This was not the way that Michael’s day was supposed to be going.
“Mr Douglas,” He muttered. “I mean no offence... but this is really stupid.”
The wizard in question only shushed him. “No it’s not,” Séan corrected him. “This is brilliant, I told you I’d bring you with me if anything peculiar happened. This is your chance to potentially learn something in the field about my… community.” He supplied.
“So we’re going to Mrs Cambell’s bakery.” Michael deadpanned.
“We’re investigating her bakery.”
The high schooler silently complained that something like that should be left to the authorities. “I doubt there was magic involved in the break in.” He muttered.
From the corner of his eye, a peculiar smile stretched across his mentor’s face. “That is where I believe you’re wrong.” He replied, neglecting to add any explanation.
Regardless of the way that Michael’s day was supposed to be going, it was clearly instead going to be spent with magic and possibly snickerdoodles. Michael had never actually been to Mrs Campbell’s bakery, but from what Séan had excitedly revealed about it… Michael could guess that it was his favorite bakery.
There had apparently been a break in a few days ago, but the rumors were scattered, because Mrs Campbell never once delayed the opening of her shop, and none of her customers had reported anything that looked broken or out of place. Michael’s brow furrowed thoughtfully.
“What do you think is unique about this burglary?” he asked, turning slightly to glance at his older companion.
Séan’s nose twitched in the cold. “Here's the thing: as far as I’m aware, Mrs Campbell has nothing to do with a…well...coven.” He said, eyes flickering towards nonexistent evesdroppers. “And, I know when someone in this city is part of… something like that.”
Michael looked at him disbelievingly. “People can be good liars when they need to be.”
Mr Douglas only shrugged. “The councils don’t let fully-capable practitioners like that just vanish without any notice or concern. Magic is meant to be treasured, kept in mystery.”
“But…. you told me about it.” he countered. Actually, Michael didn’t really know much about its nature… except that it could apparently make articles of clothing come to life.
“Well, anyone can take on an apprentice.” Séan informed him. “And for the most part, that’s not something that requires a lot of paperwork or fanfare; ergo, I made you my apprentice and no one in my coven knows about it.” He mumbled rapidly.
“They don't?” Michael asked with a touch of bewilderment. His mouth opened and closed a few times before he finally snapped it shut with a dull thud. He didn’t have any response to that, even though he felt the need to say something. Séan had even told him that it was fine, but Michael still felt like a secret, like there was something wrong with his inclusion.
Séan didn’t notice Michael’s thoughts, instead continuing to hum some verseless melody into the frigid air. It wasn’t a great day to walk to one’s destination, but Séan Douglas apparently hadn’t received the announcement.
The world was a mottled mess of winter grey and brown. Thick slate clouds withheld the sunlight and their snow. It was cold enough to see one’s breath in the air, but not cold enough to solidify the muddied sposh clogging the streets and sidewalks. The chemical-blue salt was fighting a losing battle, its greatest success being the ability to bleed its abhorrent color across the slick cement. The shops still boasted their holly wreaths and Christmas lights, but the normally cheerful decorations appeared garish and crude.
Michael’s step lurched forward through a deceiving depth of brownish slush. He frowned as he felt something wet and cold dripping into his sneaker. He did not pick the right footwear for today. At the end of the block, the flowered sign of the bakery came into view.
“How are we sure there was a break-in to begin with?” Michael wondered aloud.
“Josephine is religious about locking her doors at night. But on Monday she came back to find the back door unlocked with no evidence of stress to the lock. A good witch could have opened it without any problem, but then could have just as easily forgotten to lock it back up again. Either that, or they didn’t care. When Josephine went inside, some things had been moved, and one thing was missing.”
Séan smiled impishly as he pushed the door open. “That’s what we’re here to find out.”
The doorbell chimed mechanically. The bakery was warm and had a nearly oppressive sweet scent flooding the air. Everything was decorated with beautiful pastels and highlighted in the stronger shades of red and green. It was a small shop, definitely a family business.
