McKay stayed silent, thinking hate at Kolya, mouth tight with the effort of keeping back everything he wanted to say and everything that would get him killed.
"You were at Nancy Callahan's apartment the night she was killed."
"So were you," McKay said, "or one of your peons. Where are you hiring from these days anyway, the state mental ward? Do you have a standard of incompetence you impose on prospective murderers?"
The pressure of the gun on his neck increased, the hairsbreadth weight of the knife a constant through his jacket and shirt.
"I have been hired by... certain individuals to find that jewel," Kolya said tightly. "The Callahan woman had it, that I know, but Torrell was... overzealous in trying to extract information."
"You mean careless," McKay said. He managed to shift so one foot brushed the gun. Kolya didn't react.
"I mean, it is in your best interests to keep that mouth of yours shut." Kolya drew a ragged, aggravated breath; McKay counted it at some sort of victory. "My reward for finding the green jewel is substantial; your reward for turning the jewel over to me, should you find it, is that I will tell you where your partner is."
"Do us both a favor and go to hell now."
"Think of the man who hired you," Kolya whispered. "A stranger, a man who can't possibly afford to pay you what you should be paid. I offer you the chance to regain your partner."
"So she's alive," McKay said, and Kolya shook his head, maybe, maybe, McKay could just as well be led to her body.
"Don't get up; I'll show myself out." Kolya rose. The gun, metal warmed by McKay's flesh, left first; the knife followed the curve of McKay's forearm, a whisper of steel across fabric.
"It would, of course, be highly advisable not to inform others of this."
The door shut silently. Minutes passed, hours maybe, time shifting and slewing into meaninglessness. McKay picked up his gun, an hour to lean down and another hour to brace himself against the pain of sitting upright again, god knew how many years lost in watching blackness swallow his vision from the outside in and to hear the city light years away, and footsteps coming closer.
Another shadow loomed, blurred by the glass and concussion. McKay persuaded his hand onto the desk, steadied it around the gun and aimed it at the door.
Dex slipped through the office, shadow-striped like a tiger and as silent. He glanced around the room, as though Genii assassins lurked in the file cabinets, then shifted silently over to McKay, six and a half feet compressed suddenly into a spring-loaded crouch.
"Where the hell were you?" McKay demanded.
"Was out," Ronon grunted. "Teyla's been in court all day." Without setting down his gun he pulled McKay over to the sofa, checked for the injuries McKay insisted weren't there – they weren't, he'd know if they were, for God's sake – drew the blinds and poured a tumbler of whiskey that he thrust at McKay with a look that told him to take it.
"God," McKay wheezed. "That – shit. Shit, fuck." He tried to twist his head away from the pain, but it didn't work. Outside his window, the evening lights of Hollywood blurred, resolved, the sense of those eyes watching him from the shadows of the sign, no fuck no, McKay, you're paranoid, he told himself, but moved down so those eyes couldn't see him anymore.
"You're okay," Ronon said. It wasn't a question. And yeah, McKay was fine. Fucking fine. He said this, and it earned what passed for a smile in Ronon's world. "I think I might have got him in the shoulder."
"Good." McKay tipped his head back and stared at the ceiling tiles. Fuck.
"Need to get you home," Dex said with rough practicality, enough to shock Rodney from his stupor, shrug off the hand Dex tried to use to help him up, "I'm fine, I'm fine," he muttered, sounding a lot more broken than he wanted to be, which Dex called him on. "He told me he has Elizabeth," Rodney said. "I've... I've got to find her, Ronon."
"Yeah," Dex said. "Soon as you sleep this off."
Dex wanted to go with Rodney back down to La Cienega, but Rodney waved him off, He wants me alive for now; he's not going to kill me, he said, not so comforting when he said it out loud, and Dex looked at him skeptically, but let him go.
The trip to his apartment measured itself out in streetcar clangs and the throbbing in his head. He got extra space by virtue of appearing even more disreputable than usual, blood and bruise on his forehead and his hair disheveled – he'd left his hat somewhere, back at the office maybe – his coat sleeve torn from the knife so the white of his shirt showed through. A few times the streetcar lurched, once for a delivery truck stalled out on the tracks and once for a maniac kid, and both times McKay felt his brain swish-thump-pound against the inside of his skull.
As it always did, the city wore on him, walked him down, too many people to plow through once he fought his way off the streetcar and onto the sidewalk again. Corby Arms loomed white-grey and anonymous five hundred feet down the road, the name not yet lit up for the night, the skeleton of its struts and supports naked in the twilight. McKay rubbed absently at his headache, winced when he pressed against the small knot of pain that had tied itself under his skin; the blood flaked off reluctantly, but remained sticky and tight and McKay didn't want to scrub at it.
The lift jolted and groaned its arthritic way up to the fourth floor, space shared with four tired office workers and perpetual mustiness and age, and how that existed in a city just growing, bounding its way into adolescence, McKay had no idea. Once out of the grate, the hall stretched in nauseous green-and-tan past anonymous apartments, seven doors down to his.
He stepped carefully through into the kitchen-foyer, the cat not there to trip him for once, and that had his hand back on the .38 as though it had never left. Silence came from the living room, which either meant disaster or Sheppard had gone out, or possibly both together, and adrenaline sharpened the blurry edges of the day, knocking around McKay's body in time with the thump-thud of his heart.
Silently he rounded the corner into the dining room and living room, and stopped in consternation when he saw Sheppard sprawled on the chair in a soft undershirt and pajama pants, asleep.
After a moment, Sheppard roused, a slow twist of his body into wakefulness. The cat, hidden under the magazine open on Sheppard's chest, hopped down with a yowl and shot off into the shadows.
"You're awake," McKay said, and felt idiotic.
"Didn't hear you," Sheppard said. He stood and stretched, hypnotic extension of muscle, his fingertips almost touching the ceiling. Rodney watched as Sheppard – John, he told himself, the guy had spent a week on his sofa – filed the magazine away in Rodney's bookcase, next to his old textbooks and photostats. Sighing and stretching again, Sheppard turned to pace him fully, paused mid-stretch when he saw Rodney's face.
"Something like that." Rodney made himself not collapse into the sofa, and didn't look away from Sheppard looking down at him. "Old issues."
"I know how that is," Sheppard said wryly. He scratched one ankle with his toe, balanced neatly, old cotton following the lines of his thigh and calf with something like fascination, the way Rodney couldn't help but look.
"What sorts of issues?" Rodney asked.
Sheppard ignored the question, brushed by Rodney on his way into the kitchen. The tap flipped on, thin metallic ring of a rag yanked from the towel rack, and a moment later Sheppard appeared with a damp cloth and a determined expression. Wordless, he pushed Rodney onto a chair, knelt beside him. The pressure of the towel on his temple startled a yelp out of Rodney, fuck, Sheppard, but Sheppard glared at him in stony silence.
"What the hell happened, McKay?" Sheppard took off the towel, peered narrow-eyed at the hole in Rodney's forehead, then replaced the towel again.
"Your goddamn case happened," Rodney muttered.
"Shit." Sheppard rocked back a bit, looked away, which was a relief, and this close Rodney could smell the odd mixture of his own soap, Sheppard's skin.
"I need to know things," Rodney snapped, "not as your hotel manager, but as the private detective you hired to find your valuable green jewel-weapon thing."
Sheppard vanished into the kitchen again. McKay cradled his head in his hands, half-blinded by the towel hanging in his eye, and told himself it wouldn't be wholly bad to drop the conversation, except there was Kolya involved now and Sheppard's mysterious green jewel officially had a trail of blood attached to it. He said as much – leaving out Kolya – and if he was going to risk his life and waste his time chasing after something, he wanted to know what it was for.
He delivered this speech to Sheppard's recalcitrant back. While he talked, Sheppard turned on the flame for the stove and set a pot on top of it, dumped some random canned thing in. After a moment the canned thing hissed and spat, and Sheppard flinched.
"Look, usually I don't care where my clients come from; they could come from Mars for all I care – and really, I don't care that much – "
"Why do you do it, then?" Sheppard asked, pivoting, and that was the question, wasn't it? The big case McKay hadn't solved yet.
Instead of answering, McKay dropped the towel on the floor, crossed his arms and tilted his chin and glared; Sheppard shrugged and looked away. "We're not talking about me," McKay said, "we're talking about you now, and all I know for sure about John Sheppard is that he can't afford a cup of coffee and he has terrible hair and a very good attorney who got him out from under one of the best detectives in the city and her incompetent partner."
Sheppard stared at the steaming pot, poked at it desultorily with a spoon.
"I used to be United States Army Air Forces," he said at last, not a little bitterness in the words, or the razor-fine smile he offered Rodney. "Col – Major John Sheppard at your service."
"Should it have been Colonel Moron all this time?" Rodney asked. Sheppard looked back over his shoulder, hunted expression that suggested he was going to bolt for the door. Rodney stepped closer anyway. "So, what, did you steal it off a Nazi or something?"
"No," Sheppard said. His neck twisted as though fighting against some invisible rein, hand through his hair and rubbing his neck absently as though to banish the feel of those reins, about as far from comfortable as Rodney had ever seen him. "The jewel has been in my family for a long time, ever since they started keeping records of it."
"Most people don't know their family histories before the 1850s." Rodney's head throbbed, protesting being upright; Sheppard must have seen something on his face, because he ran another cloth under hot water and applied it to Rodney's forehead himself, close and warm, smelling like Rodney's clothes drawer.
"My family... Well, my dad has money," Sheppard amended. He stared fixedly at the cut on Rodney's forehead, almost but not quite meeting Rodney's eyes, close enough that the promise of his body – warm, solid, arc of his neck that Rodney wanted to plot with his fingers – lips thinned in concentration as though performing surgery, free hand hovering as though wanting to angle Rodney's chin properly. "They're pretty well off," he said absently, transfixed by an inch of dried blood and skin going purple. "But the jewel came from my mother's side. She passed it on to me when she died."
When he stepped back, the smile Sheppard offered him had something of contrition in it. The cloth was smudged with red; Sheppard left it under hot water and returned his attention to the food. He moved the pot off the fire, fussed with the oven door until it opened, and pulled out bread Rodney hadn't even smelled.
"Did they kick you out for carrying it around in your gear or something?"
"For disobeying orders," Sheppard said, tone clipped and ominous.
No, they hadn't tried to take it at all, Rodney thought, because the Army wouldn't have tried – it would have succeeded, if it had known what it was that Sheppard had in his kit with him.
Sheppard slammed the tray of bread down on the countertop, but when he spoke, it was with an eerie calm that had chills walking the ridge of McKay's spine. Sheppard was all over the place, caring and dangerous, darting among too many things for Rodney to keep up. "Something like that," he said. "Come on, it's time to eat."
Rodney wondered about that the rest of the night, while fending off Sheppard's requests for him to play the piano and listening to how that afternoon Sheppard had persuaded the next-door neighbor into turning down her wireless. He sat in his chair and read Asimov and Sheppard schmoozed with the cat, both of them liquid-boned and lazy in the heat that refused to budge.
"That's a good one," Sheppard said, gesturing at Rodney's magazine.
Rodney grunted and tried to distract himself from Sheppard and the many difficulties embodied in him, and read on, learning about men who traveled the edge of the galaxy, selling atomic gadgets, and wondered what the odds were of coming across one that could turn back time, or make it so Kolya never existed but he could meet Sheppard anyway.
"The flying through space and all," Sheppard continued, as though Rodney hadn't just dismissed him. "I went up in a Flying Fortress once, and that was..." The slow pleasure in his voice drew Rodney's attention from Asimov, "There's different kinds, you know."
"Of what?" McKay glanced down at the magazine, flipped to the brilliant, heavy colors of the cover, the matte finish for space and the light blue that suggested some fantastical metal on a spacecraft. "Science fiction?"
"Planes," Sheppard said, and rolled his eyes. "Oh, really? Different kinds," McKay replied, with an eye roll of his own, and that made Sheppard snort. For a moment he hovered on the edge of saying more, his shoulders tight, body drawn forward by some invisible force, confession, but then he relaxed back and shook his head, and asked Rodney which he liked better, Asimov or Burroughs.
"Oh come on," Rodney snapped, and John coughed a terrible hyena cough.
Despite slow words, John's conversation looped and dodged as though in a dogfight, and faded out into a grey horizon for a while as he stared out through the small window onto the small square of city visible through it.
"I was going to be an engineer." McKay ran the heavy paper between his fingers, on the edge of being cut. "I could probably build one of these."
"Really?" Slow, insinuating eyebrow.
"I could," Rodney affirmed, tried not to think of could in the sense that if his life hadn't shifted irrevocably, if Jeannie hadn't vanished, he'd have been out past the moon by now.
Sheppard nodded consideringly. "I'd fly it for you," he said, drawly and casual but peering at McKay with an enthusiasm that had him sitting forward, explaining what he'd do, the metal, Einstein and the theories he'd wondered if he'd ever forget – but no, no, it all came back, impossible and perfect he built his ship for Sheppard, who looked at him with bright, contented eyes like this, this right here, was everything.
Rodney fed the cat, dragged out making the coffee until Sheppard whined about it, poured it and added sugar and the little remaining whiskey.
"I don't think I need this yet," Sheppard said when he tasted it, eloquent eyebrow rising.
"You will in maybe thirty seconds," Rodney told him. ""I need... I need to know what happened to you. Why you want this thing back."
"I told you – " Sheppard began.
