He had a mission, and he was more than ready to go. Once upon a time he’d yearned to be an Archangel, wielding the fiery sword of Father’s will. Now, though, the divine presence was much less and the Archangels had very little to do. Better, then, to have his job, which allowed him to fly so fast and so far, and visit the peoples of Earth. His visits were short, always leaving him full of curiosity and a desire to stay longer, see more. Of course, the job came first, always, and it was an important one – he eased humans through death and shepherded their souls Home.
Now he sped his way toward that blue planet, ready to give comfort and ferry a new soul back. His mind should’ve been on the assignment but instead he was thinking of tall buildings and green fields and watery expanses. When the satellite crossed his path he dodged a little too late and slammed into it. It was the first time he ever felt physical pain and it clouded his mind; the remainder of his trip was an out-of-control blur.
“I’m sorry, Rodney, but this just isn’t going to work.” Jennifer watched him from across the table and seemed genuinely regretful, in as much as Rodney was able to discern such things.
They’d been dating for just about seven months, long enough that Rodney had started to cautiously think maybe this time he was getting it right. He was notoriously bad at interpersonal relationships but Jennifer had been willing to help him, to change him; apparently the task was too cumbersome.
“I understand,” he said glumly. And he did, he really did. He knew Jennifer didn’t like the late hours he put in for Dr. Magnardi, hours he should be spending on his own doctoral thesis. Hours he wasn’t spending with his girlfriend. The sad thing was that he didn’t think he’d even miss Jennifer that much. Rodney was too self-involved to let someone else into his life fully; there’d always been emotional distance between them, a gap he’d been unwilling to help her cross.
“You’re a good guy,” Jennifer said, and Rodney couldn’t help but snort at that. “No, I mean it. It’s just…you need to rearrange your priorities, you know?”
He didn’t know and that was part of the problem. His top priority was his thesis on wormhole theory, which was the key to getting his doctorate and from there changing his branch of science forever. Unfortunately being a TA had taken up seemingly all of his time lately and during the late hours when he’d normally do his own work he wasn’t physically feeling up to it.
Speaking of which, Rodney’s headache was back in full force; he fished the prescription bottle of pills out of his pocket and dry swallowed one of them. He’d gotten used to the regular throbbing, but sometimes the pain spiked up, pounding just behind his eyes, and during those instances the pills were the only thing that kept him from having to hide in his bed with the shades drawn all day.
“Headache?” Jennifer asked sympathetically.
“What else?” he sighed.
“I wish you’d get a second opinion.”
It was a familiar argument. Rodney had started getting the headaches several months ago. He’d gone to the campus Health Center and been diagnosed with migraines, but the pills hadn’t been the miracle cure he’d hoped for. Jennifer was certain there was some other reason for Rodney’s suffering and had been pushing him to see a different physician. As he’d told her time and time again, he had neither the insurance nor the income to get a second opinion.
“I should go.” Rodney stood and tossed a few dollars on the café table to cover their drinks and a very small tip.
“Yeah. Uh, goodbye. And…you know.” Breakups were always awkward, though this one at least hadn’t ended in angry shouting or tears. He’d never been able to stay friends with his exes, had never understood anyone who could, and he didn’t try to make any such promises now.
It was his intention to go back to his closet of an office; there were exams to grade and he’d promised Dr. Magnardi he’d go through the latest Astrophysics journal and summarize the salient articles. Instead he wandered around campus, mostly deserted at this late hour, and thought through his now-defunct relationship with Jennifer.
They’d met at the campus coffee house, where Jennifer worked the night shift to offset her tuition; she was pre-med. Rodney kept late hours himself and relied on caffeine to keep him conscious, and so the two of them had gotten to know each other over espresso and biscotti. He’d been surprised when Jennifer invited him to dinner; pretty girls were never drawn to him, not in his experience, though sometimes the pretty guys got a little flirty.
Rodney sat down on the bench next to the reflecting pool and looked up at the sky. He’d been a little kid when the stars first captivated him; he used to sit outside for hours, finding all the constellations. Nowadays he was much too busy to spend time stargazing, and he wondered if Jennifer was right; maybe his priorities were out of whack.
“Ursa Major. Ursa Minor. Cassiopeia. Huh. Meteor?”
A light was streaking through the sky, much too quickly to be a plane or a satellite. Rodney watched it avidly, eyes wide as it seemed to head straight towards him.
“Oh, crap!” The flight instinct took over and he dove off the bench and did a clumsy roll along the concrete. The meteor – or possibly a random piece of space station junk – landed in the reflecting pool with a tremendous smacking-splash that sent torrents of water out a good six or so feet; Rodney got drenched.
He scrambled to his feet and ran back to the pool, intent on finding his space rock. What he found instead was…was…his brain must’ve shorted out because surely he wasn’t seeing what he was seeing.
There was a man face down in what water remained in the pool. A man with wings.
It took far too long for reason to kick back in, and then Rodney was splashing into the pool to pull out the man – with wings – who incidentally couldn’t possibly be breathing.
“Hey. Please don’t be dead.” The guy was wearing white pants, thin enough that they left little to the imagination when they were saturated; Rodney very carefully averted his gaze from the finely shaped backside. The guy was thin but heavy, and with the added bulk of snowy white wings – wings! – it took all of Rodney’s strength to get him out of the pool and on to the concrete.
“Wow.” For a moment all he could do was stare. This guy…thing…creature…was gorgeous. Dark hair was plastered to his head. Strong jaw, long lashes, alabaster skin; he could’ve been a model. If he was breathing. Which he was not.
“Come on, come on.” Rodney felt for a pulse and found one, which was good, but it wouldn’t stay good if the breathing thing wasn’t resolved. He started to panic; he didn’t know CPR, beyond what they showed on television and he knew that couldn’t possibly be accurate. He got to his feet, looking frantically around for help, but at this hour the campus was a ghost town.
There was a bright flash of blue light, which startled him, and when he turned around the man from the pool was completely dry. His white shirt was no longer pleasantly sculpted to his chest and his hair stood up in gravity-defying cowlicks. He still wasn’t breathing.
“Okay. Rescue breathing. How hard can it be?” Rodney carefully kneeled down again and pulled the guy on his side, in case he’d swallowed water. When nothing came out he gently returned him to his supine position and tilted his head back to open his airway.
“Please work,” he whispered, then pressed his lips to the stranger’s and blew into his mouth. It was gratifying to see the guy’s chest rise in response, and so he did it again and again. And then the guy stirred beneath him.
Rodney drew back and found himself looking into a pair of hazel-green eyes. They seemed to glow somehow, as if a fire was burning just behind them. Feeling suddenly ungainly and awkward, Rodney helped the man sit up; he tried very hard not to stare at the wings.
“Um. Are you okay? Because that was quite a fall and really, at the velocity you must’ve been traveling you really should be so much mush in the middle of a crater.” Rodney babbled when he was nervous, and this whole situation made him incredibly edgy. “I’m not going to ask about the wings, because I’m sure that’s personal. And I’m sure there’s a logical explanation for them. Um…mutant gene? Science experiment gone awry? Some kind of…”
The man reached out and put his finger on Rodney’s lips, and it was like all his words dried up and blew away. He stared at the man, who looked back at him with a soft smile on his face. He put his hands on Rodney’s shoulders and pulled him closer, wings extending behind him. Rodney felt a kind of peaceful numbness spreading over him as he leaned forward and let himself be drawn in.
The moment was broken when the man gave a sharp, bird-like cry and winced, moving back and clutching at his left wing with a look of pain and confusion on his expressive face.
“Hey.” Rodney shook out of his torpor. “You okay?”
He took a closer look at the wing and saw that at the bend there were several busted feathers and the whole joint seemed a bit swollen.
“You hurt yourself.” Rodney wasn’t what anyone would call a caretaker, but something about this guy brought out his protective side. “Come on. We can’t leave you out here or they’ll have you in the Bio labs before you can blink.”
He got to his feet and pulled the guy up with him. He wondered why there was no talking. Was it from the trauma of his impromptu dive? Or maybe he just didn’t speak English. Luckily Rodney had no trouble keeping even a one-sided conversation going.
“Okay, look. I’m going to take you back to my place and we’ll figure things out. How does that sound?”
The guy reached for him again, that same soft look on his face, but like before he extended his wing too far and flinched back in pain.
“Stop that! Are you mentally deficient? Look, I’ll wrap it up for you okay?”
Rodney was glad now that no-one was around; he’d never be able to smuggle a guy with wings across campus to his ratty little apartment. Luckily he was fully mobile, though Rodney noticed for the first time that apparently wings precluded shoes; the guy’s slender and oddly attractive feet were completely bare.
“It’s not far. My apartment, I mean.” He kept hold of the guy’s arm at the elbow. “Do you have a name? You know. A name? I’m Rodney McKay. Of course, you can just call me Rodney. If you want to. Soon it’ll be Dr. McKay.”
