Fandom: Stargate: Atlantis
Warnings: Alternate Universe, crack-y
Posted to: story_lottery, mckay_sheppard
Prompt: #19 - A Lagoon
Summary: When an angry, injured orca is brought into Atlantis Aquarium after tangling with a motorboat, Director Elizabeth Weir figures it is a golden opportunity to keep also injured trainer John Sheppard busy. Soon, the whole staff is engaged in unravelling the orca's complicated past.
A/N: This story ends a bit abruptly - originally it was planned to be quite a bit longer. While a complete story, it nonetheless leaves many things open-ended. I don't expect at this point to write a sequel.
John came up spluttering and cursing. He spat a long stream of salt water out of his mouth, glaring at the dolphin chittering with glee in front of him.
"Oh you think that was funny, do you?" he demanded with a smile and a brief gesture to indicate his own amusement. The dolphin jerked her chin at him rapidly and dove off to the side. John turned to follow her path with his eyes and saw Teyla standing on the edge of the pool, carefully not laughing at him though her eyes were dancing with merriment.
"Did you see that?" John shook his head and stroked the couple of metres to the edge, pulling himself up with a practiced grace. "She dumped me on purpose!"
"Indeed." Teyla grinned at him openly now. "She did." She knelt by the pool and slapped the water, caressing Miko's nose as the dolphin emerged from the water. "You likely deserved it."
John thought about it, giving his head a hard shake before slicking his hands back through his hair to squeeze some of the water out. He felt it spring back up and sighed. "Yeah, I probably did." He turned to watch Miko's current performance partner swim with sleek speed through the pool. "But she's giving Larrin ideas."
Teyla frowned a little, the spark of merriment fading in her eyes. "That would be troubling," she admitted slowly. "Larrin is lovely, but still somewhat..." she paused, searching for the right word.
"Unpredictable," John filled in. He rubbed his chin idly.
Teyla nodded. "That is it exactly. I do not feel she is ready for an audience."
"Me either." John shrugged. "That's why they have us practicing with them." He shot Teyla a smirk.
Teyla arched an eyebrow at him. "I have no idea what you are implying," she said impishly. "I am certain that any of the other trainers would have just as much success with Larrin as you have."
John grinned. "Probably more," he said before diving neatly back into the pool. When he came up, Teyla slapped the water to bring Miko and Larrin back around. The two dolphins curved around smoothly and headed over.
A loud thud and the rumble of a heavy engine split the otherwise still air, making John and Teyla look towards the main gate in unison. John said, "What's that?"
"A wounded orca," Teyla replied, dismissing the noise and returning her focus to the pool in front of them. "He was struck by a speedboat, and he is quite hurt."
John frowned, a pang of sympathy in his chest. "He's lucky he was found at the right time," he said.
"In a manner of speaking," she said. "The boat almost hit Ronon. The whale knocked him off his surfboard and underneath the hull. Unfortunately, he was struck instead."
"Wow." John rubbed Miko's nose. Larrin turned away from the caress, offering him her side instead. John obliged, running his hand across her back. "Ronon's ok?"
Teyla smiled. "He is unharmed. He is supervising the orca's delivery."
"Glad to hear it." John tapped the water to get the dolphins' attention then plunged his hand in the gesture signifying the manouever they were practicing. Miko and Larrin immediately sprinted off side by side. John swam out from the edge a few strokes and floated mostly on his back, legs crossed at the knee, toes up and feet stiff.
The move was a deceptively simple one, but required precise co-ordination by the dolphins to work. Each dolphin would take one foot, pushing John through the water on his back. As they built speed, John would turn over on his stomach and body surf, until the dolphins would duck under and propell John into a shallow dive. It was designed to teach the dolphins to work in tandem, as well as accustom them to working with the trainers hands-on. It wasn't showy enough for a performance, but it was still damned fun. John was glad he'd drawn the water today. The look of outright jealousy on Teyla's face as she watched made him grin.
Miko and Larrin popped up at his toes in near-perfect unison, each placing a nose against their assigned sole. Larrin, as the less experienced, took his pivot foot. They waited. John nodded sharply, and they both pushed forward, shoving him onto plane effortlessly.
John whooped and turned over, holding his arms tight against his body to streamline as much as possible. He directed the dolphins with his weight, asking them to start curving around the pool, away from the edge. Miko responded promptly on the inside of the turn. Larrin simply accelerated. John's calves burned as he worked to lean into the turn and effectively bring Larrin around the turn anyway. Grudgingly, she started to turn. John breathed a sigh of relief and leaned harder.
