The pale colors of daybreak streaked across the wide-open sky. Here and there, fingers of sunlight reached down, deep into the ancient amphitheatre's shadow. Places where it touched dust and stone or metal and rust, it brought warmth and color to a region long deserted.
Well, almost deserted.
The made thing lay on a high, smooth bed of crystal and circuitry. Its eyes were closed. In the dry, windless air, it was easy to hear the soft whir and click of its parts. Easy at least for the winged man standing next to it, listening and watching. After a few moments, his blue eyes narrowed and he poked the thing in its forehead. "I know you're perfectly aware I'm here. Stop faking it."
Hazel eyes snapped open and the creature lifted itself up on one elbow. "Ow." It sat up and rubbed its temple. Its gaze took in the wings on the man's back. "Are you an angel?"
"No. I'm Rodney McKay, and frankly, I wouldn't give those angelic hosts the time of day." Rodney gave an indignant huff. "Never met one that could hold a rational thought in its head long enough to hold an original concept. It's all, smite this or glory that with them. I suppose it has its place but have you got any idea how boring that gets? I tried to explain the concept of a coffee break once and…"
Rodney stopped at the look the creature was giving him. "Excuse me, just because I'm not angelic that's not good enough for you? You're got a lot of nerve for someone just a few hours old."
The corner of the creature's mouth curved up and Rodney decided to continue on with explanations before it started laughing at him. "I'm an accountant." Rodney waved a hand in the air. "Universal checks, balances – making sure planets rotate properly in their orbits. That sort of thing." Rodney cleared his throat. "Let's not talk about Venus. That asteroid was so not my fault. It was supposed to get caught in Jupiter's orbit and never get near the planet. It's not like…did you know power naps maximize the benefits of sleep versus time? Perfectly sensible. Besides was only five – fifteen – forty-five – minutes maximum. Jeez, a little retrograde rotation happens and suddenly everyone blames – well, we can skip that part. It's not like anyone really cares about Venus."
The creature frowned in thought. "Venus has a 177% axis tilt. Hmm, I think I'm impressed."
"It's not up for discussion. Besides we have more important things to talk about."
"Oh, good. In that case, I'd like a name please. I've been thinking about it."
"That’s easy enough." Rodney bent down and brushed the dust away from some lettering engraved on the crystal. "If I remember this syntax correctly, your name is John Sheepsteering."
"How did you know that was there?" The creature said, jumping down to look for itself. It crouched next to Rodney and pointed at the lettering. "Maybe you need to look again. That says John Sheppard. Seriously, who lets you name things where you come from?"
"I admit it's been quite a while since I – oh, c'mon. Phonetically, it's not all that different. Give or take a consonant and vowel or two –" Rodney looked at the tilt of John's chin and gave up. "Fine. John Sheppard it is."
"Cool," John said as he stood and rocked back on his heels.
"Cool? Did you just say cool?" Rodney stared at John. "Just what kind of data dump did you receive anyway?"
Now that he was standing, Rodney could get a good look. It helped that its covering had slipped off when John jumped down off the slab. John was definitely man-like. It had all the required limbs and accouterments. Ah yes, probably some clothes were in order, and soon. Rodney felt his cheeks flush and blamed it on the rising sun.
"You seem less mechanical than you did a few minutes ago. Do you feel any different?" Rodney asked. He poked John in the shoulder. Instead of smooth, silvery metal under his fingertip, warm flesh whitened under the pressure before blossoming to the red flush of blood just under the surface. "I'm sure that wasn't like that before. Hmmm."
"What is it with you and the poking?" John scowled.
"Your hair. It's not …well, it is springy but not literally black springs anymore." Rodney gently touched the tip of one of John's metal ears. "I wonder if they'll stay this pointy. Be a shame to see them turn completely normal." Rodney sighed. "Your designers made you smart and pretty, and you're adapting a lot quicker than I was led to suspect. I really hope I don't have to disassemble you."
They sat at the table and Rodney watched as John sampled each cup of coffee in front of him: black, cream and sugar, just cream, and just sugar. Of course, Rodney knew that having a soul didn't automatically make one a purist but his heart did a fist pump of joy when John finished the unadulterated black coffee first.
Rodney signaled the waiter over for a refill. The diner was quiet this time of day. They must have missed the morning rush, which was just fine with Rodney. He knew they were being watched as it was. In a way, they were both on probation.