He couldn’t wait to get his doctorate. He was only twenty-four and to achieve one of his dreams so early was almost mind-blowing. Once he had his degree there was no stopping him from achieving his other dream – the Nobel Prize. He gave a sideways glance to his silent companion. Maybe this was his Nobel, practically delivered to him on a silver platter.
The guy was looking at everything, his head turning this way and that. Rodney absolutely did not find that endearing. He got caught staring, and the guy grinned at him; there was nothing he did that wasn’t gorgeous.
“John,” Rodney blurted out. “I’m gonna call you John.”
It was the plainest, most generic name he could think of; it seemed an appropriate way to mitigate his ridiculous good looks. The guy – John – gave him a thoughtful look but in no other way acknowledged the moniker.
Rodney lived two blocks from campus, and for a wonder the only people they passed were in cars and clearly oblivious to the guy with wings strolling so gracefully down the sidewalk. His place was on the second floor and as soon as he had the door open he was embarrassed by the messy state of things.
“Sorry,” he apologized, picking up discarded clothes. “I don’t usually have people over.”
John didn’t seem at all put off by the clutter. He wandered around touching things, and sometimes smelling them. His wings were tight against his back, but there was an occasional dry rustling when they brushed up against the furniture. Rodney dumped an armful of clothes in the bedroom and quickly changed out of the wet ones he was wearing while his houseguest was otherwise occupied.
When he stepped back out to the living room John was holding a picture frame and studying it with a curious intensity. He held it out to Rodney, eyebrows raised in question.
“My sister Jeannie. She lives in Canada.”
John made a little hmm noise and put the frame back where it was. Jeannie’s photo was the only one in the apartment – did he really not have one of Jennifer anywhere? No wonder she left him – and Rodney found himself telling John about her even though he normally preferred to talk about himself.
“Younger sister. She’s brilliant, like me, and someday she’ll make valuable contributions to science, you wait and see. Not Nobel-worthy, maybe, but she’s still smarter than almost anyone else. We don’t see a lot of each other.”
He sat down on his thrift store couch and sighed. It was nearly one in the morning and he still had so much to do. Plus, his headache was already starting to come back and it was too soon to take another pill.
John sat beside him, feathers making crinkly sounds as his wings adjusted. He touched Rodney’s forehead with one slender finger, a question in his hazel eyes. Was it the lack of language skills that made him so facially expressive?
“It’s just a headache,” Rodney whispered.
John gave him a look that clearly said bullshit and Rodney had to stifle a laugh. John smiled softly back at him and pulled him down so that Rodney’s head was on his shoulder. The wings moved again, curling around the two of them.
“Hmmm,” Rodney hummed, feeling suddenly drowsy. His headache receded a bit and he closed his eyes, warm in John’s feathered embrace. “You know you can’t be real, right?”
John made an odd chirping noise and ran his hands down Rodney’s back in a calming, repetitive motion. In less than a minute Rodney was sound asleep.
Rodney woke to the sun in his eyes and loud pounding coming from his front door. He rolled over with a groan and almost fell off the couch.
“What?” He sat up and looked around, confused. He didn’t remember falling asleep, didn’t remember anything after John – John!
“John!” Rodney scrambled off the couch and looked frantically around the living room. No wings.
“Rodney! Open door!” The pounding grew louder, which he wouldn’t have thought was possible, as did Radek’s strident voice. “I will break in, I promise you!”
“John?” Rodney opened the bedroom door and found his new, ridiculously good-looking friend sitting on the bed petting Rodney’s old orange fleece pullover; he must’ve dug deep in the closet to find that ratty old thing. He looked genuinely pleased to see Rodney, though perhaps that was merely wishful thinking.
“Stay here!” Rodney shut the bedroom door and hurried to let Radek in before he did something regrettable. “Will you stop making all that noise?”
Radek glowered at him from behind his round glasses. They’d met in the Engineering program several years ago and though Rodney had moved on to Astrophysics they still got together about once a week, usually for lunch and a stimulating debate on anything from theoretical physics to the latest season of Survivor.
“I see you are alive.” Radek pushed past him into the apartment; his Czech accent was strong this morning, no doubt due to his clearly high level of aggravation.
“Why wouldn’t I be? Is Kavanagh spreading that rumor again?”
“Do you know the time?”
Rodney looked dumbly at his bare wrist for a moment, then at his microwave; the time flashed twelve o’clock because he never reset it after the last time he’d tripped the breaker.
“Uh, early? Far too early for you to be over here harassing me.”
Radek stared at him. “Rodney, is after one. In afternoon.”
Instant panic. He hadn’t done any of the things he needed to – no papers graded, no articles summarized, and certainly no work done on his thesis. Dr. Magnardi was going to kill him. Not to mention everyone in the entry level course he was supposed to teach at nine o’clock.
“I’m dead! I’m so dead!” He ran into the bathroom to hastily brush his teeth and slap on some deodorant; he’d shower later, if he had the time.
Radek stook in the doorway, looking puzzled. “Is okay. I called Dr. Magnardi and made sure class was covered.”
“What’d you tell him?”
“Oh, yeah, that’s a good one.” Rodney spit his toothpaste in the sink. “I owe you one.”
“You owe me explanation. You never miss class.” There was a pause, during which Rodney washed his face. When Radek spoke again, he sounded strange. “Ah. I see now.”
Rodney dried his face and looked over at Radek, who was turned away from him. “What do you…oh.”
John had come out of the bedroom. Rodney didn’t know whether to be upset that he now had to share his secret or relieved that he had someone to talk to about it.
“This man has wings,” Radek said, sounding as dumbfounded as Rodney had felt the night before.
“Actually, I’m glad you’ve seen him because you can help me figure out what he is. I’m thinking genetic manipulation. Or maybe alternate reality.” He dug around in the cabinet under the sink until he came up with a roll of gauze and the remnants of surgical tape; leftovers from a sliced hand he’d suffered a few months earlier.
“You go straight for alternate reality and ignore most obvious answer. How typical.” Radek trailed after Rodney, who led John to the tiny kitchen table and pushed him into a chair.
“I want to bind up this joint. He hurt it when he…uh…fell.” Rodney looked up at Radek and frowned. “What’s obvious?”
“He falls? From sky?”
“And nearly drowned in the reflecting pool. I saved his life.” He puffed up his chest a little at that.
John chirped at him, trying to pull away when Rodney carefully took hold of his injured wing.
“Stop that. I’m trying to help you. Oh, this is Radek. Radek, this is John.”
“John? His name is John?” Radek sidled closer, his gaze intent. Rodney knew he was taking everything in, his sharp gaze missing no detail.
“Well, I have to call him something. He doesn’t talk.” Rodney knew he sounded defensive but John was his discovery, after all. He carefully wound the gauze around the wing joint, binding it tightly until it had a chance to heal.
“Rodney, you have angel in your kitchen. Is miraculous!”
“Oh, please. Not this again. There’s no quantifiable proof of the existence of God.”
“Here is your proof!” Radek waved his hand at John, who looked between the two of them with wide eyes.
“Look, I’m not getting into a theological debate with you.”
“What debate? Man with wings drops from sky. Can only be angel.”
“Are you going to start singing?” Rodney asked sourly. He was finished with John and patted him absently on the shoulder. “Because I can assure you it was not raining men last night.”
“This is not laughing matter,” Radek protested. “What does Jennifer say?”
Rodney felt a little stab at her name. Since finding John he’d literally forgotten all about the breakup, which probably said a lot about the relationship. He moved around the table to get to the fridge.
“She says our relationship isn’t working, so right now she’s presumably off seeking greener pastures.” Rodney sighed. He really thought he’d done better this time, but maybe he was just one of those people destined for a brilliant career but a lonely life.
As if sensing his bleak thoughts John was suddenly standing behind him, hand warm where it rested on the back of Rodney’s neck; he tried not to lean too much into it.
“I am sorry,” Radek said softly, sincere as he always was. “I liked her.”
“Yes, well, thanks.” Rodney mentally shook out of his depressing thoughts and opened the fridge, no easy task with John standing so close. “Breakfast. Uh…yeah. All I have is pudding.”
Even at the best of times Rodney’s cupboards weren’t well stocked. His stipend only stretched so far, and since a full meal plan was one of the so-called perks of being a TA he normally ate on campus. Or swiped food to take back home.
The three of them squeezed around the table with chocolate pudding cups. John turned his over and over in his hands, looking curious but confused. Rodney plucked it out of his hands and pulled back the foil lid.
“Like this,” he said, demonstrating with his own cup and spoon. “It’s good. Maybe not the healthiest option, but everyone needs to eat, right?”
John had a dubious look on his face but gamely stuck a finger into the pudding and tentatively licked at it. Rodney was rewarded with the wide, child-like grin that John beamed at him, his eyes bright with surprise and pleasure.
