michelel72: (SGA-Teyla-Serious)
michelel72 ([personal profile] michelel72) wrote2010-04-02 01:35 am

SGA Fic: Damper, for astridv (Sticks & Snark 2010)

Title: Damper
Recipient: [livejournal.com profile] astridv, for Sticks & Snark
Author: [livejournal.com profile] michelel72
Genre/Rating: Preshippy gen; FRK (mild language, action)
Wordcount: 26k
Timeline/Spoilers: Full AU. Includes allusions to content through season two, as well as a season five character.
Warnings: None.
Prompt: "AU where they are investigators of some kind and Teyla gets to show her smarts"
Note 1: I aimed for 'ship and landed on preshippy (very pre) gen; I hope that satisfies. [livejournal.com profile] astridv specifically did not want "bashing of any character"; I did use canonical character dislike of someone in POV, and if that comes too close to character bashing, I do most sincerely apologize.
Note 2: I used the Western system as the inspiration for this AU, though I've deviated from it; no disrespect or dismissal is intended towards the primary Eastern version (or any other), but I couldn't reconcile both within one world. (The sign descriptions for RL, DH, and KH here just happened to fit eerily well for my purposes, incidentally.)
Policies: All feedback of any length, including constructive criticism, always welcome. If my warnings for triggers/squick are inadequate, please let me know.
Credits: Non-fandom beta by [personal profile] dread_pirate, who knows SGA only from what I've told her and is surely very confused by now; in-fandom beta by [livejournal.com profile] greyias and [livejournal.com profile] frith_in_thorns; locale review/advice by [livejournal.com profile] valleya and the fine folks at [livejournal.com profile] drop_the_u. My devoted thanks to all. Remaining mistakes are of course my own.

Summary: Teyla Emmagan (C.W.El.E., L.W.M.) and Dr. Rodney McKay (C.W.El.F., Ph.D., Ph.D.) are hired to investigate an anomalous geological development, but they soon learn much more is at stake.


Teyla folded her arms and glared at the men dripping on the carpet. "What did I say about the waterspout experiments?"

Ronon shrugged, still grinning. "Don't?"

Teyla narrowed her eyes. "I said I did not want you experimenting without supervision. And what did I tell you about bringing it inside when you did experiment anyway?"

John pushed his sopping hair away from his eyes and shot Ronon a dirty look. "Pretty sure you said don't there, too."

Ronon still looked entirely too pleased with himself. "You said you needed us. And since you distracted me while I was shaping water, I figure it's your fault."

"So that's the excuse you're going with this time?" John asked him. "Teyla's call distracted you? You really want to suggest your control is that shaky, Water?"

"You need the practice diverting," Ronon said. "Looks like you need a lot more practice."

John opened his mouth for a retort, but Teyla didn't really want to listen to their usual back-and-forth. "Go make yourselves presentable. I have a job for you."

"Let me guess," John said. "Rainmaking again." His hands gathered the bottom of his shirt to wring some of the water out, but he stopped swiftly when he realized Teyla knew exactly what he was doing.

"Yes," Teyla said. In the growing season, drought remediation was their steadiest business. As the men headed for the hallway, she added, "And I will tell you where after you have extracted the water from the carpet."

"You said no manipulations inside," Ronon shot back, not bothering to turn or slow.

"Do not test me, Ronon, or I will make you dry the carpet the hard way," Teyla called after him.

Just as they were passing from sight, she saw John thwack Ronon's arm. "C'mon, buddy, don't piss her off."

She was just releasing a long-held sigh when Rodney's voice broke the barely regained quiet. "No! Not the machines! Are you trying to electrocute yourself? If you set this place on fire, I am not suppressing it, because it would serve you right!" Ronon's voice rumbled unintelligibly, prompting Rodney to greater volume. "Oh, yes, that's just brilliant. Of course you would. Let me just evacuate the building, and then you can be my guest!"

Teyla started for the door, needing to ground herself, but stopped after a few paces as she realized the state the practice grounds would almost certainly be in. Once Ronon had dried the carpet, she would need to drag him out to help her turn mud back to solid ground. She turned and headed instead to the front door, going the long way to avoid the men — the boys — and slipping her shoes off as she went.

{}

Rodney tensed as he heard someone at the door to his lab, but he relaxed again when he saw it was Teyla. "I take it you've packed off the Troublemint Twins?"

"They have left, yes," she said. She had that really mellow look she got after she had been playing with her dirt. He tried to sneak a peek down to make sure she had shoes on, but she noticed. "I cleaned my feet when I came back in, Rodney," she chided. "I do not bring my messes inside."

"Unlike some people," he muttered. She made that face that meant she agreed with him but thought she wasn't supposed to show that. "Where'd you send them this time?"

"Oregon. After the past few years, the commercial farms are no longer eager to wait out yet another spring drought." She drew and released a long breath. "I adore them both, but I think I will enjoy a few days of peace."

Rodney knew he had many fine qualities, but he wasn't often called the more peaceful option. He fought a smile, not wanting to show the weird warm feeling her approval always gave him, but then he realized she was taking a seat, which meant she wanted to Talk. He should have expected that, really. She was always big on that whole emotion thing after a soil session.

"How are you?" she asked sincerely, confirming his suspicions. He knew she actually cared about the answer, but unfortunately she managed to sound like a psychiatrist opening a session.

He fiddled with the lighter prototype he held to avoid her whole deep gaze thing. "Slightly behind now, thanks to Mr. I'll-just-douse-any-potential-electrical-fire-with-water. This one is promising, though. The range is smaller than I planned, but the accuracy is far better than any other design I've tried."

"I'm happy to hear that," she said simply. And then she waited.

He fought not to squirm. "Look, I know what you think, but I work every assignment you give me right away. It's my time." To waste, he didn't add, because his research was not a waste at all. Building a better firelighter was a cliché for a reason. Without scientific researchers, people would still be hunting and gathering and treating Elementalists like royalty. Which, okay, wouldn't be so bad, except who wanted to be royalty in a world without indoor plumbing or computers?

"It is your time," Teyla agreed. "And I wish you success."

He squinted at her with suspicion. She was so damn hard to read sometimes, but maybe she really wasn't judging him. Whatever she might think, she had never once called him a crackpot. He would follow her to the ends of her earth for that.

He had been loyal for worse reasons.

"I know it is difficult," she said, "but can you and Ronon truly not get along?"

Rodney scowled. "He provokes me. You know that."

"He does, but because you react so strongly. You both feed the reaction. And do not tell me that your affinities prevent cooperation. WaterFire pairs have worked in power generation for over a hundred years, and I know a lovely WaterFire couple in Iceland."

"I think he's sprite on both sides." That got him a disapproving eyebrow, but he did wonder sometimes. Ford had never been this much trouble. Ronon was pure, stereotypical mischief, but Ford had been surprisingly agreeable. Agreeable and young.

He missed Aiden.

"Besides, you're not being fair," he said quickly. "We work together just fine. Those wildfires over the winter — we were like wheelwork. Well, you know, not just literally." They had been, too — Ronon had guided moisture and water, Sheppard had steered the wind and decreased oxygen, and Teyla had arranged dirtslides and mapped flora, all of them following his direction with minimal backtalk. They had been a team. It was … nice.

When they didn't have to work as a full Wheel, though, they generally defaulted to their dominant affinities and repulsions. Before, Rodney and Sheppard had clicked pretty well, because they liked a lot of the same entertainments. Sheppard would get things started and then fan Rodney on, while Teyla just shook her head at them and mentored Ford. Ronon brought out Sheppard's wild-spirit tendencies, though, and they could play in ways Rodney had never been comfortable with. A wind-whipped goldfish pond was a very different prospect than a wind-whipped campfire, no matter how many safeguards they had built into their practice grounds.

They got very few jobs that required a full Wheel anyway, and even in the short time Sheppard and Ronon had been working together, they had gained quite a reputation for rainmaking. They fit remarkably well for that task. And, of course, the handhelds Rodney had adapted to help them map weather systems more efficiently helped significantly. Even they admitted that. If Rodney had to guess, he suspected those contracts were keeping their Wheelhouse above water. So to speak. Which meant the two were off on assignments much of the time.

That left Rodney and Teyla to rediscover their common ground. Or work alone on their own projects, of course, but he knew she preferred companionship, and as important as his research was, he didn't want to hurt her. He actually liked her, actively liked her, in a weird combination of respecting her and being mildly terrified of letting her down.

He wasn't very good at being companionable, but he tried every now and then, for her sake. He set down the prototype. "Do you have an EarthFire contract for us?"

"I do not." She tilted her head. "But does this mean that if I checked for such a posting, you would be willing to take another assignment?"

"As long as it's not warfare, sure." He knew he didn't actually have to worry about that. Destructive assignments were probably the most common EarthFire request, since people generally thought only about volcanoes and dry lightning when they considered the combination, but she never picked up any of those contracts. She had never given him a hard time for having once worked for the military, though, quite sensibly putting more stock in the fact that those days were past.

That didn't leave many likely options for a contract for just the two of them, but if she somehow managed to find something, he could combine being sociable with an actually productive activity. And he had just finished an arson consultation, but that hadn't exactly been taxing, so he didn't really need the recharge period they were scheduled by default.

His agreement made her smile delightedly, which had him snatching up his prototype again. He thought he had outgrown being the teacher's pet decades ago. "So I'll just finish up my notes on this while you find something," he said, diving back into his tinkering. She was used to him being dismissive, and he had done the whole social thing so maybe now he could get some actual work done.

{}

Tracking down and securing a contract took Teyla most of an hour. Rodney came at her summons with his usual grumbles about being pulled away from his research, and he now stood just inside the doorway of her office, staring at her in disbelief. "There's what? That — that's a movie. A bad movie. An offensively inaccurate movie."

"This is not a movie," Teyla said. "And it is in Los Angeles County, not the city. But they have detected abnormal volcanic development, and they have hired us to investigate." She was careful not to make a face at that, though she was not especially pleased. Public-service contracts were much more complex to collect. This contract called for the right combination, though, and it was short-term.

"It can't be all that urgent if they put it out to bid," Rodney said, crossing his arms. "And hired us."

"It is not a crisis, no," she agreed. "But they are very concerned, and one reason I won the quickbid was my promise that we would start investigation immediately." He made a face but did not protest, so she continued, "I would like to leave shortly. Will you need to go back to your apartment for anything?"

"No, because unlike some people, I pay attention to your rules. My overnight bag is stocked. Give me about fifteen minutes to pack up my computers and I'll be ready. I might as well take the chance to gather more readings."

"You have a cat, do you not?"

He waved that off. "Neighbor. I'll call while I'm packing."

Teyla had feared they might need an hour or more to leave. "It is kind of your neighbor to be willing to care for your pet on short notice."

He snorted. "Not at what she charges me, it's not."

He left to gather his equipment, and Teyla turned to collecting her own. She too followed her own rules, so her personal effects were accounted for swiftly. She made sure Chuck was prepared to manage the 'house for the next several days with all the principals away. Then she brought out her work jacket and talisman.

After a few moments of consideration, she went ahead and prepared secondary talismans for both of them: a feather and small water vial for both of them, as well as a small flat stone for Rodney. Her firelighter would serve well enough for her third — better, in fact. She did not expect to need any of them, but she preferred to be too well prepared.

Rodney returned just as she was closing the second sachet. He now wore a rugged backpack that most likely held several of the electronic machines he so liked, with his jacket casually threaded through the bottom of one of the straps. He raised the duffel he held slightly. "Ready when you are."

"Are you certain you have everything?"

"Everything I could think of that might be useful. There's this new sonic mapping — well, you don't actually care, but yes."

She set down the sachets and looked at him directly. "You are quite sure you are not forgetting anything?"

"What? Of course I'm sure. Overnight bag, jacket, headset, snacks, laptop, handhelds, sonic mapper, assorted dongles. It's Los Angeles, not Peru."

With a sigh she took his rod-and-silk from a drawer and placed it gently atop her desk.

"Oh. Right. That." His expression tightened, as if he felt somehow trapped, but he kept his tone casual. "How'd that get in here?"

"I grew weary of telling Chuck to leave it in your office. That was over a month ago. You know you should have it with you, particularly when you are on assignment."

"Oh, please. That's a ridiculous custom. No real practitioner needs them." He saw her expression and backpedaled. "That's not — of course you can use one if you want, but we're all professionals. We don't actually need them. They're just symbolic, to impress the uninformed."

This was the same man who had raged for days about Ronon's plastic water gun. He had been displeased that Ronon used a modern canteen rather than a traditional waterskin anyway, but he had taken great offense at the mockery of propriety and image the toy represented. The fact that the canteen itself was sufficient talisman for both capture and release, and Ronon carried the gun as well simply for his own amusement, only worsened the offense, to hear Rodney tell it. At great length.

Before that, he had been pleased when she inquired about the inscriptions on his glass rod, and he had even thought to reciprocate by discussing those on her hand-spade. He had been grudgingly impressed by John's Chinese-fan-style wing. He had counseled Aiden extensively on the history and theoretical characteristics of various waterskins, eventually judging Aiden's to be acceptable.

He had bragged about the specially-designed sheath that was lined in silk only at the opening, so that the rod became charged only when drawn, and was otherwise made to prevent static buildup and discharge, which would have endangered his electronic toys. That was a significant concern because, back then, he had carried his rod as a matter of course.

She had not seen him use it for Firework since the day they lost Aiden.

"Perhaps you do not need it in most cases," she said. It was true that most Elementalists could manipulate their elements without a talisman, though it was also true that an attuned talisman indisputably aided focus, control, and power. "And this assignment is only an investigation. But I will not have you in the field unprepared. You will carry your talisman for the duration of the assignment, and you will not 'misplace' it."

Rodney opened his mouth to argue, but he knew her well enough to see when she would not be moved. He closed his mouth into a scowl and took the sheathed rod from her desk. His hand flinched slightly as he did so, as if he feared a shock from it despite the specially designed sheath. He lowered his head as he carefully and slowly hooked it onto his belt. "Fine," he said finally. "Can we go now?"

They could, and she led the way out, nodding to Chuck on the way. Since it was only the two of them, she chose her car rather than the truck. Their supplies were quickly loaded, and she soon had them on the road.

The advantage to working with only Rodney was that he was content to leave the driving to her, rather than competing for it. She enjoyed the sensation of crossing earth so rapidly, the travel under her control, and it was refreshing not to have to deal with John or Ronon nagging for a turn. The disadvantage was that this was because Rodney preferred to spend the time working with his laptop. He had it out and powering up as soon as he had his seatbelt fastened, before she had even started the car. She might as well be alone for the several hours it would take them to reach Los Angeles County.