"That was a neat trick, getting us here." John blew over the top of his mug and took a careful sip. His lips didn't click against the side of the mug anymore. Instead, Rodney noted, they'd become soft and distractingly curved.
Rodney waved a hand in the air. "Quantum universes, yadda yadda, just check your database. A number of advanced races have had a handle on it for years."
"Still, it's neat. I like the tablecloths here too." John tapped the red-checked design with one finger, its metallic shell making a soft chime. Then he grinned at Rodney. "It's cheery."
"I hate to break it to you," Rodney huffed, "but this is hardly about the ambience."
"I know. It's about me." John leaned forward, elbows on the table, and puzzled expression on his face. "But why, Rodney? My database tells me I'm not unique. A lot of advanced races have successfully created artificial warriors."
"Not so much with the success, actually. There's always a flaw. Some part that gets out of hand, oh say, like the urge for galactic domination and the destruction of life as we know it."
"But I'm different," John prodded.
Rodney sat back and folded his arms over his chest. "You’re what? – some kind of creature, not born but made out of spring parts and someone's obsessive wish fulfillment. Not exactly a marriage made in the heavens. Seriously, I can’t believe I’ve been assigned to you."
"I do not have spring parts!"
Rodney gave him a crooked grin for his trouble and pointed at John's hair.
Eyes narrowed and unamused, John asked, "And what exactly do you mean, you've been assigned to me?"
Rodney pinched the bridge of his nose. "You are not supposed to have a – and you have no idea how much it pains me to say this – a soul. It makes disassembling you problematic to say the least." Rodney sighed. "Now I have to find out if you're evil first."
"I'm not. I swear I'm not." John leaned back, one arm over the back of the booth in a lazy sprawl as if he had all day. He tilted his head with a considering expression on his face.
Rodney watched, his mouth dropping open, as John – honest to god – pouted and looked at him through thick, dark eyelashes.
"Maybe I'm a lover, not a warrior, McKay. Did you think of that?"
"Well, no – I…I…you might as well know, I don’t know what I’m doing here – I…"
John sat across from him looking sexy, slinky and, hoo-boy, not at all mechanical, or at least not in any bad way. Rodney fought back the urge to loosen his collar and continued. "I'm so very unqualified for this. No really. Stupid, meddling ascended races. They never could leave well enough alone.
"This – and by this, I mean you – is so far out of my area of expertise –" Rodney gave a put upon sigh. "– well, now apparently I'm your mentor, heavens help us. There's no reasonable reason for those powers to insist I be the one, unless…I'm sorry, John. I think someone is trying to teach me a lesson and you got caught in the crossfire."
Rodney gave John a crooked, apologetic grin.
Before Rodney could elaborate, the diner's resident waiter stopped at the table with a refill and a plate of French fries. Smiling, he set the plate in front of them and refilled their mugs. "Don't see two like you here very often. Here you go. Fries, on the house." He grinned at Rodney. "Nice wings."
"Um, yes. Er, thank you?" Rodney stammered, flustered at the compliment.
As soon as the waiter left, John tapped Rodney on the hand, his touch warm and human. "I notice no one here thinks we look out of place. Why is that?"
"Quantum realities, remember? Like I'm going to take us to a way station that doesn't accept us. Please, we're practically the most normal people here."
"So." John toyed with a fry. "Is there a reality where I can have wings too?"
"You want wings?" Rodney asked, wishing John would just eat the damn fry and stop making love to it with his mouth. "Why? Feathers get in your food, screw with your center of balance, and finding clothes that fit is damned annoying."
"But, you can fly!"
John pinned him with a glare. "Rodney, are you saying you don't use your wings to fly? Why on earth not?"
Looking everywhere but directly at John, he said, "I don't know how." Rodney's voice dropped to a shamed whisper. "– and I, there's a definite possibility that I'm just a teeniest bit afraid of heights."
Maybe it was the challenge in those hazel eyes, or maybe it had something to do with things Rodney didn't want to examine too closely. He could lay the blame however he liked, but in the end it made no difference. Rodney still found himself spending the next week standing with John on the windy plains of some obscure countryside as John tried to teach him to use his wings.
John's transformation was nearly complete, save the clear crystal in his chest covering the metal workings of his heart. His hands were blood-warm, strong, and shockingly intimate. Rodney found himself leaning into John's touch more often than not. And John liked touching. He seemed to find excuses to touch Rodney's shoulders and curl strong fingers over Rodney's arms. There were long, unnecessary caresses that – well, Rodney would bite his tongue off first before he'd complain about it.