“He is quite something,” Radek murmured, seemingly enthralled. “But he does not speak? Angels should speak.”
“He’s not an angel,” Rodney corrected. John was using several fingers now to scoop out the pudding, chocolate smeared all around his mouth; he made little cooing sounds of pleasure.
“Perhaps telepathy?” Radek guessed.
“Maybe. If people in his reality evolved from birds instead of apes it’s possible they have similar methods of communicating. He does make a lot of bird-like sounds.”
“Evolution from birds?” Radek shook his head. “Will you not even consider possibility of angels?”
“The universe is based on scientific fact,” Rodney said, gesturing with his spoon. “Not mythology.”
“Science and theology are not mutually exclusive.”
“You can’t have it both ways,” Rodney argued. “God created Adam out of clay. But evolution tells us otherwise. I’m sorry but I’m taking hard fact over Biblical fantasy.”
Radek scowled. “Leave Bible out of it. Can you not accept one intelligence to put it all in motion?”
“There’s no basis for…”
“Is belief, Rodney! You cannot quantify belief.”
Rodney rolled his eyes. They could go on like that for days, but there were bigger issues at hand. Like the winged man who’d just stolen his pudding cup.
“Hey! Give that back!”
John curled protectively over the pudding, eyes narrowed. The wings moved as well, curling around his shoulders in a way that was totally distracting.
“He is miracle,” Radek said reverently.
The miracle looked at Rodney over the edge of his wing, a decidedly coy and non-angelic look on his face. Rodney found himself grinning at the display, even as strange things were happening in the general vicinity of his heart.
His mission had gone awry, and he wasn’t quite sure what to do now. This had never happened to him before, he had no frame of reference. What he did have, though, was something he’d never had before – time. Until he could fly again he was stuck on Earth and he was determined to make the most of it. There were so many wonderful things to see, and taste.
Pudding. Pudding was amazing! He didn’t need to eat, of course; his body wasn’t designed that way. But pudding was a pleasure, so thick and smooth and sweet. The little cups weren’t big enough, though.
Better still, Rodney had given him an Earth name. John. He liked it, liked the way it sounded when Rodney said it. It was short and it felt good when he rolled it around on his tongue. John.
Of course, all the good was tempered by the very real suffering that Rodney was going through. He wanted to help; he owed Rodney for taking care of him, for giving him an Earth name. He wanted to take Rodney’s pain away. If only he knew what to do.
Rodney kept his grandfather’s old trench coat in the back of his closet. It was the only thing he’d wanted when the old man had passed away; Roderick McKay always seemed so dashing when he wore it, like a film noir detective. Unfortunately it didn’t fit right on Rodney – too long, too baggy. Luckily it was just the right size for John, concealing his wings enough that they could leave the apartment.
“We have to get some real food in you,” Rodney explained. “To make sure you heal up properly.”
He also wanted to stop by the campus library and look at some books in the theology section. Not that he was giving any credence to Radek’s preposterous angel theory, but he wouldn’t be a good scientist if he wasn’t thorough in his research.
It was slow going. John was hampered by the shoes he was clearly unaccustomed to wearing – a pair of Rodney’s loafers, a smidge too big – and he was interested in everything; keeping him moving was difficult to say the least. It didn’t help that campus was full of students and teachers, people everywhere, and they all seemed to stare at John as he went past. Not that Rodney could blame them; even with the obviously misshapen back he was stunning.
“Come on, lothario, before you incite a public orgy.” Rodney took hold of his hand and dragged him along, ignoring the puppy dog looks and aggravated little chirps. “Are you giving off mutant pheromones or something?”
John tugged against his grip, making more irritated noises when he caught sight of someone with a dog.
“Yes, yes. You’re new in town and want to see everything. And we will,” Rodney promised. “But we have more pressing concerns, okay?”
John’s wings twitched under the coat, oddly reminiscent of a shrug. When they finally made it to the dining hall it took a brief but vicious argument with Janice, the troll who guarded the entrance, for her to allow John on Rodney’s meal card. It was a good time to hit the chow line; the lunch crowd had already come and gone, and it was too early for dinner, so they had the place mostly to themselves.
Rodney led him through the buffet line and John’s nostrils flared comically as he sniffed at everything. Rodney loaded up a tray for them to share and found a secluded table in the corner of the large room.
“Stop that!” He slapped John’s hand; he was trying to unbutton the coat. “You can’t let anyone see your…you-know-whats.”
He separated out the different foods, organizing the tray. He slid a plate in front of John, filled with grapes, pasta salad and grilled chicken. “Try these.”
John dutifully poked at his food but showed little interest in it. Instead, in a flash of movement almost quicker than the eye could see, he snapped his arm out and grabbed one of the chocolate pudding cups Rodney had set aside.
“Hey!” Rodney tried to grab it back but John held it out of reach. “What are you, the love child of Quicksilver and Hawk Girl? Fine. Have dessert first. But you’d better eat some of the other stuff too.”
John just waggled his eyebrows and pulled off the foil lid, licking the pudding off it just the way he’d seen Rodney do earlier. When he started for the cup with his fingers Rodney rapped him on the back of his hand with a spoon.
“You’re not a caveman, for goodness sake. Use the spoon.” He pushed it into John’s hand and then watched him fumble with it, unsure. Was there an alternate reality that boasted both wings and the non-invention of silverware? It seemed unlikely.
“No, no. Like this.” He demonstrated with his own spoon, and finally John got it right. He turned his attention back to his own lunch, but his dining companion was hard to ignore for long. He had the saddest expression on his face as he contemplated the now-empty pudding cup.
“Now try the real food,” Rodney said, moving his own pudding out of reach.
John scowled at the chicken as if it had personally offended him. Was he a vegetarian? Rodney had assumed not, though he had nothing to base that on aside from the premise that people who didn’t eat meat were wrong on a fundamental level. Or…well, if John really was descended from birds maybe offering him chicken was a bit like asking him to participate in cannibalism.
“Well, at least try the grapes.” He demonstrated again, this time by snatching a grape from John’s plate and popping it in his mouth. He wasn’t overly fond of them himself – not unless they were fermented into wine – but he tried to mime enjoyment.
John didn’t look convinced but he followed Rodney’s lead and popped a grape into his mouth. The expression on his face when he bit down on it was priceless – surprise and a little betrayal. He must’ve decided he liked that little burst of sweetness, though, because he finished off the rest of them in quick order. He flatly refused the chicken and the pasta salad.
“Okay, sweet tooth. Don’t come crying to me later when you’re starving. Although…” Rodney wondered if John even needed to eat. Maybe his physiology was different, or perhaps he had the appetite of an actual bird in addition to sounding like one.
“I wish you’d give me some answers instead of more questions,” he grumbled. John leaned across the table and laid his hand on Rodney’s cheek, that soft and almost sad expression back on his face.
So many questions, Rodney thought. He patted John’s hand and then pulled away from the touch. Time to finish lunch and get back to work.
Rodney was a man who embraced electronics in any form, a man who was forever thankful to be alive at the time he was, with all the technologies available to him. And yet some throwback chromosome buried in his DNA pulled a grin across his face the moment he and John stepped into the library. Some mix of cool temperature, hushed conversation and the musty smell of the books made him undeniably happy.
What it did for John he couldn’t say. He looked around with the same interest he’d shown to potted plants, dogs and salt shakers. Rodney had to ask for directions to the Theology section, which was more extensive than he’d imagined. Of course, that turned out to be a good thing because there was a whole shelf just on angels; Rodney filled his arms with books and found an empty table nearby.
“Okay, let’s take a look.” He sat down but John wandered, running his fingers along the spines of the books on the shelves but not pulling any of them out for further inspection. Rodney spent some time watching him until it was clear that John had no interest in leaving his sight.
The books were a mixed bag. One was an incredibly dry recounting of angel lore taken directly from the Bible; he abandoned that one pretty quickly. The next book was a compilation of visual representations of angels through the ages, from round-cheeked cherubs to fierce-looking archangels. None of them looked particularly like John, who sported neither robes nor halo.
Angels were generally seen as benevolent creatures, acting as guides or protectors. Rodney looked over at John; if he was an angel he wasn’t a very good one, not with a busted wing and no effective way to communicate.
He came across a seventeenth-century depiction of Archangel Michael slaying a foe, wielding a sword and wearing an outfit that was vaguely Roman in design. All the named angels seemed to be male, which Rodney found surprising; on the rare occasions that he spared a thought for the subject he’d always assigned a female gender.
“This isn’t helping,” he sighed. The only fallen angel information had to do with Lucifer and he was pretty sure John wasn’t a demon or anything.
Speaking of the man, he came up behind Rodney and peeked over his shoulder at the book that was open on the table. There was text about the Archangel Gabriel and a large reproduction of a painting that frankly made him look incredibly feminine. His wings looked very like John’s, though.