Michael shuffled inside as the door swung shut behind him. The place was empty except for a woman behind the counter making notes on a sheet of paper.
“I’ll be with you in a moment!” She assured them quickly.
“No worries, we have the time.” Séan responded easily.
The woman stopped at once. “Séan!” She exclaimed happily. “How are you?”
He smiled brightly. “I’ve been just fine Jo, my friend and I thought we would come over to ask you the same thing.” Josephine turned and smiled at Michael, finally acknowledging him properly. He waved awkwardly as Séan resumed the conversation. “Wasn’t there reports of a break-in?” He asked worriedly, as if in surprise.
She sighed heavily. “Yes there was, but don’t you worry about me, I’m just fine.”
“Did anything get stolen?”
Josephine leaned her elbows on the counter, as if preparing to tell a story. “Well, yes. But you see, it wasn’t something that belonged to me, it was an ingredient I was holding onto for an acquaintance of mine.”
“An ingredient? For a fellow baker?”
“I don’t think she’s a baker actually, and it was just sugar.” She said, waving her hand in the air dismissively. “Really nice sugar, the natural kind.” She noted, moving to step out behind the counter.
Séan hummed thoughtfully. “I suppose it’s not much of a problem then, huh?”
Michael glanced at him. Something in his tone seemed too knowing about the situation.
Josephine’s eyebrows wrinkled into a little frown. “Actually, I feel bad about losing it. Or, I guess, having it stolen…. Even if it’s just sugar, a friend asked me to hold onto it for them, you know? And it was in a sugar bowl, that's the real issue. The bowl’s gone.”
“Ah…” Séan murmured sympathetically.
Josephine nodded, looking between the two of them. “Oh!” She exclaimed, clapping her hands together. “Wait right here.” She instructed them, gliding out of sight to the back of the store.
After a few beats of silence Séan turned and grinned at Michael. “Sugar crystals.” He whispered loudly.
“Sugar crystals!” He repeated. “The base of nearly every magical seal!”
Michael blinked at him. “What?”
“Okay look, natural sugars, especially raw crystals are a key part in seals. Seals can trap someone, or protect your house…. Sugar in sealing magic is like flour in bread.”
“Okay,” Michael muttered. “I thought you said Mrs Campbell wasn’t a part of your community.” He accused.
Séan blinked at him. “She’s not.”
“Then why did she have the sugar crystals?”
“She didn’t. Well, she didn’t know that she had them, they weren’t even hers, remember?”
“So something was stolen from her that she never owned to begin with? That, that’s not a problem, why are we treating this like a problem?”
Mr Douglas shushed him quickly. Josephine walked into the room holding up a small plastic plate on her hand. An assortment of Christmas cookies were piled on top of it, and she held it out to them eagerly.
“Please, have as many as you want! I wouldn’t mind a break from working, the holiday orders always make things a bit hectic.”
Séan graciously accepted a frosted pine tree as Michael tentatively selected a snickerdoodle.
“I’m sorry young man, but I don’t believe I know you…” Josephine started.
“Oh-” Michael froze. “Sorry Mrs Campbell, I’m ah, Michael,” He explained. “I work at Mr Douglas’ coffee shop and he wanted to show me your bakery, it's uh, really nice.” He tried nervously.
Josephine smiled warmly. “Thank you Michael, that’s very sweet of you.”
Séan slowly inhaled his cookie, licking the green icing away from his lips. He suddenly turned, grinning at Michael childishly. “What’s your favorite Christmas cookie?”
Michael thought for a moment, considering the options that came to mind. He shrugged. “I really just like peppermint bark.”
Séan frowned at him. “That’s not a cookie, Michael.”
“It’s my favorite.” He defended.
Séan looked ready to object, but instead turned his attention back to Mrs Campbell. “You did say the whole sugar bowl went missing-- I don’t want to pry-- but was your friend very upset about it?”
