It began soon after Doranda.
Rodney McKay dragged himself to his quarters after a long day in the lab. There was no opportunity to wallow in self-pity or recrimination, no, he had to analyze all the data from the last test, determine the ultimate fate of the Doranda system, figure out if his failure had doomed a solar system, a sector, a galaxy, or the entire universe.
The question was academic as far as he was concerned. The closest inhabited system to Doranda was 150 light years away, that system had plenty of time to evacuate. Even if the shock wave of the stable Higgs field moved at the speed of light, which was doubtful given the measured bleed of energy into subspace, it would be four thousand years before the Pegasus Galaxy dissipated due to lack of mass.
The question wasn't academic at all.
All data pointed to...
Rodney took a steadying breath outside his quarters. He thought the door open and stopped at the threshold. All thought of galactic dissipation left him at the sight.
Rodney stepped back, let the door close, and then decided maybe he'd spend the night in his lab.
There was no way he'd just seen a large white goose, no, a swan sitting on his bed wearing a gold necklace. Nope, didn't happen.
It happened again the next night. He trudged back to his quarters, thinking lewd thoughts about his bed, aching all over from the last night's all-nighter. He paused at his door, took a deep breath, he'd even convinced himself the previous night was a hallucination.
He opened the door.
Rodney slumped as he saw the big white bird again. It sat on his bed, the blankets pulled around it like it was nesting there. It was a swan, it had the yellow and black beak of a common fairy tale swan. It wore a fine gold necklace around its neck, some clear bauble dangling at the divot between its breasts.
It cocked its head at him then arched its neck and called again.
Rodney sighed heavily and let the door close. He trudged back to his lab. Maybe there was a spare chair he could sleep in. He never thought he'd miss his old grad school couch...
The third time it happened Rodney wanted to cry. Three nights in a row he'd come home after days that seemed to be getting longer and longer and he just wanted to sleep in his own bed, was that too much to ask? But no, some weird giant bird had laid claim to it and it just sat there! Sat there and honked at him and wore the same stupid weird gold necklace like this was some sort of Russian ballet!
“Why?” Rodney demanded. “Why me?”
The swan cocked its head at him.
“All I want is to get some sleep,” Rodney whined. “What are you?! This is punishment isn't it? I'm being punished for everything I've done!”
The swan had the audacity to look sheepish. It stood up and waddled over to a far corner of the bed, almost like it was offering Rodney the warm spot.
Rodney bit back tears of frustration that the stupid bird was still here. But there was a bed and he didn't care that it smelled like bird or that it was pre-warmed by bird butt, it was his bed and he fell on it without even taking his shoes off first. He grabbed his pillow and bunched it up under his chin as he lay on his belly. He kicked his feet against each other, trying to pry his shoes off but not caring much as he failed.
He had the oddest feeling, like a beak nipped at his hair as he fell asleep.
He awoke to the sound of his radio buzzing. He batted at it but it wouldn't stop. Fine. He grabbed it and tapped the channel open. “What?” he mumbled.
“Dr. McKay, good morning,” Dr. Weir said. Rodney had no idea how anyone could sound so sarcastic so early in the morning. “We have a staff meeting. Now.”
Oh. It wasn't that early at all. Shit. “Be there in five minutes,” he said. He shook himself aware, shoved his feet back into shoes, figured last night's uniform was still on so that counted as dressed, and left.
“Nice feathers, McKay,” Sheppard drawled.
Rodney squinted at him. He hadn't had a chance to get coffee much less look in a mirror this morning and he wasn't entirely awake yet. Worse, the weird little bauble Sheppard wore around his neck was distracting. “Wha?” he asked.
Sheppard reached out and plucked a downy white feather from Rodney's hair.
“Huh.” Rodney blinked at the feather. If others could see it then... “I wasn't hallucinating.”
“Good to know you thought you had been,” Weir said blandly.
“No no, not about anything important,” Rodney said dismissively. “Just there was this bird in my room and... Know what, it's unimportant. I'll shut up now.”
Rodney sighed happily as Sheppard slid a cup of coffee his way and the meeting began.
That night the swan was back.
“Hey,” Rodney said.
The swan sat on his pillow this time, at least Rodney thought that's where his pillow was. It was hard to see underneath the fairly broad expanse of bird.
“So you're real,” Rodney said.
“Why are you here?”
The swan cocked its head at him. The bauble on its throat shifted, catching the light.
“Yes, yes, I know you're a bird and you can't talk,” Rodney said. “But you're a bird. From Earth, I assume. Barring that I doubt a bird your size could fly in from the mainland and the Athosians haven't reported any birds your size anyway.”
Rodney stripped off his overshirt and scratched at his t-shirt. He hadn't had a shower in a few days and he was feeling quite a bit rank. He glanced at the swan but it was a bird, it was already naked. What did he care if a bird saw him without clothes? “I'm going to take a shower,” he said. “I assume you don't spend your days in here since there's no bird shit everywhere so if you want to just fly off that's fine with me.”
Rodney half expected the bird to jump off his bed, waddle to the window, then open it and fly away. He didn't expect the swan to follow him into the bathroom. “You're huge,” Rodney realized.
Rodney could have sworn the swan gave him a deadpanned look.
“Don't give me that look, you're huge,” Rodney said defensively. The swan was bigger than any mere goose he'd ever seen. It was almost tall enough to look him in the eye if it straightened its neck. He did some mental guesswork and realized it must have at least a 3 meter wingspan. “Okay, I'm being followed by a bird big enough to kill me.”
Rodney had the strangest feeling the swan was trying to talk to him. But that couldn't be, swans didn't talk. They also didn't wear gold necklaces or live in the Pegasus galaxy either. He felt his grasp of reality beginning to slip and sighed, heading to the bathroom. He decided against the shower, he needed a bath.
