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Turn the Tide

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For you, I know I’d even try to turn the tide. – Johnny Cash

 

“This is beyond insulting.” Rodney glowered across the conference room table at Sam and Daniel, all his good feelings about being back having instantly evaporated. “I could’ve saved you the plane ticket from Moscow. I’m not a marine biologist or any other kind of biologist. Or have you forgotten that?”

He didn’t know what the SGC was playing at. He’d been exiled to Russia going on two years now. And then they finally call him back, giving him no time to deal with jetlag or even unpack his suitcase, and it’s for mermaids? If it was a joke, it was a really bad one.

“Rodney,” Sam said, using the soothing tone of voice she usually reserved for children, or O’Neill. “No-one knows more about the Ancients than you. We need your expertise.”

“I don’t see what one thing has to do with the other.” Rodney leaned back in his chair, arms crossed, and waited for some sort of explanation that made even the slightest bit of sense.

Sam and Daniel exchanged a look, had an entirely wordless conversation made up of shrugs and facial twitches, and then Daniel leaned forward with his elbows on the table.

“We found Atlantis.”

“What? How?” Rodney sputtered. Atlantis? That was huge! No wonder they'd called him back!

“It has an eight-symbol address,” Daniel said, and by his smug tone Rodney could tell he was the one who’d figured it out. “It’s in the Pegasus galaxy.”

Rodney snapped his fingers. “Of course! An extra symbol for a longer distance!”

That was why Rodney kept working for the SGC, even though they treated him like a crazy uncle that had to be stowed away in the attic. If the attic was Siberia. They were discovering new things all the time, making leaps in technology and their understanding of the universe. Atlantis was like the pinnacle of everything that had come before.

“I assume you’re putting together an expedition? I need to get briefed on all your findings immediately. Who do you have working on this?”

“Uh…” Daniel bit his bottom lip. “We’ve already made contact with the city.”

It took Rodney a moment to process the words, and when he did he could feel an angry flush moving up over his face. Sam obviously saw it as well, and she held her hands up in a placating gesture.

“Before you lose your temper –”

“You made contact with the Ancient city, but you didn't call in your expert in all things Ancient? Are you fucking kidding me with this?”

Sam winced, and Daniel looked downright contrite, but Rodney was fuming. Atlantis was his! He’d spent literal years learning the language, learning the tech. They could try to get the city up and running without him, but good fucking luck. Rodney wasn’t being egotistical when he said he was the only man for the job. The same reason he stayed was the same reason the SGC hadn’t booted him out: they didn’t want him, but they needed him. And Rodney was fine with that. But this…this was going too far.

“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t walk out of here right now and tender my resignation,” he demanded.

“We were going to bring you back in,” Sam said. Rodney snorted. “I mean it. We only sent a MALP through, not a team. We wanted to know what we were dealing with before we committed lives and resources.”

“And?” Rodney asked sharply.

“Play the footage,” Sam told Daniel.

Daniel produced a remote and turned on the big monitor at the front of the room. It soon filled with MALP footage, and Rodney could see why they hadn’t sent a team.

Atlantis was completely submerged. The MALP floated, tipping this way and that with the current, and showed a view of the Gate room: a flight of stairs, stained glass windows, and consoles. All of it under water. And then something large swam in front of the camera, but didn’t come into focus until the MALP drifted in the right direction. The something was a mermaid.

“So?” Rodney asked once the feed cut out. “It’s not a stretch that merfolk would inhabit another galaxy.”

Daniel shook his head, turning the remote over and around in his hands. “It’s more than that. I believe the Ancients created merfolk, possibly to defend the city.”

“Like flippered watch dogs?”

“They might possess the gene,” Sam interjected. Which would be patently unfair, since Rodney himself didn’t have the ATA gene and therefore needed the assistance of someone who did when he was working with Ancient tech.

“Which is a useless piece of genetics,” he said. “What use would merfolk have of the gene? None. And it’s all a moot point anyway, because we have no way of communicating with them.”

Dolphins could be taught commands, both spoken and signed, but scientists still hadn’t been able to crack the code of their squeaky, clicky language. Merfolk, who were basically dolphins with human faces, were either unable or unwilling to learn even the most basic commands. They were just pretty accessories for those with money enough to keep them on display.

“There has to be a way to bridge the gap,” Daniel insisted. “Ancient tech might be that bridge.”

“Sounds a lot like wishful thinking.” Rodney had no interest in working with merfolk, but there were plenty of other things he could be doing now that Atlantis had been found. Like figuring out a way to raise her from the depths.

“What if we have a way to communicate with them and we don’t even know it?” Daniel was getting that wild light in his eyes that spoke of ill-conceived plans. “If you look at the story of Aurora –”

“Oh, please,” Rodney scoffed. He shot a look at the door, willing someone to come in with food. He was starving.

“No, really. She had the sea-star necklace, the one that glowed.”

“It was part of the vaudeville act,” Rodney said contradictorily.

Aurora had been probably the most well-known mermaid in the world. Though there was just as much genetic variety amongst their population, she was still held up as the gold standard: alabaster skin, long red hair, iridescent scales. She’d toured with a vaudeville group throughout the 1920s before her untimely death.

“Several attempts were made to steal her necklace,” Daniel said. “And when they finally succeeded, they killed Aurora in the process.”

“We’ve all seen the movie,” Rodney said dismissively.

“Yes, well, what the movie doesn’t say is that just weeks later that necklace turned up again. The thieves abandoned it, because they couldn’t make it glow.”

“That’s not exactly compelling evidence.”

“No. But consider the old footage. Aurora was healthy. She put on a show for the audience. What if she were able to communicate somehow with her keepers? What if she could tell them what she needed?”

“You’re grasping at straws.” But Rodney had to admit – if only to himself – that he was slightly intrigued. Most captive merfolk lacked that singular spark their relatives in the wild had. What if some of them really did have the ATA gene? What kind of vital information could be locked up in their fishy heads, waiting to be discovered? If Aurora had been able to communicate, as Daniel surmised, maybe she wasn’t the only one.

“So what’s your plan here?” Rodney asked Sam.

“Simple. The SGC has procured a merman, and we want you to work with him. See if he has any reaction to Ancient tech. If we want to lead an expedition to Atlantis, we’re going to need a way to communicate with the local merfolk populations.”

Daniel nodded in agreement. “And with your background –”

“Oh, no. Don’t even go there. My grandmother was the activist, not me. I don’t have any insights into merfolk.”

“Will you help us?” Sam implored.

Rodney sighed. Like he could look into those big blue eyes and say no. “Fine. But I need everything you have, on Atlantis and on the merfolk.”

“You’ve got it!” Daniel said, a touch too gleefully.

*o*o*o*

“We were lucky to get him,” Sam said.

They’d finally had lunch, and Rodney had been given a data pad full of the necessary files, which he could review at his leisure. Now they were on their way to meet the merman Rodney would be working with.

“His previous owner, Mr. Sheppard, was looking to get rid of him. We were lucky enough to get there just ahead of a rehab group.”

Not so lucky for the merman, Rodney would say. “What’s his name?”

“John.” At Rodney’s incredulous look, Sam shrugged. “It’s the name Mrs. Sheppard gave him. She had a child that died young, and she was despondent. Her husband purchased John illegally, when he was very young, and Mrs. Sheppard saw him as a replacement child.”

“Idiots,” Rodney grumbled. Those were the same kind of people who dressed up dogs in little sweaters.

One of the smaller hangars had been emptied out to accommodate the ten thousand gallon oblong tank that now took up a majority of the space. There was a low-level hum coming from the water filtration system and the heater that kept the salt water at the proper temperature.

The only thing in the tank was the merman, who watched them from the farthest side.

He wasn’t what Rodney had been expecting. Unlike most merfolk, John had relatively short hair. His tail was a dark, mottled blue that showed signs of molting, and the smaller, finer scales covering his torso were a lighter shade of blue. He was also much too thin, and Rodney didn’t need to know anything about merfolk biology to see that he wasn’t in the best of health.

“The Sheppards didn’t take very good care of him.”

“Mrs. Sheppard passed away a few months ago,” Sam said quietly. “And I got the feeling that Mr. Sheppard never got attached to John the way she did.”