"That it's important, yeah, I understand that." Actually, he didn't, except in the way that the jewel was bizarrely important to Sheppard and had, through some inexplicable process, become important to him. "Most people don't go looking for something if it isn't. Most people don't kill over it, if it isn't. Obviously this is a subjective measurement of importance, because I'm having an extremely difficult time seeing what could possibly be so amazing that you, your ex-wife, and – and possibly other people want with it."
"I know," John said, anxious neck-rub again, and his voice was hopeless. "It's one of those things that's going to sound... insane."
"Look, I don't care." Rodney sighed, gestured to indicate exactly how much he cared about lack of sanity. "I... This is a lot bigger than you, than Nancy. I have people – " People who want to kill me.
"Who?" Sheppard demanded, alert and feline, predatory,
"I have the department on my case because of you," Rodney said, which was true enough. And Kolya, and Sam on her own quest to take him down for some reason Rodney hadn't yet worked out.
"You were a pilot," Rodney insisted.
Sheppard's face became forbidding. "Yeah."
"Dishonorably, for going against orders." McKay knew that already, but that John had been honest about him... Score one for the home team. John stared fixedly at the tabletop, coffee mug forgotten in his hand. He kept speaking, a monotone that almost sounded perfectly rehearsed, a speech Sheppard had memorized long ago, except for the breaks and pauses and how his eyes looked a long way away.
I lost my men, the other guys in my flight, over Denmark. Heavy flack, Sheppard said with a sharp intake of breath like metal piercing metal, and no one was going back for them – no one knew they were there, except for their CO and maybe a few other men in the War Department, including Eisenhower. So there'd been no choice but to refuel and head back out against orders, even though by the time he'd found them it'd been way too late.
"It doesn't matter, you know," Rodney told him. The mug burned his hands, two semicircles of radiant almost-pain. "I... I found a newspaper article about it. And it doesn't matter."
"To most people, and most people are idiots." He could almost see his reflection, if he stared hard enough, look anywhere except at Sheppard looking at him. "But I... I'm not. And you went back for your men."
"It didn't work."
"That's not the point," Rodney said with asperity. "Keep talking."
"So, I got out of there," Sheppard said, voice hollowed out and empty. "The Germans got in a lucky shot, and down I went."
"Into the North Sea."
"And I... I had that jewel with me, in my flight vest. I remember, I touched it. I was thinking of my mom; when she gave it t me, she said it would protect me," Sheppard said with a smile that was thoroughly out of place. "I hit the water and I felt nothing."
"You blacked out." So not a highly directional weapon. A… what? A shield? Short range, Rodney thought, maybe for one person only. Not a photon weapon, but another applied-force device that worked at the same level.
Which was not something that typically got passed down through the generations, and it burned that Rodney had no way to account for that.
"No. I didn't feel anything. A pressure, I guess, but nothing more. I got out of my chute and floated there, waiting to be picked up."
"I'm noticing there's a distinct lack of hypothermia, missing limbs associated with lethal cold, that sort of thing."
Sheppard wiggled his fingers at Rodney, and Rodney had to grin.
"There wasn't any. It was... whatever it was, it was protecting me from the water, from freezing to death. I didn't get picked up for an hour... I think the rescue crew was surprised to see me."
"Jesus." Rodney thought of his science fiction magazines, Space Captain Astar and his interdimensional space vampires, Asimov and the men who sold atomic gadgets. Scientism, allows science to be shared while keeping the science behind it a secret. And, in the here-and-now, Mallory Simpson's guess, that it had been intended to generate a field of some sort. "So what was it, a force field?"
The look on Sheppard's face said he thought the same thing, and thought it was insane. Except it wasn't, that the hesitant math Rodney did in his head said it was perfectly, rigorously sane.
"All I know is that I should have died in that crash," he said, leaning forward, and it wasn't the intrusion that had had Beckett backpedaling in terror, but pressing his point, the really needing for Rodney to understand. "I knew it, the medics knew it, but I didn't tell them what it was... I explained it as a good luck charm that must have worked. My CO said I'd used all the luck up right before they shipped me back stateside for my court martial."
Rodney thought about Saint Francis of goddamn Assisi.
"Not all your luck," he said after a minute.
"No," Sheppard said with some happiness.
"We need every bit of it we can get," McKay said, even though, strictly speaking, he didn't believe in luck, and hoped for some of his own when he told John about the Genii.
"They're who're following you," John said, unexpected ferocity and still so quiet, sipping coffee.
"Among other people. The LAPD, but it's... Kolya. He's the one who took Elizabeth. We were on a case..." That was the touchstone, two missions to try to save the people who couldn't be saved, both of them chasing after impossibility. "He didn't kill your ex- – Nancy himself, but he gave orders to the man who did."
He left out the deal, such as it was; he hadn't signed anything, but Kolya's words had given the impression of a contract signed in blood. Instead, he told John about Sam – the greater danger, as he saw it, and, desperate to change the subject slightly, asked a question of his own.
"Has anyone been by a lot? People who aren't tenants you've talked up?"
"That reporter, Daniel Jackson, has come around a couple times, asking about the fire. Sort of." John frowned. "He asked about where I'd been before here, if I was new to the area... He said he was writing an article on city expansion and was concerned about housing safety."
"I'm sure he is," Rodney said, and rolled his eyes.
He got up to clear off supper, still stunned by the novelty of two sets of dishes, one set of eyes watching him as he dumped the plates and mugs in to soak and rinsed out the glass coffee bulb, Sheppard watching him the whole time and not unwelcome.
Sheppard had his distance back the next morning, and Rodney had a headache that was too much like being on the wrong side of a whiskey bottle, the disorientation and flicker of nausea to prompt him to fears of concussion. The face in his bathroom mirror wore stubble and pale skin, smudges under eyes that had gone murky with exhaustion. Overnight the bruise had deepened to red-tinged purple, bisected by the cut. Sighing, McKay dabbed at it with antiseptic and applied a bandage, didn't bother with shaving.
"You look pretty rough," Sheppard told him after a long, assessing look, and left Rodney to collapse in a dining room chair and brought a pot of not-bad coffee. "Where do you get this stuff?"
"Connections." The smell of coffee revived him somewhat. "Why the niceness? Are you worried I'm going to kick you out? Are you planning on killing me?"
"Not yet, and no, not really." Sheppard hadn't shaved yet, hadn't, by the way he moved, quite woken up, scratching his hip and disordered cowlicks while he contemplated breakfast. "Should I be?"
"I'm trying to decide that." Rodney resolutely did not think of Sheppard standing so close the night before, or the mock-hurt look Sheppard gave him now. "If you keep bringing me coffee, I may be merciful."
"Let me know if I can do anything else," Sheppard murmured, and had Rodney distracted for the rest of the day.
The distraction lasted until after lunch, another haze of Night-Owl sandwiches and coffee and thinking of Kolya, threaded through this time with the soft fire in Sheppard's eyes and cotton and the hitch of his hip. Rodney tried to work around fear, want, the harsh twist in his gut that was either thinking about Kolya materializing in his office or thinking of pinning Sheppard to the wall and kissing him, if Sheppard would allow it, welcome it, if, god, Elizabeth was still –
The door banged open and Precious appeared, wide-eyed behind her glasses – which, Rodney realized, he couldn't remember her ever wearing.
"Mr. McKay, it is Detective Carter to see you?"
Carter stalked by the flimsy barrier of Precious, austere and practical, and the look she turned on Rodney was so much like the look she'd given suspects in interrogation, quietly superior, I know something you don't, but with a haughtiness he'd never seen in her before. She spared a brief look for McKay's office, the battered and antiquated desks and cabinets, anonymous tans and beiges, and he could see her thoughts, How the mighty have fallen.
"You haven't taken her name down yet," Carter said.
"Her name isn't coming down." Rodney stood. "What the hell do you want?"
"To talk." Carter raised her hand when Rodney opened his mouth. "And when I say 'talk," I mean, I'll talk and you'll listen."
"Listening," McKay said, and made a show of doing anything but. Sheppard's file, such as it was – the stationery, the receipts, a sketch of the jewel he'd made, some notes along the lines of "goddamn insane, all of it" – was open, and he closed it, placed it under the small mountain of mail. A quick glance upward revealed that Carter watched him.
"I know that Acastus Kolya visited you yesterday afternoon," Carter said.
"You've been having me followed." McKay thought of strangers across the street and uncanny eyes at night. He needed one breath, two to get his equilibrium back, a third for his brain to kick into gear again. His head throbbed accusingly. "Or did Lee squeal like a pig?"
"Lee didn't need to squeal," Carter said. "We've been keeping an eye on you." She looked almost indifferently out the window. "What did Kolya speak to you about?"
"I don't see a warrant or a subpoena," McKay snapped. "And yeah, I know you could get one, but the thing is, unless you've arrested him and he's implicated me in something, I'm not obligated to talk to you."
"You could always cooperate willingly." Carter leaned heavily on willingly, a step forward to emphasize it. In the yellow light of the office she looked older, her face lined and her hair dirty and nondescript. He'd always privately thought of her Bergman, all curves and grace under her trench coat and badge, and the woman across from him wasn't that woman at all.
"When did I ever cooperate for anyone, willingly or not?" McKay asked, which made Carter's lips twist in something like a smile. "I know we haven't worked together for years, but I'd hoped you remembered me better than that."
Carter smiled slightly. "You always were a stubborn son of a bitch, McKay."
"Yeah, well, you brought out the best in me."
"Or the worst... It's always hard to tell with you."
McKay had to admit that was true enough, and he said as much. Carter – almost Sam again, he thought – smiled for real this time, but as though happiness was dangerous or unallowed, she slipped back into severity again.
"I came here because I did in fact have professional respect for you," Carter said, cold, cold, leeching away the heat from McKay's office. "You've been on thin ice with the department and the licensure board for a while now, and all they need is one word – one word – from me that you've been meeting with the muscle for organized crime – "
"Oh, come on, Sam." McKay moved around the side of his desk; Carter's shoulders went square, her chin up, this was spitting anger from her, but anger chewed at him too. "Do you honestly think Murray and those other guys down at HQ give a damn about what Kolya's doing? If it means they don't get kickbacks then yeah, sure, they give a damn, but you can bet they aren't going to stick their noses in the shit some... some detective stirs up."
"Are you willing to take that bet, McKay?" Carter asked. And yeah, he was, more than willing, because he was right, and he said so.
"What did he talk to you about?" Carter tried again.
"Carter, I'm not telling you anything." McKay indicated the door with a tilt of his head.
"This is why you were fired, McKay."
"Is this a statement of the obvious?" McKay had frequently been told he had a big mouth, and that it would get him into trouble, and this was it, trouble right here, and he didn't – couldn't – care. "I was there, you know, when it happened. Macready and Murray were way too happy to be able to tell me in person I was out on my ass."
"The department has rules, McKay, and you couldn't accept that they weren't your rules."
"Since when were you a stickler for procedure? Since when was the department a stickler? It's called political convenience, Carter. Look it up once you've left my office. Which, I might add, you need to do right now."
Carter moved toward the door but didn't open it. "Kolya and John Sheppard... That's a rock and a hard place, McKay. You threw away your career already; don't get yourself landed in jail next to them."
"Sheppard was never even in up on charges in the first place." McKay ignored the brief flash of police breaking into his apartment, Sheppard in cuffs again, the odd mix of fear and annoyance at having to go downtown again to get Sheppard out of dungeons. "As far as the courts are concerned, he's innocent."
"Which is why his apartment burned down, of course, which is why his ex-wife is dead." Carter's hand was on the knob now, gripping it tightly. "Sheppard has his own past I'm sure he hasn't told you about; look him up and ask yourself if this is really the man you want to be working for."
"Any other words of advice?"
"Be careful." For a moment, she was Sam again, the woman he'd fought and worked with and liked in the impossible, schoolboy way she'd eventually tolerated, but then she was ice and frost again. "If you slip up, McKay... They'll have you, or I will."
"Go away." McKay walked back to his desk, fought the sudden conviction there was a gun at his back and an unfriendly hand on the trigger. "Come back when you have something important. You know, like a warrant."
Carter left without a word in a swirl of coat and ponytailed blond hair. McKay stared at, through, beyond a barely-mended crack in the wall, relic of the same .45 that had dug the hole in the doorframe. Somewhere past that wall and to the east Sheppard was – was what? Sleeping? Working his way through Rodney's science fiction collection? Wooing the cat and the pretty botanist who lived three doors down? Being a murderer of ex-wives?
People didn't need violent pasts to kill, and Sheppard... Sheppard knew war, knew killing, and in the transition between laziness and activity, the shift from one careless position to another, there'd always been the hint of something else in Sheppard, the still, quiet something that let a person pull a trigger and not worry about what happened after the bullet left the chamber.
Logic said Sheppard was a suspect, that no one that relaxed, who came out to California in wartime for surfing could be as at ease or as unhaunted as they acted. Between the academy and this very minute, McKay had learned that somehow, something necessity had beaten into him, the questions he'd turned on nature and causality redirected across an interrogation table.
"I can't believe it," he muttered as he gathered up his coat, too hot to put it on, a dust-tan albatross over his arm. "I just... can't."
"Can't what?" Precious asked from the sanctuary of her desk. She peered curiously up at him. What an odd, hirsute little woman, Rodney thought even as he said, "Believe it."
"That you have never known my true name and sex? I can," Precious said.
"I meant Sheppard," Rodney said, and walked out, ignoring whatever it was that Precious said next.
Walking, walking, like he did every day; his body knew its way around the office, the intricacies of the sidewalk and the streetcar on Hollywood Boulevard, left his brain free to work over the case and untangle it. He had Sheppard and the Genii, Elizabeth and the Genii, Carter... Sheppard, who could give him some clue why the Genii wanted this jewel of his badly enough to kill, one step closer to finding it and maybe no more death on its account... and Sheppard wasn't talking.