It was more peaceful than the morning had been, though. She had to admit that.

{}

More than five uninterrupted hours to analyze his latest test results and calculate why his most recent design fell short on distance. More than five hours without surprise water gun attacks to the face. It was almost worth the uncomfortable position and the complaints his back would be making for the rest of the night.

They must have stopped at least once along the way, if only to pass through a drive-through, because Rodney was pretty sure he hadn't had a coffee when they left. He had reached a good stopping point, and it wasn't worth sparking along the low battery or swapping to the backup to start something new, so he closed his laptop as he drank the last few ounces. "Are we there yet?"

Teyla smiled faintly. "Almost. Perhaps another half hour."

Rodney nodded and then looked out the window because, well, he didn't really know what else to say. Which was a strange situation for him. He was fantastic at responding, and he could expound on any number of topics — elemental theory, inanimate physics, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, his own fusion of those fields — for years, but he wasn't entirely sure how to start an ordinary conversation. He could talk about superheroes or plot holes in science fiction, but those were more Sheppard's sort of topic than Teyla's, and he was a little rusty with them anyway.

The view out the window wasn't much of an alternative. Southern California was just depressing. The immediate landscape was dull, dry desert, but he knew the population figures and he'd seen the areas closer to the coast, just the other side of the mountains. He was no Earther purist — not with all that discriminatory crap the Peaceniks had pulled back in the late 60s, making his early childhood so entertaining — but even he had winced to see the hillsides in every direction covered with houses rather than trees. Or whatever was supposed to grow down here, anyway, besides all the ludicrously flammable chaparral. He wasn't a big fan of vast crowds, either. Sheppard always teased that Rodney must have more of an affinity to Air than he realized for that, but Rodney was more concerned with all of them getting in his way and massing their incompetence than with Airish aloofness.

"I'm glad we're not based here," he muttered, not really meaning to say it aloud.

"So am I," Teyla said. He glanced over to see she looked a little tense.

"Do you actually feel it?" he asked. He could have pointed to Los Angeles itself blindfolded. "I get a little of it, but it wouldn't be the same for me, of course. Just a sort of …."

"Heaviness," Teyla supplied. "So much inert earth piled high, and covering so much surface."

Oh thank god, something to talk about. Elemental theory to the rescue. He quizzed her about that sense of weight (insignificant, just distracting), how deep that sensation extended (only the topmost layers of the crust, of course), and how precisely she could map structures based on the sensation (not very, or in fact at all worth mentioning). That topic lasted them for most of the next fifty minutes of driving, thank you Southern California traffic. Being stuck amidst all those idling engines set his own Fire senses jangling, which was something else to add to the conversation, but it really wasn't worth the trade.

The state highway finally passed from sere, empty vistas to rapidly denser housing as they approached Palmdale. They turned onto the oh-so-creatively named Palmdale Boulevard, leaving that for a numbered road and finally turning onto … Rodney frowned. "Avenue Q? Seriously?"

"I'm sure they have heard all the jokes, Rodney," Teyla said, pulling the car up to the Sheriff's Department's Palmdale Station. "I would suggest you refrain." She was doing that thing where she looked completely serious but was secretly amused. He could tell. Most of the time.

They pulled their jackets on as they headed inside, where she took care of the talking. Standard procedure. The deputy got points for giving them each a respectful nod once he'd inspected their certification cards, but he lost all those points and more when he revealed that they all had to pile back into cars for yet more driving. Rodney should have expected that, really. Palmdale demonstrated a singular lack of volcanoes.

Teyla's only complaint was a sigh as she settled back in behind the wheel, so he supplied the necessary grousing as they left Palmdale again, heading further southeast and then south into the edge of the mountain range for over half an hour of driving. He didn't complain for the entire trip, of course. He did open his mouth to comment when he spotted a sign for something called a Devil's Punchbowl, strongly suspecting some kind of joke or trick, but then he straightened sharply as he felt the first traces of disturbance. "Whoa. That's not right."

Teyla glanced over, starting to ask what he meant, but then she caught it and straightened as well. After a few seconds she increased their speed slightly, drawing closer to the deputy's car. Rodney dug through his pack, whipping out a field scanner and a PDA for immediate use and moving his new sonic mapper to the top for easy access.

Within a couple of minutes, the deputy pulled off the road. Teyla swiftly followed suit, barely getting the car into park before both of them were climbing out. The rocks and scrubby hills were unimpressive, but even the naked eye could detect the unseasonable heat shimmer and withering vegetation spanning almost an acre. To elemental senses, that acre throbbed with heat and misdirected energy.

It wasn't technically a volcano. Yet.

Teyla squatted, placing her hands flat on the ground to get readings in her way. Rodney would have circled the region, but there wasn't anything so useful as a path through the scrub for most of it, so he confined himself to the range he could manage without a machete or similar bushwhacking tool. He collected everything he could think of with the scanner, but that was really for future research. Most of what it told him, he had already figured out.

After about ten minutes, he saw Teyla straightening from the corner of his eye. "Rodney …."

He didn't bother to look up from the scanner. "Yes, I know."

She had to have known about as soon as he did, but she had taken longer to be sure. Or maybe to accept it. "No, this is —"

"I know." He glanced over to check, but of course the deputy was well within earshot. Still, the guy would find out about this eventually. They could hardly keep it a secret for long. "It's not a natural occurrence. It's mechanically generated."

{}

Teyla normally enjoyed driving, but after this day, she would gladly hand the keys to anyone in exchange for a promise she could remain in a single place for multiple hours.

The deputy had left them to their work after about twenty minutes, once she assured him she could find her way back without his guidance. She and Rodney had done what they could over the next hour to stabilize the unnatural development, but they were both hungry and tired. Chuck had booked them into a hotel in Palmdale, so they had then had to drive back, which took a little more than another half hour.

Once they had reached Palmdale, Rodney immediately voted for the first food establishment they saw that was within an open wireless access zone. The chain they ended up at was hardly fine dining, and normally Teyla would have preferred to try to find more local cuisine, but between the increasingly late hour and Rodney's food allergies, she wasn't inclined to argue.

The worst of her hunger assuaged, she paused to consider Rodney. He might be a Fireworker, but she thought that this might be more truly his element: eating with one hand, working his computer with the other, and talking around both.

"This is no firelighter," he muttered in conclusion. They both knew that, but Rodney sometimes found comfort in noting the obvious. Firelighters were one of the only ways non-Elementalists could access elemental forces at all, and they were inherently limited in scope. One might as well expect an ant to carry a boulder as expect a firelighter to cause the instability they had analyzed.

The quest for other such devices, and greater such devices, was eternal. In most cases, it was also a fool's errand, but there were legitimate studies in the field. Those studies typically focused on why firelighters worked at all, or how they differed from the not-quite-elemental properties of electronics. A very rare few researchers seriously anticipated Unification — combining elemental and inanimate physics into a workable theory and perhaps even into devices that could reliably manipulate elemental forces the way Elementalists could naturally.

Unification had been a goal since the very first time someone managed to start a fire without an Elementalist's assistance. Rodney was convinced he was the one who would actually accomplish it. So long as he continued to work his assignments responsibly, Teyla was content to let him tinker and even to provide a very modest underwriting of some of his equipment, and she wished him success, but she didn't seriously expect groundbreaking results from him any time soon.

"Would the device that could cause this effect have to be larger than a firelighter?" she asked. One advantage to his hobby was that he was essentially an expert in what they now faced, at least to the extent anyone could be.

"Usually." He looked almost impressed by the question. "Force isn't directly proportional to mass, but there is a relationship."

"So is there a specific size range for the device we are seeking?"

Rodney stopped eating briefly to ponder the question. "Let's see. If I wanted to do something like that on purpose, I'd probably expect to end up with something about the size of … a garage, maybe." He went back to eating.

Teyla frowned. "Why do you specify on purpose? Is intent relevant?"

He scoffed. "To the functioning of the machine itself, no. That would pretty much defeat the point. But any reckless idiot can slap together a machine, with no idea of the forces they're working with, and destabilize a system. For that, you'd probably only need something about the size of … let's say an SUV."

Teyla rubbed at her forehead. "Since California was not shaken into the sea long ago, may I assume that when you say any reckless idiot, you mean one with some particular amount of training?"

"You'd need at least college-level theory for both systems, obviously." His expression suggested she was the one being difficult.

She held to her patience with a skill born of long practice. "Do you have any ideas how we might find it? Would any of your equipment be able to detect it?"

The look that question provoked was withering. "Oh, yes, of course, let me just find my magical multipurpose dowsing rod. Strangely enough, detectors have to be built with something in particular to look for." He made a face. "Look, it's not running now, or else I'd know. You'd probably know. That means that it's currently just a pile of hardware somewhere. It's probably within about twenty miles of that anomaly, unless it's portable — and since it would probably fit on a big enough trailer, it could be. All I can offer you is old-fashioned investigation."

"And how would you suggest we investigate?"

He waved at his computer. "Track down anyone known or rumored to be in the area. Is there any reason I shouldn't ask?"

She tried a few different interpretations of that question but was unable to find one that made sense. "Ask?"

"On the mailing lists, forums, that sort of thing. You know, that whole Crackpots United thing." Teyla was almost entirely certain that name was only a joke, but she didn't quite dare risk causing offense by inquiring. "I can actually just ask who's working around here or knows anything about this device. I just don't know if you want to be all stealthy about it or something."

Teyla finished the last of her meal as she considered. "It is possible we might alert whoever has done this, but if that causes him or her to conceal their activities, it will at least stop them from using the device and perhaps will inform them of effects they did not know they were causing. Otherwise, the device builder might learn they should contact us, or others might recognize the work. Please go ahead and ask around."

"On it." He shifted his laptop more squarely in front of him.

Teyla reached over and tipped the screen down to close the laptop, forcing him to snatch his hands back or risk having them pinched. As he started to protest, she said firmly, "You can do that from the hotel, or in the morning. We should leave now."

Annoyance crossed his face, then consideration, then weariness, all in quick succession, followed at last by alarm as he realized he had not yet finished his meal and Teyla was quite serious about leaving. He hastily downed the last several bites, and he had to scramble to get his laptop back into his pack, but he did catch up to her as she reached the door. She felt a little sorry for rushing him, but he responded best to emphatic gestures.

He nattered on, mostly to himself, about the ways he would use his electronic communities for research all the way to the hotel. Teyla fought not to yawn openly as she checked them in and led the way to their adjacent rooms. He was unlikely to notice, much less take offense, but it would still be impolite, regardless of how much the long drive and intense work had tired her.

"Please do not stay up too late," she warned as they parted. "I would like to get an early start tomorrow." He tended to lose track of time when he was working.

"Yes, yes." He waved her off, but he now couldn't complain in the morning that she hadn't warned him. Not that that would necessarily stop him, of course.

Once she was in her room and had set down her things, she called to check for messages. She wasn't surprised that one had been left for her by Chuck, but she was surprised that it simply asked her to call him. She checked the clock, winced, and called his home, apologizing when he answered.

"That's okay, ma'am," he said swiftly. "There were just a couple of things, but I thought maybe I should tell you directly. The first one is that Mr. Caldwell wants to know if you'll be available soon."

Earthworkers couldn't always get steady work for construction site analysis and adaptation, especially in regions where granite bedrock made explosives more cost-effective, but California's building codes made Earthwork competitive with other methods. Caldwell Construction was her most reliable customer for straight-up Earth contracts. Mr. Caldwell had in fact offered to take her directly onto his payroll — and had accepted her refusal good-naturedly. She preferred running her own 'house and having a greater variety of contracts.

"For analysis, I will likely be available in a few days," she told Chuck. "For manipulation, it will more likely be next week."

"I'll let him know. Should be fine — I think he was just lining you up. And Air Sheppard wants you to call him."

Teyla frowned. "Did he say why? Is there a problem with their contract?"

"No, ma'am, he didn't say. But … at first he was just checking in, I think. He didn't say he wanted to talk to you until I mentioned you and Fire McKay were on a contract."

That was certainly puzzling. She thanked him, ended that call, and called John's cell phone.

He answered within a few rings. "Oh, hey," he greeted her. His voice went briefly distant. "Hey, I said to pause it! Cheater." He then returned fully to the line. "So Chuck says you're working with McKay?"

It was strange that the two men referred to one another so formally, when they were such good friends. John had started that, of course, and Rodney — sensitive to modes of initial address where he was so blind to most other social conventions — had automatically followed suit. Neither of them had adjusted in the few years since, though, even though John had switched to calling Teyla by her first name within a couple of months, and Ronon had never encouraged formality from anyone. It was almost as if neither man was prepared to make the gesture first … though it was also possible that Rodney simply didn't know he could.

"Rodney and I are on a contract, yes," she confirmed. It couldn't hurt to nudge.

"We, um … we could throw something together up here and be down there in a day or two," John suggested. "Or even just void this contract and head down in the morning."

Teyla could honestly say she had not expected such a suggestion. "Why would you do that? There is no call for Airwork or Waterwork here."

"It's just …." John sighed deeply. "Look, McKay's been kinda … off lately. A straight contract's one thing, but for a hybrid one, you should have backup, and, well, I don't know if you can count on him right now."

Teyla needed a few seconds to find her voice. "Rodney is a certified Fireworker, John. He is certainly qualified to partner for an EarthFire contract. We have all worked with him many times. Why on earth would you —"

"He used to be qualified, sure. It's just … ever since that storm, he hasn't really been right. I don't know if he burned out or what, but —"

"That's enough," Teyla snapped. Losing Aiden Ford had hurt them all, and they had grieved, but there was no call to impugn Rodney's skills. "We were all overwhelmed —"

"Yeah, no, I didn't mean that," John said hastily. His rash words from the days after the storm lingered between them, unspoken, for all that he had since apologized. "I just mean — well, we all assumed the backlash only really hit Ford, but I think McKay maybe got hit harder than we thought, too. He's weird sometimes — usually he bitches about every little thing, but sometimes he just —"

A brief scuffle interrupted him, John's voice faint as he protested, and then Ronon's voice took over. "He's not okay."

Teyla pinched the bridge of her nose. "I know the two of you do not get along —"

"That's not what I mean. You guys know him better than I do, but I've worked with Fireworkers before. Something's wrong with him. He's never even zinged me."

"Hey, yeah," John said in the background.

Teyla had never imagined that Ronon's squabbles with Rodney might be anything but teasing — or not merely teasing, at least. She wanted to protest that Rodney was simply too mature for such childish games, but that was patently untrue. He and John had descended into the little tweaks at one another for years — a snap of the fingers to lash a quick burst of static electricity across the buttocks, the wave of a hand to send a disruptive draft across an important stack of papers or carefully combed hair at just the wrong moment.