Josephine picked up one of her cookies and nibbled on it. “I don’t know. I haven't heard from her since she asked me to hold onto the bowl for her, and I don’t even know her last name, let alone how to contact her. She’s more likely to show up when she wants to, and I must say I’m not looking forward to admitting I lost her pottery.”
Séan hummed thoughtfully. “What if you just replaced the bowl?” He suggested honestly. “What did it look like?”
Josephine stared off into the distance. “It was a pretty little thing, snowy white, and the handles were made to look like tiny evergreen branches.” She commented.
Séan got quiet. “Huh?” He mumbled vaguely.
“Evergreen.” She repeated. “And I remember the lid had a cute little pine cone on top of it, to work like a handle, you know?”
Michael stared at Séan. He had gone very still, the rest of the pastry tree forgotten in his hand. Michael lowered his snickerdoodle away from his face. Séan cleared his throat inaudibly.
“Jo, what was the name of your friend again?” He asked pleasantly.
Josephine sniffed lightly. “Ah, Riona, I think. Lovely lady.”
Séan nodded faintly. “Lovely…” He slowly put the cookie down on the counter, as if he were desperately tugging on his own marionette strings from far away.
Josephine continued eating her cookie happily in the following silence. Séan twitched suddenly and shifted to reach into his pocket. He smiled coyly. “My phone is on vibrate.” he explained simply. After looking at the screen his eyes widened and he returned it to his pocket.
“So sorry, something’s come up at the coffee shop,” He blurted. “I’ll come visit you again soon Jo.” He assured her, already making his way to the door.
“Of course,” she reasoned. “And you come along next time as well, alright Michael?” She called after him as he hurried after Séan.
Michael stammered something that sounded like an agreement as he rushed into the bolt of hard icy air. Séan was walking down the block rapidly, and despite the heavy dusting of road salt, Michael stepped gingerly as if on ice.
“What happened at the shop?” He asked Séan worriedly as he caught up.
Séan stared ahead. “I don’t know, I made it up.” He said as if it were already obvious.
His pace was still fast and tense, but after a stretch of Michael twitchingly stepping over every ominous piece of slush, Mr Douglas finally slowed to a more resigned walk. Michael shoved the rest of his snickerdoodle in his pocket, probably giving the infinite crumbs a forever home. The winter wonderland was just as bitter as when they had been walking in the other direction not so long ago. Michael tactfully kept his gaze on anyplace that wasn’t the person walking next to him. He rubbed his increasingly cold nose with his glove.
Séan glanced at him, as if he had forgotten he was there. “She’s a wizardess, so she was born with magic.”
“Wait, if wizards are born with magic… then you are a… war...lock?” He asked, dragging the term from some forgotten corner of his mind.
Séan shook his head. “A witch. I’m a witch, it's actually a gender neutral title. Did I not tell you that?” He asked in surprise, turning to Michael with a look of disbelief.
“No.” Michael answered simply. “You just sort of talked me into meeting you at the library, not-at-all-subtly tried to convince me that magic was real, and then gave up and turned my scarf into a death monster.” he said, counting off the steps on his fingers.
Séan sputtered indignantly. “I did not!”
“I mean, you kind of did. You really just chucked me into the deep end but the death-scarf didn’t kill me so that’s good.” He rambled.
“It was not a death-scarf.”
Michael still grinned uncontrollably. “Can anyone make clothes come to life, or is that a ‘you’ thing?”
Séan thought quietly for a moment. “It is something I do often, a bit like my specialty but… its not… special. I mean, anyone could figure it out. If you knew what to do, any witch could do it. Like opening a lock.” He murmured.
Michael fidgeted with his gloves. “That Riona lady, you uh… seemed to recognize her. Like, beyond the fact that she's apparently a wizard.” He stated, watching as a red car slid by in a mechanical hum.
The icy water splashed noisily. “She’s my sister.”