Down to Central Library, more carfare, more fees he'd never get back.
He needed time in the library for this, time he didn't have, and he'd never had the patience for research like this, the slow grind of looking through old journals for previous work. But at last, after nearly going blind, he found it, tucked into a bottom column of a back page, marginally less important than Churchill's most recent speech, somewhat more important than an advertisement for Coca-cola.
Rescue mission goes awry; pilot to be court-martialed
It went like this: Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard of the United States Army Air Forces, unauthorized flight to save downed pilots under his command. Somehow that didn't surprise McKay, that or the USAAF coming down on him for making it back alive when, according to Sheppard's preliminary report, he'd found his men dead in German territory. His P-51 Mustang had been shot out from underneath him on the return flight and he'd been picked up by a British rescue crew in time to make it to his court martial and alive enough to enjoy his demotion and dishonorable discharge.
His father, Patrick Sheppard of Sheppard Resources, Inc., one of the major contributors to the war effort, had no comment. Major Sheppard himself declined to be interviewed following the proceedings, dropped off the map and of his father's will according to the society pages, and resurfaced in California, a chameleon in a wrinkled black suit and unregulation hair, being bought a cup of coffee by a stranger.
A rescue mission had ruined him, sterile black and white in the newspapers, gaping silences Rodney had filled in for himself. No mention of the jewel-device, Sheppard's determination to keep it from the Army because then he would sound crazy, explaining something like that (yeah, you're right, I should have died, but the magical jewel here protected me), the price of silence John had paid over and over. Ask yourself if this is really the man you want to be working for, Carter had told him, and Rodney had to admit that he'd want to work for that sort of man. Work with.
Carter had tried to talk him into betrayal, talk him away from John somehow. Did she know what they were looking for? If Sheppard had survived the Army and whatever combat had thrown at him, he survived Carter and Kavanagh's interrogation – Kavanagh had amused him, in the same painful way he amused McKay – and McKay knew he hadn't told anyone about what Sheppard had hired him for.
He wouldn't, and that went way beyond client confidentiality, into something approaching his innate contrariness.
The cool marble air of the library, still and sepulchral as the architecture suggested, those flattened Egyptian curves, and McKay sat there, thinking she tried to make me give him up, Carter'd wanted him to give her Sheppard; his conversation with Kolya might have been part of it, and he sure as hell would have been interested if he'd been her, but Sheppard... He was the one she wanted, and if Rodney'd given way, she'd have had him.
That wasn't Sam.
Whatever energy had carried him to the library vanished, left him hollow and limp in his chair, not wholly surprised, surprised mostly at the grief and anger and how they flowed into each other and kept him on his feet when he left the freedom of books and found the constraints of the world again, and had to stand all the way back north. Halfway up Normandie he wondered if Sam had gone straight to Sheppard instead, jumped off early and hailed a cab instead.
He exploded into his apartment, coat long-forgotten on the streetcar and tie in disarray, keys dropped on the floor. Sheppard was standing in the kitchen, lips damp and bright from the glass of water he held.
"You look like shit." Sheppard leaned in, "your skull's busted open again," and peered at the cut and fresh blood on McKay's forehead. Rodney winced, didn't bother biting back a curse; he hadn't felt the cut reopen.
"Jesus," McKay husked, leaning against Sheppard, even though it was still too hot, and Sheppard's scent, despite the sheen of sweat on his face, was clean: light, salty, like the waves Sheppard hadn't managed to ride yet.
"Hey," Sheppard said, "hey," but he didn't sound sarcastic at all, only wondering, confused, and when McKay shook his head, no words, and kissed him, the soft breath on McKay's mouth sounded like gratitude.
He didn't think of much after that, his brain falling into blessed, perfect silence and filled only by the skin Sheppard offered him, warm and smooth except where there were scars, and there Sheppard's skin was warm and rough. Muscle under his hands and Sheppard's mouth under his mouth, kissing, licking, words McKay couldn't understand except that they wanted him to do something, a clumsy walk down the hall to his bedroom, darkness except for where the lights spread silver across the bed.
"C'mon," Sheppard whispered to Rodney's lips, tugging his jacket away from him, his tie, his shirt, last of his armor when he licked and nosed at the cut on his forehead and their next kiss, full and deep, tasted of copper and pain.
He didn't know much after that, only the endless slide of John's naked body against his, and John's hands, his mouth on Rodney's mouth, his chest, lower, lower.
Rodney eased into the next morning slowly, no get-up-and go, almost confused by contentment, the looseness in his body and how easy it was to turn and watch Sheppard's old-young face while he slept. And, when Sheppard woke in a slow opening of satisfied eyes, how easy it was to roll over into his arms and accept Sheppard's hands on him again, and the accommodation of his body.
Sheppard's body against his was morning-slow, hot in all the right ways when he shifted to let Rodney slide between his legs, cock hard already and his breath soft, eager, woven into the creak of the bed and the thumps of the building coming to life. Rodney kissed him, sticky-mouthed, licks and nips to taste stubble and sweat and the odd notch in John's lower lip.
"C'mon," John murmured, eyes complicated green fire, thrust up so Rodney's dick rode the slick, welcome groove low along his thigh and Sheppard's cock rubbed slick-hard-hot across Rodney's belly. Sheppard's head tipped back, an invitation to mouth the clean line of his neck, perfect, perfect, and Rodney might have said something like that, chanted in time to the cadence of John's hips, breaking rhythm when John went still and his back went taut, bowing under Rodney's hand, and he came.
Rodney drowsed afterward, body loose and mind drifting and the world narrowed down to John's weight on his arm and the warmth and dampness of him, the rhythm of breath that Rodney had forgotten. When he turned his head, John's mouth met his, lush, satisfied, slow and when John pulled back Rodney saw confusion twisted through pleasure, cloudy for a moment before clearing.
"Hey," John said, and slid back down beside Rodney, a graceful collapse of muscle and bone. Rodney said something in reply, good morning or maybe only nonsense, and watched John's eyes go lidded and sleepy, and the drifting started again. He went far enough away that he didn't register John sitting up until he was, his spine a long, naked arc for Rodney's fingers to walk and the sun gold on the flat sweep of his shoulder blade.
"Who's that?" John held Jeannie's picture.
"I could have sworn I put that in a place where people wouldn't find it." McKay snatched the picture away and stuffed it back into its drawer, under its tentative shelter of odds and ends. Jeannie still smiled at him from underneath, her smile bright despite the faded-out blacks and greys. Rodney filled in the color himself, bright blonde hair and blue eyes to match his, lipstick despite their mother's protests, a blue dress and new shoes.
Violin concert, he remembered, he'd gone dragged by the scruff of his neck. Aw, Mer, Jeannie had whined, poking at him with her bow, you'll like it, and she'd played something squawky and ear-shattering and it had been horrible, but she'd beamed at him the entire time and he'd never been able to bring himself to tell her she'd nearly broken his eardrums.
"She's related to you." John had turned, thin enough so Rodney could follow the twist and weave of muscle across his ribs. He gestured to his mouth, still swollen and damp, and Rodney still wanted to kiss him. "Same smile."
"Yeah." Rodney looked around for his tie, better than looking at the scruffy vulnerability on Sheppard's face, found it over the back of a chair. "Younger sister."
"You've never talked about her," John said, which made Rodney roll his eyes, "Yes, because we've shared so much of each other in the past week and a half," and John snorted at that and looked down at himself, long stretch of naked flesh and dry sweat. "She why you do this?"
"I was a student in applied physics at CalTech when my family was murdered." Rodney took a breath against the memory, wondered why, because he remembered the absolute nothing of the moment when the police had told him. "They never found Jeannie, never found the guys that did it."
"And you thought you could have done something if you'd been there," John said, sounding as close to sympathetic as Sheppard ever got.
As though he could have done anything, McKay thought, disqualified from the draft on account of asthma and allergies, utterly unfamiliar with violence except for the kind that came with shouted words and a hatred that barely throttled itself around his and Jeannie's anxious ears. The United States had liked his brain's capacity for methodical, logical violence and sent him across the continent to refine it, and he'd been so caught up in learning, in being away from the capricious hostility of his parents that he'd learned of their deaths a week late, his sister's disappearance.
"So you're here," Sheppard said slowly, and it would have sounded stupid in any other context. You're here instead of where you're really supposed to be.
"Yeah," Rodney whispered, felt the improbable twisting of his heart under Sheppard's fingertips. Sheppard lay there, still as stone but warm and alive, and listened, and that was good, best, worth any number of green jewels for Rodney to keep next to him.
The sun lay hot and indolent on Rodney's shoulders, stay in bed, but "I need to get going," Rodney said, and John agreed he probably should. He could look now, at least, watch as John slid un-self consciously into the shower, smooth stretch of muscle and wet skin that hooked Rodney deep in his gut and pulled him in close, hard, John's breath in his ear, slick, no grip, no holding onto anything except John's own unsteady flesh. And this right here, this was dangerous, John flexing contentedly against him, idle voice suggesting Rodney should get a move on, green eyes shepherding Rodney through rounding up his clothes and getting dressed.
John wandered over with his usual lazy economy and picked Rodney's tie up off the floor, where it had fallen after John had pulled it loose, and Rodney took it from him, only to have Sheppard's quick fingers closing around it, expertly managing the knot and settling it against Rodney's throat.
Speak of the devil, Rodney saw Daniel Jackson again, skulking outside the Arms and managing to look earnest even doing that, and one person was bad enough, but three people following him sent him over the edge.
"There are a lot of unanswered questions about that fire," Jackson said, readjusting glasses that had been dislodged when McKay had hustled him back across the street. "Mr. Sheppard was one of the few people outside of the building at the time; I'm hoping he saw something that he didn't tell the cops."
"Get the hell out of here," McKay growled, and tailed Jackson clear down to the intersection at Franklin and Hollywood, and a half-hour later, Precious was instructed to make himself useful for once, digging up anything he could find on Daniel Jackson.
"Sun. What d'ya want?" a woman's cigarette-aged voice wheezed.
"I'm looking for Daniel Jackson? He's a reporter there."
"We don't have any reporter here by that name," the woman huffed. "Are we finished?"
McKay hung up without bothering to reply, tried the Post, the Times, the Dispatch, and even the celebrity rags, but no Daniel Jackson turned up.
Three days later, paydirt, in the form of a phone call from Precious, who had apparently changed his name to Radek.
"Daniel Jackson is not a reporter," Precious said, and, before McKay could point out that he knew this already, continued: "He was a professor of archaeology at Columbia until 1940. I spoke with an acquaintance in New York who informed me that the project Dr. Jackson was working on had been suspended by the United States Army, and shortly after that, Dr. Jackson resigned his professorship."
"Not bad work," McKay said grudgingly. "I don't suppose you know what that project was?"
"It was a dig in Egypt," Precious told him.
Precious was coming dangerously close to redeeming himself for his effrontery and carelessness with the filing, but McKay did not say this. Instead, he snorted something that passed for good-bye and hung up again, and leaned back in his chair. After a moment, he got to his feet and began to pace out connections, pathways, how to get from Sheppard's vanished jewel to a dead woman to the Genii to a guy digging in the sands of Egypt and into Sheppard's private life.
An unexpected sound made him jump, low buzz of a voice he didn't quite catch, and Precious answering him, but then, as though summoned by Rodney's thoughts, the office door opened and there was John, tousled and vibrant and so welcome, Rodney had to scowl and demand why the hell his work was being interrupted.
"I know what it is," John said, and it all tumbled out in a rush, sketched out and emphasized in gestures and pacing that Rodney had a hard time squaring with John's usual stillness. "I know who wants it."
"The military," Rodney said at the same instant.
"Nancy worked for the USAAF. What if she... what if she worked out what the jewel was?" John had called it a shield, sounding faintly embarrassed, as though admitting to something that would have a stranger edging away from him on a park bench.
"Or someone else did." Rodney sighed. "Maybe there was one reasonably competent person at the base hospital where they took you. She could have been hired to track it down."
"You said Kolya is part of the mercenary group affiliated with the Genii," John said. "They'd want it, too, or whoever they're working for."
"There is a brain under that hair after all," McKay said as he turned all that over. "That means there's a leak in the armed forces, if the Genii know about it."
"Nice," Sheppard said, and almost sounded sarcastic enough to pass for Rodney. The military, the Genii, and a private detective and the pilot who'd washed up in his office, and the only person who had a clue where the jewel was had been buried two weeks back in a San Bernardino cemetery. "Maybe we should give it up," Rodney said, and shook his head even as he said it.
"We'll find it," Sheppard said confidently.
McKay looked out the window. Los Angeles was grey today, brooding under unaccustomed cloud and a drizzle that misted the glass. Below the anonymous mass rushed back and forth along choked sidewalks, a streetcar trundled down the boulevard, clanging for the right-of-way, taxis inching down their side of the street, outpaced at times by the pedestrians hurrying along. Here and there a few still islands, a man leaning against a streetlamp, a few more scattered along storefronts, one last against the brick fronting of the Night-Owl.
"Did anyone follow you here?"
"I saw Jackson outside the apartment," John said, quick grin. "He didn't see me."
A commotion rose at the outer door, Precious's clipped, indignant voice, and a buzz of other voices Rodney couldn't make out. He stepped to the side of the door, nodded at John, who nodded back, eyes gone dark and grim.
"He is with a client!" Precious shouted. "You cannot go in there!"