The neglect was obvious, and Rodney felt bad for the fish man. He’d never marched on Washington in pursuit of merfolk rights like his grandmother had, but it was hard to look at any creature that was suffering and not feel at least a little moved by it. That’s why Rodney got his cats from shelters instead of buying purebreds.

“I don’t like it,” a voice said behind Rodney, making him jump. Colonel O’Neill stood there, hands jammed in his pockets and glaring at the tank.

“It’s necessary,” Sam said. “You know that.”

“Well, can’t we put something in there so he’s less exposed? Bushes or a little castle or something?”

“Sir,” Sam started to say, but O’Neill cut her off.

“Save it, Carter. I was outvoted on this one fair and square. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

“Not into the scales?” Rodney asked.

O’Neill gave him a disdainful look. “Not much into slavery. Carter. McKay.” He turned on his heel and left.

“He’s anti-ownership?” Rodney was surprised. A guy like O’Neill? At the most he’d have figured the man didn’t care one way or the other. That was how the majority of people felt. There were always protests, of course, and the buying and selling of merfolk became more wrapped up in red tape every year, but as long as the wealthy wanted them, the wealthy would continue to have them.

“He’s not wrong,” Sam said. “If we could find a way to communicate with them, maybe we could convince people that they aren’t pets. They have feelings just like we do. Higher brain function.”

“Oh, well, no pressure.” It wasn’t just Atlantis and the future of Earth’s safety on the line, but also the welfare of the merfolk. Wonderful.

Sam showed him his workstation and the tubs full of Ancient artefacts he had at his disposal. There was a table and chair, presumably in case he decided to eat in there, as well as some non-perishable foodstuffs. A portable toilet had been set up in the corner and blocked off with partitions.

“You’ll have to set up a numerical key code to get in and out of the hangar. The only ones with override codes will be General Hammond and myself.”

Rodney nodded his approval. The artefacts had to be kept under lock and key, for everyone’s safety, but the extra level of security would keep the lookie-loos out who wanted to stare at the merman or maybe try to bust him out if they were secret radicals. The SGC couldn’t screen for everything.

“Good luck, Rodney. Let me know if you need anything.”

“A coffee maker, a cot, my MP3 player and speakers, and a supply of food for the fish man.”

Sam nodded. “I’ll see that you get it.”

She left, and it was just Rodney and John in the hangar. John promptly turned his back on Rodney, showing the ridge of his retractable dorsal fin.

“Oh, yeah. This is gonna be great,” Rodney muttered.

*o*o*o*

For the first two days, Rodney mostly ignored John. He read the reports on his datapad, inventoried the artefacts, and did some online research about merfolk. Like other exotic animals, merfolk had been bought and sold for profit and displayed in aquariums alongside sharks and squid and cuttlefish. Always alone. As far as Rodney could tell, no merman or mermaid had ever been born in captivity.

The majority of the uninformed masses assumed that they were solitary creatures, because they were only ever displayed singly, but that was untrue. According to the Ku’oka’a Sanctuary’s website, the merfolk they rescued were very social, quickly forming close attachments to other merfolk, or even family groups. Rodney wondered if John had been pulled away from his family to become a substitute son for a grieving human woman.

The sanctuary’s website also had some useful information for people who insisted on keeping merfolk as captives, and Rodney put in more requests with Sam. Soon John’s tank had sand and stone on the bottom, live aquatic plants to oxygenate the water and provide an extra food source, and some artificial coral to give the illusion of shelter. If John was pleased with the alterations to his living space, he didn’t show it. Mostly he stayed hunkered down in the coral unless Rodney was dropping some food in for him.

Rodney wondered how long Hammond would continue signing off on the deliveries of live lobster.

Finally, Rodney was ready to get started. He pulled out an artefact that was basically a music box, one that had already been initialized, and carried it up the rolling stairs to the platform that jutted slightly over the edge of the tank.

“Let’s see what you think of this,” he said. He could just see John’s spiky hair floating above the coral.

Rodney opened the artefact up, delicate musical notes immediately filling the air. It was a simple melody, nothing too complex, and the other scientists had postulated that it had been made for children. Luckily, it was also waterproof, as in fact most of the artefacts seemed to be. Rodney lay on his belly on the platform and held the music box under the water, so John could hear it better.

John ducked completely behind the coral the instant Rodney put his hands in the water, but it wasn’t long before he poked his head out. A flash of something that might have been a smile crossed his face, so fast Rodney couldn’t be sure he’d actually seen it, and John abandoned the coral. He swam through the plants, his hands brushing them aside, and stopped just beyond Rodney’s reach.

It was hard for Rodney to see from his angle, particularly with the distortion of the water, but John definitely looked interested. Rodney let the music box drop. It almost hit the bottom of the tank before John darted in and scooped it up.

“You can keep it,” Rodney said. He made a mental note to ask Sam for speakers he could put in the tank, so that John would be able to hear what he was saying. Even if he didn’t understand it.

John looked up at him, his eyes overwhelmingly green-brown-gold with almost no sclera showing. The gills on his neck rippled. Again there was the quickest flash of teeth, and then John retreated to the safe haven of the coral with his prize in his webbed, clawed hands. Rodney sat up, pleased. First contact had been made.

*o*o*o*

“So how are things going?” Sam asked over lunch in the Mess, a week into Rodney’s merman experiment.

“He’s starting to trust me,” Rodney replied. “He’ll take the artefacts from my hand now, instead of me having to drop them.”

“Has he initiated anything?”

Rodney shook his head. “I’m working up to that.”

To her credit, Sam didn’t press the issue. Rodney wasn’t completely sure what the timeline was, but he knew that everyone in the SGC was itching to get a foothold in Atlantis and hopefully uncover some tech that would help in their fight with the Goa’uld and the Ori. They weren’t just waiting on Rodney, though. Specialized dive suits were being developed that would protect the Atlantis expedition until they could raise the city, and Radek Zelenka was reportedly working on a device that would act like artificial gills for the wearer, so they wouldn’t have to worry about transporting oxygen.

“Well, if it isn’t our new fishologist.”

Rodney rolled his eyes. Kavanagh, of course, with a couple of his cronies.

“Have you learned the secrets of mermaid love yet?”

“Interesting question, coming from someone who’s the human equivalent of chum,” Rodney shot back. “I hear you didn’t make the cut for Atlantis because you can’t swim.”

Kavanagh flushed red, but Sam’s mild, “Boys,” put the kibosh on any further name calling.

“He’s such a tool,” Rodney said as Kavanagh stalked away, lunch tray in hand.

“And you should know better than to engage.”

Rodney grumbled, but Sam was right. Kavanagh wasn’t worth the paper his dubious degree was printed on. Although he couldn’t help but wonder if other people were gossiping about him behind his back. Well, he’d break the communication barrier with John and then they’d all be eating their words, wouldn’t they?

“Are you all right?” Sam asked when Rodney stood up to bus his tray, which was still half full.

“I’m fine. Just ready to get back to work.”

*o*o*o*

The first un-initialized artefact that Rodney gave to John was a small, round ball that he already knew contained star maps. It was completely inert in Rodney’s hands, and he held his breath as John cocked his head and studied it. The map burst out of it, filling the entirety of the tank with a hologram of the solar system.

John dropped the ball and made the first sounds Rodney had heard from him: several high-pitched whistle-clicks. John retreated to the far end of the tank and glared up at Rodney with what could only be described as betrayal, his face barely visible through Neptune.

Rodney stared back at him, and a grin slowly spread across his face. “It’s true! You do have the ATA gene!”

There were tests that Carson could’ve done, of course, that would’ve proved the presence of the gene more succinctly. But despite the company line that it wasn't worth stressing John out, Rodney suspected that the powers that be were interested in mental conditioning. By making John dependent on Rodney for all his needs, he'd become attached and want to help them no matter what they asked. Rodney didn't want to be part of that, didn’t want to be some kind of handler to a brainwashed merman, but he'd also reached a point where he didn't feel he could entrust John's care to anyone else.

“Shit. Daniel was right. He’s going to be interminably smug about this, you wait and see.”