He only realized once the swan got in that a bath... might not be the most solitary of ideas.
“Stay over there,” Rodney pleaded as he gave up and got in.
The water felt good against his skin. He laid back and relaxed, letting hot water steal away some of his worry and the weirdnesses of these past few--
Rodney shrieked as something touched him. He glared at the swan who was just pulling its head out of the water. “You bit me,” he accused.
The swan arched its neck like it was trying to look pretty and innocent and and and...
Rodney kicked at the swan. It spread its wings and flapped awkwardly out of the tub, honking like he'd offended it. It fluffed its feathers at him, wiggled its tail, and sat on the edge of the tub with a distinctly regal air.
Rodney resigned himself to a lack of relaxation tonight. He finished up in the tub and dried off, choosing not to react as the swan followed him to bed. He curled up under the blankets, not even bothering with the pair of shorts the swan was poking at. “Go away,” Rodney pleaded. “Let me...” He yawned. “Let me get some sleep.”
He wasn't sure but he thought he felt human hands pull the blanket over his shoulders. Then the window opened and he was asleep.
Rodney met his team for breakfast. At least that hadn't changed. Today was omelets and hash browns and fried things and Rodney held no qualms about all the ham and cheese he had the KP staff put into his eggs. He'd had a long week and he needed the salt and fats to help feel better. It was medicinal.
Rodney slid into a chair, fending off Ronon's fork as he did so. That hadn't changed either. Nor had Sheppard's annoying laugh like--
Something in Rodney's mind connected things that made no sense and he stared at Sheppard in utter shock. He still wore that bauble around his neck. It was the same gold necklace the swan wore. And that laugh. He'd always compared it to a donkey but...
“You,” Rodney whispered.
Sheppard's honking laugh faded as he cocked his head and looked at Rodney. The bauble on his neck caught the light and he slowly grinned.
“Yes, Rodney,” Sheppard said. “Me.”
Rodney stood up and fled the mess hall.
Ronon watched Rodney run away and then looked down at his untouched breakfast. He grabbed Rodney's tray and slid it over. He offered it to Sheppard.
“Nah,” Sheppard said. “You know I don't eat eggs.”
“Right,” Ronon said as he dug in. “What was that about anyway?”
Sheppard grinned. “Rodney's world view just shifted a bit.”
“Good for him,” Ronon said.
That night Rodney stormed into his room all ready to begin a rant but the swan wasn't there. His window was open and papers were strewn about by the wind. A single white feather was stuffed into his pillow. He closed the window and glared at the windblown mess.
Rodney tapped his radio. “Sheppard, where are you?”
Sheppard answered. “My quarters, Rodney. What's up?”
“What's up?” Rodney demanded. “What's up? Why you pompous, overrated, feather-headed--”
“Really?” Sheppard drawled. “You want to do this over the radio?”
“Stay there,” Rodney warned. He headed over to Sheppard's quarters.
Sheppard sat on his bed with a laptop in front of him and a big white...
“The hell is that?” Rodney asked.
Sheppard shook out the snowy white cloak, the thousands of soft white feathers glittering in the light. “I didn't want to bring it with me at first,” he said. “What if I lost it? What if we all died out here? Can you imagine it, being forced to look like this a whole year?”
Rodney looked Sheppard up and down. “Oh poor you, you had to look like an attractive man for a year,” he snapped. “What's going on? What are you?”
Sheppard lay his cloak on the bed and began to strip. “You ever see Swan Lake?” He dropped his shirt on the floor.
“I know some of the piano work. What does that have to do with anything?”
“The lady cursed to be a swan by day,” Sheppard said. He huffed, hissing through his teeth. “She falls in love with a prince but he's tricked to marry another. They die to be together. That's not how the story goes. She was never human. She never had a choice. She was a swan maiden and he stole her cloak from her while she bathed.” He shoved down pants and shorts in one movement, kicking them all off. “He held her prisoner for a decade until she found her cloak again and ran away, flew away, escaped the slavery of being his wife, of pretending to love him, of bearing his children.” He spat the traditional 'happy ending' words of marriage and family like they were poison.
“What... does this have to do with you?” Rodney asked.
Sheppard pulled the cloak over his shoulders and fluffed the feathers around his neck. The bauble shone in the light. “Imagine she never escapes,” he said. “Imagine her son is the one who finds her cloak after she died. Imagine his horror when he realizes what she was, what he is, and what that means his father did. Imagine he puts on her cloak and finds he's just as bound to his father as she was.” He entwined his fingers in the folds of the feathered cloak and felt its embrace.
Rodney watched as the cloak seemed to flow over Sheppard, the feathers fluffing and spreading and changing him. Arms became wings that arched through the room, a great wind rising as they flapped. His neck twisted into a graceful arch and his face distorted with a great shriek that devolved into a loud hissing and a strange croaking honk.
And then it was over.
The swan stood in Sheppard's place, the giant bird standing almost tall enough to look Rodney in the eye.
Rodney sat down. He didn't care where, ended up on the floor. The swan waddled over to him.
Rodney's eyes were drawn to the shiny bauble at the swan's neck. He reached out and touched the stone, or was it glass? Something in him knew it was a mark of enslavement, that if he pulled it off Sheppard would be free. But... “If I pull this off you'll never be human again,” he realized.
The swan nodded.
“Do you want me to?”
The swan nodded.
Rodney bit back a sob. “Okay,” he said. He slid his fingers under the bauble and broke the gold chain.
The swan flapped its wings happily and crawled into his lap as he held it, as he held the bird that was once his best friend and cried.