McKay glanced out the window; the men at the streetlamp, the storefronts, had gone.
The group of shadows kept coming. John backed up against the desk, hand going to the paperweight there, eyes fixed on Rodney's chest where Rodney already had the .38 half out of its holster, firm in one hand, now both, palms not sweating at all.
Four more steps, three, two, one, the door clicked and swung open hard, almost rebounding on its hinges.
"John Sheppard?" Sheppard nodded warily, not that Sam Carter needed the confirmation; she nodded and Kavanagh came in, handcuffs bright in his hands. "John Sheppard, you are under arrest for the murder of Nancy Callahan."
Teyla materialized in Rodney's office door, Dietrich-elegant and fearsome as always. A cab waited below, held hostage by Ronon's powerful grip on the cabbie's collar; Teyla nodded and climbed gracefully in, and Dex released the man. The cab shot forward before McKay had quite finished closing the door.
"Matters are not so grave yet," Teyla said calmly. "Another bail hearing, and then a date for the arraignment if he is to be formally charged."
"That's time he's going to have to spend in jail," Rodney snapped, memories of Sheppard wrung-out and on the opposite side of iron bars still to clear, and added in now were the faceless people hunting them, Sheppard stuck in a cell with nowhere to go and the doubtful protection of the guards.
"Not necessarily; we go before the same judge as last time." Teyla adjusted the briefcase on her lap, slight smile that said this was one of those judges friendly to her. "Don't worry, Rodney."
"You'll forgive me if I don't take your advice. They got enough to make a warrant stick, and that evidence had to come from somewhere."
Only the slight frown told Rodney that Teyla worried about that. "And you doubt the veracity of that evidence."
"They had that apartment boxed up in two days, and all the time in the world to go through it; if they had evidence against John, it would have come up by now." The system, the damn system. When McKay closed his eyes, he saw Kavanagh's smugly satisfied face, and had to open them again. "Whatever it is that they have, it's planted."
Traffic jerked and halted all the way downtown, a marathon of start-and-stop that had Rodney's teeth on edge. Glass moves faster, he muttered, which earned him a reassuring hand on his knee, and the last thing McKay wanted was reassurance.
At last, at last they got to the civic center and its complexes of courthouses. A murder of reporters hovered outside on the steps; some had already found their kill, a tall pale man who plowed his way through them like a ship through an iceberg, with two escort ships in the form of a slick-haired younger man and a bald man whose innocuousness screamed attorney. Within seconds, a few had homed in on Teyla and descended on her; unflappably, she pushed through them polite and politely forbidding, and McKay left a trail of crushed feet and no fucking comment on the way through the courthouse doors.
Inside the air hovered cool and clammy on McKay's neck. He tried to rub it away, only smeared sweat around his scalp and made his hair sticky. Judges and lawyers and lawbreakers rushed by, a hum of legalese and self-interest, the lawyers eased along their paths by money. Teyla presented her credentials at the door to the holding cells, slipped through with a courtesy completely foreign to Rodney.
"Sorry, pal, lawyers only back there," the cop at the entrance said.
"He's my client," McKay snapped.
"Yeah, well, you ain't a lawyer." The cop's eyes slipped up and down Rodney's disheveled coat and tie. "When he's back in stir you can see him then, maybe."
The cop was stupid and immovable, and worse, Carter materialized from the recesses of forbidden territory. She gave him the same inspection as the cop, worse coming from her.
"McKay," she said, "please get out. Now."
"What do you have on him, Carter?" Rodney angled himself so Carter would have to push him out of the way to go anywhere. Kavanagh went stiff in indignation, but kept his mouth shut.
"I'm not permitted to discuss an ongoing investigation with a member of the public, McKay; you know that." The smile Carter offered him cut with its sarcasm. Her heels, impractical and uncomfortable-looking – not very Carter-like – clicked rapidly along the floor. "If you don't have any other questions I'm going to refuse to answer, I'm leaving."
"You're not on the inside anymore," Kavanagh said, alligator sneer to rub it in.
"Considering who they're letting in the bureau these days, it's a goddamned relief," McKay said. Kavanagh went faintly crimson and glared at McKay from behind the safety of his glasses and the fortress wall of his collar.
Kavanagh accidentally-on-purpose brushed the handcuffs dangling from his belt – "Oh, yeah, that scares me," McKay said, "what the hell are you going to arrest me for? Intelligence?" – and then Kavanagh's face got screwed up all sphincter-like. At that moment the clock chimed a warning and Carter grabbed Kavanagh by the sleeve.
"Let him go," she said to Kavanagh, as though McKay were in mortal peril and only she stood between him and Kavanagh's ferocity. Kavanagh's face screwed up even tighter, but he left. McKay waited until the crowd swallowed up Carter and Kavanagh, then bullied and threatened his way back into the visitors' room and, after more bullying and intimidation, to the holding area where John was. He wasn't the only one there.
Teyla and John he expected, John exhausted and slouched defiantly in his chair, as though even the military pain of prison furniture could beat the sprawl out of him, Teyla correct and more terrifying than Dietrich in her suit with a sheaf of papers in her arms like an infant. And what Rodney didn't expect, two other men both scaffolded in rigid suits and pale as though just released from prison themselves. Between the two of them, the only difference McKay could see was that one was bald.
The two strangers turned when McKay barreled in through the door. John sat up a fraction of an inch. Teyla did not look surprised.
"What the..." McKay looked between the two men, back to John who managed to look irritated and guilty and pleased, and McKay knew the pleasure was for him. That knowledge threatened to dull the irritation that the day had honed to a fine edge. "Who the hell are you?"
John eased flawlessly to his feet, grace under the ruins of a suit that still had smoke stains at the collar. With a wave of his hand, typical John negligence, he indicated the man with the hair, a pomade-formed helmet of silvery blond. "Rodney, this is David Sheppard."
"Sheppard as in..." McKay offered a wave of his own, to say what words couldn't. John caught the meaning and nodded, and that was more information, a correction for the next edition of the Book of John. "Older brother?"
"Half, and younger." Impatience, I don't want to talk about this, pulled John's voice tight. "Also, he's leaving."
"And I am Mr. Sheppard's counsel," Teyla said, in the tone of voice that told anyone who knew her that her considerable patience was thinning. "If he wishes to replace me, I will agree to it, but unless he requests new legal counsel, I will continue to represent him. Now, if you do not mind?"
She pushed past the bald, suited man until she stood directly in front of Sheppard, diminutive surrounded by three men and yet utterly in control. "What do you wish me to do, John?"
"Stay," John said hoarsely. "And get the hell out of here."
This was directed at Dave, buttoned-down and slicked-back and so unlike his brother McKay would have doubted the relation if John hadn't confessed to it.
"You heard him," McKay said, and Dave blinked and turned, God mildly intrigued by the petitioning of a mere mortal. "Get the fuck out."
"I'm here to help," David Sheppard sighed, "but if you don't want it..."
"It sounds like he doesn't," McKay interrupted; John gave him a harassed but grateful look, smallest twitch of his lips.
"Don't presume." His voice didn't have anything of John in it, no relation at all, only smooth, professional ice next to worn, whiskey roughness. "I love my brother, but he's spent his life breaking the rules and damning the consequences, and now they've caught up with him."
"He caught up with the consequences," McKay said, and thought about idiot bravery and the North Sea, and the blood other people wanted to shed. That got him an odd look, but McKay was used to those and ignored it, and David Sheppard peered skeptically at Rodney when he saw he was being ignored. "You'll forgive me if I don't quite see eye to eye with you on that, Mr. McKay. John was always far too headstrong for his own good; his actions then, as now, are of a piece with that."
"How is it, exactly, that someone so monumentally blind could be put in charge of a major national corporation?" McKay demanded. His hands had gone tight with not reaching for pale, collared throat of executive and his voice with all the words he wanted to say but had tangled themselves up so he couldn't; David Sheppard watched this with bored interest, not wholly unlike his brother.
"Rodney," John said, bit too soft, bit too harsh. Rodney swallowed the knot of anger and words and felt it twist up his belly. "Dave, if you're done... You can leave."
"Okay," Dave said. McKay tried to reconcile the name with the face, and the relationship between these two men. While he struggled with that, David Sheppard picked up his coat – East Coast, upholstered like an antique couch and murderous in the heat – and slung it over his arm. The man next to him stood in all his bald anonymity, waiting for the formalities to conclude, and left in expensive silence.
"That was fun," John remarked and leaned back in his chair. He looked up at Rodney, eyes green and bruised, and dark circles surrounded them. "You look like hell, McKay."
"And you look like a weekend in fucking Paris," McKay snorted. John laughed his terrible laugh, and for a moment it was like back in Rodney's apartment with the piano and the flight of Sheppard's hands to describe the tumbling and twisting of combat. Except for the grey walls and the bars and the hard chairs that had destroyed McKay's back years ago, it could have been.
Teyla, too – take her out – even though she waited quietly for John to finish laughing to tell Rodney she needed to speak with him.
"Come." Teyla led him out of the holding area, back into the wood-paneled halls. The sharp angles of her suit made sharp-angled shadows on the walls, and the hallway lights stretched her shadow out so it was much taller than she was. She spared a brief look for the bailiff and an officer standing too close; McKay gave them a much longer, more significant glare, and they moved away.
Bad news before he could even speak: the judge wanted a swift arraignment and a trial, and the prosecutor wanted John Sheppard in the ground or in jail for life.
"I will do what I can; his bail hearing will be held this afternoon, and I am..." a pause to emphasize the undesirability of the situation; Teyla was a mistress of the significant silence, and McKay felt his heart hover on the edge of its next beat, waiting, "... I am not hopeful that bail will be granted; or, if granted, that John can post it."
Yeah, that was what he'd expected, and McKay said that, "because you can't expect anything else from the justice system," from them, the people who'd given up on Elizabeth and now wanted to set the world record for least time to wrongful conviction. The air on the back of his neck wasn't right, cool-warm, stale and smelling of old sweat and guilt and frustrated innocence and greed. McKay drew an unsteady breath of it. "So what do we do?"
"You must help me, Rodney." Teyla moved closer to him, her head bending to invite secrecy; this close to her, the stale air faded away and only her perfume now, exotic and distantly familiar. "If there is anything you have found – anything you have not found, I must know it."
Review the evidence, such as it was, brain click-click-clicking: the Genii uniform button he'd found, his secret, tainted because the idiot investigators hadn't found it. Tainted because he had it, and he had ties to the already-condemned. Ties to Kolya, and through him, to Tyrus and Cowen, to the commissioner's office and the machine that wanted to do what the German bombers couldn't.
The fires that night, when he'd raced time and smoke and lost, those could have been anything. "Bad wiring," McKay muttered, shook his head; it wasn't, it wasn't, he knew it, the person who'd set those fires – who'd gone looking for John, who'd gone to a bar to drink because that's what you do when you're down and out – knew that, and was long gone with the knowledge, too. Also gone, ten witnesses who might have seen John at his apartment the night of Nancy Callahan's death, and those who'd survived had probably been frightened into silence and into disappearing themselves, vanished into the concrete skeleton of the city.
"You can do it," McKay told himself, tried to believe it even though he knew it was true, he could do it. "If I had a million years and a hell of a lot more luck," be reasonable McKay. He could maybe persuade the tenant list out of the leasing company, or get Teyla to perform magic on paper and order the company to produce them, and how long would it take after that, tracking all those people down? "A million years, maybe."
"I'll do what I can," he said to Teyla, who took shape again when he pulled out of the fog of statistics and the probability of hopeless causes. Mercifully, being Teyla, she didn't say anything, only smiled and touched him on the arm – she, Ronon, and Elizabeth, the only people to ever do that until John had come around – and said she knew he would do anything.
"You do?" he grunted, and rolled his shoulders irritably.
"I do," Teyla said, and smiled the smile that said she was being mysterious. A moment later, the clock chimed again and she left, taking her perfume and Dietrich angles with her.
"Don't let him do anything stupid," McKay said impulsively before the door to the holding area closed behind her.
"I will try," Teyla said, and smiled once more before she disappeared.
The hallway filled again, noise, voices, flashbulbs as someone infamous walked out a set of courtroom doors. Up and up the voices rose until they became a hysterical and nonsensical chorus somewhere among the shadows at the top of the vaults, and cascaded back down to join the footsteps that clicked and raced across the tiles.
"My client continues to protest his innocence," said the infamous person surrounded by reporters and flashbulbs, and a reporter shouted a question McKay couldn't understand. He edged around the perimeter of the group, almost shoved in by late reporters and their satellite photographers trying to pile in, vultures onto a well-dressed carcass.
"Give me a break," McKay snorted, and elbowed a reporter hard and didn't feel bad about it. He broke free of the worst of the chaos and wandered across the light-barred floor, hands in his pockets and thinking.
"Hello, Detective McKay."
Without much surprise, McKay saw Daniel Jackson leaning against the pedestal of the statue of half-naked Justice, not even pretending to be interested in reporting; instead of the notepad he had a book, something thick and formidable-looking, although McKay couldn't make out the title. He walked over.
"Who are you really?" McKay asked.
"I think you know that by now," Jackson said with an apologetic smile that did nothing but sting.
"Then you know I'm going to tell you to back the hell off," McKay said. He fastened onto Jackson's sleeve, distantly surprised at the muscle underneath it. "Whatever the fuck you want from him, it's not worth having me on your case."
"We need to talk," Jackson said, instead of backing off. He regarded McKay with some caution but didn't move. "What I have to tell you may clear things up."
"If it won't clear Sheppard's name, I'm not interested."