Rodney lay on his back on the platform and contemplated the hangar ceiling. If all merfolk had the gene, then clearly the Ancients had something more in mind for them than just ornamental fish tank accessories. Had they brought them from Pegasus when they traveled to Earth all those thousands of years ago? For what purpose?

Jackson had long ago postulated that Atlantis was a floating city, which probably made sense from a strategic point of view. Easier to spot enemies, who could only come via the water or the sky. Why then was it sitting at the bottom of the sea? Had the Ancients sunk it themselves, or had someone else done it? They could make all the hypotheses they wanted, but until a team was sent to Pegasus none of them knew what was happening out there.

There was no way the SGC could keep Rodney from going to Atlantis. They needed him there, and for reasons he couldn’t even really express to himself, he needed to go. Rodney had never been interested in Gate travel, never had any desire to step foot on distant planets, but Atlantis was like a siren song to him.

Water splashed up on Rodney’s arm, startling him. He sat up and saw that John was right there at the edge of the tank, his webbed hands curled over the glass. He’d never been that close before. Those big hazel eyes stared right at him, luminous and unblinking.

“Oh. Uh…hey.”

John opened his mouth, displaying teeth that were stronger than human teeth and more serrated, and made a clicking noise in the back of this throat. Rodney was only vaguely aware of merfolk physiology, though he supposed he’d picked up things here and there through the years from documentaries and the work his grandmother had done. He knew John’s vocal chords were different from a human’s, and that no matter how many people tried to teach merfolk to speak, it was physically impossible.

“Daniel was right about the gene. Do you think he was right about the rest?” Rodney asked.

John tipped his head to the side and flashed his teeth again. It was the only warning Rodney got before John arched his back and flipped the artefact out of the tank with his tail. Rodney caught it, fumbled it, and the Ancient sphere went down the steps with a clang, clang, clang.

More sounds from John, and Rodney could’ve sworn it was laughter. The merman gave him one last long look before he slid back down beneath the water and swam away.

“Hilarious!” Rodney called out after him. Just his luck to have to work with the one fish that had an infantile sense of humor.

*o*o*o*

Rodney woke with a start, heart pounding. The whale had been on top of him, giant mouth gaping open to swallow him whole. That stupid dream never got any less terrifying no matter how many times he'd had it.

He looked at his watch, saw it was only two in the morning, and rolled over on the cot. The hangar was mostly dark, except for a safety light by the door and another glowing dimly from the tank, and the only sound was the soft hum of the water heater.

Rodney had almost drifted back to sleep when movement in the tank caught his eye. He shifted on the cot so he could see better, eyes straining in the dim light.

John was watching him through the glass.

Maybe he’d seen Rodney moving around and came to investigate. But even though Rodney held himself very still, John didn’t swim back to the cover of his coral. He just bobbed there, one hand on the side of the tank.

What was he thinking about? Did he hate Rodney, or was he merely curious about him?

Rodney fell back asleep thinking of what John might have to say to him, if they could only find a way to communicate.

*o*o*o*

News of John’s ATA gene caused quite a stir at the SGC, particularly since it seemed so much stronger than O’Neill’s and he was the strongest natural carrier they had. Rodney suddenly found himself pulled into meetings with biologists, linguists, and medical staff. The IOA sent representatives down to stare at John through the glass.

As Rodney expected, Daniel was intolerable. He started coming to the hangar, trying to interact with John, and the one bright spot was that John didn’t want anything to do with anyone that wasn’t Rodney. All that one-on-one time had really paid off.

The one visitor Rodney hadn’t been expecting was the great-grandson of the founder of the Ku’oko’a Sanctuary, who showed up at the Mountain one day and wouldn’t leave until he got to examine John and make sure he was okay.

“How did he even know John was here?” Rodney asked Sam as they headed for the waiting area.

“That’s what we’re going to find out,” Sam said, a grim expression on her face. “We posed as members of SeaWorld Rescue when we approached Mr. Sheppard. There should have been no way to connect us back to the SGC.”

“Maybe you’re just terrible at undercover work,” Rodney suggested.

Sam gave Rodney a sour look, and then they were at the waiting room. The man inside seemed to fill it. He was tall, muscled, and sported an impressive head full of dreadlocks that were woven through with tiny seashells. He was wearing leather pants and a raw linen shirt that showed way too much of his chest, which was adorned with tribal tattoos.

He looked exactly like the kind of person who regularly swam around in the ocean with merfolk.

“Mr. Dex?”

“Call me Ronon.”

He shook Sam’s hand, then Rodney’s, and Rodney felt dwarfed. The man’s hand was enormous, and he’d be lying if he didn’t, however briefly, wonder if that was true everywhere. In his defense he was spending all his free time with a fish.

“Can I ask why you think we have a merman here?”

“I don’t think, I know. I’d like to see him.”

“Mr. Dex –”

“Ronon,” he corrected Sam.

“Ronon. I’m sure you’ll understand that this is a military base, and one that operates under a high level of confidentiality.”

“I’ll sign whatever I need to sign.” He sounded so sure of himself and Rodney wondered if he had a contact within the SGC. “We’ve been keeping an eye on this kāne hiʻu iʻa for a long time. You don’t want to play ball, I’ll come back tomorrow with the press and every merfolk rights group this side of the Rockies.”

Ronon didn’t raise his voice, but he didn’t have to. His placid demeanor indicated that he was fully prepared to back up his words with actions, and the SGC certainly had no interest in drawing attention to itself.

“I don’t appreciate being threatened,” Sam said.

“And I don’t appreciate an illegally obtained Fish Tail being kept under a mountain.” Ronon’s expression darkened. “If you’re experimenting on him –”

Rodney stepped between Ronon and Sam. “Don’t be stupid. Sam, get the NDA. You know Hammond will agree, so all this posturing is pointless. Ronon, come with me.”

“Rodney,” Sam said warningly.

“He won’t see anything he shouldn’t.” Rodney waved her off.

There was a particular route that certain visitors could be taken on that kept them away from classified areas, including a designated elevator. It was a quiet ride down to the hangar, since Ronon didn’t seem inclined to make idle conversation.

Rodney used his code to get into the hangar and ushered Ronon in.

“Good-sized tank,” Ronon said. “Looks clean.”

John had retreated to the coral, only his hair visible.

“He doesn’t like most people,” Rodney explained. He tried not to sound too smug.

Ronon just smirked and climbed the stairs up to the edge of the tank. He got down on his belly on the platform and dunked his whole dreadlocked head in the water.

“What the hell are you doing?” Rodney asked. He couldn’t see past the hair, but bubbles indicated that Ronon was trying to talk to John. The speakers picked up some guttural noises that sounded almost…dirty. “Idiot.”

Merfolk rehabilitators were split into two camps: hippie do-gooders and overly-enthusiastic lab assistants. Everything about Ronon Dex screamed the former. Rodney had poked around on the Sanctuary’s website enough to have seen pictures and video clips of the guy interacting with the merfolk. He spent so much time in the water people called him Aquaman. He probably thought he could speak with the merfolk, which was patently –

John swam out from the coral and cautiously made his way through the plants until he was close enough to Ronon to reach out and touch him.

Rodney would never admit it, but he felt a little zing of jealousy.

John chittered back at Ronon, who made some complicated-looking hand-signs before he pulled himself up out of the water.

“He’s not healthy.”

Rodney bristled against the implied criticism. “I feed him regularly, he just doesn’t eat much. He was in worse shape when we first got him.”

Ronon descended the stairs, dripping water. “He doesn’t belong here.”

“We need him here.”

“Why?”

“Not until you sign the NDA. But the work I’m doing, it’s just as good for John as it is for us. I know you probably won’t believe that, but it’s true.”

Ronon nodded and wandered around Rodney’s space. The cot was unmade, the table cluttered with Ancient artefacts that hopefully looked like random machine parts, Power Bar wrappers, and no fewer than seven used Styrofoam coffee cups.

“You spend a lot of time here,” Ronon said.

“It’s important work.”

Rodney glanced back at the tank, saw John was watching them.

“So you say. He needs sunlight. Fresh air. Fresh water.”

Guilt pricked at Rodney, and he didn’t care for the way it felt. He didn’t think John belonged at Cheyenne Mountain either, but Atlantis was more important than one fish-man’s comfort.