John seemed fascinated by Rodney's wingspan. "I can't believe you. You never…wow."
Rodney stood very still as John stroked his hands over the long line of his wings.
"You're amazing," John said.
"You're only saying that because you don't really know me. You – oh." Rodney let out a breathless squeal as John pushed a knee between Rodney's legs to widen his stance.
"For balance, Rodney," John's voice was soft and cajoling. "C'mon, McKay, spread your wings as wide as you can for me. I know you want to."
"I could carry you." The words blurted out of Rodney's mouth before he could think better of it. He swallowed hard, refusing to back down now that he'd said it. "We don't have to go far but I'm strong enough now, I know it."
John didn't hesitate. He stepped right into Rodney's open arms and hugged his neck. "I know you can, Rodney. I bet you could carry us anywhere."
It was tempting to let his hands slide down and just feel the warm, smooth muscles of John's back. Determined to resist, Rodney kept his hands from roaming down any lower. Still, John was so human now and all he really wanted to do is nuzzle at one of those quirky, strangely charming ears.
He couldn't do it though, no matter how good John smelled. Rodney was too afraid he'd break some sort of unwritten mentor rule and that it could end up getting John disassembled. Permanently. So instead, Rodney concentrated on moving his wings and lifting them into the air.
"You know, Rodney," John said, "You could get us up higher than three feet off the ground." But he was grinning when he said it.
It took some trial and error, but over the next few days, they figured out how to make it work. Meanwhile, Rodney never stopped asking questions – questions that had more to do with testing John's moral code than with any kind of aerodynamics.
Coming up with proof that John wasn't evil weighed on him. Only how did he prove a sense of humor and John's unique moral code had human value?
"I hate this. How am I supposed to prove that you're not a maniacal overlord with delusions of conquest?" Rodney asked. He waved his hands through the air in pointed frustration. "How, John? And who do I report to anyway?"
"You worry too much," John answered. "Besides, didn’t you say we're being watched? Trust me, when the Ascended judge us, we'll know."
Rodney scowled. "This right here is exactly why all the ascended races should have clearly defined rules of non-interference. You realize I wasn't made to stay in the human world this long. I should be out making sure the galaxies stay in place and that the equations are right so that black holes don't pull stars out of rotation. This universe doesn't run itself. Not properly anyway." He smiled sadly at John. "I miss it, you know?"
"Aw, buddy. It's not all bad is it? I mean, we're having a pretty good time, right?"
"For now. Who knows if it's all going to end horribly? Which it probably will."
"Have some faith, Rodney." John leaned his back to Rodney’s chest and pulled Rodney’s arms up around him. "It's a beautiful day; let's not waste it."
With a roll of his eyes, Rodney gave in to the inevitable. He drew a long breath, gathered all his strength, and held John tight to his chest. With slow, steady beats of his wings, Rodney flew them as high in to the sky as he could manage.
John's robust enchantment of the wide sky and his shout of joy made Rodney's heart feel lighter. Ridiculously illogical of course, but nevertheless true.
They lay in the long, sweet grasses of the field. Rodney would have taken them anywhere but John had a thing for sleeping under the stars. Looking up at the night sky, Rodney wondered why he'd never taken John night flying. He was about to suggest it to John when he heard a gentle snore.
His head pillowed on his arms, John lay asleep, breathing in the honey of the night. With his face bathed in moonlight, he slept the peace of the untroubled, and Rodney couldn't help but feel envy.
It didn't take a genius to know their time together was almost over. John was fully human now, with no remaining traces of mechanical components anywhere, and honestly, they both knew it had always been just a matter of time.
Rodney swallowed back a sigh. It made no difference how beautiful John looked; he wasn't Rodney's to touch, at least not the way he wanted to touch. Then again, on the bright side, neither one of them was dead. Maybe, just this once, the Ascended had decided in Rodney's favor.
There remained one thing that Rodney could do for John.
Carefully, so that John didn’t wake, Rodney gently turned John over so that his back faced the starlight. He laid his hand down between John's shoulder blades. The air stilled around them as Rodney drew on power and science so advanced that it looked like magic. Yes, there was give and take involved, but it was a price Rodney gave freely.
Almost immediately, small feathers began to sprout. Once John's shoulders sported a downy white cover, they began to grow rapidly. In bare minutes, full-grown wings arched from John’s back.
John woke with a start, not surprising under the circumstances. "Rodney? What did…oh." John stood and stretched his new wings. "They’re real? Really real?" he asked, wonder in his voice.