"Hear me out," Jackson insisted. He glanced up and down the corridor; the footsteps of attorneys, clients, staff suddenly seemed to ring louder and closer. The vaulted ceilings housed eyes not unlike those that had watched McKay in his office that night. "Not here, though; there's a place across the street we can talk."
Jackson's "place" turned out to be a lunch counter, improbably empty at almost eleven and staffed only by a sarcastic man who snorted at McKay's request for corned beef but ambled into the back to see what he could do.
"Sandwiches, I ask you," the man said, but yelled the order into a kitchen that, so far as McKay could tell, was also empty. Sighing, the man shoved his way through the door and told McKay "it would just be a minute."
"Back here," Jackson said, beckoning McKay toward a corner table. McKay took the seat facing the street and the gigantic, impenetrable wall of the civic center. Jackson slid in across the table and placed his hat between them. McKay stared at it, and then looked up at Jackson's improbably youthful and earnest face.
"So," Jackson sighed. "I know about the jewel that belongs to Major Sheppard."
McKay's heart did something peculiar and acrobatic. "What jewel?"
"The one Major Sheppard had with him in Britain," Jackson said calmly, "and the one he hired you to find for him."
"Do you know where it is?"
"If we knew, we would have found it by now," Jackson said, "and, I hope, Major Sheppard wouldn't be in this situation."
"You know you're not the only people looking for it."
"We know, which is why it's important that we find it first." Jackson paused as the cook-cashier-waiter stomped up with a plate and slammed it down in front of McKay. The rye – McKay hated rye – slid off the top of the meat, which sat pinkly and sickly atop a bed of dubious lettuce. McKay pushed the plate away.
"Are you in the habit of serving people sea slug?" he asked, transferring his glare from the sandwich to the man standing next to him.
"You're still paying for it," the man said, and stomped off again.
"So what is it besides a piece of very important costume jewelry?" McKay asked.
"It's a bit more than costume jewelry," Jackson said, and warming to his subject, told McKay what he thought it was.
"That's insane," McKay said weakly, even as he remembered Sheppard next to him in hazy twilight, half-drunk and exhausted, walls down, telling him about a crash and a sea he shouldn't have survived.
"These artifacts do exist," Jackson said with the aggravating patience of a madman. "We recovered a few of them on my dig in Egypt, along with..." He trailed off and shook his head. "Many of them only seem to work for certain people; we don't know what it is about those people that makes them different, but we're working on some theories."
"And you think Sheppard is one of these people, and he just so happened to be carrying around one of these objects" McKay said. Jackson nodded and smiled in obvious relief. "You'll excuse me if I say that sounds like the most fucking insane thing I've ever heard in my life."
Jackson deflated. "What other reason could there be for why so many other people are looking for it?"
"They're as crazy as you are?" McKay poked at the dubious corned beef and did Jackson the courtesy of not rolling his eyes. "For all you know, Sheppard surviving that crash was a miracle."
"You were an undergraduate at CalTech; you'd been accepted early, barely sixteen years old," Jackson said. McKay's heart skipped a beat, settled into a triphammer pace that left him lightheaded. "You were set to be recruited by the military the second you finished graduate work – they were pretty sure you'd be out by the time you were twenty-five." He smiled apologetically; it didn't do anything to slow the sick, incredulous spinning in McKay's head. "Given that and the rest of your background, you don't strike me as the kind of person who'd think a miracle was a rational explanation."
"Sometimes Occam's wrong," McKay said. "Sometimes the weirdest, most bizarre explanation is the only one that makes sense."
"And divine intervention is weirder than ancient artifacts of mysterious power."
McKay thought of Space Captain Astar and Asimov, right right right, like anything approaching the Foundation was real, only instead of men traveling around the galaxy secretly selling technology, some archaeologist had dug it up from the Egyptian sands. He wanted to, needed to pace, to work it out, but he had to sit and try to control the itch in his legs and the anxiety in his fingers that had him drawing nonsense maps on the tabletop, the way he'd once traced out patterns that echoed the equations in his mind.
They were two forms of the same thing, in some ways, detective work and physics, the invisible connections between evidence, the work that was clearing the road and building it as he went along. Only this was a jungle, everything tangled up in Sheppard's impossibility and Elizabeth and a green jewel McKay swore he'd destroy if he ever saw it.
"You know the Genii are dangerous," Jackson was saying now, and most people would call that a change of subject, but McKay saw the connection immediately. "They can't get a hold of this thing; they can't." McKay sincerely hated the man for the level of sincerity he persuaded into his voice; his face positively glowed with it. "Even if it's worthless, as you say, Major Sheppard's in danger so long as it's out there. You're in danger."
"You think?" McKay pushed the plate at Jackson, who caught it reflexively. "Right now he's in more danger from those people in there," he pointed at the criminal court, "than he is from the Genii or anyone else." He paused, a breath to rein in the headlong pace of his thoughts. "I'm willing to bet you're interested in the green jewel for the same reason the military is. You're working with them; I highly doubt Columbia would be this interested in a rock."
"I am," Jackson acknowledged, with a rueful dip of his head. "But I can't say more than that."
"Of course you can't." McKay leaned back and crossed his arms. "And your help isn't going to extend to helping or protecting Sheppard."
"I'll do what I can – "
"You do it, or I won't help you find the jewel," McKay said. "The Army fucked him over before; I'm not going to let them do it again, and I can't... I can't protect him in there." Not that Sheppard needed protecting, not that McKay's track record against the Genii was all that great, but still. "Get him out and I'll find the jewel and give it to you." I'm sorry, Elizabeth, I'll find a way, I swear. "If you don't, then you'll never know if I found the jewel or not."
"I'll do what I can," Jackson repeated.
"It had better be good enough," McKay said, and stood. Jackson watched him go, fingers resting on the sandwich plate, and McKay ignored the cashier's demands for him to pay up.
McKay damned the expense and got a taxi from the courthouse back up to the El Palacio apartments, and damned the cabbie when he wanted extra for being pulled over because McKay wanted him to go faster, always faster. "I'll lose my hack license!" the man said over his shoulder. "And when I do, I'll find you and kill you."
McKay told the cabbie to get in line, and told the traffic cop he didn't fucking have time for this. The traffic cop shrugged and asked who does? and gave the cabbie a ticket and McKay a superior look when the cabbie shoved it at McKay and told him he was going to pay it, or else.
"Yes, yes, yes, you'll find me and kill me," McKay finished, waving the cabbie's threats into insignificance. "Yeah, good luck with that."
The cabbie drove off in a screech of tires. Around McKay, El Palacio drowsed in its blanket of late afternoon air and the sleepiness of all the tenants being out at work; Lee wasn't standing guard anymore, the tapes had been removed and replaced with an "Apartment for Rent" sign that appeared derelict, already fading at the edges and marked up with various obscene symbols.
McKay picked the lock absently, old and good at this by now, he had the fingers for it and enough patience to get it right the first time. The tumblers slid into place, click, turn, and the door swung open into emptiness.
The landlord had removed every trace of Nancy Callahan, made her as gone as if she'd never been, the bloodstains scrubbed from the tiles all the furniture long cleared out, the carpet virginal, no rouge footprint marking it anymore. Light bulbs dangled nakedly, the electricity shut off but McKay didn't need them in what light filtered through the blinds.
He paused, listening closely to a silence that held only his own breathing and the thump of his heart, nothing else to share it with him.
One thing remained, a miniature chandelier outfitted with electric bulbs instead of candles, absurdly overwrought in a way that said the owner was reaching for some higher class but in the crowded space of the apartment, couldn't reach all the way. McKay studied the polished brass for a long moment, the small dings and the twisting wires that reached up into the ceiling.
And there, tucked into the curlicues at the base of the chandelier, was a scrap of paper, thin familiar stationery.
McKay needed two tries to get the paper extracted from its cage, but he got it down and unfolded it, delicate and insubstantial under his fingers, too light to hold what he hoped it would.
She'd written down a three-digit number in faintest pencil, as though she'd been uncertain about committing it to paper. Shit shit shit, that meant nothing on its own, three digits of what? A combination? McKay thought fast. Combination, phone number – maybe Simpson? or another engineer – a date, a private code, a locker number.
Locker. McKay tried to reach up into the chandelier again; it swung away from him. Come on, come on, McKay snarled under his breath, felt time slipping away like the sweat down his back, uncomfortable and clinging awareness, and lost his patience and gripped the chandelier and yanked.
The chandelier broke loose from the ceiling in a heavy ripping of drywall, suspended now only by the tenuous nerve-fiber of the electric cord. McKay brushed dust from his eyes, blinked, and there, he could have danced or started sobbing, there was a key glued into the mount that had held the lightbulb that didn't work.
Yeah, a locker number, and he held the key to it.
While the city went dark above and came to life below, McKay chased through it like Prince Charming in a cheap suit, looking for that perfect fit, wondering the entire time about Sheppard, if he'd died in prison or been summarily executed – he could see the judge suspending due process after one insolent Sheppardian smirk – if Jackson was holding up his end of the bargain and was doing what he could to keep Sheppard safe.
He thought again of Tyrus and Cowen, the inside men in the city commissioner's office, Kolya, Carter his old ally who wasn't an ally anymore. He thought of Sheppard hedged in by bars and prisoners who could be bought, defenseless except for whatever it was about Sheppard that kept him alive in the absence of mysterious green jewels.
Other than to grab supper at a diner – the faintness had been threatening, his head swimming too much for safety – his only stop was at a phone to call Precious. Radek.
"Look in the file on Elizabeth," McKay ordered, listened with no small impatience while Radek rustled and thumped his way through the process of unlocking McKay's file cabinets. "It is the one with the Astounding Tales from Beyond magazine in it, yes?" McKay said it was, just – is there a receipt in there?
"Union Train Station? Yes."
McKay went downtown again, skipping from taxis to streetcars, wondering how the hell he'd ever get this much money out of Sheppard, vowed he would one way or another – and money for the clothes, food, water bill, shaving cream, everything Sheppard had cadged off him and repaid in the unlikely, welcome currency of being there, of catching McKay when hitting rock bottom broke him more than he liked thinking and somehow, impossibly, patching him up again.
The station buzzed at nine o'clock, the city here as sleepless as New York or McKay's buzzing brain. By now he should be at home, drinking off the edge of the day, playing piano or beating Sheppard at chess instead of the chess players from the book. But now, now he pushed and stumbled his way through the crowd, tangling briefly in a lady's mink cape, tripping over an indignant bald man who clutched his briefcase to his chest.
"Sorry, sorry, if you'd get out of my way," McKay said over his shoulder. A flood of humanity came up from the train out of Burbank, a countercurrent of those hurrying for the last train out to Pasadena pushed him along like a riptide. He almost missed the turnoff for the lockers, almost dropped the key when a red-headed woman bumped into him.
He knew – the hair knocked him off his course. McKay jerked around, knowing it was her, Sora Tyrus, it had to be, he'd memorized the set of her slim shoulders and the curly riot of her hair that defied fashion and common sense. But by the time he'd turned she had gained too much ground on him, a small figure swallowed up by the crowd until she vanished utterly.
"Fuck," McKay said, hovering, pushed this way and that, focus focus, he told himself and found calmness again after a fourth breath. He turned back to the lockers, a small alcove of quiet in the madness of the late evening rush.
One-nine-seven, one-nine-seven, McKay chanted to himself, running his eyes over the series of numbers, early on not far to go, and there it was. The lights, the crowd, the sounds faded as he inserted the key into the lock, turned it, and the tumblers clinked their cheap metal clink, and the door swung open.
The package took up barely any space at all, compact and nondescript, wrapped in brown mailing paper and tied with string. McKay imagined Nancy standing at her kitchen counter, wondering what to do with it, knowing it was dangerous to have and unwilling or unable to give it to the military, not wanting to give it back to John – spite, worry for him, who could say? – and deciding to stash it for a while until she figured out what to do.
What he needed to do was clearer. He pulled his pocketknife and cut the string. With a rustle the paper fell open and the jewel fell into his hand, a dull and lifeless green and backed with some material he'd never felt before. So small to be something people had tried to kill him over – the something Nancy Callahan died for and ten innocent people in Sheppard's apartment building – not even practical to wear as anything, too large and exceptionally hideous, except maybe as a brooch McKay's great aunt, the old harpy, would have worn.
"You can't be worth that much," he told it, drawing a finger down one side before stuffing it in his pocket. "You can't."
"Oh, believe me, it can."
The knife lay, silk-smooth and sudden, against the inside of his arm. McKay went still, and Kolya's breath on the side of his face was cold as the fist around his heart. Useless in its holster, the .38 chafed against his shoulder.
"I told you," Kolya said, "I would reward you when you delivered the jewel to me. As you can see, I became... impatient, but let it not be said that I am not a man of my word."
"It's so great meeting honorable mercenaries, Kolya."
"If there were no honorable mercenaries, Detective McKay, there would be no mercenaries." Kolya tsked, and saliva hit McKay's cheek; a hand snaked around his, scarred and chapped fingers like the sloughed skin of a snake closed over the jewel. Kolya's left arm moved stiffly, a hesitation in the shoulder; Ronon had gotten the shot after all. "I'll take that if you don't mind, or even if you do... And, as I promised you not long ago, I will take you to Elizabeth."
A subtle shift of Kolya's body indicated the direction, back out into the crowd. From the corner of his eye, McKay could see the heavy scarring on Kolya's face, the hideous twist to his lips that made the smile he gave the passersby more horrifying than pleasant. The knife had migrated from his arm to his side, a faint, promising pressure through his trench coat, jacket, and shirt.