“Once our work is done, he’s all yours.”

He wondered what John would look like in the blue, clear waters off of Maui, swimming with other merfolk. Did they fall in love, the way people did? Rodney’s grandmother always thought so.

You only have to watch them in the wild, Meredith, to see it. They aren’t that different from us. They love, and are loved. They feel loss.

“I’ll want regular updates,” Ronon said.

“That can be arranged.”

“Has he been seen by a specialist?”

“You mean a marine veterinarian?” Rodney tried to remember is Sam had said anything about that. He was very sure there wasn’t one on staff at the SGC. “I don’t know.”

“Get one here.”

That was all he said before Sam came to take Ronon to the conference room to read through the NDA and sign it.

Rodney spent a long time after that watching John watch him and wondering if he was doing the right thing.

*o*o*o*

When Rodney switched up to uncatalogued artefacts, he was faced with disappointment. Most of them were either broken or drained of power. John would take them from Rodney’s hands and stare at them, and then give a kind of shrug when nothing happened.

He carried the latest offering up the stairs, but he didn’t have high hopes. The artefact was U-shaped, and there were indentations on each end for fingers. None of the other gene carriers who’d handled it had gotten anything from it, and with the way things were going Rodney didn’t hold out much hope for John initializing it either.

The hardest part was getting John to take it.

“Come on. I promise it’s the last one we’ll do today.”

John crossed his arms, tail flexing, and refused to swim out of the plants.

“Are you kidding me with this right now? I’m not exactly having the time of my life here either, you know.” Rodney shifted. Kneeling on the platform hurt his knees. “I’ll throw in an extra lobster. I’ll buy you a car. Can we please just do this?”

Rodney didn’t know if it was his expression or his tone of voice, but John finally relented and swam over, big eyes staring up at Rodney through the rippling water.

He handed the artefact to John, and as soon as John grabbed the other side of it, a tingling charge shot up Rodney’s arm.

“Shit!”

Rodney tried to drop the artefact but found he couldn’t get go of it. John was tugging on his end and seemed to be having the same problem. A tug of war ensued, but John was so much stronger and in his panic he jerked Rodney right off the platform and into the tank.

Instant terror. Rodney fought the artefact, fought John, fought the urge to take a deep breath and yell. He could swim and tread water, but John was dragging him down and he couldn’t hold his breath for very long.

Let go! Let go! Let go! Rodney thought frantically. Already his chest was starting to hurt, to burn, and he struggled to get to the surface of the tank as the fronds of the aquatic plants hit him in the face.

He reached for John and ended up catching hold of one of his pointed ears. Rodney pulled, hard, and John finally looked at him, and there were spots in front of Rodney’s eyes now but he thought maybe John understood, and it seemed like they were moving but he couldn’t fight it anymore, he had to breathe.

Rodney opened his mouth and swallowed water. His throat was burning, his lungs were burning, he was choking to death, and then his head broke water and air hit his face and he clung to the side of the tank, retching and coughing.

John chittered at him, but Rodney could barely hear it over the ringing in his ears. He did notice when the artefact shut down and fell out of his hand, though. So did John, who promptly threw it over the side of the tank.

“Fuck,” Rodney gasped when he finally got his breath back. His throat felt raw. And the platform seemed incredibly far away. Under other circumstances he’d have just swum over to it, but he wasn’t ready to let go of the glass.

Slowly he moved around the side of the tank, hand-over-hand, and John stayed with him the whole way, making soft clicking noises like he was encouraging Rodney to keep going.

It felt like forever before Rodney reached the platform and hauled himself out of the tank. He was soaked to the skin, his chest hurt, and he was exhausted. Not a great day, all things considered. He wanted to crawl over to his cot and collapse for a few hours, but he needed to shower first.

He was keenly aware that he’d been submerged in the same water John peed in.

John whistled at him, low and urgent, and if Rodney didn’t know better he’d say that John seemed…concerned.

“I’ll be okay,” Rodney gasped.

He left the artefact where it lay. He wasn’t touching that damn thing again.

*o*o*o*

Rodney stood on the rocks looking out at St. Margaret's Bay. Behind him loomed Peggys Point Lighthouse, and he flushed a little when he remembered kissing Liam Doucet there just last night. They always hung out together when Rodney's family came to stay with Aunt Purdie, but Rodney had never imagined doing something like that. It had been scary and amazing and he kind of wanted to do it again.

But today he was looking out at the water while Jeannie played on the rocks, looking for dolphins or maybe minke whales. There was something about the water that called to Rodney, even though he wasn't a very strong swimmer. It was like there was something he was meant to do, or see. Somewhere he was meant to be.

Grandma Sterling said his name meant Lord of the Sea, and that was why he was so drawn to it.

And then sometimes he thought he was looking the wrong way, and instead he needed to lift his eyes to the sky, which was like a different kind of ocean, just as vast and mysterious.

"Mer, look!" Jeannie called up to him.

She was pointing out at the water and Rodney saw a tail. Then another. And then a couple of heads broke the surface. Merfolk. Jeannie waved at them but they probably didn't see her. Even if they had, they wouldn't have acknowledged her. As his grandmother liked to say, merfolk had their own ways and should be allowed to keep to themselves. She'd been arrested once for trying to break a mermaid out of the Aquarium du Québec.

The merfolk weren't visible for long, dipping back down under the water and swimming away. Rodney imagined them exploring sunken ships and puzzling over things like forks and books and paintings. He wondered what they thought of humans. They probably hated humans, who pulled them out of the sea and stuck them into fish tanks.

Rodney could relate. His parents were holding him back, keeping him from skipping grades and getting an earlier start on university because they didn't want him to be a freak, even though he knew more than his teachers, even though he'd built that bomb as easily as any other kid might've built a treehouse or a soapbox racer. They were trying to force him into a box labeled 'normal' when he was so much more than that.

Rodney was going to do amazing things someday. He just knew it.

*o*o*o*

Rodney woke up thinking about the ocean. He'd dreamed of visiting Aunt Purdie, who'd died when he was fifteen. He'd forgotten how much he enjoyed those trips, how he'd spend so much time out at the lighthouse dreaming of being a scientist and unlocking the mysteries of the universe. The memory was so clear he could practically smell the salty mist out by the lighthouse and hear the sharp cry of the gulls.

It put him in a weird mood for the day, and it didn't help that John was acting out-of-sorts as well. The merman seemed agitated and unable to keep himself still. Rodney caught him staring every time he looked over at the tank, which was disconcerting to say the least. He belatedly wondered if John was having a reaction to that Ancient artefact.

"I think maybe we should bring the vet back in," he said to Sam during their morning meeting. "Something's wrong with John."

"I'll see if I can get her here today."

The vet, like Ronon Dex, had signed an NDA that would keep her from discussing John's presence at Cheyenne Mountain with anyone. She didn't need to know anything about the SGC or the Stargate program, which had no bearing on the care and feeding of one merman. But like Ronon, she didn't approve of John being kept under the mountain.

"This isn't a healthy environment for him," she said, pointedly looking at Sam. "Sun lamps are no replacement for the actual sun, and he needs a much larger enclosure. He needs to swim more than just short laps around the tank."

"It's a temporary situation," Sam said.

Rodney could hear the lie and he felt a little flash of anger. There was nothing temporary about John's presence at the SGC, even though he'd basically told Ronon the same thing. They needed his gene and, if they learned to communicate with him, they'd need him in Atlantis. John would never be free, he was too valuable a commodity.

"I'm going to have to sedate him," the vet said.

"No way" Rodney said.

"Okay," Sam said at the same time. She gave Rodney a look. "He needs a proper examination, McKay. You said so yourself."

John fought it all the way, and certainly didn't make it easy on the vet. Rodney kept watch, feeling sick to his stomach as John was darted and knocked out. Carson appeared out of nowhere with his team and they helped extricate John from the tank and get him on a portable exam table. He was weighed and measured, had several vials of blood taken by both Carson and the vet. The vet gave John a full exam, checking his mouth, his eyes, his gills, his tail.

The only time Rodney looked away was when the vet checked John's genitals.