But after they lost Aiden, they had all retreated into themselves in their grief. Then Ronon had joined them, and he and John had immediately clicked. Rodney had agreed they needed a new Waterworker, and he had only shrugged when Teyla presented Ronon as her preferred candidate, but the two had ever since been at odds. John and Rodney had naturally spent less time together after that, so there hadn't been many opportunities for their friendly sniping. Teyla hadn't noticed anything unusual.

And of course not one of them had seen fit to tell her anything was wrong.

"Don't know if he's burned out," Ronon continued. "Could be. But he's definitely banked."

"Ronon, switch the phone to speaker. Or both of you switch to headsets." She waited for them to comply. "First, I want you both to know that I have had no complaints with Rodney's work so far on this assignment, nor with any of his prior contracts. There is no need for either of you to come to our rescue, and I will not have our Wheelhouse earn a reputation for failing to complete its contracts. Second, and more importantly, if you ever have a concern about our Wheel or any member of it, you are to tell me immediately."

"I was just —" John started.

"Is that understood?"

"Yeah, yeah, okay," he said, and Ronon added, "Sure."

"Good. Be certain you remember." She hung up, too angry to trust herself in further conversation.

Most of her anger was at herself. She should have seen there was a problem. She had just needed to believe they could continue, they could recover … and that need might have blinded her to the truth of the matter.

Rodney had given no sign of injury — and as John had noted, Rodney was usually the first to let anyone and everyone know if he was hurt. He was stunned, of course, but all three of them had been shaken by their loss of control, by the way the storm's energy had lashed through Aiden. By Aiden's too-still form, sprawled at the edge of the bluff.

But that lull was momentary, and the storm soon raged around them again. The sea surged up, reclaiming Aiden, and John had hastily thrown up a shield of air around the rest of them. Teyla had knelt, binding them to the bluff more tightly, but Rodney had no immediately protective actions to occupy him. He had sat there, slumped against Teyla, staring out at the churning water.

Teyla had never thought anything more than shock was affecting him. As a Fireworker, he was naturally less affected by the lightning than the rest of them would have been — than Aiden had been — but even Elementalists were not entirely immune to strongest manifestations of their elements. It was possible the lightning had injured him in some way. She could not imagine why Rodney would have hidden that, but it was possible.

She shook her head firmly, trying to clear it of the memories of that terrible day. She changed into night clothes and started the long version of her stretching routine, both because she needed to relieve the tension of driving for so long and because she hoped to clear her mind. She did not want that storm to linger in her dreams.

She deliberately focused instead on Rodney's more recent behavior as she stretched. If his Fire-sense had somehow been damaged, he had covered that fact well. But he had always used all sorts of electronic devices, trying to mesh them with elemental work, so he might have been uniquely positioned to do so.

But no, that did not fit what she had seen. In the car that afternoon, he had sensed the anomaly before she had — distracted as she was by driving and by the new terrain — and he hadn't had any of his machines out at the time. He had used his gadgets when they analyzed it, but he had always done so for his research, and she had seen no sign that he was using anything but his own skills when working with her to repair as much of it as they could. And he had shown no problem or hesitation leading the Wheel against the winter wildfire.

So she was sure that he was still capable of quelling as well as detection and, most likely, analysis. The one aspect she couldn't immediately determine, though, was calling.

She wished she had ready access to the Wheelhouse's recent contracts. It might be possible to connect to them from here, but if it was, Rodney was the only one who could do so easily. It did not seem wise to ask him to try, because it was his contracts she particularly wanted to check. She allowed all of them to pick contracts from the listings themselves, so long as they met her quota, and Rodney had always taken full advantage of that option. He always ran them past her, of course, but she had grown accustomed to rubber-stamping his selections and had not been watching for any kind of pattern.

She couldn't say for certain that she had seen him summon his element since the storm, but without checking the contracts to be sure, neither could she say for certain he had not.

If he had lost his ability entirely, if it had been diminished, or even if he had developed some sort of block or uncertainty, she needed to know, for all their safety. The middle of a contract was not the time to confront him, but once they were back, she would draw him out. She did not like the thought of testing him outright, as that would demean both of them, but she would if necessary.

Settled, she worked on clearing her mind entirely for the last several minutes of stretching, in hopes of calming her nerves and ensuring peaceful sleep.

{—}

Rodney clutched his coffee and glared at the other patrons of the cafe, trying not to resent Teyla for looking so relaxed. Morning people made his teeth ache. Yet here they both were, waiting on some mysterious other morning person, far earlier than any reasonable person should have to deal with humanity.

This was what he got for responsibly posting a call for information before he had gone to bed.

He gulped down the last of the coffee and was contemplating another when a terrifyingly familiar voice called across the room. "Rodney McKay? I don't believe it!"

No. Oh no. Rodney closed his eyes and indulged in banging his head gently against the table a couple of times. A hand blocked his path on the next attempt, and he looked up to find Teyla watching him with a mixture of amusement and concern.

"Hey, McKay? Remember me?" The little weasel had reached their table, because of course he would never have the decency to vanish from the face of the earth.

"Unfortunately," Rodney muttered. "Turns out fifteen years isn't nearly long enough to forget." At Teyla's pointedly inquiring look, he sighed. "Earth Teyla Emmagan, Malcolm Tunney."

Tunney's smile dimmed a bit. "I guess maybe you weren't around when I finished my dissertation. Doctorate in inanimate physics," he supplied to Teyla with epically false modesty. He couldn't even accept a blatantly deliberate snub properly.

"A pleasure," Teyla said cautiously, tilting her head to him.

"Wait, did he say 'Earth'?" Tunney pointed to her jacket and then Rodney's. "Hey, you went through with that, huh? Wow. A real fire wizard."

"Fireworker. Fireworker."

"Gotta say, you always were lucky, everything just falling in your lap like that," Tunney blathered. Rodney had never seriously considered attacking another person before, but he very nearly explored new territory in that moment. Teyla's hand squeezed his knee, though, startling the hell out of him. "Guess that's why you disappeared on us," Tunney continued, oblivious.

"No," Rodney gritted through clenched teeth. "No, it's not."

"So you were both at school together?" Teyla interjected.

"Sure were!" Tunney said. "Graduate physics — though McKay here was trying to do about four other programs at the same time. Surprised he settled on anything at all, really." He shoved lightly at Rodney's shoulder. Teyla's hand tightened on his knee, and Rodney nearly bit through his tongue holding back.

"Really?" Teyla raised an eyebrow at Rodney. "I only knew about the two doctorates and … was it two other Master's?" she inquired sweetly. She turned that smile to Tunney while Rodney was still trying to figure out what the hell was going on. "I never knew he had worked in yet another field. Even as close as we are, Rodney still manages to surprise me. So does your arrival here this morning mean that you are the 'DifferenceMakr' we intend to meet?"

Rodney had just worked out that she had been taking his side, in that evil subtle way she had when she wanted to, and he really would have liked a moment to savor such an unusual occurrence. Her last comment made everything fall together, though. Of course Tunney was behind the rampant stupidity they had found the day before.

It really was too early for coherent thought, or he would have put that together much sooner.

"That's me," Tunney said, puzzled. "How do you … oh, no way! You're 'Paradigm Shift'?"

Rodney just nodded wearily.

"Wow. Small world, huh? I guess I owe you thanks — a couple of your discussions online really helped me get my project going."

It took a couple of seconds for that to sink in. "Oh, no you don't," Rodney said. "You don't get to blame me for — well, no, actually, yes, you absolutely need to give me credit if you're stealing my work, but no, you don't get to blame me for whatever idiotic catastrophe you're working on!"

It was possible he shouted part of that, because the cafe was weirdly quiet and Teyla's hand was now steel-tight on his arm. "We should move outside," she said firmly.

There was no way he was resisting her, and Tunney caught enough of a clue to keep his mouth shut and accompany them out. Once they were on the sidewalk, Tunney opened his mouth, looking offended, but Teyla spoke first.

"Dr. Tunney," she said, very formal, "Are you aware in any way of a mechanical device, with the exclusion of common firelighters, that manipulates or attempts to manipulate elemental forces, used within the past ten days or fewer anywhere within Los Angeles County?"

Rodney hadn't thought their contract deputized her, but it was possible, and he hadn't actually read the details himself. He certainly wouldn't risk it, if he were the target of that question. Tunney just smiled at her, though. "Why, sure."

By Teyla's pause, she hadn't expected that response either. "You are?" she said finally. Then she firmed her voice. "Please explain."

"I've been working on an elemental manipulator for years now," he said blithely. "I got funding to build it a couple of months ago, and I ran my first activation test last week."

Rodney and Teyla stared at him before finally attempting to speak at the same time, so Rodney's "You have to register with the federal government" and Teyla's "Under the terms of California Penal Code, Section Three Hun-" got all muddled together. Teyla put up a hand to quiet Rodney, took a deep breath, and then said simply, "Show us."

The two of them worked out directions to some building somewhere while Rodney focused on making sure he did nothing to get himself arrested or fired. That took every ounce of willpower he possessed, because he couldn't stop thinking about the months he had spent negotiating with the EPA for the official right to tinker with simple firelighters. He couldn't stop thinking about the officially sanctioned "Back to the Earth" clubs on every campus he had ever attended or the slurs they had lobbed at Fires like him with impunity. He couldn't stop thinking about the way Tunney had half-assed his way through the program with his aw-shucks grin while Rodney had been working his ass off at multiple programs and juggling the requirements for the ultimately Faustian reciprocal-commitment scholarship program that had been his only option.

And he couldn't stop thinking about how very much he loathed the sort of flashy, shoddy science Tunney had always embraced.

Tunney headed off to … somewhere … and Teyla led Rodney to her car. She didn't pull out until a bright red convertible — of course — stopped just ahead of their space and honked lightly for their attention. She then followed Tunney closely as he drove eastward.

A good five minutes had passed before she spoke. "Do you want to talk about it?" she asked softly.

"Really not."

And Teyla, miracle of miracles, left it there. She squeezed his shoulder lightly for just a moment, though. He abruptly felt sorry for leaving her to deal with everything, but he seriously felt about ten seconds away from exploding and he just didn't know what to do with any of it.

Several minutes later, she spoke again. "I believe that model has terrible suspension. Do you think it would be unethical," she asked slowly, "if I were to open a few potholes and then bid for the contract to fix them?" When he turned to stare at her, she wrinkled her nose thoughtfully and continued, "Of course, it would be irresponsible to attempt a working while driving. At the very least I would have to ask you to hold the wheel while I worked, but I wouldn't want to involve you in anything improper."

He was startled into laughter because she was usually so serious that he managed to forget she actually wasn't at all. And if his laugh was a little shaky, Teyla — may she be blessed to all four points — didn't comment.

She had broken the tension enough for him to spend the last ten minutes of the drive regaining his composure. They pulled up outside a very large building, some sort of warehouse or even former hangar maybe, considering the shape that could have been an airstrip off to the south across the desert. Whatever the building was, it was big. Teyla parked at the edge of the paved surface and walked a bit out onto bare ground before turning to consider the building, tilting her head for Rodney to join her. They stood there briefly, waiting for Tunney to park his precious compensation carefully across two spaces in the completely empty lot.

Teyla put a bracing hand to his lower back, just below the bottom of his pack, and he abruptly felt a lot calmer. He glanced down and smirked to see that she had slipped one foot a little out of her flats, with a twist that would have broken his ankle if he had tried it, to make contact directly with the ground. The minor working would have had more effect on an Earth, and with skin-to-skin contact in any case, but since they were bound to the same Wheel it did help, and he kind of loved her a little for bothering. "Thanks," he muttered, and she nodded slightly as she slipped her foot back into its shoe properly and took her hand back to herself.

Tunney finally climbed out and then waved them over impatiently. Teyla set an unhurried pace to join him, but Tunney still just looked impatient rather than annoyed when they reached him. He turned to unlock the main door. "I don't really need all this space, but when a backer offers you a building, you don't refuse, right?" Rodney very calmly managed not to kick him.

The interior didn't really match the exterior. The building had apparently been divided inside into smaller rooms, and the height of the entryway and first hallway suggested multiple interior stories as well. Tunney led them on into a windowless office that immediately made Rodney start to feel claustrophobic — it wasn't really all that small, but it wasn't large and it looked like the sort of room someone could toil in for forty or fifty years, doing something profoundly dull like billing reconciliation and waiting to die. He shuddered.

Tunney flicked on the computer and spread out blueprints while the machine booted. "No stealing my work, McKay," he grinned, and it was a damn good thing Teyla had grounded Rodney first. "See? It's really quite elegant, if I do say so myself."

Teyla reached over and took a recorder from a side pocket in Rodney's pack. Switching it on, she said, "Teyla Emmagan, Certified Wheel Elementalist - Earth, Licensed Wheelhouse Manager; and Dr. Rodney McKay, Certified Wheel Elementalist - Fire; interviewing Dr. Malcolm Tunney. Dr. Tunney, do you recognize that we are certified Elemental Agents, working under contract to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department as public safety proxy to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors?"

"Sure, of course." Tunney's attention was on his blueprints.

Teyla shot Rodney a worried look but continued. "And do you acknowledge designing, manufacturing, and/or operating an unregistered elemental manipulation device?"

"I already said I did, didn't I?" He finally noticed the recorder and gave them an amused look. "Come on, don't get all worked up. I was just doing a proof-of-concept run. I'll get it registered, all nice and proper. It's a true breakthrough, so that'll be a real snap."

From what Rodney could see of the blueprints so far, it wasn't any such thing. It was, in fact, the sort of thing registration was meant to prevent. The only innovation was that he had gotten something of that scale working at all, which Rodney would have admitted was very slightly impressive except that it required completely ignoring every safety regulation and fundamental principle that existed. He kept quiet with a serious effort in deference to the recorder. This part of the state wasn't likely to have any judges who disliked him personally, but some were still prejudiced against Fireworkers, and just having his name and affiliation listed at the start was risky enough.

"Do you grant us full permission to examine and copy any plans, records, or measurements of the aforementioned unregistered device?" Rodney had no idea if Teyla memorized huge chunks of legalese for this sort of thing or just made it up as she went, but he was impressed either way.

"You can check it out all you want, but no copying. This is proprietary," Tunney answered. Rodney was first annoyed at him, but then he realized that Tunney had just proved he really was listening, so the recording would hold up as waiver of a warrant and official-agent search. He dove into the blueprints with relish as Teyla started working through the computer.