The high-pitched scream of an angry whale split the quiet.
John jumped and his head whipped around, looking for the source of the sound. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Teyla startle badly before putting a hand over her heart and taking a deep breath. The furious whistle sounded again, followed by a heavy thunk.
Teyla opened her eyes, glanced at the pool. Her face paled. "John!" she shouted.
John looked ahead to see the wall at the edge of the pool coming at him, fast. He leaned sideways, trying to dive. Miko understood and dropped away immediately, but Larrin ducked down and gave his foot a hard shove. John brought up his arms to shield his head, too late.
He struck the wall forearm first. He had a split second to feel the knife-edge agony of a broken arm before his head hit and the world went dark.
"Elizabeth. It's been a week. I'm going crazy here with nothing to do." He looked up at her from his chair, trying for 'pathetic, but able'. From the small tightening around her mouth, he figured he'd managed one of the two. He straightened, adjusting the sling supporting his cast. "Look, I'm not talking about doing full training, or swimming, or hell, even running around! I just want to go and sit."
Elizabeth frowned at him. "I sympathise, but..."
"Please don't say 'but'," John moaned.
Elizabeth gave him a reproachful look. "As I was about to say," she said pointedly, "the only thing I can think of is for you to spend some time with Rodney." She rubbed her forehead tiredly. "I think he may be as bored as you are." Her eyes narrowed in irritation. "And even more vocal about it."
"Sure, sure. Whatever." John heaved himself to his feet, ignoring the way the room still swayed a little whenever he moved. "I'm your man." He shoved his feet into waiting flip-flops and headed for the door of his apartment. "How about now?"
Elizabeth laughed and joined him, exiting with a rueful smile. "Why do I already feel like I regret this?"
"No idea." John followed her, locking his door absently. He frowned suddenly. "Hey, wait. Who's Rodney?"
Elizabeth grinned. "That's something you'll have to find out when we get there."
"This is Rodney," Teyla said, her voice carefully blank as they stepped through the small door to the Atlantis recovery tanks. She waved John past her so that he could get closer and take a look.
A fully adult orca was swimming listlessly around the edge of the big pool. John sucked in his breath involuntarily. The poor whale's dorsal fin was criss-crossed with healing wounds, carefully stitched closed. Ronon's work, he bet. The wounds marched down the whale's flank in precise slashes.
"Ronon's rescuer," he muttered, dredging the memory from the darkness where most of the day he was injured lay.
"Yes." Teyla replied gravely. "He was originally a capture whale, but he was eventually released about four years ago. He spent time in several facilities, including Siberia and Nevada. Apparently he had issues socialising with the other whales."
John winced at the mention of the Nevada-based aquarium. The very idea of a whale facility in the desert just seemed so wrong. "Explains why he was familiar with people, and why he'd bother to help Ronon," he said slowly.
"We are expecting his records in from Prague soon. Doctor Zelenka worked with him last, before working his release off BC."
"He looks pretty sore," John said. "Not very energetic."
"Hmmmmm." Teyla hummed, non-committal. The smile tugging at the corners of her mouth had John wondering what surprises she had in store for him. Pushing him in the pool, maybe? No. She wouldn't do that while he was wearing a cast. Suddenly her eyes widened. "Here we go," she whispered.
John turned to look.
Rodney had noticed their presence, and had transformed from the barely swimming picture of depression into a virago of anger. He charged across the pool at them, and John half-expected him to leap out of the water and try to get them on land. He stepped back. Instead, Rodney pulled to a halt at the edge of the pool, only his head out of water, and began to spew clicks, whines, and whistles at them in a barrage of fury, complete with motions and bouncing in the water as his fins worked in agitation.
"Why, Rodney," John said slowly at a momentary pause in the blistering tirade. "I have the impression you're upset."
The whale fell silent and gave him a look of such icy disdain that John half expected to see frost form. Rodney ducked back into the water and snorted a mist of cold water over them before purposefully swimming away. John dropped to one knee beside the pool and slapped the water to call him back. The hesitation in Rodney's sleek movement told John he'd heard, but he ignored the summons, pointedly facing away and giving every appearance of studiously examining the pool wall.
"We'll release him again, of course," Teyla said, amusement still lacing her words. "But he needs to heal first." She shot him a sideways glance. "Much like yourself." She sobered. "He's not eating properly. He's lost weight, and he's not healing as he should. Ronon is worried."