"We need to get him back in the tank," he said, looking at his watch. The sedation was supposed to last an hour, but he had a niggling feeling in the back of his mind.

"He's fine, Rodney," Carson assured him. "We still have twenty minutes."

But it wasn't fine, for no good reason that Rodney could articulate. "Sam, listen to me. He needs to get back in the tank."

"Wrap it up, Dr. Beckett," Sam said.

"The better picture we have of John's overall physiology, the better we can help him if something's wrong," the vet protested.

Which made sense, much more sense than the prickling feeling under Rodney's skin.

One slow, languorous flap of John's tail was the only warning they had before he came out of sedation and chaos erupted.

John made keening noises of distress and started thrashing, knocking over one the instrument trays and sending Carson's people chasing after rolling vials of blood. They hadn't strapped him down, thinking they had plenty of time, and despite Sam, Carson and the vet doing their best to hold John down on the exam table he managed to heave himself off of it, taking Carson and Sam down with him.

Rodney didn't know what to do. John was going to hurt himself, and the stress of the whole situation would have an even worse effect on him. The vet was readying another dart.

"John! John, stop." Rodney dodged into the fray, avoiding the powerful tail and going up by John's head. "Let me help you."

John gave him a look of betrayal, which hit Rodney like a physical blow, but he didn't give up. "I won't hurt you. I promise."

Let me help you. I won't hurt you.

Abruptly John stopped thrashing around, though his chest was heaving with exertion.

"Carson!" Rodney barked. "Get his tail!"

Rodney hooked John under the arms, and it felt strange to touch him like that after having minimal physical contact for so long. Rodney wanted to apologize again, though he wasn't sure what for. Between the two of them, they hefted John up the stairs – Rodney walked up backwards – and got him to the edge of the platform.

John wriggled his way back into the tank and promptly vanished behind the coral, curled up tight enough that there was no sign of him.

Rodney sat on the platform, out of breath himself. "Get out," he said.

Everyone packed up and left, without another word to Rodney. He'd probably get a scolding from Sam later but he didn't care. They'd entrusted John to him, and he be damned if he let anything like that happen again.

"I'm sorry, John," he said softly.

*o*o*o*

John didn't come out from behind the coral for two whole days and Rodney didn't try to coax him or entice him with fresh lobster or anything else. John needed time, so that's what he got. Rodney had the sense that John wasn't angry, just scared. And understandably so. The last time he'd been sedated they'd taken him from what was likely the only home he remembered and brought him under the mountain. Maybe he thought they were going to take him someplace even worse this time.

Daniel stopped by once with a peace offering of chocolate pudding. He, more than anyone, understood what it meant to continue keeping John in captivity. And if the lure of Atlantis wasn't so strong, Daniel would probably be the one loudly insisting on letting John go to the sanctuary.

But it was impossible to deny how important Atlantis was for them.

To that end, Rodney brought in the biggest monitor the SGC had under the mountain and set it up right against the glass of the tank. He waited for John to poke his head out and then hit play.

The MALP footage from Atlantis played on a loop: Gate room, mermaid, stained glass windows. By the tenth iteration John was right in front of it, hands pressed against the tank while he watched with wide eyes.

"That's Atlantis," Rodney said, his words being picked up and played through the waterproof speakers in the tank. "That's where I need to go. And I need your help to get there."

Home.

Rodney froze. That hadn't been his thought. It didn't sound the way his own thoughts usually did to him. It was like someone had spoken to him, but inside his head.

John banged on the side of the tank, drawing Rodney's attention. He looked pointedly at the monitor and then back at Rodney.

Home.

Whoa. "Are you...how are you doing that?"

John just stared at him, but Rodney got it. He snapped his fingers. "The artefact! The one we both touched! That's it, isn't it?"

That was huge. Huge! Fucking Daniel was right again. The Ancients had left a way for human and merfolk to communicate with each other.

"Can you understand me, John?" Rodney said it aloud, but got no response. So he thought it instead, and John showed his teeth, whistles and clicks distorted a bit by the water.

Telepathic communication! That was an incredible breakthrough, with far-reaching consequences. Did it just work for human/merfolk connections, or could humans do that with each other as long as one had the gene? Rodney would need to discreetly test that, as well as the strength of the connection in terms of distance.

Home. Bring?

Rodney looked back at John. "You want to go to Atlantis?" he asked, thinking it at the same time like an echo.

Home. Yes.

Rodney licked his lips, thinking hard. John recognized Atlantis as being home from some fuzzy MALP footage. How was that possible? Did merfolk have some kind of genetic memory? What else did John instinctively know?

"I'll bring you home," Rodney promised.

*o*o*o*

Where you are?

"A steakhouse," Rodney said/thought.

He'd left the Mountain for the first time in weeks, taking a car from the carpool to Loveland, which was over one hundred miles away. It was part of Rodney's testing of the telepathic link with John, and so far it was still very strong.

Rodney closed his eyes and tried to send an image of him eating to reinforce the steakhouse idea. He suspected John was better at sending mental pictures than he was; Rodney relied too heavily on words.

John sent back an image of lobster to show the he understood.

While Rodney waited for his lunch to arrive – he was nearly salivating at the thought of a freshly grilled steak after eating MREs and Mess Hall food for so long – he filled up on the free rolls in the basket on the table.

The telepathic link had a built-in translator, which Rodney knew because there was no way merfolk and humans had the same language. Also, he'd tested that as well by sending John thoughts in Russian and French, and John had understood every time.

Soon back?

"As soon as I eat. Did Daniel bring your lunch?"

Rodney ignored the weird look he was getting from the guy at the next table. He knew he didn't have to talk out loud, but he had a difficult time just sitting quietly and thinking everything. Besides, it had to be good for John to hear the words (when he was in the room) and associate them with the thoughts he was getting.

He stares. No.

"Well, let me know if he does more than stare."

Rodney hadn't divulged his discovery, at least not yet. He wanted to have more information about the telepathic link. He wanted to know the limitations of it. Also, he didn't want Daniel and Sam to try and use the device with the John. Rodney knew he was being selfish. He knew it would be better for the research if he wasn't the only one who could communicate with John, he just wasn't ready to share.

The waitress came with a tray and set the plate with Rodney's lunch on the table. The steak was still sizzling.

"You need anything else, hon?" she asked.

"I'll let you know." Rodney leaned over the plate and took a deep breath.

That kind of food was one of things he'd missed most while he was Russia, where they liked their soup cold and their meat boiled. Rodney cut into the steak and took his first bite, and there really were some things on par with sex.

Happy?

Rodney's eyes popped open and he nearly choked. "What?!"

Feel happy.

Rodney waved the waitress back over. "I need to get this wrapped up to go."

*o*o*o*

"He looks good." Ronon walked around the tank, nodding. “Better than last time.”

He thinks you look healthier, Rodney thought at John.

In response, John made a show of flexing his tail and extending his dorsal fin. Ronon was right, and Rodney hadn’t really taken much note of it because he saw John every day. John did look healthier. No more molting, his blue scales were vibrant, and he showed his teeth a lot more in his attempt at smiling.

Sam had concluded that John was bonding with Rodney and communication couldn’t be far behind. Rodney hadn’t told her yet, but he was dying to tell someone.

“What have you been doing?” Ronon asked, completing his circuit and taking a seat on the rolling stairs.

“One second.” Rodney opened the security camera app on his datapad and made sure the cameras in the hangar were still muted. “You don’t have the security clearance to know how, but John and I have been communicating. We understand each other.”

Ronon leaned back against the stairs and crossed his arms. The man was distractingly muscular. “Prove it.”

“How?”

“Have him do a lap around the side of the tank.”

“John, he wants you to swim around the tank. Along the glass.”

Friend?

“We can trust him.”

Ronon turned to watch and John obediently made his lap, then pressed his hands against the glass right where Ronon was sitting, showing his teeth.

Make swim.

Rodney shook his head. “We don’t have time for that.”

“What does he want?” Ronon asked.

“He wants you to swim with him.”

John had made the same request of Rodney, but he hadn’t forgotten almost drowning. Rodney wasn’t ready to get back in the water just yet.

“Okay.” Ronon stood up and immediately started pulling off his clothes. The man had absolutely no shame – and there was no reason he should, because wow – and Rodney quickly turned away when Ronon hooked his thumbs in the waistband of his boxer briefs.