“Oh.” Michael said eloquently. Séan was silent. Michael tried to reason with his mentor’s tone, deciding that hearing about Riona again hadn't been good news for him. They must not get along well. Michael knew he wouldn’t understand why on his own, but a nagging voice in his head still whispered that he could.
He tried to ignore it, tried to come up with any combination of reasons for siblings to fall apart, but every time Michael tried to reason with the unknown possibilities, his train of thought returned to what he did know. Riona was a wizardess. Séan was not.
“Why are only some people born with magic?”
Séan thought for a bit. “Think of it like a recessive trait. A really really recessive trait that sometimes just seems to show up randomly like it has a mind of its own. It starts because…. because magic can be…. absorbed over generations, and it runs in the bloodline. Imagine it like…. If you moved to a place with a lot more sunlight, after a few generations, your descendants will have darker skin, right?”
Michel narrowed his eyes in thought. “Okay, so if a family practices magic, their descendents will eventually be wizards?”
Séan sighed through his nose in mild frustration. “Sort of. It means that after a few generations, a child in that family is more likely to be born a wizard. Even then it seems a bit random. Sometimes “non magic” families sire a wizard and have no idea. Sometimes the wizard never even figures it out themselves. And more often than not, a wizard is not a super powerful Gandalf-type person. It's more subtle than that.” He explained gently.
Michael reasoned that he would probably find out what kind of subtle a wizard’s magic was, at the right time. Their shoes crunched over the mixed winter substances littering the sidewalk. Séan stared at the ground ahead numbly.
“It’s not evergreen.”
“The sugar bowl, it's not evergreen. I mean, it is, but it's not just a random-- it's fir. It’s douglas fir.” He said adamantly.
“Was it a family thing? Like, a tea--set?”
Séan hummed in what sounded like confirmation. Another car rolled by, spraying dirty sludge up onto the edge of the sidewalk. Séan sniffed against the cold.
“Peppermint bark, huh? That was my mom’s favorite too. She owned the teapot.” He said distantly. He shook his head. “I don’t know what I’m saying, this isn't making any sense.”
“No, it's fine.” Michael assured him.
Without watching where he was going, Michael stumbled through an opaque brown puddle, further dampening his already wet sneakers. He scowled to himself. He really hadn’t worn the right shoes for today.
This probably wasn’t the way that either of their days should be going. Michael had ended up in an amatuer mystery, and Séan was still wandering half lost in memory lane.
“Is Riona… is she… like…” He said as he tried desperately to find the right words. “Is it a bad thing? That her sugar bowl was.. here? That it wasn’t here, and it was stolen, or-”
“Riona was probably the thief. It’s just… a very Riona thing to do.” He explained. “It… may be bad… that… I’m hearing from her. About her, rather.” He said unspecifically. “I hope you don’t have to meet her.” he added, more quietly this time.
Gradually, big cotton ball snowflakes fluttered down from the sky. Séan smiled at the welcome sight. “How long do you think the snow will fall for?”
“The forecast predicted about two hours.”
Séan tsked. “Cheater.”
“Says the one with the monopoly on magic lattes.”
“How is that cheating?”
“It’s my coffee shop.” He argued, shrugging loftily. “I can make whatever absurdly delicious flavors I want.”
Michael grinned. “You know, my mom makes killer peppermint bark.” He stated casually. “It’s actually the reason I love it so much.”
Séan nodded. “It sounds like as good a reason as any.”
“You’re always having me taste--test your new drinks, and sure, they’re great.” He said patronizingly. “But your fancy witch--magic has never made hot chocolate from Amanda Morrison’s peppermint bark.”
Séan raised an eyebrow dauntingly. “Is that a challenge?”
Michael grinned impishly. “‘Being challenged in life is inevitable, being defeated is optional.’” He quoted smoothly.
“Oh-ho-ho.” Séan laughed slowly. “We’ll see about that, kid.”