Pairing(s): McKay/Sheppard, a bit of Patrick Sheppard/O.C
Warnings: Wait half an hour after eating to swim.
Summary: There's something fishy about John.
Original Fic: Into Something Rich and Strange
Original Art: Refining Gold
Note: . Originally written for (the winning, yay!) Home team for mcshep_match 2008. Remixed/repurposed for Artword 12, to fit the wonderful cover by danceswithgary
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Once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin's back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
That the rude sea grew civil at her song,
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
To hear the sea-maid's music?
--- from A Midsummer Night's Dream, William Shakespeare
Patrick Sheppard fell for Meryl O'Ceana when he heard her singing at dusk on a summer evening at sea. Literally fell, he toppled overboard, while craning his neck to see just where the haunting melody had originated. It was almost a siren song, except that was a myth.
Patrick knew he must have hit his head, or gotten too much sun earlier, and now it was affecting him. Or maybe he'd had a bit too much wine, and shouldn't have been sailing on his own. Back then, he wasn't the staid and solid captain of industry he later turned out to be, but a young man who lived for adventure, and thrived on the wild winds of the sea. Mostly he sated those urges on his college sailing team, it was true, but he dreamt of making a life of it.
If it wasn't for the beautiful young woman improbably sunning herself on the tiny island, he would have drowned for sure. But she kissed him back to life, and Patrick found himself gasping on the small patch of sand and seaweed with her. He didn't see a boat anywhere (other than his), so she must have been a strong swimmer, indeed.
"Are you all right?" Even her speaking voice was bell-like.
"How did I get here? Did you drag me all that way?"
"You needed my help. It was my fault, anyway. I'm sorry if I distracted you with my singing."
"No, it's wonderful. I could listen to you forever." She smiled at him, but her expression was tinged with sadness.
"I've always wanted to hear someone say that to me, but I don't think you'd be happy in my home for long. I could only keep you safe for a little while."
"I would protect you forever, and I know my family would love you, too." He didn't know any such thing, but there was no way he was going to lose her. She must have been a siren, because Patrick didn't even know her name, and already he was planning a future with her.
She seemed to believe him, brightening at his words. "Do you mean that? Because I could go with you, but I don't know how accepting your people would be. I'm not like you." She illustrated this by shimmying her lower half out of the tidal pool in which she'd been swimming. Patrick could see she really did have a tail, scaled in blue and gold and silver. He'd never seen anything like it.
"But don't you grow legs when you're on the land? That's what mermaids do in the movies."
"We can disguise our true nature, yes, but if we don't come back to the sea at least once a week, we must remain fully human."
"I would make sure you could see your family and your old home again, as long as you came back to me." Patrick promised.
Soft sigh the winds of heaven o'er their grave
While the billow mournful rolls
And the mermaid's song condoles
Singing glory to the souls Of the brave!
---- Battle of the Baltic by T. Campbell 1875
It took a little while longer for Meryl to grow to love Patrick, and to see him as more than a connection to life Above, something she'd dreamt of since her eldest sister Meranda married a human man. She had no choice but to save him from his own folly, of course. Merfolk didn't want random humans dying on their watch, despite the myths.
At first, he was true to his word, and introduced her to his world of Cotillion and college, Old Money and new frontiers proudly. She did her part and kept her origins to herself, and nobody was the wiser. On the days that he sailed, he always made sure to take her to the island that was the entrance to her home. Sometimes he would even go Below for a visit -- she could make it safe for him to stay for an hour --, but usually he just let her go alone. He said it made him uncomfortable, being Below, even though he trusted her to keep him alive.
They married at the seaside. His family thought the few of hers who attended were delightfully eccentric, but were also glad they wouldn't be around too much. Somehow the Sheppard clan had the idea that the O'Ceanas were fisherfolk -- not fish folk, and neither Patrick nor Meryl disabused them of this.
Their first child was born on land, in a human hospital. David Patrick resembled his father in every way, and Meryl was both relieved and saddened. Patrick never said it, but she knew he worried their child would take after her people. Now he didn't have to worry about his first-born son being fit to continue the family name.
O, train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note,
To drown me in thy sister's flood of tears.
Sing, siren, for thyself, and I will dote;
Spread o'er the silver waves thy golden hairs,
And as a bed I'll take them and there lie,
And in that glorious supposition think
He gains by death that hath such means to die;
Let Love, being light, be drowned if she sink!