I wanted to be a scientist, McKay thought despairingly.
Hands clasped behind his back, a policeman strolled by, a pillar of law and black uniform and utterly useless, more interested in the young women flocking anxiously than in McKay's mute, pleading looks.
"Is she alive?" McKay asked.
"Not until we're there," Kolya told him. The knife increased its pressure. "Now, if you'll be so kind as to not draw attention to us?"
"You wouldn't do anything in a public place," McKay said with a confidence he didn't feel. "There's a policeman – "
"Oh, that is Ladon," Kolya said dismissively. "A promising young man... Cowen has great hopes for him," and sure enough the policeman turned and saw Kolya and nodded.
The night air held an uncertain coolness, the exhaust from traffic thinning it out, and the press of the crowd waiting for taxis turning even the open plaza into a claustrophobic space. McKay struggled for a breath that wouldn't come, thought of Sheppard and Tyrus and Cowen again, and the jewel in Kolya's coat pocket.
A midnight-blue Chevrolet pulled up, shouldering between two taxis and cutting off a limousine. Kolya nudged McKay over to it, and the door opened.
He had enough time to register bright red hair in the darkness of the Chevrolet and its cavernous interior before a hand, cloaked in foul-smelling cloth this time, closed over his mouth and nose, and a darkness more complete than that inside the car covered him.
When he came to, flat and heavy blackness pressed against his eyes, and the air was still and stale as the taste in his mouth. McKay shook, struggled before he realized he wasn't tied up – that he was, in fact, free, or as free as unmeasured darkness could make him. He swallowed against the aftertaste of chloroform and fear, scrubbed the back of his hand across his mouth.
KolyaJohnElizabeththetrainstationthejewel. His hand flew to his pocket, but they'd taken his trench coat altogether.
He'd been in worse spots – not many, but some – and he told himself this while he closed his eyes and counted twenty. When he opened his eyes again, the featureless dark resolved into featurelessness again, except for a small square, blurred at the edges like the afterimage of a bright light. Half believing that was what it was, McKay crept over, feeling his way with feet and fingers, and after about ten steps found hinges, a knob, a window cut into the door and through that window, an unlit hallway.
"Hey," he hissed.
"Shut up," said a bored voice. An elbow thumped against the door. "Kolya'll be along for you eventually."
"Does that mean sometime in this lifetime, or the next?" McKay asked, and the bored guard laughed, and said McKay probably didn't want to know the answer to that question.
Yeah, he probably didn't. McKay slid along the wall, careful to keep the door in sight. Whatever the room was, it hadn't originally been a cell, wood floors under his feet and the scratch of flocked wallpaper across his shoulders. He felt for his weapon; gone, of course, the empty holster mocking him.
He didn't need weapons, McKay told himself, he needed his brain. He needed light, to figure out what else was in this space with him. A slow trip around the perimeter of the cell revealed no other doors or windows, only the wallpaper and a molding along one side, baseboards that his heel kept catching on, the uncovered plate of a light switch that proved to be dead no matter how fervently McKay swore at it.
The light beyond the window didn't change; the only thing that did was the guard, once, for a space of time McKay couldn't even begin to guess at.
Eventually Kolya came, before McKay was forced to decide between insanity and boredom. Even in the dimness McKay could see Kolya's smile, the pleasure that the scars twisted into something hideous.
"Ah, Mr. McKay." The door creaked painfully. "If you would please?"
Rodney waited long enough for Kolya's brows to crease in displeasure, long enough to make it clear the threat of his own gun pointed at him didn't alarm him. He stepped out slowly, contemptuously close to Kolya, who had to step back.
"I could always find a knife, McKay." The gun nudged his ribs, directing him down a lushly-carpeted hallway. Twenty feet on the hall opened up into a modern living room, sunken sitting area done in black and cream, overhead lights in the cabinets glittering in the prisms of cut glass liquor decanters and crystal glasses. Something cubist and extravagant covered one wall, and the opposite wall was one great window looking out onto the nighttime sprawl of the city.
In the far distance, foothills rolled on until they broke up against the San Bernardino mountains, carrying a tide of home lights that vanished as the hills traveled steadily up, while down south the hills rolled into the flatness of the valley and the great sea of the city. In the west, the cross-current of 101 eeled darkly through them, and the much greater darkness of Hollywood Lake lay quietly reflective to the east.
"Nice place," McKay offered thinly. "Blood must be hell to get out of the carpets."
"Thank you. And we rarely ever commit murder here."
"Why did you bring me here?" McKay asked, not bothering to keep the impatience out of his voice, far too exhausted and angry to bother with fear.
"It was Elizabeth Weir's great misfortune to get in the way, your good fortune that she had not informed you of the full extent of her findings." Kolya's feet were soundless on the carpet. "And fortunately for him, Simon Wendover is far more prudent than either of you."
"She was sent to keep him from making inquiries into his fiancée's disappearance." Kolya nodded. "She did her work admirably. And she told me you spotted the two of them at the Night-Owl... I have to admit that you focusing your suspicion on Simon was all to the good." Kolya paused. "You are arrogant, petty, and intolerable, McKay, but you are a loyal man. That's worth something these days."
"Worth enough to tell me where the hell Elizabeth is?" Rodney snapped. "Quit playing games, Kolya."
"You're loyal to John Sheppard too, of course, which I find somewhat amazing. By all accounts he's one of those rare, rebellious elder sons, dragging his family's reputation through the mud, irresponsible enough to be accused of killing his ex-wife." Kolya shook his head as though he really did find it amazing. "Given a choice between the two, knowing what has become of Elizabeth and fulfilling your ill-paying contract to John Sheppard, which would you choose?"
"Elizabeth," Rodney said quietly, because Sheppard was in other, more powerful hands now, where a jewel couldn't help him, and because Elizabeth had been Rodney's man left behind, something Sheppard would never accept. "But I want a guarantee Sheppard will be safe."
"Your Mr. Sheppard is unharmed, for the moment." Kolya paused. "At least, he has not been harmed by us, you understand. Though I'm sure there are some individuals on the police force and in prison who would hardly need motivation of the sort the Genii provide to make Sheppard's life more difficult and painful than it already is."
"There's that at least," McKay said. "Are you going to tell me about Elizabeth now?"
"There is a war being waged," Kolya said with deep, throbbing satisfaction. "Next to it, the wars in Europe and the Pacific are petty fights between schoolchildren, a few dogs growling at each other over a bone. All that," he gestured to the brightly-lit city south beyond the windows, "all that is the scurrying of ants, and soon it will be stamped out."
"Elizabeth," Rodney insisted. "What the hell does this have to do with her?"
"Quite a bit. The disappearances you were investigating were undertaken on behalf of the employers who hired me to find this." With his free hand, Kolya reached into his pocket and produced the jewel. It shone dully reflective for a moment, hypnotic enough for McKay to think about snatching it back even though the reward for it would be death. Kolya grinned and tucked the jewel away. "We selected immigrants, of course, few people miss them and those who do rarely have the money to look for them, and the general public certainly does not want them found. They will be soldiers in the war I told you of."
"Elizabeth… is she one of them?" Rodney swallowed around grief and anger and horror, made himself stare straight into Kolya's smile, the curve of his lips as he answered, "I honestly don't know why you think I have any interest in her, merely because I took an interest in you. No… your Elizabeth, she's Cowen's work, poor girl. She knew enough to be dangerous to him, inconvenient for me; Cowen, for his part, did me a favor getting rid of her."
"What?" Cowen in the police commissioner's office, perfect for deflecting investigations into disappearances, gun running, greasing illegal merchandise through the system. Worse than that, Kolya didn't know, and a knife of ice twisted down into Rodney's heart. "Why did you – "
"Because," Kolya said imperturbably, "it was useful to have something to hold over your head. Even more useful when you kept looking, kept looking at me… Perhaps I was wrong, and you are worth the bloodshed and inconvenience after all."
A disturbance in the background, near a cluster of fancy side tables and a gigantic Chinese urn, and thank god that got Kolya's attention. The policeman from Union Station, Radim, materialized from the darkness of the hallway.
"It's a Detective Carter, sir. She has a man with her." He paused, significant look at Kolya.
"Send her in," Kolya said, tone gracious and voice tight with irritation. Radim nodded, saluted, and vanished.
"Carter?" Carter had Sheppard cuffed behind his back, was dragging him effortlessly by one arm. Sheppard's shirt was torn, as if he'd struggled, but Carter held him immobile, her hand clasped around his bicep.
"McKay," Carter said tightly, smile razor-fine. "I told you to get the hell out of the Callahan case."
"Not out of the Sheppard one," McKay said, too busy staring at Sheppard to say anything else. The smile Sheppard offered him was bruised and insolent and reassuring.
"Tyrus let it slip you were up here," Carter said to Kolya. "It took a while, but it slipped."
Kolya scowled. "I would be very interested in knowing why a city detective is in my residence without permission, or a warrant."
"I'm not here as a city detective." Something not-Carter flickered across her face. "I'm here in another capacity. I want the shield. I have been looking for it, and I swear to you, I won't be kept from it."
"I wish you well obtaining it," Kolya said, but his hand twitched, there, to where his greatcoat pocket bulged.
"You still have it." McKay had to fight to stay where he was; he saw that Sheppard had seen, and strained in Kolya's direction, but Carter's hand tightened and Sheppard grunted, small and pained. "What happened to honorable mercenaries?"
Kolya shrugged. "My employers do not know the jewel has been located; for all they know, it's at the bottom of the Pacific, or out there, lost in the abyss of the city. The Genii have engineers of their own; they can suss out how the shield is supposed to work."
"It won't work for you," Sheppard said impatiently, and glowered at Carter when her grip tightened.
"He's telling the truth," Carter said grudgingly. Her voice roughened, became resonant in a way it had never been, bone-chilling, alien, "only those descended can activate devices such as these."
"How the hell do you know that?" McKay stared at Carter. So far as he knew, the only person who knew that line of bullshit was Daniel Jackson.
"Double-crossing the Ori is unwise, to put it one way," Carter said, ignoring Rodney in favor of Kolya. "You are merely pale shadows of them, of course, which is why you serve them in their long quest for vengeance against the Alterans. The Gou'ald, though..." A laugh, rich and chilling. "We seek more than they do, and we are far, far more than they are."
"Who are you?" McKay demanded, and stepped closer despite the warning shake of Sheppard's head.
"My name is Sekhmet," Carter said, and her eyes glinted gold, flashed, the same eyes that had stared death at him across a street and from atop a building. "Your Samantha Carter still lives somewhere in this body, but I... I am Sekhmet."
"You were – that was you," McKay said, wanting to look away from Carter – no, not Carter, this thing that wore his old partner's body. Alien, something stepped out from the pages of his magazines but with a face he'd known for years. "Across the street at the Callahan apartment, and on the Night-Owl roof."
"It was," Sekhmet said. "You are a singularly brilliant and resourceful man, Detective McKay – but then, I think you have told this to yourself many times."
"It's still nice to hear other people say it."
Sekhmet's smile was one that had never belonged to Carter, thin and cruel. "It is well, perhaps, that this – " she glanced at Kolya contemptuously " – that he has spared your life; one such as you would, perhaps, find a place among us. But you," turning to Sheppard now, "you are a key to the technology of the Alterans; the Ori, of course, would never help us, and the Alterans have long-vanished – except their descendants."
"You know, I have absolutely no idea what you mean," Sheppard murmured.
"I think you do," Sekhmet said. "The shield will work only for you for the simple reason it has coded itself to you; that is why the investigators sent to question you never learned the truth of your survival, why the... the brooch was useless to them. And so it is useless to us, but we Gou'ald can learn from it, and improve it, so long as there is one to make it work for us."
She turned back to Kolya. "We are at an impasse, it seems; you have the shield, but it will not work for you, not even if you had a thousand descendants to choose from – even if one for your employers, the Ori, held it in his hand and forced his will upon it. The shield is John Sheppard's now, and as I said, it won't work for any but him."
She paused, eyes gold and calculating, Sheppard still held close. McKay glanced at Kolya, who had gone still, austere in his brown uniform and no alien presence in him at all, but just as dangerous. And then there was him, Rodney McKay, merely mortal and unarmed, but with a brain he'd put money on any day of the week.
"I have no evidence of this," Kolya said.
"Aside from the fact it won't work for you? Or anyone else? You could try it on me, and I guarantee it won't," McKay said. Kolya frowned. "The scary alien in my former partner's body is telling the truth," and that took a lot to say without any sign of hysteria, "and I bet the – the Ori, or whoever, know that too. Why bother giving them something broken?"
"You could give us Sheppard," Kolya said with an unpleasant look.
"I don't think so," Sekhmet laughed. "The Ori and the Gou'ald are hardly friends, and enemies is maybe too weak a word. You would be better off giving me the shield and accepting the protection of the Gou'ald."
Kolya appeared to turn this over. "Protection for myself and my men, and twice the fee we were given."
Sekhmet nodded shortly, the quick, decisive nod that had too much of Sam Carter in it.
Slowly, Kolya reached into his pocket.
McKay, angled better than Sekhmet was, saw the gun, his gun, the promise of the shield underneath it. Kolya moved with the deliberation of someone anxious to be believed harmless, attention fixed on the dangerously tense form of Sekhmet and Sheppard held close to her.
In that moment, the pulse between a bad idea and its execution, McKay was fervently glad for his insignificance. He flung himself at Kolya, and that second was all he had, mind and body usually at odds acting as one, and he hit the solidity of Kolya's body with a shock that surprised the breath from him. Not thought, though; Kolya went down hard, pistol flying and ricocheting off a chair, McKay's hand in his pocket, fumbling closing.