It was worse than he feared. Much, much worse.

"Teyla," he said sharply. When she looked up, he said, "Seven. Maybe eight."

She understood the severity shorthand immediately and nodded once. She controlled her expression well, but he knew her, and he knew she was just as alarmed as he was.

"What the hell is this thing for, Tunney?" Rodney demanded.

"Industrial refrigeration, primarily. Meat lockers, factory air conditioning, that sort of thing. Heat wave mitigation eventually, though, once it's paying for itself."

Rodney held onto his patience very, very tightly. "And where does the heat go?"

Tunney just looked confused. "What do you mean?"

"Elemental physics, inanimate physics, the principles are similar. Basic thermodynamics. Cooling is actually removing heat, and heat doesn't just magically disappear. Where does the heat go?"

"Oh, I see what you're getting at." Tunney, unbelievably, relaxed. "My backer gave me the key to that, actually. Elemental energy is a self-balancing, closed system, so it's not a problem."

Rodney would have seriously considered banging his own head against the wall, if he didn't value his brain too much. "No. No, it really isn't. If you had ever paid the slightest attention to elemental theory, you would know that. You would know why the world isn't already littered with machines that tap elemental energy at will. You would know why everyone who has even the most rudimentary understanding of what's involved focuses on either incremental improvements or fusion theory."

He sagged against the table. It was still early in the day, but dealing with this much stupidity exhausted him. "Yes, it's a closed system, but no, it is not self-regulating, not the way you've assumed. If you draw elemental heat from one region, that heat doesn't just politely redistribute itself evenly across the planet. It destabilizes the system within a scale-limited range, which means concentrated fire energy tends to manifest somewhere it really doesn't belong. Such as, for one example, a proto-volcano at the edge of the San Gabriel Mountains."

Tunney actually laughed. "Oh, come on. That's ridiculous."

"I assure you it is not," Teyla growled. "Did you think we were only here on some form of vacation?"

Tunney's grin faded. "But the test worked perfectly … and my backer said that it —"

"Who is this backer?" Teyla demanded.

"Well, I ... I don't actually know, to be honest."

They both stared at him. "How can you not know who's paying you and giving you buildings and telling you blatant lies about elemental theory?" Rodney asked.

"I've talked to him, but that's always been by phone or email. I don't actually have a name. Everything goes through a corporation. Arctic Front."

"Oh, right, that doesn't sound suspicious at all."

"It didn't!" Tunney protested. "People use corporate structures all the time. He knew what he wanted my invention to do and he told me enough elemental theory to make it work. He just didn't know how to build it. That's why he needed me."

Unfortunately that meant Tunney would probably weasel out of this, too. The Sheriff's Department would have to track down some shadow behind a shell corporation, and Tunney could deny responsibility while claiming cooperation with the investigation. Teflon Tunney, yet again. Miracle Mal.

"Rodney, please locate and secure this device. Mr. Tunney, assist him. Do not attempt to hinder him in any fashion." Wow, Teyla was almost as pissed off as Rodney was. She gave Rodney a meaningful look, and he nodded. "Secure" meant making certain the device wasn't currently running, wasn't likely to randomly start running, and in fact could not be started once he had gotten his hands on it. He was more than happy to see to that, even if it did mean spending alone time with Tunney.

She put on her earpiece and mouthed radio at him. He nodded again. He had taken a touch-to-talk cell phone system and modified it to work with touch- or voice-activated earpieces, giving them an effective and cheap private radio system — normally just a field convenience, but a reassuring touch of caution at the moment. He would freely admit he liked knowing that at a word from him, Teyla could have emergency services racing. Tunney had admitted to building one abomination of science; what else might be lying around?

He slipped his earpiece on as he and Tunney left the office, switching it to always-on mode and asking just where the device was stored. Tunney said that it was towards the other end of the building, for safety, which very nearly made Rodney laugh at the irony. Teyla quietly confirmed reception.

They walked for what had to be nearly the entire length of the building before Tunney finally stopped at an oversized door and unlocked it. The room they entered was much larger than the rest of the ones they had passed had been, over twelve meters to a side and several stories high. Rodney had underestimated the scale of the device slightly — based of course on his own more elegant design aesthetic — and he found himself facing a hulking machine somewhere between a large SUV and a tractor in size. It looked, in fact, rather like an unholy union of the two vehicles, just without the actual wheels.

Something about it seemed ominous, beyond even the damage he knew it could wreak. He scowled and forced himself forward, examining it to find the most effective way to disable it.

So of course Tunney's cell phone rang. Rodney glared at him.

"It's just … I have to …." Tunney shrugged and took the call. Rodney firmly ignored him, tracing out the control paths.

Tunney finally finished his call. "That was my backer —"

"Oh, now you tell me?" Rodney would have liked a word with this alleged backer.

"Well, he wants me to get the loading dock ready. I guess he's sending in some new supplies."

"Your backer is coming here?" Rodney asked carefully, to make sure Teyla had caught that.

"Probably not," Tunney called as he headed over to the far wall. Rodney repeated that in a mutter, disappointed, as Tunney said something about delivery men. Of course it wasn't that easy. Tunney pressed a few buttons and the wall — no, an enormous access panel, basically a garage door on steroids — rose jerkily. The bright desert sun glared through the opening, turning Tunney into a backlit shadow and making Rodney blink rapidly to clear the spots from his vision.

He turned resolutely back to the machine yet again, determined to disable the thing. The door creaked and groaned its torturous way up, deafeningly loud in the echo-magnifying chamber, and the room grew steadily brighter. The entire process seemed designed to draw out the annoyance as long as possible.

Tunney might have said something, but in the racket Rodney only knew he was approaching because his shadow loomed ever larger against the machine. "You really need to oil that thing," he called, wincing at a particularly shrill metallic shriek. He straightened, turning to glare at Tunney. "It's seriou—"

{}

"Rodney?" Teyla tapped carefully at her headset. "Rodney, are you still there?"

Silence answered her.

No, that wasn't true at all. She was still getting sounds from her headset — the insufferable metallic screeching had finally stopped, but she still heard soft shuffling sounds and an occasional grunt. She wasn't getting silence. But she also wasn't getting Rodney.

"Rodney, please answer."

He might have dropped or dislodged his headset. The service might be malfunctioning — she had been surprised at how good their coverage had been in the desert, but it could always drop out. The headsets themselves might be malfunctioning.

But the sudden dread deep within her argued otherwise. It might be irrational, but she was convinced something had happened to Rodney.

She raced to the file cabinet. Long experience with the Caldwell offices and projects had taught her how to locate building plans quickly, and she found the basic floor plan and utility diagram in the second drawer she checked. Not completely updated — she cursed at that, then winced at her slip, then hoped desperately that Rodney had heard — but it gave her basics. She gave herself one minute to study the building's layout.

Then she shoved the diagrams into a pocket of her jacket and knelt, putting her hands flat to the floor, but the building's materials were too long inert and responded only sluggishly. They would register only large-scale effects, and a single person — or even two, if Tunney was still with Rodney — just wasn't enough. She would eventually be able to map out the regular lines of walls and isolate the many possible items that weren't walls, but it would be faster to search the building by foot.

More muffled shuffling through her headset was punctuated by a very final metallic sound, and then she really did hear only silence.

She started talking then, as she headed for the other end of the building, just repeating the same pleas for Rodney to respond. She moved quickly, heading for the part of the building the plans showed had loading access, because she thought the two men might have been in that same room … but she had to keep an eye on each room she passed, to make sure nothing matched what she had overheard.

A groan interrupted her as she was a little more than halfway down the building. She responded immediately. "Rodney? Rodney, please answer me."

"'m up," he mumbled.

Why must this building be so large? "No, I do not believe you are. Please, you must speak to me."

A dazed, "Ow," was his only response.

"Are you injured?"

"My head hurts." His voice was vague and unfocused, even slurring.

As much as she hated to waste time, she stopped. "Tell me why your head hurts."

"Um. I don't know. Ow. There's blood. I think I hit my head." He sounded confused rather than panicked.

With a soft curse Teyla turned and ran back to the office. It had taken her several minutes to get this far, quickly but not at her top speed. She hated to lose yet more time, but she had to take the certain option. Rodney's adaptations to their phones let her speak to him, but that meant she could not then use her phone to call out without losing her only connection to him, snapping that tenuous thread. The only other phone she had so far seen was in the office. "How did you," she asked on one breath, and then, "hit your head?" on the next, hoping not to alarm him by sounding winded.

Rodney only said he didn't remember, spurring her on.

"Can you tell me," she asked, "where you are now?"

After a few seconds of consideration, Rodney answered, "No. I don't know."

"Describe it," she ordered. "Talk."

"Injured man here," he complained, sounding a little more like himself. She did not let relief slow her. Rodney continued, "I'm on the floor. Which … not really comfortable." After a bit of shuffling and grunting, he said, "Now I'm sitting on the floor. In … some kind of room." He sounded a little clearer but still worryingly vague and halting.

She was almost back to the office. "The room with … the device?"

"No. That was big. This … isn't. Um. Really isn't." His breathing began to quicken. "Really, really isn't."

"How large is it?"

"I just —"

"No. You did not. Tell me. In numbers." He had always been very good at spatial estimation, and specifics usually calmed him.

"Two … two and a half meters. By not quite four. Square. I mean rectangular." Finally, finally she reached the office, as he continued, "Two and a quarter high. It's just … there aren't any windows, and everything's metal. Even the door."

She snatched up the phone, relieved beyond measure to hear a dial tone. "Hold on for just a minute, Rodney," she said as she dialed 911. "I will be right back. Keep the line open, please."

She covered the microphone extension of her earpiece as best she could as she spoke to the dispatcher. She stressed the head injury and several minutes of unconsciousness elements of the situation and soon had a promise that an ambulance would come. The dispatcher wanted her to remain on the line, but she couldn't, since she had to locate Rodney if the ambulance workers were to be any use, so she explained that very briefly before disconnecting.

"Rodney, you said there is a door? Is there only one?" She double-checked the floor plans, but as she had remembered, no rooms that size were indicated. The plans outlined only the division into floors, the structural supports for that stage, and the larger spaces like the one with the loading access.

"Just one," Rodney confirmed. "Are you coming? You should be coming here. I mentioned the head injury, right?"

If only she knew where. "I am trying. I know you should not move, and I am sorry, but can you tell me what is on the other side of the door?"

He huffed. "Completely contraindicated, you know," he grumbled, launching into a long sequence of little complaints.

Teyla did know, particularly given how much trouble he had pronouncing the term, but she had little option. Once they were home, she fully intended to task him with designing some way for them to find each other easily when in the field.

His mumbling broke off. "Oh. Well. No."

"No?"

"Can't tell you. It's locked. Not even hinges on this side."

Teyla put one hand to the sticks at her belt for reassurance. She normally carried them only for security — and as a warning that she was no helpless woman, though most people seemed to assume they were talisman-related — but she was abruptly glad she had them with her. Rodney might have hurt himself accidentally, and he might even have wandered into another room in a daze, but with the locked door in addition, it seemed much more likely that someone had hurt and then moved him.

She had no proof, but she was sufficiently concerned that she went back to the phone to request police support as well. She had to emphasize that they were contracted to the Sheriff's Department for that, but she did finally get assurance that a deputy would be sent. Just then Rodney squawked loudly in her earpiece and then kept sputtering. "Rodney? What is it?"

"Water! There's water, just pouring in here. There's this … sort of pipe, right up at the ceiling, and it's dumping water, and it's cold."

Teyla ended her call to the emergency dispatcher quickly, snatched up the plans, and shoved them back in a pocket as she headed out of the office. "Try to stay as dry as you can. I'm on my way."

"It's a little late for that. Just what I needed, a side order of hypothermia with my skull fracture."

"I'm sure it will not come to that," Teyla said, walking as quickly as she could while trying to remain cautious. She silently cursed the size of the building once again.

"Teyla." Rodney's voice was suddenly very clear and very serious. "This room is watertight."

"What?" She shook herself. "Are you certain?"

"Considering the water's nearly up to my ankles, yes, I'm certain! Listen, everything's metal in here, and every angle is reinforced or soldered or both, and — okay, ow, bending over bad, but … no, definitely no flow around the door."

Teyla ran.

"Look, I know you probably have other things you'd like to do, but if you wanted to get me out of here sometime today —"

"I am coming," she said, not bothering to mask her shorter breath.

"Okay, good, great, except didn't you say you don't know where I am? So where are you going? What if you're going the wrong direction?"

"You were not … unconscious … long. You must be … nearer … the loading end. I will be … closer."

"Unless — what if I'm not in the building anymore? What if I'm in … another building, or some kind of truck?"

"Radio," Teyla answered, clipping the wall with her shoulder rather than slowing as the corridor jogged a few feet to the right. "And there are … no other buildings near."

"Radio. Radio? Oh, right, the range on these things. I … I forgot. Except, a truck —"

"With a chamber of that size? And a water reservoir?" It was actually very remotely possible that a stationary trailer could have a water line attached, but Teyla had to concentrate on the more likely option that Rodney was still somewhere in the building, and the far end of the building would still have to be closer to him than the office was.

"Right. Right. I can't think. Is this what ordinary people's brains feel like all the time? How can they live like this?"

Teyla was torn between offense that he would ask her, and honest surprise that he phrased it as they rather than you. She might as well split the difference … though, of course, it was always possible he hadn't actually been asking the last question of her but had simply been commenting to himself. She decided not to ask for clarification. "Can you force the door?"

"Of course I can't force the door. Who do you think I am, Ronon? Which would be ironic, when you think about it, because he would probably love —"

"Fire, Rodney."

"… Oh. Right. I don't … oh, but I could try to warp the seams, or work out some of this solder …."

She finally reached the vast room Rodney and Tunney had been in. She had to shade her eyes against the bright desert glare coming through the loading door, so she carefully moved around the edge of the room so that she could put her back to that light. She saw no objects of the size Rodney had predicted, but as she worked her way cautiously back across the room, she found a small amount of liquid on the floor.

Blood.

There were a few smears streaking towards the door she had come in, but nothing like a trail, which might have been gruesome but would certainly have been helpful.

"Okay, no, no, I was not trying to short out the light!" Rodney's voice held a note of genuine panic.

Teyla stood and headed back for the door. "What happened?"

"I can't do a damn thing here, that's what happened. Strangely enough, having a head injury and being halfway submerged in water turns out to affect my control. I'm pushing hard enough that I should be in danger of boiling the water in here, since I'm effectively standing in an gigantic cooking pot, but I'm barely getting any response at all, except the light tried to short out. And if there's one thing I need more than drowning in my immediate future, it's drowning in the pitch dark!"