--- from A Comedy of Errors, William Shakespeare
Their second son was different. As soon as she knew she was expecting, she knew this baby would be a child of her world, too. Telling Patrick was difficult, but he was so happy with her, and their life with young David, that he couldn't help but be happy.
It was a water birth, of course. Quite the scandal for its day. Patrick indulged his wife in this one last affectation of her former life, but only after she promised this child would be raised 'normally', too. The baby would be who he or she was meant to be, whether or not that meant keeping him close to the sea in secret, or showing him how to change when the time was right. Meryl vowed to help him gain his birthright.
John Merwyn Sheppard was born floating, schools of minnows weaving patterns through his tiny waving fingers. He giggled bubbles as the sunlight smiled dappled patterns on the shallow ocean pool. John's mother held him to her breast, counting his fingers and toes. Perfectly human looking to most, though if one looked carefully, there was a faint iridescence beneath the golden skin that spoke of scales and seawater. He had wild tufts of hair the color of squid ink, that seemed to wave and wriggle like anemone. His eyes were shifting hues of seaweed, sand and mud.
They didn't put his middle name down on his birth certificate, just an initial. John's mother spoke it into an echoing shell, as was the custom, knowing that his full, true name would forever repeat in the ebb and flow of the tides.
Children's voices should be dear
(Call once more) to a mother's ear;
Children's voices, wild with pain.
Surely she will come again.
'The wild white horses foam and fret.
Come, dear children, come away down.
Call no more.
One last look at the white-wall'd town,
And the little grey church on the windy shore.
Then come down.
She will not come though you call all day.
---- The Forsaken Merman by Matthew Arnold
John and Dave Sheppard were brothers as different as the sun and the moon, but both needed and loved each other in much the same way. If Dave was sunny, sedate and accommodating, John was mercurial and deadly calm by turns, reminiscent of the strongest waves in the ocean.
Meryl loved them both dearly, but it would be John who missed her most, who chafed against the Sheppard rules, even though he couldn't live like an O'Ceana. If he could -- if she could safely, fairly take him back... but no, he belonged in the human world just as much. What she could do was show him how to walk the path between land and sea, to let his Mer-side breathe and swim and flow, and then return refreshed.
Sound, sound he lies in dreamless sleep,
Nor hears the sea-wind wail.
The pale gold of his oozy locks
Doth hither drift and thither wave;
His thin hands plash against the rocks,
His white lips nothing crave.
Afar away she laughs and sings
A song he loved, a wild sea-strain?
Of how the mermen weave their rings
Upon the reef-set main.
--- "The Coves of Crail' by William Sharp
John ran away when he was sixteen, the year he discovered that his mother hadn't died of an embolism like his father had told him and his brother, but had in fact killed herself, walking into the nearest lake. She'd long since lost her ability to restore herself to Mer-dom. Patrick's promise that she would stay near the sea had been broken. They moved often as he rose through his company, and most of his postings were landlocked.
Because he was half human, John had the ability to straddle both worlds. He didn't have a plan when he found himself surfing in California, only changing form when he was too far out to see clearly.
He could hear better this way, too, and the Canadian family picnicking and arguing on the beach caught his attention. "We're all going to look for shells. You can be miserable by yourself, Meredith, if that's what you want." "Yeah, Mer. Come on" came a little girl's plea.
Meredith? Was he like John? It looked like he needed a friend as much as John did. Mer was beautiful, pale skin with faint red tinge starting from the sun, golden-brown curls. John knew that he shouldn't be thinking this way about a guy -- his dad would approve of this even less than everything else he hated about John -- but he couldn't help himself.
And then he needed even more, as he angrily waded into the water, and predictably ended up cramped. John debated about a millisecond before swimming towards him and pulling him to safety.
Little John Bottlejohn lived on the hill,
and a blithe little man was he.
And he won the heart of a pretty mermaid
Who lived in the deep blue sea.
And every evening she used to sit
And sing by the rocks of the sea,
"Oh! little John Bottlejohn, pretty John Bottlejohn,
Won't you come out to me?"
---- Laura E. Richards
John and his father both agreed that the military was a good place for him, at least for now. Patrick wanted him to come back and work for him, and hopefully wipe his aberrant tendencies out before he did.
John knew neither was going to happen. He was always going to be a MerQueer, and he had no interest in working for Sheppard Industries. His father was half right. The military did give him the opportunity to make many a man.
He couldn't have made a better choice, he discovered, when Meredith Rodney McKay re-entered his life, and John finally found himself Home.
"Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are corals made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes,
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea change,
into something rich and strange,
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell,
Hark! now I hear them, ding-dong, bell."
--- William Shakespeare: The Tempest
John was talking movies with Ronon, proud of himself for getting him to watch the most asinine stuff. Blades of Glory this time. It was the equivalent of a "Here, taste this, it's awful" -- something that never worked with Ronon because he ate just about everything, when Colonel Carter approached them, expression rueful. It was the kind of look she got when she was about to tell him that yes, he really did have to get those 157 personnel reports done now.
He was absolutely not expecting her to tell him his father was dead of a heart attack. He didn't think his father had a heart, or if he did, it had calcified like layers of pearl around a tiny piece of grit. A small part of himself he wasn't too proud of thought it was only fair. Patrick Sheppard had certainly broken John's mother's heart.
As much as he really wanted Rodney there, he couldn't -- wouldn't let himself -- say so. Those kids on the Logan's Run planet needed him. Yeah, John knew it had a name, but he was hard-pressed to remember it at the moment.
It was probably for the best, come to think of it. His father's family hated any sign of difference, and they'd be sure to jump to all the right conclusions about his relationship with Rodney. And Rodney would never leave him alone to seek out his mother's family -- if they would even acknowledge him. Anti-land-dweller prejudice ran deep.
Still, it was good to have Ronon there. Support, yes, but Ronon didn't know what was expected behavior, so he also didn't know when things went strange. Family strange, not escaped replicator strange. He was definitely good for that.
Go and catch a falling starre
Get with child a mandrake's roote
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil's foote.
Teach me to hear the mermaid's singing;
Or to keep off envy's stinging.
Serves to advance an honest mind.
-- John Donne
On the rare occasions John had time to think about the more mundane aspects of life in the Pegasus galaxy, he often spared a thought for the grand variety of life as represented in alien bathrooms.
There were the primitive lime filled holes in the ground, with accompanying leaves. Those went nicely with the 'You have angered our Gods, now you must die' types, which was fine, because he didn't want to stick around on planets without something soft to wipe his ass on, especially if they claimed to be civilized.
There were the wooden out-houses, with matching wooden seats -- no, he did not want splinters there, thank you very much -- which Rodney also did his best to avoid. John kind of got a kick out of them, pretending they were scenery in a Western, and he was just moseying on through town.
There weren't even any guarantees on planets with a technological level akin to Earth's. They could have computers that easily interfaced with Rodney's, drink something almost exactly like coffee, but when it came time to relieve himself, he'd look at the not-quite-toilet's three levers, mini waterfall, and the hole that was in exactly the wrong place for what he thought he was supposed to be doing in it, and long for the simplicity of a board and bucket.
The current facilities he and Rodney shared were a good case in point. Abara was a lovely planet with beaches galore (and all too tempting to John because of it). Earth modern level, just warm enough, with excellent food, and sumptuous living quarters. The decor could almost have been Crate & Barrell, or Design within Reach.
"Evening Greetings, my very good friends! I trust you will find your welcome here," Gefe Bar, emissary of the Abarans said warmly. A little too warmly for Rodney, judging by his crossed arms and dour expression. He was all hands, ostensibly to guide them to their cabin, and demonstrate its amenities, but he clearly had more in mind. Not that John would put up with much of that.
"I'm sure we will. It looks very accommodating." John assured him, managing to slip out of their benefactor's grip without seeming irked or ungrateful for the too affectionate handshake.
"We are very accommodating on Abara! And you, too, Doctor McKay? I hope you will make a home here." Another handclasp, complete with palm stroking.
"Thank you. I think" Rodney said this last bit sotto voce, then moved his hand to his pocket. "But we'll be going back as soon as our business is concluded."
"Oh, no, you misunderstand. Of course you will return to your city of the spires and sea I only meant that you might partake of our special hospitality." Rodney could swear the man winked. "Our ways may not be your ways, but I am sure you will find them -- pleasing."
"We both appreciate the offer," John said.
"But I'm sure we can figure things out on our own. And if the Colonel needs a little help, well, genius here." It was all Rodney could do, he said when the man finally left, not to shut the door in the man's face. He didn't, though, because even he didn't want to cause an interplanetary incident over Grand High Muckety Muck Grabby Hands. John pretended to admonish him, but really he liked the way Rodney renamed everyone.
Gefe Bar finally took the hint and disappointedly left them to their devices (with a parting shot of "May your stay be cleansing to body and spirit, and may your truths be revealed through the mirror of water."