"John!" he shouted.
John twisted loose, Sekhmet too startled to keep hold of him. Bright glitter of the jewel when McKay threw it, and Sheppard fielded it like a wide receiver, both hands closing around it, not even a pause before he fastened it to his chest, and a wash of downtown neon green up and down his body.
Sekhmet snarled, eyes flashing gold-opaque and in two bounding strides, cleared Kolya's body before McKay could even blink, her arm a blur and a nothingness that solidified with shocking swiftness.
He had been shot once, high in the shoulder by a teenager too stupid with fear to do the intelligent thing and turn himself in, and his body very clearly remembered being spun half around by an abrupt and terrific pressure, and a moment of dull shock, the I've been shot moment that pain slowly filtered through, brought with the awareness that his arm was slicked with blood.
And this... this was like that, only instead of an ungraceful pirouette his body flew, no other word for it, an ungainly trajectory that sent him skidding across a tabletop. He hit the floor, the world went dizzy then grey then black.
Coming to was an adventure in nausea, pain trickling back like water through cracked concrete before the dam gave and shattered and then it came flooding through. Through a haze of blood and sweat and the certainty of broken bones he saw Kolya shaking himself and getting to all fours, head swaying like a stunned animal's, pausing when he saw the .38 lying, glittering and forgotten, on the floor.
The longest two feet in the world, turning over and distantly amazed he hadn't been paralyzed, appreciation for that fact diminished by the sick, piercing throb up and down his spine, the fire in his right shoulder when it protested carrying any weight. Over Kolya's pain-hunched back, Sekhmet herded Sheppard away from them, from Rodney, backing him inexorably toward the glass.
He did, despite the pain that made him grunt, closed reluctant fingers around the grip, needed both hands to steady it, aim, fire on Kolya who had gotten to his feet, had twisted himself in a desperate effort to reach the gun before Rodney could.
Kolya toppled backwards, blood arcing up and up, down, splashing warm on McKay's cheek. The bullet went through Kolya's upper arm, embedded itself in the far wall with a crack of expensive wallpaper and plaster. Kolya's head hit the urn with a thud and the marble shuddered but didn't give way, even though Kolya's skull seemed to; he lay still, crumpled and tangled in his long coat and almost harmless, the way a sleeping, maybe-dead snake is harmless.
Now, though, now Sekhmet. McKay blinked sweat from his eyes, readjusted his body despite the fearsome protests of his shoulder and ribs, thought Sekhmet Sekhmet as he took aim at the broad, welcoming target of Sekhmet's shoulders.
The .38 jammed. "No," McKay whispered frantically, "no no no." Click was the futile answer, and Sekhmet and Sheppard were backing closer to the huge glass paneling, the shield still bright green on Sheppard's chest and casting his face in an eerie thorium glow. Could that fine cloak of impenetrability keep him safe at the end of a two-hundred foot fall?
"You are untouchable in that shield, descendant," Sekhmet hissed, Carter's face and voice hideous, unfamiliar, "but what about McKay?" She paused, breath harsh, the line of her back tense and shaking. "Give me the shield, descendant, and I swear both of you will be allowed to go free. The Gou'ald would enjoy subduing you, but I give you my word, I will leave you unharmed."
"See, that sounds less than ideal to me," Sheppard said. He stopped backing away, and Rodney realized he'd been leading Sekhmet away.
"Then McKay dies, and the Gou'ald will hunt you down and make you wish you had agreed, and that death was painless."
The gun clicked again, a hopeless sound; Sekhmet laughed and turned, her eyes gone gold and flickering with darkness.
And there, there, he saw it, a weapon like the one Sora Tyrus had shot him with, under the table he'd fallen against, hung from a rack bolted to the bottom. His chest ached at the memory of the pulse, a shock of bright white light and a pain and overwhelming nothingness, his mind with the possibility that it might not work, but he threw himself at it. Scrape of side table against his hip, sliding and carpet burn on his elbow, and then his hand closed around what he hoped was the barrel of the weapon, the base of the snake's neck and rolled, and Sekhmet was right there, backing toward him and still wary of Sheppard, and Rodney knew the next time she laid a hand on him, that blackness would be permanent.
In the corner of his eye, he saw Kolya struggle to his feet, hand clasped over the wound on his arm and blood trickling through his fingers, hard as hell to get it out of cream carpet. Kolya or Sekhmet, no choice really, but he saw the blurry, peripheral shape of Kolya pause, turn down the darkness of the hallway.
No time, no time to think, he held tight and pressed the maybe-trigger and Carter – Sekhmet, think of it as Sekhmet, not Sam, no not her, it it it – wheeled, distracted from Sheppard by the crashing, eyes sudden and alien gold.
"You wouldn't," Sekhmet said. "You know this body, McKay; you've loved this body."
"You're right," McKay agreed, "I did," and fired, eye-breaking light and comic-book zap, and Sekhmet collapsed, twitching, gold eyes blank before they flickered back and forth between gold, white, a human blue. McKay sat there, watching as the twitches subsided into unconsciousness.
"Rodney?" John moved silently through the disordered furniture, shield still glowing on his chest. Green played over his fingers, hand, wrist, when he checked Carter's neck for a pulse, "She's alive, I guess, or that thing in her is," he said at last, and looked up, the green of his eyes bright and familiar. "We need to get her somewhere secure."
McKay rubbed hand over his chest, terrifying to think of that power in her. His back hurt, his skull, the pain in his elbow almost incidental, from the rug burn, and his right arm refused to work. Push through it, push through it, and he got to his feet with John's help, not all of us have amazing futuristic personal shield devices, Sheppard, which earned him a smirk but a quieter, you should, before they set to work.
John got Sekhmet into the room where Rodney had been held prisoner, in the light a bedroom that had been refurbished as a prison. John threw the locks on the doors, and Rodney listened through the echoes for evidence of Sekhmet stirring, but no noise came. A moment later, John touched his chest and the shield winked off, tumbled into his waiting hand.
"Aliens," McKay muttered as he double-checked the door, iron-clad and set with five locks and, next to Sekhmet's strength, pathetically inadequate. John inspected the snake-head weapon, had pocketed Rodney's useless gun. "Fucking aliens. They're... Well, not to state the obvious, but Jesus Christ, they're real. Real flesh and... and do they even have blood?"
"Dunno," John said. "Better than Asimov." He sidled up, a hand hesitant on Rodney's arm, even gentler when Rodney flinched. "I think you broke a rib."
"If that's all I broke, I consider myself extremely lucky." His vision was greying at the edges, god, he'd become too old for this, for pain and futility, but not for John moving unexpectedly closer so Rodney had to flatten himself against the wall with nowhere else to go, or else ease into the reliable strength of John's body.
"You made it," John said, and, slow and familiar, kissed him.
"Kolya," Rodney whispered against John's mouth, "he – "
"Escaped," John finished. "No way he'd stick around, no matter how good the pay was."
"We shouldn't stick around either," McKay offered, and John nodded, asked if McKay was good to walk.
"Carter – Sekhmet, I guess – drove us out here. Hope the keys are still in the ignition." John steered Rodney in the direction of the main entrance, an improbable affair of black and white marble and crystal, empty and echoing with gunshots and the thunder of blood and pain in McKay's head.
The main door, an edifice of elaborately carved mahogany, almost came off its hinges, came away scored by colliding with the wall, and soldiers flooded in. At the apex of brown and utilitarian green walked a silver-haired, familiar man who eyed the cathedral foyer and then the living room with lazy interest.
"Nice place," he said. McKay stared.
He was the sarcastic cook-cashier man from the restaurant, the one that had made the worst corned beef sandwich McKay had ever had. Only he wore fatigues now, and a heavy combat vest draped with a small arsenal of grenades, machine gun clips. He nodded and the soldiers behind him fanned out, some moving back into the living room, some circling the door that held Sekhmet behind it.
"Put that down," said restaurant man to Sheppard. He gestured impatiently at the snake-weapon. "One shot from that will knock me out and give me a nasty headache, two will kill me, and three... Well, Colonel O'Neill will cease to exist. I prefer to avoid all three possibilities."
Sheppard lowered the weapon slowly.
"We're not here to hurt you," Colonel O'Neill said impatiently. "If we were, you'd know that by now."
"Then why are you here, sir?" Sheppard asked, the sir freighted with an insolence and insubordination that only made O'Neill grin.
"I'm here because Jackson was paranoid and thought you might be in danger, and persuaded Walter to keep his eye out for any unusual energy readings in the LA area" O'Neill said with some asperity. "Also, SGC told me to come, and what they say goes." He didn't sound happy about it, but not particularly put out. "As it turns out..."
"We managed to get out of it by ourselves," McKay said. "So thank you very much for the not-helping."
"Oh, you'll need help still," O'Neill said complacently. "For one, I highly doubt you two can keep a Gou'ald chained up against its will for very long. We can."
"Samantha Carter," McKay said. "What are you going to do with her?" It? That was Samantha's body, and Sam was still in there, alive and trapped, helpless and with Sekhmet in there, somehow. "She won't... she won't die?"
"We'll take care of her," O'Neill said. His tone left it unclear as to how, and there'd been way too much blood spilled over the shield already, Nancy's, his own, the cuts and bruises on Sheppard's body. "We have the facilities for it."
"What sorts of facilities? The ones that result in death and disappearance?" McKay demanded. A shrill noise from the cell, spiking up and up until it vanished, came back down and cut off abruptly. A moment later the soldiers wheeled Carter's body out, chained down and insensible, a small blinking device on her forehead.
"Carolyn?" O'Neill craned his head to look back over his shoulder, and one of the soldiers – a woman, fine-boned and pretty, paused. "Cortical signals are stable, sir. As soon as we get her back home we can begin the extraction."
"Good to hear." O'Neill beamed.
"Extraction?" The soldiers, Carolyn, and Carter vanished into the night beyond the mansion; if McKay looked closely, he could see movement out there, past the ring of light that marked the driveway.
"We have methods of persuading the Gou'ald to leave," O'Neill said complacently. He adjusted his grip on his M50 "Anything else, well, that would be telling," he continued, "but there'll be time for that after you've signed confidentiality waivers. In the meantime..." O'Neill turned to look at John appraisingly. "We'll need you to come with us, Mr. Sheppard," he said, and the need translated to "will, by all methods necessary." He smiled. "The Army would like you in Denver sooner rather than later."
"The Army?" Sheppard rubbed the back of his neck, his throat, the rasp of stubble loud in the silence. "You can... Look, you've got the damn jewel, and I just came out here to surf. I still haven't been able to do that yet. And with all due respect, I'm not in the service anymore."
"Not much surfing in Denver." O'Neill actually managed to sound sympathetic. "There might be good surfing somewhere else, we're looking for it... But that would be telling." He paused. "You can have ten minutes, while we secure the facilities and see if we can't track down Kolya."
"You know about him, too," McKay said, and tried not to think John's leaving.
"Mercenary hired by the Ori; he's been helping them recruit, pick up some people and objects of interest." O'Neill made a face. "Nasty bunch of folks, not the kind of people you want in charge of the planet. Now, if you'll excuse us..." Hurry up, O'Neill's hand – the one not holding his machine gun – said. "Oh, I'm sorry; did you want to say goodbye first?"
Rodney was spared from having to answer by another soldier stomping through the foyer, leaving soil on the marble. Despite the hour and the half-lit entryway he looked improbably young and fresh-faced and cheerful.
"Sir," the young man said to O'Neill, ignoring Rodney as thoroughly as if he didn't exist, "perimeter search turned up nothing."
"Keep looking; he can't have gotten far," O'Neill said, and the glance at Rodney said who he was talking about.
Kolya, been and gone, disappeared like Elizabeth. No chance for her now, but Rodney hadn't ever been one to believe in no chance at all. Cowen was a ways out of reach, no evidence against him at all, but it was out there, Rodney thought, the same way physics and the invisible ties of the universe were out there.
"She's still out there," Rodney whispered.
"Some things you can't know," John said quietly.
"See, I've never believed that," McKay said. The sixteen-year-old at CalTech hadn't believed that either, the kid coming out of the academy hadn't accepted it.
"Sheppard, given the fact you're a wily bastard that two advanced races and the United States military couldn't track down, you're coming with us now." O'Neill turned back to Rodney, fished a pristinely white business card from a pocket of his vest. McKay took it numbly. "Send a bill for your services to this address; you'll be reimbursed, I promise."
"It wasn't the money," McKay said, but couldn't bring himself to say what it was.
"Lieutenant Ford," O'Neill said to another set of fatigues and weapons, "please escort Mr. McKay home."
"My pleasure sir," Ford said with enthusiasm and, with immovable sternness backed up by his machine gun, "We need to wait here for a couple of minutes," and kept McKay in place while O'Neill escorted Sheppard out. Sheppard looked back over his shoulder once, so long, Rodney for goodbye.
A couple minutes later, Ford allowed Rodney out of the house and led him to a nondescript Chevrolet with government plates. Of twenty soldiers, O'Neill, Sheppard, there was no sign.
The next morning, McKay woke up to the ordinary, no sign of aliens or John's presence in his life except for sheets still on the sofa and a second mug drying in the rack, the peculiar shape of absence and lingering pain.
He fought his way out of bed, ribs declaring mutiny, his head in open rebellion, four hours of sleep and his body felt like a battlefield. Once his vision steadied and his legs firmed underneath him, Rodney stumbled to the bathroom, tried not to be horrified by the face staring back at him through its blood and bruises, and tried not to yelp when cleaning the cut on his forehead sent unwelcome fire jolting up and down his neck, sharpening to a fine and excruciating point behind his eyes.