Teyla cursed herself viciously. She knew there was some doubt that Rodney could call on his element. She should never have allowed him to continue working. "Even if you use your rod?"

"Oh. I didn't … wait. It's not here." She had told him — "I don't have it. I don't have anything. My rod's gone, and my pack, the secondaries — I don't have anything."

Rodney would part with his pack only if an actual limb was his only alternative. That suggested he had been stripped of any useful equipment, yet he had been left with his radio and headset. That detail disturbed her greatly.

"You still don't even know where I am, do you?" Rodney said suddenly. "I've managed to accomplish exactly nothing here, and you'll never get here in time. If … if you don't … talk to my neighbor, okay? She'll take my cat. Hates me, but loves my cat. She'll take care of him."

"I will find you," Teyla said firmly. With a querying of the concrete that left her feeling a little dizzy from the effort required, she confirmed that the slight marks just to the left of the doorway were very recent damage to the surface. She had overshot slightly. She moved carefully along the corridor, trying to find other marks.

"I seriously don't think you realize how fast the water is rising in here. Just promise me you'll get Tunney for this. I don't want him profiting off my work or off my … my death."

"Please just keep trying, Rodney. Clear your mind. You must focus."

"Focus. Right. Because that's so easy right now, with the whole minutes from drowning thing."

"You can —"

"I know, I know." He drifted off into muttering, which was not the most common meditative technique but sometimes did seem to steady his nerves.

She stopped to examine the floor at the next junction, because she doubted she could have overshot by far but she didn't dare risk assuming the wrong direction. The inner divisions were reasonably new, but the material of the floor on this level had been processed decades earlier, losing most of its responsiveness to earth energies — but nearly everything retained some minimal responsiveness. She cast her search in carefully widening circles, seeking any fresh damage, no matter how slight.

She had just found enough of a mark to take the turn when she realized Rodney was not simply muttering, he was … humming. Or … it wasn't quite singing, because the melodic line he was trying to recreate was not the vocal line, but she recognized the tune of Falla's "Ritual Fire Dance".

Song and dance were both reliable evocation tools, but to hear Rodney tell it, they were amateurish nonsense. She had long suspected he would sooner fail outright at a task than resort even to whistling. For him to try music now spoke more clearly of his desperation than his panicked words had. She moved rapidly down the new corridor, fighting down the fear that he was right and she would not be in time.

"Dammit, no — no good." She first thought his voice was shaking, but that was not quite right. No, he was shivering, badly enough to affect his speech. "What else, what … um, Einstein, James Dean … something about a — a winning team — okay, ser— seriously, that just figures. Someone actually writes an … effective evocation and it's all American history."

Water was heavy. It might now make enough of an impression to be detectable. She tried the walls, which should be more responsive and would feel the outward pressure of the rising water. She didn't find a response nearby, but she did find a new scrape against the wall that confirmed a turn into yet another corridor. The scrape was low and caused by contact with some kind of metal, which was puzzling, but she couldn't stop to consider what it meant.

"That song is difficult to remember even for those who have studied American history," she told Rodney, trying to keep her tone light. She could vouch for that. They both had an outsider's perspective, but she had pursued citizenship after the United States had taken in what remained of her people. Even though she had come to the country as a young teen, she often found she knew American history better than its natives seemed to. That in no way led her to think she could remember all the words to that song without guidance, especially with the proper melody and rhythm, which were essential.

She was not at all surprised he would remember something of a song that mentioned Einstein, but … "Is that song not about stopping fire? Fighting it?" She suspected the words should not matter, but it was the rare singer whose mindset was not affected by the lyrics they sang. That certainly seemed to be true of the composers, because every effective evocation song she knew had relevant lyrics in some fashion, or was at least titled to reference the affected elements if instrumental.

"No, no, it's … continuity. Same things over again, no matter what … people do. Enduring. Which would be helpful right n-now. Except I can't … can't keep it straight, and the melody on that one's too l-level without the patter effect. And Arthur Brown really isn't effective at all, and the Doors are just awful poetry. Even the Eng—" He fell silent abruptly.

"Rodney?" she prompted, nervous. She paused to try the wall again.

"Nothing. I just … why can't I do anything? I can't …." He paused for several seconds and then began shouting, "We don't need no fire, let the —"

"Rodney!"

"Fine, fine, that doesn't work anyway! It's just it's that or 'Disco Inferno', and I really don't — oh, oh crap —" He sputtered noisily. "It's … never mind now, there's nothing, I can't —"

"What's happening?"

His words were more spaced out, breathless. "If I can't get any response anyway, I certainly can't do it while I'm swimming."

"Is the water truly that high?"

"I can stand or breathe. Not both. Picked breathing."

"I am glad you did." Between his height and the height he had estimated for the room, she was nearly out of time. "Did you say there was a light?"

"Yes. Flush. Looks like the panel's screwed in." That scuttled any hope that he might somehow use the light's supply of electricity, which might not be elemental but which was far more responsive to Fire Elementalists than this cursed dead stone was to her. "Not sure it's watertight, though," he added. "So if I don't drown fast enough, maybe I can be electrocuted instead."

"Rodney, please."

"I know. Sorry. I'm just … I'm not good with certain death."

"It is not certain." She had to find him in time. She would.

He answered that with only a short, pained laugh. After a few seconds of silence, he said, "I appreciate it, though. It's … reassuring, that you tried."

"I am still trying. And I will find you."

"Okay. Sure."

She was suddenly angry that he did not believe her. She embraced the anger, because she would use it and she would prove him wrong. She would prove it, because if he was right, then she would never be able to confront him, she would have no right to be angry, and she was furious.

She said nothing, because she had to save her anger for when she found him, and he spoke again, his voice soft and shivering without the anger that had so briefly strengthened it. "Look, I … I have a sister."

Teyla stopped walking entirely for a moment, despite the urgency. "You have never mentioned her," she said finally, forcing herself to move again. He had in fact strongly suggested he had no family at all, refusing to fill out next-of-kin or emergency contact information when she had hired him.

"We're not … not close. But she sh-should know. And tell her I'm sorry we're not. Weren't. Don't tell her I'm sorry we fought. I'm not. She's quite bright. She could have made a real … real difference. Or run her own 'house. You Falling types are good at managing people. But she drop … dropped out, married, had a kid. Wouldn't listen. But she's family, and I'm not … good at that. And I wish I … could have been."

"You will tell her that yourself," Teyla growled. She would of course honor his request if necessary, but she did not want this burden, and she did not want him to give up now that he had passed it to her.

"Don't think this is … the right time to call her," he said after several long moments, with what might have been a trace of amusement in his tone.

At last, at last she found traces of weight out of proportion to the rest of the building. She raced in that direction. "You will tell her that yourself, in person," she insisted, but he only made a soft disbelieving noise.

She rounded a corner and knew she had found it. One side of the hall was a metal wall, unlike the drywall everywhere else. Rodney's pack sat against the metal wall, his talisman propped forlornly against it. A powered hand truck was further down the hall, explaining the marks she had found in the earlier wall.

"How high is it now?" she asked, heading for the door. She considered telling him she was just outside, but she did not want to raise his hopes and risk dashing them.

"Um. High. About … a foot left. Maybe."

It was unlike him to mix systems of measurement. She bit back further encouragement as she tested the door. It was locked, and she saw no way to unlock it, nor any key handy. A thin trickle of water seeped around it, far too slowly to make any difference at all. The metal was dull; she could warp the latch mechanism, but not in time.

"You'll take care of everything after, right?" Rodney's voice was slow now, and it sounded steadier, but only because he seemed to have stopped shivering. "I'd prefer a pyre. Old-fashioned, I know, but cremation just seems so abstract. No real sense of ceremony. But I know you might not be comfortable with that, so I was thinking … burial wouldn't be so bad. Traditional, of course, none of those weird chemicals. Not usually my sort of thing, but being wrapped in your element … I think I'd like that."

Teyla had to put her hand back onto the wall to steady herself. To cross the elements for the dead without their explicit direction was profoundly offensive, even profane. Such requests were vanishingly rare and made only to join the element of close family, a deeply beloved friend, or a spouse.

"Rodney —" she started, shaken.

"Just don't — don't leave me like this," he said, his voice small now. "Not in water. Anything but that."

"I will free you," she vowed. "I will free you if I have to shake this building into dust."

"Don't … don't try a skew. This room has to be reinforced. You'd just bring down the rest of the building, and that'd probably kill you, and then there'd be nobody to find me." She was fully prepared to excuse the egocentrism this once, considering the circumstances, but he surprised her by adding, "And I don't want you to die too."

"I will not," she promised. She had never seriously considered a skew, both for the reasons he had given and for the simple problem of the time it would take to reach the active ground below the building and then reshape it. But the building plans, however outdated, mapped at least some of the utilities, and the nearest official water line ran past the next juncture. If she could stop the water, she could buy more time.

She was elated to find that the line was in fact there — exposed, rather than running behind one of the walls, but heavy metal she could not breach swiftly. The line that ran from the main one towards the room was not on the plans, but there was an in-line cutoff valve near it. She seized it and jammed the line shut, sighing with relief.

She put a hand to the pipe, just to make sure — and detected water still running within.

Disbelieving, she tried the cutoff again. It moved far too easily. It was a fake.

She slammed her hands against the wall in frustration, but then she straightened. No. She would not play by someone else's rules. She traced the line and found an elbow up-flow from the illicit pipe and within a short distance. She could not have taken the time to search much farther, but this one should do. The elbow itself was of thicker metal, but the pressure and turbulence just to either side of that point would better suit her needs than the straight line would.

"Rodney, tell me if the water stops."

"Still … coming," he said flatly.

That was not what she had meant, but she had no time to explain. She pulled out her firelighter and positioned herself so that she could use the corner as shielding. A firelighter was not the most precise tool, but it was very effective at drawing fire energy … particularly when used by an Elementalist, and even better when used by one who was not a Water.

"I guess the Wheel always balances." Rodney's voice was soft, resigned, as he offered the words of acceptance he had always before mocked.

But there was no balance in a Fire claimed by water, in an Elementalist felled by violence, in a man sentenced by the failure of a trusted friend. In Rodney McKay, of all people, giving up. "Don't you dare," she demanded.

She aimed the firelighter carefully and channeled through it as she pressed the release.

Raw fire energy lashed across to the metal and, conducting through it to abundant water, reacted explosively, bursting the pipe. Water gushed out, immediately soaking the wall and floor and flowing down that corridor.

"Has it stopped?" she demanded.

"What did you just do? And no, it hasn't stopped, why the hell would it … oh. Wait. It's … stopping?"

Teyla sagged against the wall, letting out a breath she had not known she was holding.

"You stopped it," Rodney said, sounding numb. "You made it stop."

"Yes. I will get you out, but now we have more time." She headed back to the locked door.

"Okay. That's good, that's …. But I can't … it's not airtight, but … the exchange isn't great, not with these dimensions, and I can't stay like this much longer …."

"I know. I will work as quickly as I can." It was a matter of minutes, but she had not truly had those minutes before.

With one hand to the lock and the other on her talisman, she found the points of greatest stress on the bolt and the strike plate. The water was placing tremendous pressure on the door, doing much of the work for her. It was slow, and it was draining, but she carefully weakened the metal until it was just short of failure and then stood back.

"It didn't work? I felt you working, but —"

"It is working, but you will have to hold onto something now." She put his pack onto her back and clipped his rod to her belt.

"There's — onto — what? There's nothing!"

"Please, you must find something. A hook, or some sort of projection —"

"Did you miss the part where there's nothing?"

"Are you absolutely sure? This will be very dangerous, and if —"

"Crap. Wait. Okay. There's … it's useless, but it's something. You'll have to give me a ten-count."

His tone worried her. "What —"

"Say when." He left no room for discussion.

She pressed herself as flat as she could against the wall, on the hinge side of the door, moving one hand as far as she could reach toward the lock while still keeping it in contact with the wall. She prepared herself and then said, "Ready … now."

She began to count to ten. On three, Rodney drew a deep breath and then her earpiece produced only a muffled silence. She couldn't stop now, so she just continued counting. When she reached ten, she hurled energy along the wall and into the weakened points of the lock.

The door slammed open, very nearly catching her fingers before she could snatch them back as it bounced off the wall. A wave of frigid water cascaded through the opening and swept into the hall, swirling up as high as her knees before draining away down the corridor.

She hurried into the room as soon as she dared move. Rodney lay flat on the floor, face-down, arms extended away from the door. She rushed to his side, worried to see that he was not moving.

He had not exaggerated anything about the room. Droplets of water wept down the walls, some from within six or seven inches of the ceiling. There was nothing at all to hold onto except a few strange seams running across the floor, not even half an inch tall. The tips of his fingers were locked on one of those seams.

"You can let go now," she told him gently, but she had to help him release his hold. His fingers were stiff and cramped, his skin like ice.

Once she had helped him up as far as his hands and knees, he started coughing wretchedly. "Tell Ronon," he gasped, "his element … sucks."

Teyla reached up and shut off her earpiece, disoriented by doubling of his voice. She hadn't even considered the question, but her equipment manager was a Fire, so of course everything was waterproof or at least water-resistant. "We will tell him together," she assured him. And then she started laughing, because they would. They would, together, because she had found him in time.

He squinted up at her. "What …?"

She helped him sit up properly. "Nothing. I am only pleased to see you." He looked terrible, soaking wet, hair plastered down, a nasty wound on his temple that was starting to bleed sluggishly. He looked terrible and wonderful.

The only thing she could think to use was the sachet for her secondary talismans, so she moved the feather and vial to her pocket and then pressed the cloth pouch lightly to his wound. He started to flinch away but she held him still, guiding his hand up to take over. He would know best how much pressure he could bear.

He was frowning dazedly. "How did you … I thought I felt Firework?"

"Yes, I used fire to stop the water."

"But how … I mean, you only had two secondary talismans." He gestured with his free hand toward her pocket.

"I use a firelighter." It seemed strange he wouldn't know that, but he usually took care of Firework when they were together, so perhaps it made sense.

He still looked confused. "Why would you have a firelighter? You don't need one."

She could in fact manage the minor Firework the lighters were commonly used for, but that was not the point. "You gave it to me, and it is an effective talisman for more complex tasks. Do you not remember?" She lifted his chin to check his eyes, which were not focusing quite properly.

He pulled away from her. "Of course I remember. You kept that?" He sounded far more puzzled than the question warranted.

"Of course I kept it. What did you think I would do with it?"

"Toss it in a drawer? People usually do." He looked … not even resigned, but merely as if he were mentioning a scientific fact.