Rodney didn’t turn back around until he heard Ronon get in the tank. As big as he was, Ronon was an incredibly graceful swimmer. His dreadlocks streamed out behind him as he chased John around the tank, John chittering and whistling and clearly having a good time. Rodney could feel his happiness, and wondered again how John had survived so many solitary years when he was clearly aching for companionship.

Ronon had excellent lung capacity and didn’t need to surface much to breathe. When he finally did come out, after maybe twenty-five minutes of horsing around with John, he shook his head, squeezed the water out of his hair, and accepted the towel Rodney handed him with an averted gaze.

“That was awesome,” Ronon said, putting his clothes back on. "Now you need to tell me everything."

“Not here,” Rodney said.

They ended up leaving the Mountain and heading into town for lunch. It was a warm day so they grabbed a table at one of the bistros, one with an umbrella in deference to Rodney’s sensitivity to UV rays.

"I can't say too much." Rodney fiddled with his silverware. "I signed an NDA, just like you, only mine is much more comprehensive. Suffice to say, I have access to some very cutting edge technology. This is going to sound like some crazy sci-fi movie plot, but one of those pieces of tech gave John and me a mental link."

"You're talking about telepathy." Ronon leaned forward.

"I know how it sounds."

Ronon shrugged. "I'm a pretty open-minded guy, no pun intended. This tech, can anyone use it?"

"I don't know," Rodney replied. There was no reason not to be as honest as possible. "John and I are the only ones who've used it. But I think merfolk might have a genetic advantage that would make it more likely to work for them."

"You know how big this is, right? What it could do for the Fish Tail community?"

"Of course I do! And I have every assurance that this tech will be made available as soon as it's been properly tested."

Okay, Rodney might not have been completely certain about that last part. Sam had suggested that learning to communicate with John would be a boon for all merfolk, but there was the little question of how. The general public didn't know about the Stargate program, or that aliens were real. How then to pass off an Ancient artefact that could give people the ability to communicate with merfolk that also possessed the ATA gene?

"You don't believe that," Ronon said.

Rodney cursed his expressive face. "Okay, so that's the party line. I'm just not sure how they'd be able to pull it off with all the confidentiality surrounding our program. Communicating with John is just the first step, but it'll likely be a long road before we can reach out to other merfolk."

Nothing in the scientific field moved quickly. Everything had to be tested, re-tested, tested ad infinitum. There needed to be independent corroboration. Reports, meetings, more reports. And that was without factoring in the secrecy of the Stargate program. If they were going to share the Ancient artefact, it would have to be rebranded and fake science would have to be created to explain how it worked without giving anything away.

Ronon leaned back in his chair, and he looked too exotic for downtown Colorado Springs with his golden tan and Polynesian tattoos and all the little shells in his hair. Rodney thought he'd have made a pretty amazing merman, something along the lines of the fictional Poseidon, maybe.

"Tell me more about John," he said. "What has he shared with you?"

That was a safer topic, and Rodney told Ronon everything: how when asked about his parents John shared an image of the Sheppards, how he was fascinated with the sky and birds in particular, the feeling of longing when Rodney showed him a documentary of merfolk in the wild, his love of music.

"My grandmother was right," Rodney said around a mouthful of food. "Merfolk are just the same as we are."

"My family has always felt that way," Ronon replied. He'd eaten a huge amount of food in a stunningly short amount of time. "My great-grandfather started Ku’oko’a after he had a vision. A spirit from the heavens visited him and told him how important it was to protect the Fish Tails. We've been doing it ever since."

Normally Rodney took a pretty dim view of things like visions and psychics and all that nonsense. In light of his current situation he was forced to be a little more open-minded himself, no pun intended. A heavenly spirit? Utter crap, unless Ronon's relative had been visited by an Ascended Ancient, which would mean that the merfolk really did hold the key to Atlantis.

Bored. You come.

Not till I finish my lunch.

Rodney could almost feel John pouting.

"What's it like?" Ronon asked. "The mental connection."

"Weird," Rodney replied promptly. "He can't just read my mind, I have to actively send him thoughts and images, but it can be pretty intrusive."

Like the time John had asked Rodney to explain what he was doing while he was behind the privacy screens taking a piss. On the other hand, Rodney had never really been close to anyone. Not on any kind of deeper level. But the connection he now had with John had made Rodney realize how lonely he'd been himself.

"It's a gift," Ronon said. "You should appreciate it."

Maybe it was Rodney's imagination, but Ronon sounded almost jealous. It was crazy that someone who looked the way he did would be jealous of Rodney, of all people, but considering he spent his life surrounded by merfolk he couldn't properly communicate with, it was understandable too.

"I do. I really do."

*o*o*o*

Rodney sat in a row boat that had no oars, floating at the whims of the ocean currents. A storm was building in the West, thick black clouds roiling closer and closer as distant rumbles of thunder sounded. Soon it would rain and Rodney would be even more miserable than he already was.

His eyes anxiously scanned the horizon for signs of the whale.

The boat rocked violently and Rodney clutched the sides, his heart pounding. And then he saw something completely unexpected: a merfolk tail slipping briefly out of the water. That had never happened before.

"Hello?" Rodney called out.

The boat rocked again as clawed hands grabbed hold and a face emerged from the sea.

"Hey, Rodney."

"John?"

John! He looked just the same as always but he was talking like a human and grinning up at Rodney.

"Is this the sea? It's so big!"

"You need to get out of here," Rodney said, panicking anew. "The whale's coming."

"You're scared. Why?"

"Didn't you hear what I just said? The whale's coming!" But what would John know about whales? He'd been raised in a human home, and his human parents probably hadn't read him Moby Dick at an impressionable age. "It's a big monster and it'll eat you!"

Right on cue there was a blast of air from a blowhole only fifteen meters away.

"See?" Rodney pointed as the whale breached, its impossibly large bulk hanging momentarily above the rough water.

John watched, eyes wide, before he turned back to Rodney. "Be right back."

He slipped below the water and Rodney leaned over the edge of the boat. "John! No, don't!"

Somehow, despite the storm being almost on him and the air being filled with thunder and the sound of water slapping the side of the boat and the roar of his own heartbeat in his ears, Rodney could hear the low, mournful cry of the whale and John's whistling, chittering response.

It was impossible. Rodney's dream never changed. But there was the whale, clearly swimming away. And sunlight was filtering down on him as the storm clouds started to break up and reveal a blue, blue sky.

John reappeared at the side of the boat.

"How did you do that?" Rodney asked.

"This isn't real," John replied with a shrug. "Let me show you."

He held out his hand, sunlight making the delicate webbing between his fingers seem to glow. The sea had calmed and the danger seemed to be over, but Rodney still wasn't sure.

"Trust me," John said. And lord help him, Rodney did.

He took hold of John's hand and tipped himself into the water, which was as warm as a bath and unexpectedly clear. John pulled Rodney underwater.

You can breathe.

And Rodney found that to be true. It was as if he had a bubble of air around his head, breathing normally even as John pulled him deeper. Rodney knew he wasn't as graceful as Ronon, but he could swim well enough. He and John chased each other, bodies flexing and twining as they moved together and apart and together again in a dance that Rodney was finding increasingly erotic.

John caressed Rodney with his tail, nudged against him with his head. Rodney in turn let his hands run along John's scales, smooth and slick and containing the powerful muscles just beneath.

This isn't real, Rodney thought.

Yes it is, John contradicted.

He swam a little way off from Rodney and presented himself the way merfolk did in the wild, arms spread, tail flexing to keep him afloat. John's cock protruded from his genital pouch, the same color as his tail but fleshy and erect without any scales on it. He was offering himself as a potential mate.

Rodney licked his lips. It was just a dream. A crazy, erotic dream. It wasn't like he'd never had one of those before, he'd just never had one about John. Humans and merfolk couldn't procreate, but of course there'd been reports of sexual experimentation. Rodney'd always found it distasteful in the past, put it in the same category as bestiality the way the majority of the world did, but now...now he was so hard he was aching with it.