John sighed grumpily but his eyes never left Rodney. "We need a camera in here," he said. "I want to observe him a bit before we start to interact."
"Lorne said as much," Teyla nodded. "The tapes are upstairs."
Ten hours later, John was absolutely fascinated.
"Look! Look at that!" he said, pointing at the screen. "Why did he do that?" Ronon leaned closer to see.
Lorne sighed and rubbed his eyes. "I don't know," he muttered tiredly.
"Ronon has a double handful of fish here. Rodney comes up, mouth open, all ready to eat, and then, wham. Backs off like someone threatened him with fire." John froze the image with Rodney coming back to the surface several metres away, glaring at Ronon.
Ronon shrugged. "Haven't figured it yet," he said. John could see the worry under his friend's calm facade.
"But here," John fast-forwarded to another point in the recording. "Here, no problem. He eats and demands more."
"Maybe he just wants to eat with the dolphins," Lorne offered lightly.
"No," John said seriously, leaning closer to the screen. "That's not it." He frowned intently. "Ronon, where did that Zelenka guy say Rodney was originally from?"
Ronon shifted in his seat, checking the folder that held all the information Dr. Zelenka had forwarded to them from Prague. "Uh... says here, coast of Canada. Off Vancouver, back in..." he paused. "Back in the seventies. He was captured as a late juvenile."
"Did they mention whether or not he was with a pod?" John asked. Lorne sat up, catching where John was going with the question.
Ronon checked. "No. He was alone." His eyebrows raised. "Are you thinking he's a Transient?" He tilted his head, thinking. "Good possibility," he allowed before John could answer.
"See, here," John pointed at the screen. "He's eating squid. Does Zelenka say anything about diet in there?"
"That part is in Czech," Ronon said. "He's supposed to call me back."
"Ok," John nodded with a grin. "OK, so this explains a lot. Transients go for meat over fish, they don't like group work, they're mostly solitary."
"He doesn't have the physical characteristics though," Lorne pointed out.
Ronon shrugged. "Maybe a hybrid," he muttered. "Who cares, long as he eats?"
"Fair point," Lorne said. "Let's go."
"Hello, Rodney," John said, dropping to one knee beside the pool. Rodney turned so he could keep John in sight with one intent eye. He continued to eat as fast as wetsuit-clad Ronon could shovel squid at him, though.
Ronon flashed John a smile. "He's finally eating," he said.
"Yeah." John nodded his approval. "Now you can start getting better," he told Rodney firmly. "No more lazing about."
Rodney snorted a plume of water over both of them.
"I guess he told you," Ronon wiped off his face with his forearm.
John smirked and started to pull large, weighted, black nerf blocks from a huge garbage bag. Rodney closed his mouth with a snap as he caught sight of them, backing into the water and circling to get a better look. His tail flicked with agitation.
"That's right," John told him, rolling the first block to show the white X painted on it. Rodney gave a little squeak and dove. They could hear his excited mutterings through the water. John kept pulling them out of the bag.
"Xs and Os?" Ronon looked at him sideways, slipping the neoprene lid back on the bucket of squid. "Really?"
"Zelenka sent an email," John said. "He's having phone issues. Said 'Rodney does not eat fish, does not live in small pools, and does not suffer idiots.' Suggested we try some games."
"Huh." Ronon grabbed a couple of the big cubes and dropped them into the water. Thanks to the heavy weights buried in the foam, they sank slowly beneath the surface, leaving trails of bubbles behind. "I'm having flashbacks to 'Gremlins'. Are we allowed to feed him after midnight?" He didn't wait for John's appreciative snicker before continuing, "He say why?"
John shrugged. "He hates fish and he's claustrophobic, apparently," he replied, tossing in a couple more. "I'm not entirely sure. Part of it was in Czech. When I asked him what it meant, he said I should prove my worth and look it up."
Ronon rolled the last few cubes in. "How exactly are you planning to play?" He gestured at John's cast with a smirk. "I don't care how much you squirm, that's not going under a wetsuit. Or a drysuit either."
John gave him a bared-teeth grin. "It won't have to," he said, planted both his hands against Ronon's chest, and shoved. He tried not to notice that Ronon let him knock him into the water. "You're going to play for me. Start with X in the upper right corner."
Ronon flicked him a sarcastic salute and dove.
He pulled up his portable hand-held monitor and poked at it until it showed the feed from the underwater camera in the isolation tank.
Rodney won the first game, but Ronon came back strong in the second before they settled into the typical tie-game deadlock.