"No. It was a gift from you, and I'm very happy I had it with me today."

"Oh. Right. Me too. And I'm sorry I, you know, doubted you." He reached over to give her a hesitant pat on the shoulder and added somberly, "But there is in fact more earth than sea."

If he was quoting Earth/Water balance songs to her, she was definitely concerned about his mental state. His eyes still looked unfocused as well, and he must have been running on adrenaline, which would now be rapidly fading. She helped him to stand. "I would like to leave this building," she suggested, slipping an arm around his waist to help his balance. Chill water promptly started to seep through her sleeve.

"Yes, excellent idea." He moved with her willingly.

She gave herself a moment to remember the course and then led him to the room with the loading dock, watching carefully in case anyone awaited them. Rodney was remarkably pliant the entire way, but he tried to draw back when he noticed the room. "No, no, I don't —"

"We can get outside more quickly here," she pointed out, urging him forward. "I would prefer not to make our entire way back within this building."

He made a face but stopped resisting her. They got all the way out onto the loading dock before they stopped again, and this time it was Teyla who stopped them.

A ramp sloped down from the asphalt towards the base of the loading dock, to accommodate the wheels of trucks and allow their cargos to be level with the dock itself. At the base of the ramp, nestled up against the dock, lay Malcolm Tunney, snoring gently.

{—}

Rodney appreciated the break, but he would really have preferred for someone to be doing something to make him feel better. Teyla had gotten him to sit on the few steps from the loading dock to the ground and stood next to him, her back to the wall, talking to someone on her cell phone. She watched all the nothing around them sharply, her other hand resting on her sticks. He could admit the whole being-guarded thing wasn't so bad, but the sunlight did nothing to warm him and the glare made his head hurt even worse. It might not be summer yet, but it wasn't winter or night, so shouldn't a desert be warmer?

Teyla finally finished talking to whoever it was and returned her attention to him. The next thing he knew, she was easing his jacket off of him and wringing it out, the droplets of water spattering off the sun-heated pavement and spangling light in all directions. She set that aside and knelt to try to wick some of the water off of him, but water was only secondary for her and she kept trying to watch everywhere all at once, so she only managed to get him from sopping to normally wet. Not that wet was normal. At least air was opposite for her, so he wouldn't have to worry that she was going to try to blow-dry him next or anything.

A sound had her snapping upright, but she was already relaxing — a little — by the time he worked out it was tires on pavement and a near-idling diesel engine. It was an ambulance, and it was about time.

But Teyla shifted to stand between him and the … EMTs or paramedics or whatever they were. Ambulance people. "The man there. He may be injured, or possibly drugged. Please assist him."

Rodney started to protest, because he was pretty sure he ought to get the ambulance people first, but she just reached back to put a quieting hand on his shoulder without turning. "I will take care of my partner," she said.

Then she was coaxing him to stand and walk for approximately forever. They had moved around to the front side of the building and were almost halfway down its length before he realized she was breaking almost every guideline ever, including her own for the Wheelhouse. "We're supposed to use the ambulance," he pointed out, because she was being really irresponsible, and that scared him.

"I know," she said. "But I do not intend to let you out of my sight, and I don't trust anyone else at the moment. It seems safest."

He couldn't exactly argue with that, so he decided to go with her instincts. That usually worked out best.

She guided him to her car and started to steer him in but then paused and tried the wicking again. It worked a little better this time, or maybe the extra air-drying time helped, and this time she got him to damp rather than outright wet. Which didn't explain why he was still so cold, as if the water had seeped down inside him and turned to ice.

Once she had finished, she did get him seated and belted in. She slipped off her shoes and walked a wider loop around to the driver's side, managing to cross bare ground for a few seconds with her bare feet, and she looked a little less strained as she sat behind the wheel and slipped the shoes back on.

She didn't start the car immediately, though. She just sat there like she was trying to detect something, and then she looked to him. "You said you still can feel workings? Does the car still feel normal to you?"

Wow, she could get paranoid. As a dedicated practitioner of paranoia himself, he was impressed. He closed his eyes to check, but the energy lines of the car felt normal, no diversions or additions. No pulled electrical components or car bombs or anything like that. He let her know. It wasn't a guarantee, but he was glad she had thought to check.

Once she started the engine, she even pulled the car slightly away and then paused to check for fluid leaks on the pavement, which wasn't something he really could have detected easily. Paranoid and thorough. Truly impressive.

Unfortunately, once she reached the road, she eased the car up to a speed that couldn't possibly be legal. He was already fighting nausea, because he didn't want to throw up at all and if he absolutely had to he would rather not do it in her car, but the speed and the landscape whipping past really did not help. He swallowed heavily, fixed his gaze on the glove box, and concentrated on keeping himself as still as possible.

It also didn't help that random lyrics kept drifting through his head, and his brain kept coming up with songs about highways and car crashes. Really didn't help. She was an excellent driver, he knew that — and no, he didn't need movie quotes either. Not helping at all.

She slowed down to something more reasonable once they got to an area that required turns and stops. Probably Palmdale again, and he was getting really sick of Palmdale. Somewhere in there they shifted from moving mostly west to mostly north, but he knew that strictly by feel, because he still didn't dare look up while they were moving.

Then they were parked and she was easing him out of the car. He muttered about being made to walk from the parking lot, but she was taking this whole not-letting-him-out-of-her-sight thing seriously. Inside, Teyla dealt with all the explanations. She gave fairly alarming answers to their questions about duration of unconsciousness, slurred speech, and altered mental status, and he would have protested, but he wasn't sure she was wrong, which was alarming in itself.

They were taken from the intake area to an examination … bay or alcove or whatever they called it, and the nurse made tutting noises as she took her various measurements. She arranged Rodney so he could lie back slightly and wandered off, and he drifted for a bit.

Except it wasn't really drifting, lost in air or — or water. It was more like being anchored, held secure, enveloped. That was Teyla, he gradually realized, grounding him again. Which had to be hell on her, with only unresponsive flooring to draw on.

She was humming softly, too. He recognized it as an evocation tune even if he didn't know the particular piece. It was probably called "Ode to a Well-Plowed Field" or something dull like that, since it had the unexciting, repetitive structure of a spring planting song. She surely meant it only to help her own summoning, but it helped him, too, because the predictable melody gave him a way to tune out the completely random musical snippets his brain was still trying to offer.

Evocation songs might help her, and her fingers pressed lightly to his bare wrist would as well, but that all just made working more effective, not necessarily easier. Earth energy was notoriously difficult to channel inside modern construction. He really should tell her to stop.

But he was a selfish man. He knew it; everyone knew it. He should tell her to stop, or just block the flow himself, for her sake, but it felt really good and he didn't.

Time passed. More medical people eventually came, poking and prodding and shining painfully bright lights at him, and he … just sort of went with it, hazy and unfocused.

They eventually decided they needed a CAT scan to be sure there was no permanent or major damage. That meant he and Teyla had to separate, but she had finally relaxed enough to be a little less possessive and she stayed for the half hour they had to wait for the scanner to be available anyway. She then went off to battle the dragons of paperwork while he was taken to be scanned.

No, dragons were fire myth. What was earth myth? Mudmen? No, that was movies. Trolls, maybe. Assuming trolls cared about paperwork. There would be reams of it, too, because he was assaulted while on a public safety contract, so there were all sorts of extra reports the trade insurance would need so they could try to rebill somebody else. Teyla had to deal with that sort of thing all the time and he never, ever wanted her job.

Shutting down the CAT scan was a total accident. It was just that his brain kept wandering off on tangents, and the sudden swirl of uncontrolled energy stirred panic deep in his gut and he was squelching it before he could even think about it.

The tech sighed deeply as she reset the trips. "Sir, we really, really don't want to sedate you …."

"Yes. Right. Sorry. Just … panicked. Claustrophobia." Which had nothing to do with anything, but it was the sort of explanation people thought they understood. "It won't happen again. Just … be quick."

The tech gave him a deeply skeptical look but went back to her controls. Rodney clenched his hands tight and made himself analyze the energy. It wasn't actually chaotic, so he just had to find the circuits and the circuit boards, track the patterns, see their logic.

He made it all the way through. Barely.

After that was yet more waiting. They eventually announced that he had a concussion — which was obvious — but nothing more serious. They gave him seven stitches, a bandage over them, and a prescription for Tylenol — Tylenol! — and discharged him.

{}

Rodney was not so worryingly quiet on the drive to the hotel as he had been before the hospital, but he was muted and plainly exhausted. Teyla brought his pack, jacket, and rod to his room for him. "I am to keep an eye on you until the morning," she said as he slumped into the room's only soft chair. "I can take your key and come back to check on you."

"What, and wake me up every hour to make sure I don't actually get any rest?"

"That is no longer the standard of care," she said easily, more reassured than annoyed by the mild sarcasm. "I would merely check that you seem well, and let you sleep if you are able to. I would knock first," she added. "Not so loudly as to wake you, only enough to alert you if you are awake."

"That's … sure. Fine." He ran a careful hand over his face wearily, looking rumpled and lost. "Thanks."

She longed to touch him again, to reassure herself, but his posture didn't invite the gesture, so she nodded to him and made herself retreat. She made sure to take his key and went to her own room. She draped her jacket carefully across the back of the stiff desk chair and set her talisman and sticks on the desk. Then she sat on the edge of the bed and buried her face in her hands, shaking to know what she had so nearly lost.

After several minutes she heard a soft knocking at the door. She straightened and carefully composed herself before going to answer.

She was surprised to see Rodney through the door's peephole, squirming and miserable. She opened the door, worried, and he hastily tried to look annoyed but fell short. "It's stupid," he said immediately. "I know it's stupid. It's just … I'm cold and I can't warm up and the fastest thing I can think of is a hot shower but the thought of standing under water again —"

"How can I help?" Teyla interrupted, not really wanting to think about that herself.

"It's just … if I knew you were there, maybe I wouldn't keep thinking the water is out to get me or anything inane like that. Just for a few minutes. I know it's annoying."

"I do not mind," she assured him. She collected the keys and let them both into his room, since he had accidentally locked himself out. Once they were both inside, she asked, "Do you want to take a change of clothing in with you, or will you want me to leave so that you can dress here?"

"Oh. That's … good point." He grabbed a few garments and went into the bathroom. By unspoken agreement, he left the door very slightly open rather than allowing it to latch. She had him pass the clothes he had been wearing out to her, and once she heard the water running — and overcame the chill the sound sent down her spine — she called the front desk to arrange for his clothes and jacket to be cleaned.

The hospital had found Rodney's temperature to be on the low end of normal, so they had not recommended anything particular in that respect. He had just looked so cold, though.

He might have wanted her to talk with him through the door, perhaps, but she decided on a different course. "Don't be alarmed," she called. "I'm going to try to warm the room." He would probably be able to detect the slight shift in energies from a working in any case, but he would most certainly notice if she used the talisman that had long since been attuned to him. It was far more suitable for the task than her firelighter, though, as she did not want to set the room on fire, merely warm it.

She knew she could simply have used the mechanical heating system, but it would flatten and dull the room's energies. Rodney never seemed to mind that effect much, but it bothered her to think of him wrapped in it. She turned off the ventilation system entirely, since its circulation would make her task harder.

It was convenient to call the alternate talismans secondaries, but they were in truth two secondaries and a tertiary, and hers was the feather, though she had to borrow Rodney's for that as well since hers was still in her jacket. Air was her weakest element, but it was a necessary component for what she sought to do.

She drew the rod swiftly, making sure to hold the silk tightly against it and stopping just short of pulling the sheath free entirely, instead using that same grip on one end of the rod. With her other hand she took hold of the other end, the feather tucked between her hand and the glass. She held the rod flat over the bed, as that area would most need to be warmed, though she would have to compensate for the natural tendency for the heated air to rise away and pull cooler air in.

As soon as she started channeling she heard a slight clatter as Rodney dropped something, but he made no further protest, so she winced but continued.

It was very difficult work, trying to manipulate what were for her a weak element and a far weaker one, but she did manage to warm the area to a comfortable point. Unfortunately she had to stop earlier than she had hoped, because the rod was starting to glow with heat in the middle of its length, and she feared damaging it — though that was unlikely — or burning herself.

Rodney emerged just as she was trying to determine what to do with the rod. The sheath would provide some small protection, whether she put the rod within or atop it, but the rod was hot enough that she feared it would still damage any surface she laid it upon. He looked at the talisman in her hands and suddenly flushed a bright red.

His talisman was a popular choice for Fireworkers. Unfortunately, it was also the subject of the crudest innuendo.

She carefully ignored that, for both their sakes. "Is it safe to put it away like this?" she asked instead.

He moved closer and put out his hand to take the talisman from her, avoiding her eyes. "Earthworkers," he said — not dismissively, to her surprise, only informationally. "You're used to working with fairly static energies. You need to use a stronger flow model for this. Through, not to." He released the heat into the air easily, and the glass swiftly returned to its normal state.

"Will you be able to rest now?" she asked as he slid the rod back into its sheath.

"Yes, it's fine. Look, thanks for …." He gestured aimlessly at the room. "Everything, I guess."

"Any time," she said firmly. She reminded him she would be returning in an hour to confirm he was well and returned to her own room.

Once there, she took a swift shower of her own — swifter than she had planned, in fact, as the experience proved just as unnerving as Rodney had found the prospect for himself. She had no plans to leave the hotel until the next morning at the very earliest, so she dressed in night clothes and then gathered her phone.

She called the desk again for a takeout recommendation first. Neither she nor Rodney had eaten since breakfast; she was quite hungry and Rodney never did well on an empty stomach, though he had complained of nausea earlier. She knew his tastes, and she could take his portion to him when she next checked on him. If he had managed to sleep, she would simply leave it for him, as he could warm it once he awakened.

Unless he couldn't. She was so accustomed to knowing that Rodney could reheat his own food easily, she automatically factored that into food decisions. If he had lost the ability to summon fire energy, though, or even no longer trusted his control ….

That was a question for another time. If need be, she could warm his food herself. Her more static approach would actually suit that application perfectly.

She ordered a full meal for herself as well as a few lighter options for Rodney. That required a long conversation about their soup — she wasn't sure Rodney could handle anything more solid at the moment, but they had all learned the hazards of casually ordering soup for Rodney the day Aiden had chosen a Greek restaurant.

Once the food was ordered, she called the Sheriff's Department, providing and obtaining information. There was quite a lot of ground to cover, but she broke off once the food arrived, promising to call back later.