Merfolk didn't kiss, but that didn't stop Rodney from swimming to John and pressing their lips together. They sank deeper together, John rubbing himself against Rodney and Rodney running his tongue along the sharp edges of John's teeth.

John came first, his head thrown back and gills fluttering, pressing himself even closer to Rodney in the process. Rodney fumbled with his pants, got them unbuttoned and unzipped, but before he could take himself in hand John was there. He used his tongue instead of his clawed hands and then Rodney was coming, cradled by John's tail.

Rodney kissed John again, heedless of the fact that they were still sinking and he couldn't see the surface anymore.

*o*o*o*

Rodney had been on his way to a meeting with Sam when all hell broke loose. He'd felt really strange after the sex dream he'd had about John, and a little guilty. He was supposed to be helping John, not objectifying him, and it was time to come clean to Sam about the telepathy. Rodney was losing his objectivity.

But then there was an explosion and all the lights went out and the backup generators didn't kick on and alarms started blaring, and Rodney's only thought was for John.

Dark why?

"I don't know," Rodney said/thought, making his way back down the corridor with only the dim safety lights to show the way. "I'll get there as soon as I can."

Luckily John could breathe out of the water as well as in, because Rodney realized with a sinking feeling that he wouldn't be able to take the elevator back to the hangar. There were stairs, of course, but the security doors would have locked as soon as the power cut off and Rodney didn't have the access codes for the keypads.

A group of Marines went past at double time, weapons at the ready, and Rodney wondered what the cause of the explosion was. Goa'uld attack? Lab experiment gone wrong? Power overload of some kind? There were plenty of possibilities, but the failure of the back-up generators was making Rodney uneasy.

A Major in a flight suit came up the hall, the same intent expression on his face the Marines had, and Rodney stepped out in front of him.

"What's going on?"

"No time, Doc." The guy tried to move around him but Rodney could make a fairly good obstacle when he wanted to.

"I'm in charge of guarding a very valuable asset and I need to know what the threat level is, Major."

The guy seemed to look at him for the first time. "Are you Dr. McKay?"

"Obviously. Threat assessment?"

"I don't know much, Sir. There was an explosion on the lower level and all major systems are down."

Rodney felt a flare of panic and it wasn't his own. John? John!

"I need to get back to the hangar. Now. You have the access codes?"

"No, but I can get them."

The Major radioed in with Rodney's situation, nodding along to the conversation happening in his ear while Rodney tried to reach John through their mental connection and failed.

"I have the codes," the Major reported. He pulled a handgun out of the ankle holster he was wearing.

"Tell Colonel Carter to meet us in the hangar!" Rodney shouted as he took off at a run for the nearest stairwell. "I think someone's come for John!"

The keypads operated on a battery back-up, and the Major tapped in the first access code with gratifying speed.

"I'll take the lead," he said. "Stay behind me."

It took longer to get to the next level than Rodney would've liked, since the Major was clearing each stairwell methodically as they went. The longer Rodney went without being able to contact John the more anxious he became.

"You think someone's trying to bust your merman out?" the Major asked.

"Maybe. Or worse." Rodney refused to think about the worst-case scenario. Maybe someone just wanted to set John free. But how had they gotten in the hangar in the first place? Only Sam and Hammond had the override code.

The power kicked back on just before they reached the hangar. The door was still sealed and Rodney typed in his code so fast he fumbled the numbers and had to do it again.

The Major got back on the radio as soon as they got inside. The hangar was flooded, the glass of John's tank smashed and broken. The plants drooped and there was sand mixed in with the broken glass.

John was gone.

"Rodney!" Sam came through the hangar door, eyes wide. "What happened?"

"What the hell do you think happened?" Rodney snapped. "We have to seal this place up. No-one in or out until we find John."

"Agreed." Sam turned to the airman. "Major Lorne, get your team together and coordinate with SG-5 and SG-13. We need to do a full sweep."

"Yes, ma'am." The Major took off at a run.

Sam thumbed her earpiece. "This is Colonel Samantha Carter. We have a code nine. Repeat, we have a code nine. Secure all entrances and exits."

More blaring alarms. Rodney was starting to get a headache.

"Why would someone take John?" Sam asked. "Have you gotten any threats?"

"No. Nothing. Whoever it is has to have sedated him, they'd never have gotten him out of here otherwise." That must've been the panic Rodney had felt through the connection. "I can't hear him at all, he has to be out cold."

"What do you mean, you can't hear him?"

"Look, I called that meeting so I could tell you. John and I have been communicating. One of the Ancient artefacts gave us a telepathic link, except now I can't sense John over it at all."

Sam got a familiar gleam in her eye. "You can really communicate with him? Rodney, this is huge! Do you know what this means for the Atlantis expedition? We can...wait. How long have you been able to talk to John?"

"Does that really matter? If we don't find him it'll all have been for nothing anyway." Rodney's chest tightened at the thought of not finding John, of losing him forever. What if someone had found a way to turn off their connection? Break it somehow? "Sam, we have to find him!"

"You and I are going to have a long talk once this is all over," Sam said.

The sweep turned up nothing out of the ordinary. All personnel were accounted for and there wasn't anyone on base who shouldn't have been. Rodney had gone to the conference room with Daniel, Radek, and Bill Lee.

"We have no reports of any beaming tech being used," Daniel said. "So they didn't get him out that way."

"He has to still be on base," Rodney insisted. He was on his third cup of coffee.

"They would need container with enough water," Radek said. "Merman cannot go so long out of water."

"If they stashed him somewhere to wait out the lockdown, it'll be nearly impossible to find him," Bill said. "Do you know how many storage areas there are here?"

"Still nothing from the bond?" Daniel asked. He'd peppered Rodney with questions about the telepathic link and postulated that Aurora's sea-star necklace had given her a similar ability.

"No. Whatever they sedated him with, it's stronger than what the marine vet used. He came out of that pretty fast."

"Maybe they didn't know the right dosage and gave him enough to kill him," Bill suggested. He took a step back when Rodney glared at him. "Sorry."

"He's alive," Rodney insisted, though he had no proof to back that up.

Radek's datapad pinged. "Kavanagh," he said with a sigh. "We are in lockdown and he demands to go."

"Has he been cleared?" Daniel asked.

"Yes. He is taking equipment to Area 51."

"Let him go."

"Wait," Bill said at the same time. "We don't have anything scheduled to be delivered there, not until next week."

He and Rodney exchanged a look.

"Where is he?" Rodney demanded.

"Loading dock B," Radek replied. "Waiting for transport truck."

Rodney ran out while Daniel alerted Sam and sent Marines to the same location. They all arrived at the loading dock at nearly the same time, and Kavanagh was waiting with his arms crossed and a supercilious expression on his face.

"I've been cleared," he said. His gaze flicked over to Rodney and then back to Daniel. "I have transport orders."

"You don't have dick," Rodney said. He pushed past Kavanagh and started inspecting the crates, all of them stamped SGC. Most were big and square, but there was one that looked long enough to hold a prone merman inside.

The Marines opened the crate at Rodney's insistence, with Kavanagh loudly protesting behind him. Inside the crate was a clear glass box that looked hauntingly like a coffin, filled with water and John's limp body. Rodney scrambled to unfasten the lid, pushing it aside and putting his hands on John's face.

"John?" John? Can you hear me?

The merman was breathing, albeit shallowly, but he was still alive. Rodney felt shaky with relief. He barely paid attention as Kavanagh was arrested, his entire focus on John. When John finally started coming around and opened his eyes, Rodney didn't think about what he was doing or who might be watching. He kissed John, and John wrapped his arms around Rodney.

You find.

"Always," Rodney whispered.

*o*o*o*

The waters of the Ku’oko’a Sanctuary were like something out of a dream, blue and crystal clear and so, so warm. It was a private preserve, which meant there was no boating allowed, no trespassing, no people that weren't associated with or given permission by Sanctuary staff.

The merfolk were still getting used to Rodney. They were less skittish than they had been at first, and with Ronon's help one or two had even approached him and welcomed him.

They'd all immediately embraced John as one of their own.

Following Kavanagh's ill-fated kidnapping attempt – the little weasel was actually a mole for the Trust – John had been transferred into Ronon's care. Rodney had been held up by psychological evaluations and endless reports and debriefings concerning his work with John. And that kiss.