John gave a piercing cry that was somewhere between a throaty caw and the shriek of a bird of prey, which startled Rodney and drew instant attention from everyone nearby. John was practically draped over his shoulder, patting the illustration excitedly with one hand. Rodney could hear rustling as the wings shifted beneath the coat and he could only imagine what that must look like.
“Time to go,” he said hastily. He left the books where they were and hauled John away by one arm; it wasn’t easy because he continued squawking and twisting to try to get back to the book. Rodney endured curious looks and annoyed expressions as they made their way to the exit.
“This proves nothing,” Rodney said when they emerged into the sunshine. “It only means you like angels, like most of the deluded population.”
He had doubt, though. John’s reaction had been immediate and extreme. Still, the researcher in him pointed out that one example was hardly conclusive.
“Okay. More proof. We can do that.”
John had quieted down but there was an expression on his face that could only be called pouty. Rodney did his best to avoid looking at him; he was entirely too distracting without adding that pokey bottom lip to the equation.
They went to the staff parking lot so Rodney could liberate Radek’s car; he kept a spare key in a magnetic box stuck in the wheel well. It was an elderly Volvo, full of rust and dents, the passenger side door held shut with a judicious use of bungee cords.
“I know, it’s a piece of crap,” Rodney said apologetically. “But at least he has a piece of crap. I’m the one that has to borrow it.”
Not that John seemed to mind. He poked at all the buttons and dials on the dashboard; Rodney felt gleeful satisfaction at the thought of Radek getting in his car next and finding all his climate controls reprogrammed.
“Hey! Not so loud.” Rodney turned down the volume on the radio while John changed the stations, head tilted comically as he listened to each one for five seconds before moving on. When he finally found something he liked Rodney shot him an incredulous look.
“Folsom Prison Blues? Really?”
John just smirked in response and bobbed his head in time to the music. Rodney sighed and endured country music all the way downtown; he counted that as evidence against angelic origins.
Eventually they reached their destination, Sacred Heart on 7th Avenue; just because Rodney was an atheist didn’t mean he didn’t know where to find the local churches.
“Maybe the priest or pastor or whatever will know what to do with you,” he said as he unhooked the bungee cords so John could get out of the car. “Anything pinging for you yet? Divine vibes of any kind?”
John just stared at Rodney, who shrugged and led the way up the wide stone steps and into the church. He was familiar with the set-up inside; he’d been to his share of weddings and baptisms. There were several large, colorful stained glass windows presumably depicting important Biblical moments or persons, and a very large crucifix to one side of the altar, adorned with a white marble sculpture of a very uncomfortable looking Jesus.
“Morbid,” Rodney muttered.
There was only one person in the place, a heavyset woman praying in the front pew. He glanced around for someone more official. Just when he was ready to give up and try the Episcopalians , a door opened and a woman slipped out from behind it. Of course! The confessional!
“Hey. John.” Rodney had to drag him away from the holy water font near the door; he was dipping his fingers in and flicking the water in random directions.
“Stop that! It’s probably sacrilegious or something.” Rodney dried John’s hand off on the coat. “I’m gonna go talk to the guy. Priest. Whatever. Stay put.”
John ignored him, distracted by the woman who’d left the confessional. She was walking backwards, eyes riveted to John’s gently beaming face; she nearly set herself on fire when she bumped into the table holding the prayer candles.
“And stop that!” Rodney hissed. “You’re going to pretty someone to death.”
He pushed John into the last pew, turning a blind eye to the scowl he received, and let himself into the confessional; it was dim and smelled vaguely of feet and incense. There was a sliding sound and then the priest was there on the other side of the small latticed window.
“Uh, hey.” Rodney drummed his fingers nervously on his knee. “I’m not sure what to call you. Sir? Father?”
“Father is fine,” came the amused voice from the other side of the screen. “Has it been a while since you’ve been to church, my son?”
“Oh. Uh, no. I don’t actually believe in God. Well, I didn’t, but now I’m not one hundred percent sure and that’s why I’m here. I need your help.”
“I’d be happy to help you find your way back to the church.”
Rodney wasn’t sure but the guy seemed entirely too eager. He wondered if Father whatever-his-name-was got some kind of commission for recruitment.
“Yeah. Uh, no thanks. I really just need your advice. I found this…well, this guy. And he might, uh, I mean, there’s a chance he could be one of yours.” He wanted to bang his head against the wall; he never usually had this much trouble expressing himself.
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Do you believe in angels?”
There was a lengthy silence from the priest, and Rodney was starting to think he’d made a mistake. It belatedly occurred to him that if the church people saw John they’d probably want to keep him, and quite suddenly that seemed like the worst idea ever.
“You know what? Never mind. I’m just…it was just…I’m probably on drugs. Don’t pay any attention to me. Ravings of a lunatic and all that. And I’m gonna go.” Rodney hastily departed the confessional and then felt immediate panic when the pew he’d left John in was empty.
“John!” he hissed. He wandered up the center aisle, checking each pew just in case John was crawling around on the floor for some reason. But there was no sign of him, at least not until he got to the front, and then all he could do was stare.
John had gotten the trench coat off; it was puddled on the floor in front of the altar. He was kneeling in front of the crucifix, wings fully extended straight behind him – well, the left one only partially – as he gazed up at the Christ sculpture. Light from one of the stained glass windows fell on him, turning his white clothes a kaleidoscope of color.
He was, quite simply, breathtaking, and that had more to do with the soft, loving expression on his face than anything else. Rodney couldn’t stop staring, couldn’t stop his chest tightening with unexpected emotion.
The moment was broken when the woman in the front pew gave a rapturous sigh. Rodney snatched up the coat and practically threw it at John.
“Stop that! We have to go.” There was a headache pounding behind his eyes and his pills were back in his apartment because he hadn’t been thinking straight when they’d left earlier.
John’s wings folded back, but that expression never left his face as he reached out towards Rodney. For just a brief moment Rodney let himself drift forward, wanting that warm touch, but then the confessional door opened and his sense of urgency kicked back in.
“Come on, let’s go. I’ll, uh…I’ll get you more pudding.”
As a motivator it was very effective. John’s eyes brightened and he surged quickly but gracefully to his feet. Rodney draped the coat over his shoulders, hiding his wings, and hustled him back down the aisle towards the exit.
“Father,” Rodney said as they passed by the wide-eyed priest. John pressed close in to his side with a little chirp. “Good luck with the recruitment.”
While John gorged himself on chocolate pudding Rodney swallowed a pill and took a quick shower. It gave him time to consider his next move. He had a job and classwork to get back to, but he couldn’t exactly bring John with him. But what could he do with a fully grown man that had wings and only made bird sounds?
He still wasn’t convinced on the whole angel thing, despite John’s performance at the church. Damn Radek for even putting that in his head! The evidence couldn’t be coincidental, though; John’s reaction to the illustration, his seeming reverence at the crucifix, the wings. Still, Rodney wasn’t ready to discount other theories.
He was toweling off when he heard knocking on the front door and too many voices in his kitchen shortly thereafter. He was pretty sure that was bad, very, very bad, and was proven right when he saw the crowd hovering around John.
“Radek! What the hell are you doing here?”
“He’s awesome,” Laura breathed, stroking one of John’s wings.
“A miracle,” Miko agreed, eyes wide behind her oversized glasses.
“You cannot keep him to yourself,” Radek said in the face of Rodney’s rising anger. “He is surely messenger for whole world.”
Rodney scowled, particularly when he saw the anxious, cornered look on John’s face as Laura and Miko crowded him. Possessiveness reared its head and he pushed himself between John and the women.
“Back off, vultures!”
John’s arms curled around Rodney’s waist and he hid his head against Rodney’s back. It only made Rodney lift his chin, and he patted John’s hands. “He’s not here to be gawked at and fawned over. Get out.”
Laura frowned, hands on her hips. “He doesn’t belong to you, McKay. Do you have any idea what his presence here means to Christianity?”
“He’s not a Biblical sideshow freak! And I’m still not convinced he’s an angel.”
Radek sputtered angrily. “Why you are so difficult? John is not experiment.”
“Yeah, well, he fell in my lap, didn’t he? I have proprietary rights.” Despite the pill Rodney’s headache was now a spike through his head. As if he could sense it, John’s arms tightened around him and he cooed softly.
“Be reasonable,” Laura insisted, flipping her long hair over one shoulder with practiced ease.
“Now! Or so help me I’ll hack your records and have you out of Bedford so fast your heads will spin!” He was quivering with a mixture of rage and pain, and enough of it must’ve shown on his face to finally get through to the others.
“This conversation is not over,” Radek threatened on his way out the door. Rodney continued to scowl until all three of them were gone, until his vision started to waver at the edges, and then his knees gave out.
John held him up, moved him into the bedroom. Rodney went without protest, eyes closed against the light that was now too-bright. He gladly fell on the bed, groaning. John closed the curtains and turned off the light, and then crawled on the bed next to Rodney.