"He's getting bored," Ronon reported unnecessarily as Rodney grabbed one of the blocks in his mouth and gave it a vigourous chew. "He's smart, John," he added seriously. "Like, scary smart. We need Zelenka to tell us more about him."
John nodded and dragged over another two duffles, full of the blocks. Rodney stuck his head out of the water to get a look, and John couldn't help but grin at his overt interest. He pulled out more blocks, enough with the nine already in the water to make a seven by six matrix. Ronon looked at him askance but Rodney dove back down, impatient to begin.
"Connect four," John explained.
"Seriously?" Ronon glanced down at Rodney eagerly nosing the blocks back to black and sighed. "I'm going to need air. I can't keep going up and down like an idiot."
John passed over the short line they used when cleaning the tank along with some ankle weights, grinning broadly. "Don't feel bad when he kicks your ass," he said as Ronon went back under. Ronon flipped him the bird as his reply.
John settled in to watch. He agreed with Ronon's assessment - Rodney was the smartest whale he'd ever seen. He really, really wanted to know more about his background. He needed to talk to Zelenka.
John scratched at the surface of his cast, absently trying to get to the maddening itch that had been driving him crazy for days. Elizabeth had taken one look at him when it started and had assigned Lorne to follow him around and appropriate anything he even *looked* at as though he was about to use it to scratch under his cast. John had had pencils, pens, rulers, and once memorably a breathing regulator taken away from him. He glanced sideways, and sure enough: Lorne was eyeing him suspiciously.
"John!" Teyla called to him from the bottom of the stairs to his office. "We have visitors."
"Elizabeth not around?" he shouted back.
"They wish to meet you," she said with delicate emphasis.
John stood reluctantly. Lorne followed suit with a sympathetic grin. They clattered down the stairs in step, a habit formed in basic and one hard to break. They met Teyla at the bottom, beaming up at them as she gestured to their guests.
"This is Acastus Kolya," she said with a smile, "He is the head of security for the Genii facility in Nevada, and Ladon Radim, who is their chief scientist." Both men inclined their heads graciously. John disliked them both on sight. "Acastus, Ladon, this is John Sheppard and Evan Lorne, our head trainer and his second."
"I prefer Kolya," the taller, tough looking man on her right said in a rough voice. It sounded like he was a career smoker. His teeth flashed in a charming grin. "Only my mother calls me Acastus." He held out his hand.
John took it and shook, finding the handshake firm but not overwhelming. "Nevada seems a strange place for an aquarium," he said.
"Nevada is a strange place for a lot of things," said the other man, Ladon. "We're only one of thousands of anomalies in that desert."
John and Teyla exhanged a look, but let the comment go. He went with, "So what can we do for you gentlemen?" instead.
"We happened to be in town and decided to drop by to see your setup," Ladon said with an oily smoothness that made John's hackles rise. He couldn't figure out why Teyla's normally excellent smarm detector seemed to be broken with these guys. "Ms. Weir agreed to let us have a tour, and suggested that we speak to you about it." His eyes dropped pointedly to John's cast. "She said you would be available."
John put on his very best bland smile and deliberately took out his sunglasses, sliding them into place firmly to hide whatever was in his eyes. "Certainly," he said brightly. "Let's start with the snails."
Their walk around the facilities felt more like a carefully strategized chess match than a tour, with the Genii offering softly spoken barbs against the easy, relaxed facade projected by both John and Lorne. Teyla's smile quickly became strained as she interjected her own brand of calm rationality into the discussion. Even John didn't know why there had been such immediate animosity between them, but he did know that he would rather just about anything other than have one of them at his back in a dark alley.
The tour finished at the big whale pools. John took them past the dolphin sections, showing off Miko's aerials and Larrin's sleek power, heading past the huge lagoon where the bulk of their whales lived, finishing up at the big isolation tank. They mounted the stairs to the main deck with Teyla explaining the purpose of the tank. Ronon was kneeling at the far edge of the slope platform, checking the long march of stitches along the top of Rodney's body, blocking them from his sight.
"The tank is the perfect place for a convalescing whale," she said brightly. "It is spacious enough for them to exercise, but is also closely controlled for potential contagions and optimum balance." She smiled fondly. "At the moment it is home to a whale that was badly hurt in a boating accident. His name is -"
"Rodney," breathed Kolya. Beside him, Ladon gripped his arm, hard.
Teyla and John exchanged an unhappy look. Lorne's eyes were narrowed suspiciously.
"You know our guest?" Teyla ventured cautiously.