The mental connection had been fainter with the greater distance, but it never went away. Rodney experienced John's fear at being moved, his trepidation at being in such big water, and his eventual joy in finally being with his own kind.

You swim, John insisted. He moved away from Rodney, taunting him.

Rodney couldn't talk with the rebreather on, but then he didn’t need to.

You better not let me drown.

Radek and a team of scientists were monitoring from the beach as Rodney tested out the new equipment for the Atlantis expedition. The suit was watertight, form-fitting, and warm enough to withstand Arctic water temperatures. The hood left just his face exposed, but the rebreather covered most of that.

Rodney ducked his head under the water and forced himself to breathe normally. John floated next to him, watching closely, but Radek's creation worked exactly as it was meant to, pulling oxygen from the water and expelling carbon monoxide. Not all that dissimilar from using a scuba tank, just without the cumbersome tank and limited oxygen supply.

You breathe! John nudged at Rodney with his head and pulled him deeper, and for a second Rodney was reminded of that sex dream he'd had. Good thing no-one could see him blush.

The other merfolk maintained a perimeter around them, watching curiously as Rodney and John swam together. Rodney wondered what they thought about his being there, and the way John acted towards him. Sam had a team working on the Ancient artefact, putting together something that would allow people like Ronon and other specialists to have the same mental connections with merfolk that Rodney had with John.

Bring home soon? John asked.

Rodney stopped swimming and tread water. You still want to go to Atlantis?

He'd expected John to change his mind once he got a taste of freedom and merfolk companionship, and a little of the tension he'd been holding since John had been relocated started to ease.

Home, John repeated. More like me?

Yes. More like you. You won't be alone.

John darted in and hit Rodney on the leg with his tail. Not alone. You come.

They'd be together. But not the way Rodney wished they could be. He had strong feelings for John, and he could tell from their connection that John felt the same. But inter-species relationships just weren't something that could happen, especially given the tight-assed group of Marines who'd be traveling on the Atlantis expedition; if same-sex relationships were frowned upon, what chance did Rodney and John have?

The base psychologist had been very clear on that issue.

You sad?

Not sad, Rodney lied. He shoved at John, who shoved him back, and then they were tumbling around in the water, John making the happy chittering noises he'd once made for Ronon.

Rodney was determined to enjoy the gift he'd been given and to stop wishing for more.

*o*o*o*

Atlantis was everything Rodney had dreamed about, and so much more. A beautiful alien city sunken beneath the sea, just like the old stories said it was. Luckily it wasn't at a depth that would be dangerous for humans, or they'd have had to bring more than just the one submersible.

John's presence was an immediate boon, because the native merfolk were aggressive. He was able to communicate with them and broker a kind of treaty. With John's assurances that the expedition was there to learn and not just steal, they were able to get the city raised from the depths less than a week after their arrival.

Atlantis had definitely been constructed with merfolk in mind, reinforcing the idea that the Ancients had trusted them and possibly had a hand in their very existence. There were canals and pools and water-filled tubes all over the city, allowing the merfolk to come and go as they pleased and giving them access to all the major sections of the city.

With the help of the Ancient artefact, several of the expedition members were able to form mental links with the local merfolk. Rodney had reluctantly let Dr. Weir, the expedition leader, try to form her own connection with John, but it turned out only one connection was allowed.

Though the city had been abandoned for over ten thousand years, the merfolk were able to share their knowledge of what happened to the Ancients thanks to a strong oral history passed down from generation to generation. It wasn't a great story, because in addition to merfolk the Ancients had created creatures called Wraith who were little more than space vampires. And also the reason the Ancients had abandoned their city and seemingly the Pegasus galaxy as a whole.

"It's going to take me forever to go through the database," Rodney said/thought to John. He sat on the edge of the pool in one of the common areas while John floated on his back. "Surely they left some sort of weapon behind we can use to fight the Wraith."

You find, John thought with confidence. I explore.

"What are you exploring this time?"

John ducked underwater and came back up again, shaking his head and getting Rodney wet.

"Hey!"

Home place. Far. Secret place.

A far away, secret place? "I don’t like the sound of that, John. Wait until someone can go with you."

Mhinya take.

"I'll just check with Major Lorne on that," Rodney said disdainfully.

Mhinya was the daughter of the head of the local pod of merfolk, mentally bonded to the Major. Rodney wasn't too keen on her taking John off on some kind of adventure; he'd seen the way she looked at John, had noted the flirty merfolk behaviors.

Jealous. When had John gotten so good at smirking?

"I am not."

He absolutely was. If he were a nicer person, he'd have encouraged John to court Mhinya and have a normal, merfolk relationship. Start a family. Become the head of his own pod one day.

Rodney checked with Lorne, who checked with Mhinya. The best he could determine, from what he was getting through the mental bond, was that she wanted to take John to an underwater outpost, a three or four day swim away.

"It's worth checking out, right Doc?"

"Yes. Fine."

Rodney outfitted John with a specialized vest that acted like a MALP but without a camera. It would take environmental readings during John's trip, and that kind of data would be useful. It would also enable them to pinpoint the location of the outpost so they could visit it themselves when they weren't still preoccupied with learning how their new home worked.

"Be careful," Rodney said.

Back soon, John promised. He butted Rodney's arm with his head and then he was gone, chasing after Mhinya's silvery-red tail.

They were gone for almost ten days, and John had mostly maintained radio silence during his trip, which aggravated Rodney when he wasn't busy worrying. Why the secrecy? On the fourth day he got a big jolt of pleasure-pain-fear through the bond, which put him into a panic until John assured him he was fine.

Rodney became convinced John and Mhinya were hooking up. That duplicitous mermaid had lured John away from Atlantis so she could initiate him into the ways of merfolk love, he just knew it. It shouldn't have hurt so much, not when Rodney was well aware he couldn't have that kind of relationship with John, but it did. It hurt a lot, so he locked himself in his lab and spent days going through the database until he thought his eyes would bleed.

Home now. You come.

The words jolted Rodney out of a deep sleep, and he groaned at the crick in his neck. He'd fallen asleep in front of the computer again.

You come, John insisted more forcefully.

"Yeah, yeah. Where are you?"

John sent an image of the channel on the East Pier. Rodney didn't know why he just didn’t come inside, but he went, with coffee in hand.

The morning sun was bright, and Rodney put a hand up to shield his eyes as he left the transporter. John was swimming up and down the channel and he chittered at Rodney as he got closer. There was no sign of Mhinya.

"Well, welcome back. Why did you drag me all the way out here?"

See this.

John boosted himself up out of the water, swinging his tail around so it flopped against the pier.

"I don't – " Rodney started to say, and then to his horror John started to transform.

His tail began to shrivel and his face shifted in a way that made Rodney's stomach lurch. Rodney dropped his coffee mug, which shattered when it hit the pier, and ran to help John.

No. This good.

"How is this good? You, you're – "

John's tail split, scales falling off like loose sequins on a dress. Rodney backed away, hand over his mouth. The entire transformation took less than five minutes, and then it was over. John poked his tongue between his teeth and got unsteadily to his feet – feet! – swaying a little but looking victorious. Gone were the webbed, clawed hands. Gone were the gills and the big, big eyes.

"Rodney," John said, and he grinned a big, human smile.

"I don't understand."

Creators. Give choice.

"Creators. You mean the Ancients? Did you touch another Ancient device? Jesus, John, you could've been killed! Or worse!"

"Be," John said. He had a look of intense concentration on his face. "With. You."

"You did this for me?" Rodney was mortified to realize he was near tears. "But...your tail. Your people."

In water tail. Out water legs.

"Oh." Rodney didn't know what to say. John had just given him the chance at everything he ever wanted. He already had Atlantis, but now he could also have John. Human on land, merman at sea. The best of both worlds.

John walked unsteadily over to him, unashamedly aroused. "Mad?"

Rodney shook his head. "Happy. Grateful."

John stopped less than a meter away. He stretched out his arms and flexed his knees. Offering himself as a mate.

Rodney closed the distance between them and kissed John, mapping out his now very human mouth.

Love you.

"Love you too," Rodney murmured against John's lips. "Always."