“Just give me a minute,” Rodney whispered. The pain in his head was like a vice.
John curled against his back and ran his fingers lightly over Rodney’s forehead, his touch surprisingly cool and calming. Rodney slowly relaxed into it, the pain fading away just a little.
He didn’t know how long they lay like that before his headache receded enough to realize that John was singing softly, a wordless tune that was unlike anything Rodney had ever heard before. There was no way a normal human being could make those beautiful, haunting sounds.
While he made plans to record John, to figure out what else besides the wings made him more than human, Rodney fell asleep.
Rodney woke alone and in the dark, feeling unusually rested. His headache, while not gone, had retreated to a manageable level. He remembered John singing him to sleep and felt his face flush. He couldn’t deny his attraction; a person would have to be completely soulless not to feel a pull towards John.
Speaking of the maybe-angel, Rodney slipped out of bed and went in search of his singular house guest. It was quiet and he wondered if John was sleeping. Did he sleep?
“John?” Rodney yawned and stumbled out of the bedroom. There was only one light on in the apartment, the one over the kitchen sink, and the table was littered with empty pudding cups.
“John?” The apartment was small, and it didn’t take long to determine that it was empty. Rodney’s confusion quickly gave way to panic; he was certain John wouldn’t have just deserted him, but where else would he go?
Rodney commenced a frantic search for his shoes, and then stopped short on his way out the front door. There was a note taped there and it took him a full minute to make sense of it; that’s how discombobulated he was.
Is for the best. You’ll see. RZ
When understanding dawned Rodney saw red. He slammed out of the apartment without locking the door and headed out into the night, so angry he was shaking.
“I’m going to kill him. So help me,” he muttered to himself. Radek and his crew of the blind faithful had snatched John right out from under his nose. “That’s kidnapping, you little Czech bastard. Jail time.”
Rodney was fuming, and not just because Radek had stolen back his car. He was unable to smoke his former friend out of hiding; he wasn’t in his lab, or seemingly anywhere else on campus. Rodney rode the bus around Bedford but he couldn’t find Radek, Laura or Miko at their homes either.
Three hours later Rodney was back at his own place, more than a little depressed. John had been the first really good thing that had happened to him in a long time, and he lost him. He should’ve known the Bible thumpers would put up a fuss and been more cautious. He should’ve protected John.
Eventually Rodney fell asleep on the couch with the TV on, his dreams full of empty pudding cups and forlorn bird calls.
A noise startled Rodney awake and he squinted at the early morning sun shining down on him through the window, a headache already thumping at his temples. He wiped the drool off his chin and sat up, running a hand through his hair. His subconscious hadn’t given him any helpful ideas for finding John and he gave a dejected sigh as he shuffled to the bathroom.
He showered and brushed his teeth, and was in the process of towel-drying his hair when something on the morning news report caught his attention.
…announcement at St. Michaels today at noon. The details aren’t known at this time, but a source has revealed that it’ll change the face of religion. In other news, cab driver Ernie Fellows…
Rodney turned off the TV, scowling. So that was Radek’s plan! Put John on TV and let the world see that angels were real and thus proving the existence of God. Idiot. It was likely to induce a riot, and possibly a religious war. That’s if the government didn’t get their hands on John and do an alien autopsy on him.
“This is bad. Very, very bad.” There was no time to lose. Rodney called for a cab and quickly got dressed. He had time enough for a quick cup of coffee and a pain pill before his ride arrived.
“St. Michaels. And step on it!”
Rodney knew he was in the right spot as soon as he saw Radek’s shitty Volvo in the parking lot; the shitty car that he still had the spare key for. Rodney couldn’t help but appreciate the irony of using Radek’s car as his getaway vehicle. After the cab let him out he took the time to undo the bungee cord; every second was going to count.
There were still three and a half hours till the big reveal but already the church was filling up with local press and curious residents. Rodney kept to the perimeter once he got inside to avoid being seen by Radek, Laura or Miko. He cursed them several times in his head as he tried to figure out where they might be.
Behind and to the right of the altar was a door, and that seemed the most likely place to start. He had to break cover to get to it, but all he needed was a confident walk and anyone would’ve thought he was part of the proceedings.
He slipped through the door and found himself in a short hallway. There were two other doors and he paused to listen, trying to determine if John was behind one of them. The second door yielded a disgruntled but familiar squawk and Rodney sagged with relief. John.
“Is not right, tying him up,” he heard Radek say when he cracked the door open. He could see John, tied to a high-backed chair and wearing some ridiculous-looking brown robe with a hood, like something a monk in a movie would wear. He was blindfolded and Laura was moving to gag him as well.
“We just have to keep him calm and quiet till noon,” she said. “Once he understands what we’re trying to do everything will be fine.”
The room was large, the walls decorated with floor to ceiling satin banners. When he was sure he wouldn’t be spotted Rodney slipped in and ducked behind the nearest banner. He needed to get to a good spot so he could untie John and then make a break for it.
“Still seems wrong,” Radek groused.
“Do you want some pudding?” Miko asked John, seemingly oblivious to his agitation and the gag Laura had just finished tying in place. There was a stack of pudding cups on the little table next to John’s chair, but he just kept tugging at his bindings and making muffled sounds of protest.
“Go check with Father Miles,” Laura told Miko. “Maybe he knows something we can do to calm John down.”
Finally, the break Rodney had been waiting for. Miko left the room and Radek pulled Laura aside to talk further about the plans for the big press conference. Rodney dashed to the back of the chair and crouched down so he wouldn’t be seen. He patted John’s hands and got to work undoing the knots in the cord.
“It’s me,” he whispered. “Hang on.”
It was extremely gratifying the way John immediately calmed when he heard Rodney’s voice, which made the task of freeing him that much easier. Of course, good luck couldn’t hold out forever and John’s silence eventually drew unwanted attention.
“See?” Laura sounded smug. “I told you he’d be fine. Probably it just took a while for him to understand.”
She came to the side of the chair and caught sight of Rodney squatting there; she looked annoyingly amazed, as if she couldn’t believe that he would do something so bold. Then John was free and swinging up and out of the chair.
“Rodney?” Radek looked bewildered. “What are you doing here?”
“He’s stealing our angel!” Laura cried, moving to apprehend him.
Rodney acted on instinct, throwing his arm out and knocking Laura on her ass; he assumed that didn’t completely violate the don’t-hit-girls rule.
“Rodney, wait! I’m sorry…”
For the first time in his life Rodney struck another person in anger, his fist connecting solidly with Radek’s jaw and sending him sprawling; he felt as surprised as Radek looked, and studied his fist in shock. What the hell had he just done? John, who had meanwhile clawed the blindfold off and shoved the gag down around his neck, was watching wide-eyed. He gave a throaty sound of concern and that got Rodney moving.
“Come on, flyboy! Time to go!” He grabbed hold of John’s hand and the two of them went through the door at top speed, nearly bowling over Miko and Father Miles.
“Rodney!” Miko cried. “What are you doing?”
They burst out into the church, and naturally caught everyone’s immediate attention. Rodney was glad now for the stupid robe, which hid John’s wings as well as could be expected under the circumstances.
“This is a hoax!” he shouted as he dragged John down the center aisle. “These people are guilty of kidnapping!”
The television cameras were rolling and people started shouting out questions but Rodney ignored them because he could hear the sound of pursuit. Putting on speed he hustled John out to Radek’s car and shoved him in the passenger seat, affixing the bungee cords with more speed than finesse.
By the time Laura reached them, pounding on Rodney’s window, it was a done deal. The doors were locked and the key was in the ignition. John and Rodney grinned at each other in mutual satisfaction as Rodney stomped on the gas and the tires squealed. In the rearview mirror Laura was shaking her fist and Radek seemed to be shouting something but Rodney didn’t care. His heart was racing and he couldn’t stop smiling.
“Now that’s what I call a rescue!”
Rodney and John drove all day, stopping once for gas and again so they could get some supplies. Though he hadn’t started out with a destination in mind, Rodney quickly realized that his subconscious had things well in hand because they were heading for Jennifer’s family cabin up in the mountains. He was fairly certain that Radek wouldn’t think of it; Rodney had only been there once and it wasn’t the kind of thing he’d normally discuss with anyone.
“They won’t find us there,” he said in all confidence. “It’ll give us time to figure out what to do.”
Of course, there was always the chance that John’s wing would have healed enough for him to fly back where he came from. It made Rodney’s stomach hurt just a little to think of never seeing John again.
“Are you really an angel?” He glanced quickly at John, who merely smiled back at him and turned the radio dial until he found a country station.
“You have appalling taste in music, by the way.” Even so, he couldn’t help the grin that tugged at his lips.
Rodney got a little lost, so they didn’t get to the cabin till nearly dusk. John practically climbed over him to get out of the car, seemingly enthralled by the change in environment. Once he was out he wandered, touching trees and rocks and the porch rail of the cabin.