"Indeed I do," Kolya nodded, radiating grim satisfaction. "He was our guest as well, for a while."
John remembered suddenly that Nevada was on Rodney's resume, but was distracted as Ronon shifted and Rodney caught sight of the group.
His head came up, and every muscle in his large body came to quivering alertness before he jerked convulsively and rocked off the ramp. He dove straight for the bottom, lurking as far away from the deck as he could manage.
John gaped. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Lorne's equally astonished look. Ronon was picking himself up out of the water from where Rodney's escape had sent him sprawling.
"Well," John said, recovering. "It seems he doesn't like you."
Kolya' eyes gleamed with a hard light as he stared down at the shadow that was Rodney, huddled far below. "I don't know that I agree with you, Mr Sheppard," he said slowly, "but it does seem clear that he remembers us." He glanced down pointedly at the hand on his arm. Ladon released him, a fleeting expression of sheepishness crossing his features.
"I can hardly believe my eyes," Ladon said. "It's been years! The last I heard, he was in Prague. We tried to get him back, but by the time we got through the red tape..."
"Doctor Zelenka had him released back into the wild," Teyla said carefully. "He is only here temporarily, to recover from his injuries."
"That's good," Ladon replied, recovering his cool graciousness. "Perhaps we could visit again, while we're here."
Kolya stood at the edge of the tank, looking down with avaricious eyes. John fought back the desire to drag the man away, kicking and screaming if he had to. He was very aware of Rodney watching them from far below, and in his head he was ticking off the seconds until Rodney would have to come up to breathe. He knew that technically Rodney was capable of staying down for up to fifteen minutes, but Rodney was injured and he'd have to come up a lot earlier than that. Somehow, he wanted Kolya gone before then.
"So, that's our tour," he said pleasantly but firmly. "Now it's time to move back to the offices, and we can introduce you to Elizabeth."
Ladon obediently turned to the steps, but Kolya remained at the water's edge, still staring down. Teyla stepped over and took his arm, tugging. Kolya jumped as if startled, then stepped back from the edge. He paused, then made a series of complicated gestures at the water.
A long, eerie whistle, rage filled, was his answer.
John shuddered as the sound riccocheted up through his feet to his head, and he saw Lorne do the same. Ronon startled and looked as though he was ready to tear apart whatever had made Rodney make that noise. Teyla frowned deeply.
Kolya grinned brightly and headed for the stairs. John gave one last long look at Ronon, slapping the water in a futile effort to get Rodney to come back up, and followed.
Six hours later, Rodney was still refusing to come up for more than a few seconds to breathe. John stood at the edge of the pool, staring down at the dark shadow near the bottom. Teyla and Ronon flanked him with identical expressions of grim frustration.
"I do not like this, John," Teyla said. Ronon nodded his agreement. "This is most unlike the Rodney we have come to know."
"There's nothing in his file about this kind of thing," Ronon added. "I have an email in to Zelenka, but..." He spread his hands helplessly.
John crossed his arms. "He'll have to eat," he said.
"He is very stubborn. That could take some time." Teyla rubbed her eyes.
"He's starting to heal up," Ronon's hands moved, as if he wished he had something in them to twist, or maybe to shoot. "He needs to keep up his food and exercise or he's going to set himself back."
John's lips compressed into a straight line. "Did you see it?" he asked flatly. "At the end, what Kolya said?"
Ronon shook his head, but Teyla's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "I did not," she said, "I was at too great an angle. Did you?"
John shook his head. "Hopefully we can catch it on the tape," he muttered. "But it sure looked like some kind of modified sign language to me."
"To me as well," Teyla agreed. "Hopefully it will be more clear on the video."
Ronon was staring at Rodney's shadow as though, if he just focussed hard enough, he could will him to the surface. "Whatever it was, I don't like it."
"Me either," John said. "Whatever it was, it set us back." His eyes hardened with purpose. "But I'm not going to give up." He stepped closer to the water, where he knew Rodney would see him, and moved his hands in the patterns he'd looked up earlier, after Kolya had left. It was slow and laborious, because he wanted to be sure Rodney saw, and sign language wasn't one of his skills. Still, he hoped he got his message across.
Teyla moved to his shoulder, nodding. "That's right," she said just as firmly as he had, and repeated his message with the rapid fluidity of fluency. "We will not give up on you, Rodney."
John nodded sharply and turned away. "Let's go," he said unable to take staring at Rodney's miserable huddle any longer. "There's work to do."