He wanted nothing more than to wash off the long day's sweat, and relax (and maybe make some more) with John. Instead, he had to figure out another bathroom from hell. The Abarans were human. At least he hadn't gotten close enough to any of them to discover differences in their -- personal -- plumbing. But from what Rodney could gather, you were supposed to sit on your head on their toilet, while jets of water washed your ass while you were upside down. Kind of a toilet/shower/bidet combo -- for a contortionist. John would probably have no trouble, which made Rodney a very lucky man.
"This is completely ridiculous," he groused, peeling off his clothes (there didn't seem to be a way to use it otherwise), and looking at the confusing marble and sleek silver metal contraption. "Just once I'd like a normal flush toilet. Maybe even some nice shag carpet around the tile, and a magazine. A magazine would be good."
John plopped down on the large circular, satin-covered bed, and slid off immediately. Rodney couldn't help but laugh. "We should have taken Gefe Bar up on his offer to show us 'their comforts," John said, sitting down again more carefully and pulling off his boots.
"I thought he was just coming on to you!"
"He was coming on to us, Rodney. but I don't share. Anyway, I'm sure he would have pointed out the right way to pee without drowning, even if we didn't take him up on his offer."
"There's a diagram, here, but if I'm deciphering it correctly, I think this was built for Mork."
"Nano-Nano" John laughed in an almost perfectly ass-like way. The donkey kind, and the jerk definition.
"Yes, yes. You love the Seventies. Now come on. The shower looks even more complicated. I think I'll let you play guinea pig so I don't get scalded. Or frozen, for that matter."
"I don't think there are any threats in the Abaran equivalent of the honeymoon suite, Rodney."
"Honeymoon Suite? It does have that Niagara Falls-Poconos sort of feel..."
"I bet that shower's meant for two."
"Possibly more. Now get in here."
"But I'm comfortable!" Rodney may have complained a bit more than was strictly necessary, but no one could whine like John. He made an art of it.
"Fine. It'll be on your head if I'm too wounded to help you make use of the four showerheads and the nicely padded bench."
"I suppose I could come help you figure it all out." John sighed, stretched, then followed him into the shower.
"That was the point. I didn't expect you to be so obtuse when it comes to illicit, off-world sex possibilities."
"Hey, I'm the one who figured out the bed has magic fingers!"
"Pity we haven't got the local equivalent of quarters."
"I'm sure you and your genius can rig something up."
"Ok, this is a seriously weird shower." John fiddled with the controls while Rodney made himself comfortable on the bench, waiting. He couldn't help but be distracted by the way the water ran down John's back and ass, like it was caressing him, and wasn't that a soppy thing to be thinking.
"I mean, here's 'hot', and here's 'cold'. But what does this one do?" John touched the middle button, expecting perhaps a warm mixture to come out, or the pressure to lessen or deepen. Instead, it began to glow, and a fine mist filled the glassed-in room. Crap. John could smell the sea saltiness
"Super. More Ancient tech no one's bothered to mention." Rodney groused, even as he reached for the towel John tossed him to cover his face. John didn't think the mist would prove harmful, but he didn't want Rodney to be the one to find out.
But John couldn't hear him. All he could do was panic as his body changed again, pores widening into iridescent scales, the hair on his chest and legs flowing into silvery-green tendrils that seemed to move of their own accord.
"What the hell? Is this some Iratus thing happening again? Good God, John."
"Fine? Have you lost your mind?"
"I don't suppose I could convince you that you're just hallucinating, could I?"
"Yes, because I always hallucinate that my boyfriend's a mermaid when we're in Ancient showers together."
"Merman. And only half. On my mother's side."
"And you didn't think to mention it until now?"
"I didn't think you'd want to know. You apparently blocked it out the first time I told you." John looked a little angry now, or hurt, possibly. Rodney didn't know why.
"What are you talking about? When would I have known?"
"I saved your life when you were sixteen. You were drowning."
"And then you kissed me! You mean that really happened? All these years I thought I'd had heatstroke and hallucinated you."
"I heard your sister call you 'Mer', and thought you must be one of my people."
"All mermaids and mermen are named Mer.. something?"
"Is this why you didn't want me meeting your family?"
"As I recall you were the one who couldn't come back with me."
"Well, you weren't too broken up about it."
"Yeah, I wasn't ready for you to be disgusted by me."
"John." Rodney moved to hold him. "I would never..."
"I've been hiding it most of my life."
"Well, not anymore. Not with me."