While John explored Rodney scoped out the perimeter, but the Keller family vacation home was just as isolated as he remembered; the last thing he wanted was a bunch of nosy neighbors.
“Come here, bird man,” he called out to John, who was making a study of a pine cone. He could see the wings twitching under the ugly brown robe and thought it was well past time to set them loose.
John ambled over, his bare feet stirring up pine needles. Rodney expected them to be dirty by now, but apparently one of his super powers was staying meticulously clean even in the face of dirt, dust and chocolate pudding.
“Let’s get this off, okay?” Rodney helped an eager John out of the robe. Immediately the wings extended – the left less so – and flexed, feathers rustling in the breeze. John closed his eyes and stretched, relief plain on his face. Rodney hadn’t really considered how uncomfortable it must be to keep the wings under wraps and regretted the necessity of having to do so.
While John returned to his explorations Rodney went up on the porch and found the false knot hole on one of the supports, which covered a hiding space large enough for the spare key. He unlocked the front door and immediately set about opening the downstairs windows. It was musty inside, and he surmised that the trip he’d taken there with Jennifer in the fall was the last time it had been aired out.
It didn’t take long to get the supplies stowed away; he hadn’t been able to afford much. Luckily there were plenty of canned goods and other non-perishables on hand, and even a few things in the freezer. Rodney would surprise John with the pudding later.
The cabin itself wasn’t very big. The downstairs living area was all one open room, with a small kitchen, a large oak dining table, and two couches in front of the stone fireplace. There was a bedroom and bathroom downstairs, and two bigger bedrooms upstairs. The porch wrapped all the way around the cabin, and there was a trail out back that led to a large pond.
The porch also boasted several Adirondack chairs and a swing, and Rodney chose the latter; the chains creaked as he used his foot to push it slowly back and forth. He watched John commune with nature, fully expecting woodland creatures to start gathering at his feet. The wings were a better fit out there, and he seemed more natural than he had in the apartment. If anything, the setting made John even more ethereal. If that was even possible.
Eventually it turned full dark and John joined Rodney on the porch, settling on the steps. His wings were pulled mostly back against his body, though the tips of them were lightly brushing against the porch floor. He made a soft noise that sounded like a question.
“It’s nice here, isn’t it?” Rodney continued to rock the swing, eyes on the wings. There was a little light coming through the window, just enough to see by. Overhead the stars were coming out, twinkling against the inky black sky.
“I used to stargaze every night when I was a kid. It’s part of the reason I became an astrophysicist. The universe is so big, and I want to see it. Explore it.” Rodney sighed. “Seems less likely every day.”
He didn’t mention the trouble he’d be in for missing classes, both as a student and a TA. There was no sense making John feel bad when it really wasn’t his fault. Rodney’s headache was starting to assert itself again but he wasn’t ready to go inside.
“Does everyone have wings where you’re from? Or are you special there too?” Rodney tried to imagine a world where the skies were full of people instead of birds. It didn’t feel right, somehow. John was too unique to be just one of the masses.
John scooted backwards until he was in front of the swing and turned to rest his head on Rodney’s thigh. It made Rodney’s throat tighten and for a minute he didn’t know what to do. Then he reached out and stroked gently along the ridge of John’s injured wing, careful not to put too much pressure on it. The feathers were stiff but surprisingly soft, and John cooed in pleasure at the touch.
“Someday I’m going to travel across the universe,” Rodney murmured. “Because wormhole travel is possible and I’m going to make it happen. And maybe when I do I’ll find you. Where you’re from.”
He wasn’t usually prone to such fanciful thoughts but he couldn’t seem to help himself. He knew his time with John was limited, that as soon as his wing healed he’d be back off doing whatever it was he’d been waylaid from. It was nice to imagine a way they could be together again.
They sat that way a while longer, until Rodney’s headache got too bad and he had to go inside and take a pill. He fixed himself a bologna sandwich and gave John a pudding cup, which made his whole face light up like a kid at Christmas.
“You’re so easy,” Rodney teased. They ate in companionable silence while he took mental notes of all the reasons John clearly wasn’t human – he didn’t need to eat or drink, he never had to use the bathroom, he never got dirty, he made sounds that Rodney was sure couldn’t be replicated by the human vocal system, and of course there were the wings. Rodney couldn’t help wondering if John even had reproductive organs, or if he was like a Ken Doll below the waist; the thought made him blush.
It had been a long day and Rodney was ready to call it an early night. It only took a few moments to clean up and lock the cabin for the night. It occurred to him as they headed upstairs that he had no idea if John even needed to sleep; the only time he’d seen him at rest was after the crash landing in the reflecting pool.
“You can sleep in here,” he said, ushering John into the slightly smaller second bedroom. “Or you can just hang out, if you don’t sleep. I wish I never needed to sleep, I’d already have this damned doctorate under my belt.”
This apparently made no sense to John, who followed Rodney to the master bedroom and stretched out on one side of the larger bed, wings curling slightly around him.
“Uh, okay. You know there’s a whole empty bed across the hall, right?” Rodney stood in the middle of the room, shifting uncertainly. “I’ll be okay.”
John gave him a look that could only be categorized as exasperated and patted the empty side of the bed.
“See, now, this negates the whole angelic origins hypothesis. Angels are all pure and innocent. I’m pretty sure.” It broke him out of his discomfort, though, and maybe that had been John’s plan all along. Sneaky flyboy.
Rodney turned out the light and slipped into bed, exhausted. The last two days had been unreal; he still couldn’t believe he’d punched Radek. He hoped a decent night’s sleep would help clear his mind.
He tried to keep some space between himself and his bedmate, but John rolled up on his side and started running his fingers over Rodney’s forehead. As before, his touch was cool and soothing, and though this time he didn’t sing his right wing moved to partially cover them both. Rodney found it oddly reassuring, and he fell asleep to John’s gentle caress and the soft rustling of feathers.
The first fingers of dawn’s light were on the horizon when he snuck out of the cabin. Rodney was resting peacefully, for which he was thankful. He’d watched over him all night, but now the sky was calling to him and he knew it was time.
He slipped out into the cool morning air, dew catching on his feet as he moved through the grass. He tugged at the wrapping on his wing until it fell off; he left it where it lay, reminding himself to collect it when he came back. It felt so good to completely extend both wings, the pleasure of it tickling down his spine.
Moments later he was in the air, the breeze flowing over him like a balm as his wings moved powerfully behind him. He rose higher and higher until the cabin was only a speck beneath him, and found he could go no higher; he didn’t want to lose sight of Rodney, didn’t want to leave him behind just yet.
For the first time he wished he could change things. He wanted to stay with Rodney, stay on Earth, but he knew it was impossible. He still had to do his job, and that meant that even when Rodney came Home they wouldn’t be together; humans and angels didn’t mix even in Heaven.
All he could do was ease Rodney’s pain as much as he was able. It didn’t seem like enough.
Morning sunlight had flooded the bedroom by the time Rodney woke up. He’d expected to be alone, but John was sitting cross-legged at the foot of the bed engaged in an activity that Rodney believed was preening. Put simply, John was tidying his wings, restoring order to them and picking out the odd feather here and there. Rodney watched him for a few minutes before stretching out his leg under the blanket and nudging John’s knee with his foot.
John looked up, grinning, and extended his wings in a full and flashy way that was clearly meant to be show-offy and impressive. Which it was, naturally, but Rodney’s answering grin faded when he noticed that the left wing was no longer wrapped and was as fully extended as the right one; John had healed.
Before Rodney could get out of bed John held up his hand and gave a preemptory, deep-throated caw. He hopped gracefully off the bed and disappeared through the door, reappearing moments later with a tray.
“Breakfast in bed?” Rodney asked, surprised.
John looked very pleased with himself as he set the tray on Rodney’s lap. There was a bowl of Fruit Loops, a glass of water, two spoons, a pudding cup, and a presumably decorative pine cone. It was absurdly touching, even as John snatched the pudding for himself.
“Thanks,” Rodney said. He tried to emulate happiness even though this felt like a goodbye gesture. So long and thanks for all the pudding. Still, he gamely ignored his full bladder and tucked into the cereal, which had much less milk in it than he normally liked.
John finished his pudding in no time, and Rodney studied him while he scraped at the plastic cup to get the tiny bits of chocolate in the bottom. John’s face was flushed, his eyes bright, and he smelled of pine and fresh air. How long had he been outside?
Rodney gave the tray back to John and hopped out of bed, with far less grace, so he could complete his morning ablutions. In his head he could hear a ticking clock and he wished they had more time. Not that he wished John any pain – he was glad the wing was healed – but he’d always been so bad at saying goodbye, and this time it really, really mattered.
When he was done washing up and had taken his pain pill he found John outside watching a little blue butterfly bob around the wildflowers that grew by the porch.