Rodney did not answer her knock, so she eased quietly into the room and found he had managed to get to sleep. He had burrowed down under the covers, his mussed hair almost all that showed. She ghosted her hand over his injury, wishing elemental senses worked for medical analysis. She could tell that his energies were not agitated or greatly unbalanced, though, and he looked as well as she might expect, so she set his food on the nightstand and prepared to leave.

She hesitated at the door and then turned back. If she meant to take a break to eat, she might as well do so while keeping an eye on him.

She kept realizing at odd moments how very close he had come to dying, and though she knew that would eventually pass, it troubled her deeply. The void his absence would create in her life was far greater than she had realized. He was a Wheelmate and a dear friend, with far more loyalty and trust than she had ever expected from him.

She barely recognized the arrogant, condescending, bitter man she had first hired. He was still proud, of course, but his worst excesses were tempered by the warm nature he concealed from outsiders. He connected only cautiously, but he connected truly.

"I am honored by your trust," she said, not meaning to wake him, but willing to seize a moment in which he would not be driven into awkwardness by emotional honesty.

He did not rouse. After a few more minutes of consideration, she went back to her room only long enough to retrieve her cell phone and notes. If she could work with the Sheriff's Department quietly enough that she did not disturb him, she greatly preferred to have him under her observation.

She seriously considered one other call. At a word from her, John and Ronon would come immediately. She had no official reason to do so, though, beyond wanting her Wheel near, safely under her eye and drawing protectively around their injured member. That would comfort her greatly, and she suspected Rodney would also be reassured even if he would never say so, but several police agencies were now taking action. It would be only an indulgence. She was sorely tempted, but she did not call them.

She worked instead with the various agencies for several hours, speaking softly. A few times Rodney did stir, but that seemed to be from troubling dreams rather than her disruption. A touch to his shoulder or a few calming words settled him again, and even the sound of her voice as she spoke on the phone seemed to ease his sleep. Reassured, she settled in, determined to watch over him.

{}

Rodney woke not because of an alarm, and not because the cat had managed to forget where the food was again, but because his head wouldn't stop hurting. He blinked awake, promptly regretting opening his eyes as light stabbed its way through them. He groaned softly.

Movement caught his eye and he carefully moved his head to look. Teyla was nestled sideways in the puffy chair in the corner. That took him a minute, because normally his bedroom had neither a puffy chair nor a Teyla, but then he remembered the hotel, which explained half of that. Teyla's feet dangled over one side of the chair and her head was pillowed against the back. She looked strangely tiny like that.

As he watched she stirred again and then came awake. She smiled at him and shifted to sit normally. "I'm sorry. I did not mean to fall asleep. How are you feeling?"

"In pain," he answered, truthfully. But she looked sincerely worried at that, so he added, "Better than yesterday," because that was also true.

She stood, making a face as she did so, which made perfect sense considering how she'd slept. He wouldn't have been able to walk if he had tried that trick. But she just tied the tails of the oversized shirt she wore snugly across her midsection, baring a bit of abdomen above her sweatpants, and stretched.

Her movements in the morning light were mesmerizing, and he just watched dazedly as she brought her arms up high and then leaned to either side, muscles moving smoothly. He totally didn't get the shirt thing until she bent over to touch her toes and failed to flash him. She held that pose for about a minute, then wrapped her arms behind her legs to hug her thighs close, which presumably stretched something else.

She straightened, lifting her arms once more, and then noticed he was watching her, which he hadn't exactly intended to do but couldn't exactly deny. Instead of getting mad, though, or giving him the eyebrow and then ignoring him the way she probably would have done normally, she gave him a tiny smile, looking almost shy. Which she totally wasn't. Which … huh.

Or maybe that was just the concussion talking. He had tried when they had first met, because she was beautiful and amazing and he wasn't dead, but after her clearly expressed lack of interest and a few smacks upside the head from Sheppard, he had decided it was probably wise not to push. Not that he wouldn't say yes in a heartbeat if she was interested, but she wasn't. Right?

He needed a much clearer head to work that one out.

She brought a glass of water and the bottle of completely inadequate painkillers over. "It's been long enough that you can have another dose, if you like. Would you?"

"Do you have to ask?" He certainly didn't want to discourage anyone from looking after him, but it felt really weird to just lie there in front of her, so he risked sitting up. Which was not a pleasant experience, in retrospect, but it was too late now. He took the pills miserably.

She bustled around doing … something … while he sat on the edge of the bed and kept very still. He managed that for a couple of minutes, and the pain in his head did ease off as it adjusted to his new position, but sitting there was really insanely boring. He wondered if he wanted to risk using his laptop.

Teyla came back just as he was getting really restless. She ran a few checks, making sure he could follow her finger and all that. He put up with it because he was wholeheartedly in favor of making sure everything to do with his brain was working, but it was her clear relief when they finished that made it worthwhile.

"Do you think you can eat?" she asked.

"Yes," he said immediately. The idea only made his stomach squirm a little, and he was starving.

"Here, or do you think you could manage going out?"

He had to think about that one. Having food brought to him sounded appealing, but eating in a hotel room was always awkward, and something always came out wrong anyway and it was a lot harder to send it back. "Out, I think," he said. "Unless —"

"I would like to get outside," she answered.

That made perfect sense. Being cooped up in deadened versions of her element all the time must get awful sometimes. Like being trapped in — "Can we go now? Right now?"

"If you like. It might be wiser to change clothes first, but we can go as we are if you prefer."

"Oh. No, you're right." Deep breaths. Breathing was good.

"I don't mind if you cannot —"

"No, it's fine, really. There are windows, and I can go stand outside or something if I have to. I just … it just hit me for a minute. It's fine."

"If you are sure." She watched him seriously until he confirmed that before continuing, "I will be quick."

She used the room phone to call somebody before she left, and just after he had dressed, there was a knock on the door. He checked carefully before answering, but it was just some hotel employee with dry cleaning. It turned out Teyla had sent out all his clothes from the day before, and his jacket looked a little limp but was in surprisingly good shape. He hesitated but went ahead and pulled it on. He grabbed his pack, too, and his rod because he didn't want Teyla to yell at him, and then he went to wait outside her door because apparently this was going to be one of those days when his claustrophobia got twitchy.

He got the eyebrow when she emerged, but this was the questioning one, not the annoyed one. "Are you sure …?" she started, eyeing his jacket.

"I'm not up for any running around or lifting heavy objects, but I can still work. Besides, there will be people or paperwork or something, so it probably helps if I'm in uniform." Most people took assault on an Elementalist more seriously than they did assault on a genius. He was normally happy to disabuse them of that clearly mistaken set of priorities, but he suspected it would be wiser to avoid agitation today.

He had no idea how she always found these things, but she drove them to a quaint little diner that was filled with light and air and a surprisingly relaxed atmosphere. He wanted to order one of everything, but she persuaded him to start small, and that turned out to be a very good idea. He worked on dry toast as she filled him in on the investigation. Apparently the Sheriff's Department and the State Police were both now highly involved, which was only as it should be.

The toast settled his stomach enough for him to risk eggs. As he started on those, she said, "Because of the assault on you and on Malcolm Tunney, the building —"

"Oh, please, Tunney got a nap. How is that assault?" That didn't even belong in the same galaxy as nearly dying.

"Traces of a drug were found in his system. Legally, that is assault, since he claims he took nothing voluntarily. That helps the situation, actually. With both assaults, the entire property is now a crime scene. Between that and the waiver we obtained, the police are analyzing everything they can find to determine who else might have been there and whether there are any locations that this person might have taken the device."

"Why assume he stayed local? It would make the most sense to get that device as far away … well, no. We weren't there long, so whoever it was had to be nearby. Though, actually, since I posted that we were looking the night before, that's not really proof."

"No, unfortunately. But once we were out of the building, I notified the emergency dispatcher that the device had been removed from the building. They don't have perfect coverage, but they have been watching for suspicious vehicles, both within the county and through the CHP."

"How do they even know what to look for? We never saw a vehicle, and you didn't even see the device. Just the blueprints."

"No, but thanks to your description, they know the device resembles 'a hideous, nightmare fusion of a tractor, an SUV, and terrible, shoddy science, all in matte black'." Seeing his confusion, she frowned and added, "We discussed it yesterday at the hospital. Do you not remember?"

"No, it's all … fuzzy." The entire previous day was hazy. He had no idea what had really been said between them, what had only passed through his head, and what they had discussed but had disappeared completely from his mind. Between the Tylenol — which was still a travesty, by the way — and the food, his head felt much better, but that didn't make the previous day any clearer.

"I asked you to tell me what you remembered while we were waiting for the scanner, since I needed to know for the paperwork and to update the police. You were … remarkably descriptive. To be honest, I did not share with them your theory that you were attacked by one of the Nazgûl. I knew you meant only to suggest the same image, but I thought they might think you meant it literally and therefore discount your information."

"Oh. Right. That's … probably wise. I do remember something like a dark cape, but he — or she, they, whatever — was backlit. That's probably why. I actually thought it was Tunney at first."

"That is not impossible, but the police think it most likely he was drugged before you were attacked. As for the vehicle … yes, if a container truck was used, they would have no way to find it, but they are still keeping watch on open trailers. There is also the simple fact of the building. Why was that building chosen precisely? It may simply have been available, but Malcolm Tunney was brought here; the backer did not come to him. We must therefore consider the possibility that this area was chosen purposely, and if it was, the device is likely still nearby."

"We need a map." Rodney pulled out his laptop and found a wireless signal he could hijack. It was weak, but he only needed to access terrain maps, so he could live with the slower speed.

As that was connecting, Teyla sipped at her tea and then made the face that meant it had turned lukewarm. He snapped his fingers to get her attention and put his hand out, but she just looked at him blankly as if he didn't do this for her practically every week, so he rolled his eyes — or started to, at least, except ow, so it wasn't up to his usual standards — and reached across to take the tea and her fork.

She gave him a really strange look at that, but she had just been drinking the tea with that same food, so any crumbs shouldn't exactly be a hardship and the tines would distribute heat much more effectively than the flat surface of the spoon. He had to stir a little longer than usual, and the task took a little more concentration than it really deserved even with the substitution of the fork, but he soon had the temperature back up where she preferred it.

She accepted the cup and the fork back, still looking at him oddly. Then she actually checked the temperature with the tip of a finger, which was just insulting. It took him a few seconds to put it together, and that was depressing, but he did have an excuse for being a little distracted. "Oh, please. I'm not broken. I was concussed and freezing and soaking wet yesterday. Of course I kept trying, because hello, rapidly impending death, but really, I would have been more surprised if I had managed to channel anything. I'm fine. At least as far as that's concerned," he added, because there was no need to be hasty about encouraging her to forget his physical injuries.

"So you would say you are able to channel at full capacity?"

It wasn't a completely unreasonable question, but she asked it in a weirdly stilted way that he didn't get at all. "Yes," he said, because he was close enough.

"I would … like to spend some time with you in the practice grounds when we are home," she said. "To … be sure you are well."

"If you say so," he said, because he couldn't blame her for being cautious and he certainly didn't mind people wanting to be sure he was okay, so it was a perfectly reasonable request — except for the stiff way she asked it and the way she wouldn't quite meet his eyes.

He had the nagging suspicion they were talking about different things. He got that a lot with women, actually, but that was other women, not Teyla. That was a big part of why he liked her.

"It doesn't work like that, though," he pointed out, taking refuge in facts. "This isn't the movies. You don't get hit on the head and tidily forget your past, then bonk you're suddenly an Air, then bonk now you're Water …."

She winced, as well she should, because that had probably been the worst movie ever made. Rodney had never met an Elementalist who wasn't either annoyed or outright offended by it. Well, Sheppard maybe, who would chuckle at anything just to see Rodney turn red — but Rodney hadn't seen him manage to sit all the way through a single one of the Air sequences, either. If they ran across it channel-surfing, he stuck around just long enough for the fire-breathing idiocy and then just happened to remember some football game on another channel. Rodney hadn't even had a particular opinion on Jim Carrey or the Farrelly Brothers before One Man Wheel, but really, that was enough of a travesty to justify a lifelong grudge.

Head injuries didn't actually do any of the inane things popular stories supposed, but apparently they could make the human brain distract itself with popular culture flotsam. Stupid movies today, useless fragments of pop songs before that — and he wasn't sure he could ever forgive his brain for offering up "Eternal Flame" at a critical moment. Those lyrics were most emphatically not what he wanted his last thoughts to be.

And fantastic, now that song was going to be stuck in his head all day. Again.

He turned resolutely back to his laptop and the terrain map of the county. "Mountains, fault lines — right, not all that far from the Mexican arm of the Pacific Ring of Fire … wild mix of climates, water tension lines between ocean and dry interior, air tension lines nearby because of the smog basin … really, I'm not sure you could pick a worse place for something like that. Not that there's actually any such thing as a good place for that kind of —"

"What if that is the point?"

He had no idea what that was supposed to mean, so he just gave her a blank look. "The point?"

"This backer hired a man with no training in elemental theory, one who was nonetheless trying to build an elemental manipulator. He then provided patently false information, and he ensured it would be built in a location that is particularly sensitive to imbalance."

"You think this is an End-Timer?" It made a horrible sort of sense.

"Or some form of catastrophe seeker. If that is the case, the device would almost certainly still be nearby."

It fit. One reason the device merited such a high hazard rating was its resonance design — which Rodney could admit, if only to himself, was almost elegantly rendered. In a properly designed device, that would have been the correct approach, propagating energy efficiently. Because the device lacked the necessary safeguards and all the additional aspects it would have needed to balance its effects, though, that resonance would swiftly produce an exponential decay of the affected range.

Teyla had joked offhand about California being sheared off into the sea, but left long enough, this device might well manage that.

She called in to make sure the Sheriff's Department was aware of their suspicions. Rodney found himself regretting the darkened mood. They had been sharing a quiet, leisurely breakfast, even if they had been working through it, and he had actually been enjoying himself. Just his luck — one nice meal, and suddenly they were at the brink of Apocalypse.

"I have another reason to think this person might be nearby," Teyla said once she was done with her call. "Whether Tunney was a deliberate participant or not, we were lured. That room was no accident. It was specifically designed to trap someone."

And there went Rodney's appetite. Lovely.

"Much work was done on that building since the last set of plans left for easy access. Whoever directed those changes, and in particular that room, must have been involved. That could have been done remotely, but in that case there would be records that have not yet been found. I know this is not proof, but the work that room required suggests to me that this person wants to protect this location. If it were only for the device, it would make sense to focus on portability, not on traps."