We would run to and fro, and hide and seek
On the broad sea-wolds in the crimson shells,
Whose silvery spikes are nighest the sea.
But if any came near I would call, and shriek,
And adown the steep like a wave I would leap
From the diamond-ledges that jut from the dells;
For I would not be kiss'd by all who would list
Of the bold merry mermen under the sea.
They would sue me, and woo me, and flatter me,
In the purple twilights under the sea;
But the king of them all would carry me,
Woo me, and win me, and marry me,
In the branching jaspers under the sea.
--- Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Rodney's head was tilted, exposing the bare, perfect line of neck and shoulder grown thicker with time, but still just as beautiful. John could see the flutter of his pulse, taste it under the salt of his skin, sense-memory of the sea at sixteen. He licked just where the ripple of his gills would be if he had them.
Sometimes, after they'd made love, John remembered their first time together, even though they'd touched with more innocence back then. He replayed in his mind what it had felt like to pull him to the shore, how John had stroked his back -- still heaving with the exertion of breath. How he'd kissed life back into him, and in so doing, felt he was truly alive himself for the first time.
They didn't get to do it often, both being necessary to the expedition and the team, but once in awhile they slip out to sea. With no one around, John can let go, embrace the side of him people might not understand. Rodney loves watching the metamorphosis. Familiar now, so not something to be analyzed. Rodney kissed the trail of cool scales, while the waves caressed John's tendrils as they fucked.
So I pretended to have wings for my arms
And took off in the air.
I flew to places which the clouds never see,
Too close to the deserts of sand,
Where a thousand mirages, the shepherds of lies
Forced me to land and take a disguise.
I would welcome a horses kick to send me back
If I could find a horse not made of sand.
Within the valley of shadowless death
They pray for thunderclouds and rain,
But to the multitude who stand in the rain
Heaven is where the sun shines.
The grass will be greener till the stems turn to brown
And thoughts will fly higher till the earth brings them down.
Forever caught in desert lands one has to learn
To disbelieve the sea.
--- Genesis, Mad Man Moon
When John walks through the gate into an unrecognizable Atlantis, it's like he finally gets how his mother must have felt before she ended her life. The thought that she could never see her ocean home again, never greet her sisters, or feel the coolness of her scales reflected in the moonlight. Now it is the same for him. Where once there was the welcome of water, waves lapping against city spires to call him home again, there is only scorching sand and searing wind. The city is bone dry, and John is scraped raw before he's even forced out into the open.
But Rodney is there. Not a real Rodney, not his Rodney (and one that won't exist if things go right), but even a facsimile helps make the nightmare feel like something John might someday wake from, and feel that it really had been a dream.
It isn't completely a lie when he tells Rodney he's been through something like this before. Just not on a planet-wide scale. He can't get his mind around millenia passing in moments, and even a grey and rumpled Rodney telling him he's already lived long past everyone he's loved -- still failed them all -- doesn't make it real.
Nothing in his experience has been quite like this. Even Afghanistan, where sandstorms and well placed bombs were equally likely to leave nothing but white-washed bone behind, was less alien a landscape.
Hundreds of years -- and 12 days -- later, thanks to Rodney's brilliance and dedication, John is home again. He lies to Rodney about the future, nothing major, just hair. He'll tell him the whole truth later, in private. How sad he was for Rodney, for the life he was meant to live, but didn't. How grateful he was that Rodney gave up so much to get their future back. John can't even begrudge him a life with Dr Keller, unfathomable as that is to him. If that's what Rodney wants again, John would step back.
But from the look Rodney gives him, as if they've spent lifetimes apart in the span of days, John knows that that particular time-line might just as well be myth.
I grow old? I grow old?
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
--- T.S Eliot, from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Life may never have grown ordinary in the Pegasus galaxy, but old threats were contained, and new ones not so near. John and Rodney married the year after the Wraith/Replicator war ended, and John revealed himself to their Atlantis family and friends at the wedding's end, explaining what his true name meant, and dispelling any mis-beliefs.
They fathered two daughters, with Atlantis' help, and Carson's, too. Both were brilliant, and beautiful -- right down to their shimmering scales.
Disney had it wrong, which wasn't any real surprise. Hans Christian Andersen did, too. All of the stories talked about the sacrifice his mother had made. Giving up longevity for love, the sea for a soul. She had given up everything, but found a way to give it all to him. It just took a dive to another galaxy for John to find his true home. Because John had found his city in the sea, he knew he didn't have to hide his true nature. Swim or soar, sea or sky.