“Your wing is all better, I see,” he said. John looked up at him, perplexed, either by the words or the solemn tone in which they were spoken. Rodney stepped off the porch and reached out to touch the left wing; all signs of injury were gone and John looked a little guilty. No doubt he’d already taken it out for a spin.
“Can you show me?” he asked. “Can I see you fly?”
John’s response was an incandescent smile that Rodney was pretty sure could be seen from space; his chest tightened at the sight of it, because of course John must have missed the freedom of flight. It was an amazing super power, one that would soon carry him right out of Rodney’s life.
“Come on, flyboy. Let’s see what you’ve got.”
John backed up several feet, the grin turning to a smirk that didn’t make him look any less hot. The wings spread out to their full width, easily six feet across, and he bent his knees. Rodney had been expecting a gentle, floating kind of lift-off, but what happened instead was that John pushed off the ground at the same moment his wings gave a powerful thrust. He shot up like a rocket, quickly clearing the treetops.
“Holy shit,” Rodney breathed. He tipped his head back and watched as John climbed higher into the sky, and then hung there, lazily coasting on a thermal air pocket with his wings out and his body partially horizontal.
Rodney felt a stab of white-hot jealousy watching John soar across the sky like some spiky-haired bird of prey. The bigger part of him, though, was awed and amazed. Radek was right – John was a miracle.
John suddenly tucked his wings close to his body, diving down like a missile, and Rodney’s heart was in his throat until the wings snapped out at the last moment and slowed his descent. When he landed softly on his feet, his face shining and jubilant, Rodney breathed a sigh of relief and regret, and was embarrassed to realize that his cheeks were wet with tears. This seemed to alarm John as well, who was instantly at his side, one finger tracking the trail of them down his face.
“You’re so amazing,” Rodney said, his throat tight. “I’ve never…you looked so…I wish you didn’t have to go.”
He flushed, embarrassed at running off at the mouth and crying like some kind of teenage girl with a crush. The last thing he wanted was a Hallmark moment, so he stepped back and took a deep breath.
“So. Uh, what’s next?” He was afraid the answer to that was farewell.
John gave him an intense, narrow-eyed look, like he was trying to figure something out. He stared so long that Rodney started to fidget under the scrutiny. Finally, John tilted his head to the side and nodded sharply. He grabbed hold of Rodney’s hand and dragged him off behind the cabin. It took Rodney a minute to realize they were on the trail to the pond.
“I don’t think I’m up for a swim,” he protested, but John only shifted his wings in a way that telegraphed annoyance. For all that he couldn’t speak John was extraordinarily expressive. Rodney was already feeling the loss of him, chest tight and painful.
The irregular shaped body of water was in a clearing, with cattails growing around it. Someone had built a little dock on the closest side some years ago, and there was a canoe tied up to it. Rodney’d once spent a mostly-pleasurable afternoon in that rickety dinghy in the middle of the pond, making out with Jennifer. It seemed a lifetime ago now.
“I’m not going in the canoe, just so you know.”
John had other ideas anyway. He pushed Rodney down on one of the log benches that circled the large fire pit and then stood there for a moment with his hands on his hips, worrying his bottom lip with his teeth; it was in no way endearing, or so Rodney firmly told himself.
When John finally decided what to do he burst into action, arms and fingers moving gracefully as he gestured and attempted to play charades to communicate…something. He lay one hand on Rodney’s head, directly over the spot that was throbbing, and his wings curled around both of them. Then he immediately moved to mimic carrying something all while pointing up at the sky.
Rodney watched, equal parts amused and perplexed, as John first crouched down low and then jumped up, flinging his wings and arms wide open. He had no idea what message John was trying to convey, though he got the sense that it was something quite important; too big to adequately express without words.
“I’m sorry, John. I don’t understand. I never was good at charades; truth is I don’t read people really well. Or bird men from other planets.”
John sighed in frustration and dropped down on the grass at Rodney’s feet; even his wings were droopy. Rodney stroked one hand down the backside of the right wing, literally soothing ruffled feathers. The silence started to weigh on him and he started talking, not sure what he was even going to say until the words started coming.
“I’m going to have to do a lot of ass kissing when I get back. I’m already so far behind with my thesis.” With all the work that Dr. Magnardi piled on him, sometimes he felt like he’d never get his doctorate. If he could only graduate he could move on to serious work. Funny now how it seemed somehow less important in the face of never seeing John again.
“I’m a genius, you know. I’m going to harness the power of wormholes,” Rodney said, continuing with his ministrations. “There’s so much we could do, so much we could discover. Anyone who says we’re alone in the universe is a moron. There are probably countless advanced civilizations out there that could teach us so much.”
John leaned his head back and looked at Rodney, his hazel-green eyes fathomless in the sunshine.
“Have you met alien life? Are you alien life?” Rodney’s fingers slipped between the top layers of feathers to the smaller, downy feathers beneath. It felt surprisingly intimate and he jerked his hand back. When John rolled his eyes Rodney jumped off the log.
“Oh, no! No you did not! You can’t stay here, John. It’s changing you. And you…that’s not right.” Rodney paced in agitation. “You can’t stay here. It’s not just the Jesus freaks, either. Do you have any idea what the government would do to you? Tests, tests and more tests, and you’d never see the light of day again.”
Rodney could picture it all too well. John stripped to the waist, every rib showing and his wings gray and molting. Biologists would run him through every possible test, no matter how much pain it put John through. And once they’d learned all they could that way they’d dissect him like a frog and see how he worked from the inside out.
“You have to go,” Rodney said softly, coming to a stop when John blocked his path. “It’s not safe for you here.”
John patted him on the chest, and gestured between them. Rodney chose to interpret that to mean John wanted to stay with him, and he wished there was a way to make that happen. He was a genius, though, and that meant he knew there could be no future for him and a man with wings.
“I wish…” he started to say, and then a car horn sounded from the direction of the cabin, startling him. “Great. Just what we need. Company.”
The horn sounded again, and John looked at Rodney uncertainly. Rodney shook his head.
“You stay here. I’ll get rid of whoever it is.” He headed back up the trail, his head pounding fiercely. After he’d chased off the nosey bodies he’d have to take another pill.
Rousting the newcomers wasn’t going to be that easy, not when the first person Rodney saw was Radek, sporting an impressive bruise along his jaw. And of course he hadn’t come alone – Laura and Miko were sitting on the porch swing looking angry.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Rodney asked, angry himself.
“I could ask you the same question.” Jennifer came through the front door and down the porch steps, arms crossed. “I believe this is called breaking and entering.”
“It’s trespassing at most,” he replied dismissively. There was no feeling at all for her, no regret or nostalgia or even vague affection; the best he could do was annoyance that she’d helped Radek track him down instead of covering for him. He was starting to feel trapped; how could he get John out of here now?
“Where is John?” Radek asked. He looked and sounded exhausted, and Rodney felt a jolt of vindictive glee to have been the cause of it. Instant karma, if he believed in that.
“He’s gone. Flew home. Back to the winged dimension.” Rodney leaned against Radek’s car, trying to exude nonchalance despite the headache that was rapidly turning into a migraine.
“You’re full of crap,” Laura accused.
“I want car keys,” Radek demanded.
“You can all go straight to Hell,” Rodney responded pleasantly. “Oh wait, that’s right. I don’t believe in Hell. So you can just go.”
Jennifer’s expression softened from angry to pitying. “Rodney, I’m sorry if what happened between us has…”
Rodney glared at her, incredulous. “Our breakup has nothing to do with the fact that my so-called friends have turned into kidnappers and lunatics.”
“Look, I don’t know what’s going on with all of you,” Jennifer said, frowning. “But you’ve dragged me into it. If you need help…”
“I’m not the one who needs help!” Rodney pushed off of the car, swaying just a little as the world started to spin around him.
And then everyone was talking at once, voices raised. Jennifer took hold of Rodney’s left arm and Radek took hold of the right, and it was like a tug-of-war.
“I trusted you and this is how you repay me?”
“You’re not thinking of the bigger picture, McKay!”
“You owe me, Rodney!”
“Where’s John? I know he’s still here!”
“Where is he?”
All the noise rose up in a crescendo and Rodney reached his breaking point. The pain in his head washed over him and the last thought he had before he lost consciousness was for John to get away while he still could.
He could sense Rodney’s distress and he was filled with righteous fury, something he’d only had described to him and never actually experienced. All those decades of envying the archangels and now he had his chance to emulate one.
He flung his wings wide and took a running leap into the air, staying low as he charged up the trail. When he cleared the tree line he rose up in the air with the fiercest battle cry he could summon. When he saw Rodney sprawled on the ground the air around him started to crackle and he wished he could call up some lightning bolts.
It was gratifying to see the humans cower before him as he hovered there, wings slowly moving to keep him aloft. He gestured at Rodney and screamed his fury again. How dare they hurt the man that was his charge. More than that…his friend.