Her use of the plural sparked an unpleasant thought. "Was there only one room, dangerous enough to trap anyone, but especially effective against Fires because we're the most common theorists, so a Fire was the most likely to inspect the device? Or were there multiple rooms? I mean, for a Water, you can build around a furnace — that's a lot easier than making a room watertight." He winced to even suggest that, because Ronon might be a jerk but that was just wrong. "For an Air … well …."

"Silt, perhaps," Teyla said, looking queasy herself. "A similar room design, but with no need to make it watertight. A fine enough grade, it would flow nearly as well as water."

"Harder to find something against an Earth, though," he said, aiming for reassuring. "What do you build around air? Death by bouncy castle?"

"Suffocation," she said quietly. "If I were injured, I would have particular difficulty ensuring the room had enough oxygen, especially if some other gas were piped in."

Rodney wished he hadn't said anything, wished he hadn't even eaten, because now he had vivid images of each member of his Wheel being killed horribly, and Teyla looked as if she were getting the same mental movie.

They both jumped when her phone rang.

She answered quickly, looking grateful for the interruption. Within seconds she was grabbing for a pen and scribbling something down, gesturing between word clusters for him to stand. He packed up his laptop and, after a moment's hesitation, went ahead and left enough money on the table to cover their meal. She probably wouldn't give him a hard time about needing a receipt.

They headed for her car, and they had almost reached it by the time she hung up. "The state police helicopter has spotted something they think may be the device, in the middle of a field at an abandoned farm. There is a person at the device, but they cannot get a clear image, because the person is wearing a hooded jacket."

A flare of bright light flashed through Rodney's mind, a dark figure against it, arm upraised. A hood didn't automatically mean a cloak, but his brain had only had a fraction of a second to make an association, so: Nazgûl.

They piled into the car and Teyla did her speed demon thing again. Rodney was now officially sick of the desert, but with any luck at all, he shouldn't have to look at it much longer.

Then he realized he was counting on luck.

This was going to end badly.

They had been driving for about fifteen minutes when a wave of wrongness swept through them. Teyla had to clutch the wheel tightly to retain control, and Rodney was left swallowing desperately against the sheer revulsion.

The machine had been started.

Teyla sped up even further, and Rodney said absolutely nothing about it. They had no time.

Three minutes later Teyla had to slam on the brakes. A dusty, decrepit old farm lay before them, long abandoned, all broken-down wooden fences and rusting machinery and probably tumbleweeds somewhere … but a chain-link fence stretched off far to either side. The fence enclosed several acres, with no opening apparent except the extravagantly padlocked gate blocking the car. The fence did not have the shine of the brand-new, but it was not especially old.

It was the work of a minute for Teyla to loosen the ground under a near stretch for them to both pass underneath, but that minute cost them. Already the temperature near them was dropping, and the elements were skewing badly out of balance.

That imbalance was invisible to the naked eye, and the farm still looked undisturbed. That was, in a sense, the problem. If only a dust storm could kick up, sinkholes open, humidity wrench itself from the air to coat every surface in a false dew, something, the pressure would ease — not enough, but it would ease. Without a conscious, directing mind channeling and balancing the heat energy properly, though, the tension would strain and warp the local energy field until something gave, probably miles away.

And based on the blueprints, even that failure wouldn't be enough. The strain would double back on itself, relieved only fractionally by failures and fractures. It would continue to build, exponentially, causing greater and greater failures further and further away.

To the eye, the farm was still, even the dust on the various scattered machines and vehicles undisturbed. To the ear, the farm had that peculiar quiet of the desert. To Elemental senses, the farm was flaring brightly, screaming.

They first moved only away from the fence, not yet sure where the device was. Once they had gotten several meters within the fence, Rodney was able to see the device, which had been blocked from the road by one of the decaying buildings. It was far across the field.

Too far.

Teyla stopped and then turned to him. "We cannot get to it before it has done far too much damage. Rodney, I am sorry, but we have no choice. You must."

He had no idea what she meant at first. Then he realized that their only option was to destroy the device from afar, and dread flooded through him. No. Not this. "No. No, we can still disable it."

"We cannot," Teyla repeated. He turned and tried to head for the machine himself, but she yanked him back. "We cannot. The distance —"

"So we run. Let's go. We're wasting —"

"You are not fast enough. We are not," she amended, before he could take offense. Her voice started rising, trying to compensate for the silent cacophony battering them. "How much damage will it cause in the time it takes us to reach it? And do you truly believe he will not attempt to hinder us? What if he is not alone? What if he, or they, are armed? My sticks may not be enough. There may even be traps between here and there. Can you be certain we can get to the device at all? How much more damage will it cause as we try? How much further time will you need to determine how to shut it down?"

"I'll figure it out!" he insisted. "Tunney's an idiot, it can't be that —"

"Stop this," she demanded. "We do not have time. We must strike from here. You know that. "

"I can't," he admitted. Not like this. "I can't."

Her expression was filled with pity and sympathy and absolute conviction. "I will do everything I can, but I cannot do this alone. You must do as much as you can."

That was a really weird way to put it, but she had no idea, and he couldn't tell her. Not normally, and not in time now.

But … she was right. It was the only way they could be sure to stop the machine without risking too much damage, too many lives.

"Go," he begged her. "Please."

And she completely misunderstood, kneeling to prepare the earth, whipping out her hand-spade and scrawling arcane designs in the dust, tickling electrons by pantomime. But he needed her to leave, to get as far away as possible, as fast as she could, and that wouldn't be enough.

But he needed her here to do this at all, because he couldn't call this alone. Not in calm weather.

He felt the earth beneath him shifting alignment, obeying her instruction, patterning in defiance of the waves of imbalance washing over them.

Teyla looked up at him. "Quickly!"

He reached down and yanked her up, clutching her as tightly against him as he could, trying to fold around her, trying to offer some of his protection.

It wouldn't be enough. He knew it wouldn't, but he had to try, because he couldn't go through this again. He knew exactly how it would turn out, and he knew it would destroy him.

And he had no choice. And no time.

He wrapped himself around her as a shield, drew his rod, and called the lightning.

{}

Teyla blinked dazedly up at the sky.

"Ow." Rodney's voice came from somewhere to her left. She had shifted to Airwork in time to wedge away the worst of the shock wave, but Air was her weakest element even with time to prepare, and they had been knocked apart by the remaining force. "Ow. Seriously, worker's comp— Teyla?"

With an urgent scrabbling of gravel and dust, he was upon her, terror in his wide eyes and panic in his voice. "Teyla. Oh, please, please, Teyla, please …." His fingers were frantic on her jaw, across her scalp, along her cheekbones.

Realization struck her almost as powerfully as the effects of the lightning had.

She blinked again. "Rodney." She cleared her throat and tried again. "Rodney, I am unhurt."

His hands did not still, even when she carefully and stiffly sat up. They explored further, checking briskly along her arms and her sides for injuries, but quickly returned to her head. Because of course the problem had never been that Rodney — Dr. Rodney McKay — had lost his confidence. And oh, if only she had thought of it in those terms even once before, she would have realized her mistake.

For all his words, there was so much he kept to himself, so many important things left unsaid.

"I am not hurt," she repeated, but the fear in his expression did not lessen, nor the explorations of his trembling fingers. She took hold of his head — gently — and pressed their foreheads together, trying to ground him. "Rodney, what happened to Aiden was not your fault."

He flinched badly, but she did not release him.

"No," he said finally, hoarsely, after several seconds of harsh breathing. "No, of course not. It's not as if lightning has anything to do with my element. Oh, wait." The loathing behind his words made something twist painfully within her chest.

"It is not your fault. The energies within that storm were vast. We were overmatched. We lost control." Aiden's face, one side blackened and burned, his eye — she swallowed. "We all bear responsibility for that, but it is a risk of the work we do. Aiden knew that, and he accepted the risk just as we all still do. He was proud to work with us. What happened was no one's fault, and most certainly not yours."

"No, I —" He tried to shake his head but swiftly abandoned the attempt, though she still held him against her only lightly now. "I should have controlled it. I should have —"

"You could not." She drew back slightly to try to catch his eye. "You cannot tell me I don't know, because I was there. No one could have contained those energies. Not even you," she added, letting just a hint of teasing lighten her sincerity.

For a moment she thought she had persuaded him, but his eyes met hers only briefly before glancing away again. "Tell Sheppard that," he muttered.

"He knows." She tried to turn his face back to her, but he resisted. "He knows. He lashed out because he was upset. He blamed himself far more than he ever did either of us, and he … oh. He never told you, did he?"

She knew the distance between John and Rodney had started when they lost Aiden, but she thought it continued because of Ronon. She should have known better. She'd had her own grief to ride out, but she had honestly thought they had resolved any discord over the disaster. She should have remembered that John and Rodney, as much as she loved them, were hopeless at communicating anything that had to do with emotions.

John almost certainly had no idea his reckless accusations had taken such root, either. Rodney seemed so impervious to criticism. He only took to heart what he already believed. And since both she and John quickly accepted that no one was to blame, they had taken for granted that Rodney already knew the same.

"John does not blame you," she said gently. "I promise you he does not. He never truly did. We all wanted to find someone or something to blame, and we all felt guilt, because Aiden was ours and we missed him. We miss him."

Finally, finally, he looked at her, pleading and lost, wanting to believe.

"It is not your fault," she said.

She had him. She did. But then his gaze shifted to where the infernal machine had sat, and the tiny spark that had returned to his eyes flickered and died. "Let's go see who else I killed," he said flatly, moving away before she could speak again.

But they found no one.

They circled the sagging, smoking machine, but no one was there. Rodney searched the machine itself with growing confusion, checking every side, opening panels Teyla hadn't noticed but which couldn't possibly contain a person. The individual they had seen was nowhere to be found, alive or dead.

Teyla squatted down to put her hands flat on the ground and closed her eyes, concentrating, seeking … yes. There. Once she knew where to look, she could see the faint marks of shoes in a running pattern. Those led to a greater disturbance.

She called Rodney over and he joined her, frowning. "I know you're not going to tell me I vaporized him. I'm certain I didn't call enough energy for that."

"No." She knelt, keeping carefully to the side of the marks in the scrubby ground, and he squatted down awkwardly to join her. "Someone … he fell here. Ah, yes, the blast knocked him down as well. And then …." She straightened a bit to point. "He continued in that direction. One of the ATVs was that way … I did not think they were functional, but that must be how he left."

"Alive?"

Teyla gave him a startled look, since that would seem to be obvious, but said only, "Yes."

He sat abruptly on the ground.

By the time she reached him, he had his head down on his knees. She didn't think he was crying, but he was breathing unsteadily in great heaving gulps. He didn't reach for her, but when she took his hand, he held on tightly.

{}

"It just seems wrong."

Teyla didn't pause in her conversation with the hotel person, just giving Rodney a brief tolerant smile. He shifted his weight again. The second he put down his bag, she would be finished, and he was trying to keep bending-over incidents to a minimum until his head agreed to stop throbbing at anything less than perfectly vertical.

Teyla had just looked amused when he had suggested she should carry at least one of his bags, considering he had been wounded working for her. She could at least try not to dawdle so much over getting them checked out. What was so complicated about saying, "Hey, we're leaving, here's our payment"?

She finally finished, so he tried again as they headed to her car. "It seems —"

"Yes, I know. But there is nothing more we can do here. We have stopped the experiments, destroyed the machine, and made the earth damage safe. Dr. Tunney —" Rodney snorted at the honorific but she didn't pause "— will help the Sheriff's Department in their attempts to find his former employer. And we have notified the other Wheels what to look for if this man attempts to resume his experiments."

"And I'm putting out word on the research lists, yes, since he seems to like to hire people with at least a fraction of a clue. It just feels like we aren't finishing the contract somehow." Specifically, Rodney had no opportunity to face down whoever had struck him upon the head. He wanted to explain exactly how devastating the cost to society would have been if Rodney — and in particular his brain — weren't so resilient.

"Yet the deputy has certified that we have finished the contract," Teyla said, unconcerned. But then she darkened. "And he promised me that we will be notified when this person is found."

Rodney put a few more inches between them, because he was man enough to admit Teyla kind of scared the crap out of him when she was angry. She reached over and drew him back, though, her moment of being terrifying already past.

"What remains is police work," she concluded. "And we are not police. They are better suited to what remains, and we have our own work to pursue."

He wasn't entirely sure why he was protesting, to be perfectly honest. He didn't like leaving things incomplete, but he wanted to be home, with his real bed and his cat and the rest of his Wheel.

Teyla hadn't pushed him to talk about Aiden, at least. He was surprised, but he certainly wasn't going to mention that. He needed time to adjust. He could talk about it later. Much later. Preferably never.

Then again, they had several hours of driving ahead of them. Maybe Teyla was just waiting until she had him alone and trapped. He eyed the car warily as she opened the trunk.

"You will need a few days of rest," she said as she placed her duffel and then his into the trunk. "Proper rest this time. None of your tinkering. But if you are so eager for more work, perhaps Mr. Caldwell will have another contract besides the one he has awaiting me. He has suggested one of his clients wants a working hot spring."

A hot spring? That was — okay, first, that was just the sort of idiotic "feature" Caldwell would promise someone, but that didn't mean they should encourage that sort of thing. And worse, it would mean pairing with Ronon, and okay, Rodney was willing to make some effort, but she couldn't possibly be serious, could she? A full Wheel was one thing, but expecting him to pair up with a man who kept assaulting him with water pistols — but no, she wasn't serious. She was smiling at him impishly, because she was teasing him.

He snapped his fingers without even thinking about it. She jumped slightly, startled, though he had automatically zinged her on the arm rather than anywhere that might get him slapped. No more head injuries, thank you very much. But then she looked pleased for some insane reason, giving him a gentler smile as she moved past to head for the front of the car.

And then she closed her door and started the engine. He hurried to his own side of the car. She couldn't really shift the rigid, inert concrete under his shoes, not without a hell of a lot of work, but she could easily just leave him there.

She gave him plenty of time to get in and settle himself before pulling out. Traffic promised to be annoying again, but they were at least moving, each minute bringing them closer to home.

He knew that if he wanted to avoid any unnecessarily personal conversations, he would have to find something else to talk about or bury himself deeply enough in work to avoid talking entirely. He scoured his brain for conversational topics first, because while he didn't normally get carsick from using his laptop, he wasn't normally post-concussive, either.

He predictably came up with nothing, so he reached for his laptop, but Teyla struck before he even had the pack open. "So. Rodney."

He froze and then withdrew his hand carefully. "Yes?" Maybe it wouldn't be about Aiden. Maybe it would be about work. Or his research. Or his cat — yes, he could talk about his cat. Or —

"What is this about a sister?"

{end}

Epilogue (added 31 May 2010)
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