"Yes," Rodney answered, grinning. "Try them. But be careful. You have to build up to flying, like I did. Like you showed me."
Stepping back, John flapped his new wings. "Don't worry. I'm just getting a feel for it."
"John? Don't do something stupid."
Flashing a cheeky grin in Rodney's direction, John launched himself into the evening sky.
Hours passed. Rodney paced and managed to fight back panic until he could see daybreak rising over the horizon. There was still no sign of John.
How did the other mentors manage to guard their charges and then let them go? Rodney closed his eyes in pain. He must have done it wrong because this huge, empty ache inside felt awful.
"John can't keep them, you know."
Startled, Rodney's head jerked up as he tried to locate the voice intruding on his thoughts. He could just make out squid-like branches of glowing light from the corner of his eye. It was one of the Ascended. Oh, joy. Worse, the being refused to solidify and look Rodney in the eye.
"Are you done with us now?" Rodney snapped. "And what do you mean he can't keep the wings?" Rodney folded his arms over his chest and glared in the appropriate direction. "They were freely given."
"You can't force a self-filling prophecy, mentor."
"What prophecy?" Rodney asked. "Oh, no no no. No one mentioned anything to me about a prophecy."
The voice sounded regretfully amused, like Rodney was some indulged, errant pet. "Prophecy says, The one will come from a great distance. He will have command of the sky and the great City will welcome him like a child to a mother's bosom."
"I've never heard of it." Rodney stuck his chin out in defiance. "You're making this crap up just to annoy me and because you can't stand to see something good come out of my efforts."
The voice continued, ignoring Rodney's protests. "His arrival will bring hope to weary worlds and a great enemy will be destroyed."
"Oh, please. Where did you get that generic prophecy from – Prophecies R Us?"
"I'm sorry, Rodney, but you can't give John command of the sky until he's earned it. That means no wings."
"Fine, but you just can't take them away. What if John is in the middle flying? Oh no. Is that what you did? Is John lying hurt somewhere? Is that why he didn't come back? That's how you choose to punish us?"
It was the last full thought Rodney had as a tendril of ascended light touched his temple.
"You will learn, Rodney McKay. This is not a punishment."
At least the ascended had the decency to let him keep his genius and pursuing astrophysics let him stay close to the stars. Sure, they'd softened many of his memories to keep him from going mad, but Rodney still remembered his love for the stars. And he remembered John.
He tugged at the hem of the orange fleece and repressed a shiver. The seats in this Ancient facility were damn cold. From the sound of it, Carson was panicking about something again. A major problem?
Rodney frowned and quickened his stride. They'd just stopped a drone from exploding and blowing up a general. What had his team done to cause a crisis this time?
The last thing Rodney expected to see was Major John Sheppard working the Ancient control chair like a child's toy.
He ran John through every drill and tested every device he could think of. Most of it was an excuse to stay close. Rodney wanted to touch John badly, to assure all of his senses that John was with him and gloriously alive. He didn't, of course – because what if John didn't remember?
Finally alone, Rodney stared at the man in front of him, completely at a loss for words.
"Rodney, why didn’t you come?" John hissed. "I waited and waited for you, and you didn’t come. Were you mad?"
"You waited?" Rodney asked.
"Yes. I went to the canyon edge where we always went when we flew together. I thought you were giving me a chance to get used to flying and that you were going to meet me there." John looked genuinely confused. "I wanted us to fly into the sunrise together but you still didn’t come."
"I can’t. I couldn't." Rodney drew in a shaky breath because John was here and he remembered. He remembered! After all these years, Rodney chest began to feel less hollow.
John, however, had crossed his arms over his chest and looked ready to shoot something. "You never showed up. Why, Rodney? I get wings of my own and suddenly I’m not good enough to share the sky with? If you remember, I’m the one who got you to fly in the first place."
"That’s not why."
John raised one eyebrow and gave him a look that said, talk fast, and make it good, mentor-boy.
"Your wings? They used to be mine. I couldn't make you wings out of nothing but I could transfer mine to you. I knew it meant I wouldn't fly again. Guess I was a little too excited and forgot to mention it. Um, sorry about that. But you looked so happy. I don't regret it, John. I don't." Rodney looked hopefully at his friend. "Now do you understand?"
John gave him an intense look and Rodney wondered if he'd said too little too late.
He worried right up until, with a quirk of a smile, John leaned over and husked his ear, "Then I guess I'm just going to have to teach you other ways to fly."