The humans scrambled to help Rodney and John heard one of them call for an ambulance. There was nothing further he could do, so with one final cry he shot up into the sky, flying as hard and as fast as he could.
His heart cried out for Rodney even as he flew farther and farther away.
Rodney woke, feeling slow and sluggish. He was in the hospital, he remembered that much. The lights were dimmed and he got the sense that it was nighttime out beyond the shaded window. He became aware that someone was in the room with him, but the subtle rustle of feathers put him at ease.
“John,” he whispered, his throat dry.
John’s sad face soon filled his vision, and he ran gentle fingers down the side of Rodney’s head. The pain was still there but distant and somehow unimportant; whatever they had flowing through his IV was the good stuff.
“You wanna know something ironic, John?” Rodney leaned into the touch, his eyes fluttering shut. “I have a brain tumor. All those headaches? Jennifer was right; I should’ve gone to the doctor.”
John cooed softly, and cupped Rodney’s face with both hands. Rodney looked up at him, a painful stab of regret breaking through the numbness of the drugs.
“You really are an angel, aren’t you?” he whispered. “Radek was right. You’re here because of me. Because I’m dying.”
John nodded, and his wings shifted. Rodney didn’t want to die; who would carry on his wormhole research? He’d never get to travel the universe, never get to see his little sister become a great scientist. He’d never fall in love with someone who truly loved him back.
“I’m scared,” he whispered. “But I’m glad it’s you. I’m glad it’s you, John.”
Rodney closed his eyes again, too tired to keep them open, and he felt himself being lifted up and embraced. It was a warm feeling and he used what little strength he had left to slide his arms around John and hold on tight. He felt the wings curl around him, and John started to sing.
“Thank you,” Rodney murmured as he lost his last tremulous hold on wakefulness. John’s otherworldly voice followed him into the black.
It was a miracle, they said. Overnight Rodney’s tumor had disappeared. There was no medical reason for it to have happened, though one small group of people had a pretty good idea what had really gone down that night in his hospital room. To Radek’s credit he’d refrained from saying I told you so.
In fact, Radek had bent over backwards to help Rodney, who hadn’t been above taking advantage of his friend’s guilt. He’d gotten good takeout for the length of his hospital stay, and Laura had jumped at the chance to drive him home when he was released.
Rodney kept up a prickly front, acting the way everyone expected, but on the inside he felt hollow. He hadn’t told anyone about John’s final visit, or about his revelation that John had come to Earth to shepherd his soul to an afterlife he’d never even believed in. Rodney didn’t know why he was alive, why he’d been given a second chance. Not that he didn’t deserve it, when there was so much he still had to offer the world. It was just…lonely. Without John.
One of the perks of almost dying was that the university had been very sympathetic. His schedule had been adjusted to give him a lesser workload, and he’d been given a lengthy extension on his thesis. Life was almost perfect. It hardly mattered that the mere sight of a pudding cup made his breath catch in his throat.
Two weeks after his almost death, Rodney had the afternoon off. It was a warm, sunny day and he tried to appreciate it as he walked across campus. As always his steps slowed as he passed the reflecting pool; it would always remind of him of John’s impressively wet crash landing.
Students were out in droves thanks to the pleasant weather, and Rodney mostly ignored them. His world view had shifted in a major way, but that didn’t mean he’d personally changed all that much. Stupid people still annoyed him, he still had little patience in general, and he still knew he was smarter than everyone else; he was just less inclined to talk about it.
He was almost past the reflecting pool when someone called his name.
“Hey, Rodney.” It was a male voice, one he didn’t recognize, and Rodney almost didn’t stop. Wouldn’t have, if he hadn’t caught sight of a slouchy figure sitting on a bench at the edge of the pool.
“I’m sorry, do I…” The words died in Rodney’s throat. The man lounging by the pool was tall and lean, his dark hair sticking up in a heart-wrenchingly familiar way. His hazel-green eyes were bright but wary.
“John?!” Rodney knew his mouth was hanging open, and he probably looked like an idiot, but he didn’t care.
John surged gracefully to his feet and closed the space between them. Gone were the sweeping, beautiful white wings and the white clothes. Instead he wore snug black jeans and a blue button-down shirt with the top two buttons undone; even dressed so ordinarily he stood out from everyone else around him.
“Hi,” he said.
“Is this a hallucination?” Rodney asked, only slightly panicked. “The tumor’s back, isn’t it?”
“No. It’s just me.”
“What did you do?” He tugged John around by one arm, looking to see that, yes, the wings were really gone. “What did you do?”
“I asked a favor,” John said. His voice was slightly nasal, with a mid-western twang; he certainly didn’t sound angelic. “You could say it was the answer to a prayer.”
He looked so earnest, so John. Rodney tightened his grip, suddenly afraid John would up and vanish on him.
“What’s that, angel humor? Funny.” Rodney glanced around and saw they were attracting an audience, so he kept hold of John and started walking; this conversation could wait until they had some privacy.
John came along dociley enough. Despite the fact that he was now wearing shoes – work boots with the laces undone – he still moved fluidly; Rodney once again felt clumsy and awkward in comparison, the bull to John’s china shop.
The main question on Rodney’s mind was why. Why had he been given a second chance? Why was John here looking so incredibly human? It made him anxious, but all his attempts to walk faster were thwarted by John’s lazy look-at-everything pace. Still the same John, and that helped him relax a little.
As soon as they were through the door Rodney dumped his bag and locked them in. John wandered around the apartment, a fond expression on his face as if he’d missed being there.
“What’s going on?” Rodney asked, sagging back against the wall. “I was supposed to die.”
John frowned, his shoulders coming up. “You were.”
“And you were there to…”
“To deliver your soul safely to Heaven. That’s my job.”
Rodney bit back quips about health benefits and unionization. John was an angel, which meant that the God Rodney had denied since he was five actually existed. It put a whole new spin on life, the universe, and everything; he still wasn’t ready to look that closely at the ramifications.
John completed his circuit of the room and came to stand in front of Rodney, waiting expectantly like he knew there were more questions.
“Why am I still here?” Rodney whispered. John reached out and took hold of his hand, twining their fingers together.
“Change of heart.”
“What? That doesn’t make any sense. If you believe that everything is pre-destined, like most religious idiots do, then…”
John put the fingers of his free hand against Rodney’s mouth, silencing him. “Do you know what the strongest element in the universe is?”
“Unobtainium?” Rodney mumbled against the fingers.
“No. It’s love, Rodney. That’s why you’re still alive, and why I’m here. Love.”
It was a ridiculously sentimental statement, but that didn’t stop Rodney from blushing or feeling the warmth of it spreading out from his chest. And then John moved his fingers away and leaned in, and they were kissing.
Kissing John was at once so familiar and so incredibly new. Rodney had never felt so breathless, so full of desire just from a simple kiss. John tasted like liquid sunshine and ripe strawberries and flying. It was amazing, but he reminded himself that it was also temporary and so he pulled back, licking at the lingering taste of John on his lips.
“Wow,” John murmured, his eyes still closed. “That was even better than I thought.”
“This isn’t a good idea,” Rodney said regretfully.
John opened his eyes, looking confused and a little hurt. “Why? Did I do it wrong? I’ve seen lots of people kissing, but I’ve never done it before. I can do it better.”
Rodney felt like a heel. “No! No, you were great. The kissing was great. It’s just…being with you like that? It’ll make things harder when you leave.”
John’s expression cleared and he beamed at Rodney. “I’m not going anywhere. I’ve been granted a leave of absence.”
“A leave of…what? You have what?” Heaven suddenly sounded incredibly corporate, which oddly enough Rodney found comforting because that was something he could relate to. “How long?”
“I’ll be with you as long as you want me,” John said, eyes bright.
“Just like that?”
Smirking at Rodney’s suspicious tone, John reached into his back pocket and pulled out a wallet that was so new the leather creaked when he opened it. He pulled something out and handed it to Rodney.
“You have a driver’s license?” It was all there, though – a photo that was too good to have been taken at DMV, Rodney’s address, and a name. “John Sheppard?”
“I liked the name you gave me,” John explained. “I was allowed to keep it.”
Rodney was pleased by that. He wanted to ask what John’s real name was, but he was starting to think he had plenty of time to find out.
“I’m a legal resident of the U.S.,” John said proudly. “I don’t have to hide.”
“There’s so much we can do!” Rodney handed back the license, his mind racing with possibilities. “There’s so much I can show you!”
Most importantly, he knew he wouldn’t be discovering the secrets of the universe alone. John would be with him as long as he wanted, and he wanted him forever. If not longer. Rodney was giddy, his future bright and shining in a way it never had been before.
“Rodney?” John asked hesitantly. “Can I ask for something before we conquer the world?”
“Sure. Yes. Anything!”
“Could we get some pudding?”
Rodney laughed and pulled John down for another kiss, wrapping his arms around his angel and holding him close.
Pudding was an excellent place to start.