No coffee in the world could help with the pain or the foggy, inchoate memory of last night. Rodney brewed it anyway, stared into the flawed glass of the coffee bulb while he thought, and wondered if, out of everything that happened last night, John leaving had been the most painful, inexplicable thing of all.
Aliens, Kolya, aliens, the United States military and a lieutenant colonel who turned out to be a sandwich counter guy, or was it the other way around, the vague thought that the blood spilled over Europe and the blood that turned the Pacific red was maybe nothing at all, or a prelude, and that the aliens – the Ori, Gou'ald – were in their space ships, laughing. All of that, and it burned like acid that Kolya had gotten away, and the ache that lodged itself right behind Rodney's heart that Elizabeth was gone, really gone unless he could find a way to get to Cowen – that was worse that the throb in his head. Worse than that was his coffee, which he had to drink by himself, which he had to make himself, even though Sheppard's coffee was only one step up from Postum.
"They could teach him to fly but not brew decent coffee," McKay muttered, and gracelessly knotted his tie. When the coffee was ready, he poured it and drank too much; it was too hot, too much, too soon, and he yelped, dropped the mug. Pain and blood lay metallic on his tongue, his split lip throbbing.
McKay kicked the cupboard, ignored the mess on the floor, and got the hell out of there before he could go into the living room to see where Sheppard wasn't.
That was his morning for two weeks: coffee that didn't taste right and a pain that diminished and an absence that didn't. Rodney put Elizabeth in next to Jeannie as the two things he could never know, fought to the last against putting John on there. One day he drew up a bill, grossly inflated and bitterly unpatriotic in the amount of money demanded from the USAAF, and thrust it at Precious with strict instructions as to mailing.
"And while you're at it, do something about the beard," McKay snapped, gesturing at Precious's downy chin. "It's unprofessional."
"It is distinguished," Precious muttered, and went to find an envelope.
Nights McKay stayed in, even though it drove him mad, because alcohol was the refuge of fools and once Teyla and Ronon removed him bodily from the Night-Owl.
"You know that stuff's bad for you," Ronon grunted. He had McKay over his shoulder in a fireman's carry.
"Propaganda," McKay snorted, and tried to knee Ronon in the chest. Ronon's arms tightened around Rodney's calves like steel bands.
"I am sorry," Teyla said, and the sorry held grief and sympathy enough for Jeannie and science and Elizabeth and John, strangers and gangsters and aliens, and she didn't say anything about what had happened to her that night: with her client, called out by Detective Carter, chloroformed and left in a cell while her client was abducted. "I truly am," she added, as though Rodney doubted her sincerity.
After the Night-Owl, McKay's nights passed not much different from the mornings, less coffee, more work on the piano, the cat curled up on the newly-cleared top and watching him, or knocking over chess pieces. In his dreams, Jeannie and Elizabeth chased him, or shouted for him, and Rodney turned to John to ask for him to help, but John shrugged and walked away.
The first morning, McKay had taken his magazines, all the Astounding Science Fiction and Amazing Tales from Beyond, the Founders and merchants and Space Captain Astar, and shoved them into a corrugated cardboard box. His anger wavered at the edge of dumping years' worth of investment out with the trash, but then he thought about Space Captain Sheppard and technology that pretended to be other than what it was, the aliens that wanted it and killed and possessed people to get it. No story, those, unless he was very elaborately insane, but he had the pain and empty couch to prove it, and so he hauled the box downstairs, the covers of the books bright against the greyness of the morning.
Los Angeles swallowed him and what had happened the way it swallowed everything else, gluttonous and indifferent. For a week the headlines blared warnings of a fugitive on the loose, MURDER SUSPECT AT LARGE; DETECTIVE PRESUMED DEAD. John Sheppard, thirty-three, due to be arraigned for the murder of Nancy Callahan, last seen with Detective Samantha Carter, escaped during a routine prison transfer, say officials. Carter, decorated detective and peerless officer of the law, thought dead in Sheppard's escape. Anyone with any information concerning Sheppard or his whereabouts is advised to contact LAPD. Suspect considered armed and extremely dangerous.
Lee and Kavanagh came to him on day three, a bowling ball escorted by a surly heron. They caught McKay on the wrong side of his temper, stoked already by filing Elizabeth's case folder away and the heat and the smog, the being alone.
"Get out," McKay said, not even bothering to look up. He had never kept a file on Jeannie; there'd been nothing to find, no trace of her. "Get the hell out."
"Sheppard was a client of yours," Kavanagh said, and made noises about material witnesses, how it was likely McKay probably engineered Sheppard's escape, or aided and abetted it in some way, "you probably have him stashed in your closet," which made Rodney laugh.
"If you're still in my office five seconds from now," he said, laughter cut off with a knife, "you're really, really going to wish the department had you out writing parking tickets."
Lee, cowardly and prudent, left immediately. Kavanagh glared until Rodney started up and reached for the half-remembered holster on his shoulder, and stalked out.
And those were the days for two weeks. Other than that visit, a moment when a pair of golden eyes watched McKay from an alley and McKay had fired blindly down it only to scare off an alley cat, time continued on, indifferent. Los Angeles baked on through to September, no sign of fall in sight except for a certain quality to the sun, coming later and leaving earlier, not quite as fierce in the way it marked off light and shadow.
When McKay walked to the office one morning, shouldering aside housewives and street cleaners, already sweltering under his coat, it was in the haze of summer gone on too long. Rain had come last night, reluctant, and the asphalt smelled flinty, and the humidity held on to the fumes from the taxis and streetcars. Hollywood Boulevard stayed busy for all of that, late-night workers hurrying home and day-shift workers coming on, lingering over hot coffee and newspapers or already rushing down the street, office denizens in hats and suits, newspapers under their arms and women in dresses and skirts and managing to keep pace with the men despite their heels. And they outpaced McKay, who kept close to the crumbling brick face of the Night-Owl and watched his tired, hunched reflection in the glass.
Ten feet above McKay's head, the Coca-cola girl smiled her peeled-paint smile into the daylight. Her teeth had gone dingy, brown where the white had chipped away to reveal wood that had weathered to a yellowy brown, as though she chewed tobacco. As far as McKay could tell, she didn't have anyone hiding behind her, watching, no golden eyes to catch the early sun.
Carter. He shuddered, thinking of her. When had it happened? They hadn't worked together in years, but that had been his fault, as much as anything could be his fault – the fault of a bureaucracy too hidebound to recognize innovation, and out of the two of them, he'd always been the louder, more difficult, the detective who shouldn't even have been a detective, the chief had said at his hearing.
Not that long, it had to have happened recently; Rodney hoped he'd have noticed if Sekhmet had come along while he and Sam had worked together.
Precious was wise and said nothing when McKay stalked in, beyond the mention of mail and she had chased off the clients for today, all except one, who had insisted on staying despite being informed that the penalty for showing up in McKay's office, unwelcomed, was death.
"Did you specify the amount of pain?" McKay eyed the frosted door, Weir and McKay in neat black letters against the pine framing. Still the smear of blood there, no sign that anyone lurked behind the door.
"I did," Precious sighed. "It made no difference. But this is why you must have guard dogs."
"I'll remember that," McKay sighed, and tried not to smile back at Precious. Through the door again, a familiar path, past a smear of blood at the .45-inflicted wound, and Rodney felt as though he was moving too slowly, the door catching and hard to open.
John Sheppard, space captain, resplendent in olive drab and chest ablaze with gold and silver, stood up. McKay stared and stared, and the illusion didn't vanish, and the shocked, catatonic pause of his heart didn't end. John, only it was and wasn't, not the disheveled, exhausted man slumped behind a diner counter or the one who'd set up a home in a corner of Rodney's apartment for three weeks.
"You look like hell, McKay," Sheppard said.
"And you look like..." McKay waved a hand to encompass the uniform, medals, the Sheppardian carelessness that seeped through spit and polish. You look good, welcome, not like when I first saw you. "Not like hell."
"Thanks." Despite the restriction of his uniform, Sheppard flowed effortlessly into nonchalance again, flowed into Rodney's space again, and he smelled like wool and cologne and one night spent together. McKay tried not to shiver, couldn't help it with John that close again.
"I brought your check." Sheppard fished in an invisible inner pocket and produced a flimsy rectangle of paper. Rodney accepted it with fingers that didn't want to work properly.
"It wasn't the money," Rodney muttered helplessly, but took the check anyway, too thin and insubstantial to be any kind of record of what happened.
"Yeah," John agreed, and his eyes were olive drab, Rodney thought, only brighter.
"So I guess," McKay said slowly, staring down at the envelope and its letterhead, "guess you'll be going back to wherever it was you came from."
"Eventually." Something rueful played at the corner of John's mouth, the corner that tasted like salt and smoke, long days. "But I wanted to talk to you about it first."
"What?" McKay snapped, and that had the rueful something vanishing fast off Sheppard's face. "Do you need my permission?"
"No," said Sheppard in the drawl that said he'd made up his mind not to be angry with Rodney, no matter how much Rodney wanted him to be. "But I wanted to talk to you about it," and the way he leaned on the words made Rodney pause.
"Thanks," Sheppard said ironically, and made himself comfortable on the edge of Rodney's desk. He'd shined his shoes, Rodney noticed, and they were flawless, and John's face was open and youthful and perfect. Happy, and outside a few hours in Rodney's bed, Rodney had never seen him wear happiness, but John wore it as effortlessly as he did everything else.
"I'm back with the USAAF," John said, picking at the wool serge of his uniform. When he shifted, his pilot's wings glittered in unexpected light, brilliant in the dimness of Rodney's office. "Reinstated."
"Really," and like he needed the reminder. Rodney moved away, back to the shadows by his file cabinets. "So, congratulations are in order?"
John glared at him, eyebrows going crooked in disapproval. "This isn't how I'd thought we'd meet again, you know."
"How did you think we'd meet?" Rodney demanded. The sun through the window caught the edge of Sheppard's cheekbone, the fleck in one eye, his medals again, and stretched his shadow into awkwardness across the floor. "You – " You left, you left when I wasn't looking, like everyone else. He didn't say that, but frowned at Sheppard instead.
"McKay," Sheppard sighed, exasperation pulling the name tight, "Could you shut up?"
"Maybe," McKay said, and folded his arms belligerently.
Sheppard eyed him a moment, paused as though he expected an interruption anyway, started to talk when Rodney kept quiet. "You know what happened that night."
"Unless it was an extremely long, detailed, and vivid hallucination, yes." He remembered everything, the cold, the dark, the power of Sekhmet's arm, the ache that still lived in ribs that hadn't wanted to heal, John's body against his, John walking out the door. "What about it?"
"I'd say this sounds crazy," Sheppard said, "except you know that it isn't. The Ori, the Gou'ald… Sekhmet was right. They're far more dangerous than the Axis, and we need help."
McKay caught the we and said as much. "I thought they were them; you know, the people who discharged you," he said, and didn't care that he couldn't keep the bitterness back.
It was Sheppard's turn to look away, his turn to frown. His thigh shifted as he swung one leg back and forth, hand flexing where it was laid atop the arc of its muscle. "I wanted to be back in the air again," he said roughly, "and there's… it's space, Rodney."
And okay, Rodney could understand that, the loop and dive of John's hands when he'd talked about flying, and what a rocket ship must be like. John kept talking, a score right out of science fiction, the stargates, huge gates that could take them to other planets – and did, and the marvels that waited on the other side of them. "It's better than the Thunderbolt," John sighed, and his hand described a brief, twisting dive. "We go through and there are other planets, other people." His mouth twisted. "Usually they aren't very nice."
"Sounds amazing," McKay muttered, and wondered who kept Sheppard from disaster on other worlds given that they found more trouble than useful technology, and why the hell he was here. He asked this second question, much safer, the answer more tolerable to hear.
"Because," said Sheppard with infinite, drawling patience, "there's a war on. Three wars, and we need all the help we can get. We need someone who can find things out, can keep his head, who can be… sciencey."
"Sciencey?" Rodney echoed, and ignored the sudden, hopeful thump of his pulse.
"Yeah." John's glare had vanished in weaving an impossible story for Rodney, and he was looking at Rodney now, face open and hopeful to match the thump-kerthump of Rodney's heartbeat. "They… we want you for the project. You know how to find things, you know science… Seems pretty clear-cut to me."
"I do," John emended, but frowned mulishly.
Rodney stood there, thought he should maybe sit down,
"So what do you need me to find?" Rodney asked as he gathered his coat,
"Not much," John said, shrugging. The elegant line of his uniform shifted, settled back into place without a wrinkle, Space Captain Astar back in business. "The lost city of Atlantis, to start."
"Okay…" Rodney blinked, chewed this over, lost cities in outer space, Asimov come to life, John back in his office and watching him with a smile that suggested adventure. "You want me to start out my career as an intergalactic explorer by finding a completely mythical city."
"Not mythical; we can talk about it," John offered as he stood; he brushed invisible dust from his shoulder, pulled his tie looser. "Over coffee, maybe." He smiled, crooked and with the hesitant looking-away. "I'll buy."
Rodney looked over at the file cabinets that held their secrets, his secrets, Jeannie, Elizabeth.
"It's about time." Rodney reached for the lights and flicked them off. The office settled to dimness except for the light through the shades falling on the floor and creeping up the opposite wall, the faint outlines of Weir and McKay Investigations on the floor. Down on the street below, the city surged in the current of its endless back-and forth.