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02 April 2010 @ 01:46 am
SGA Fic: Damper, for astridv (Sticks & Snark 2010)  
Title: Damper || Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Recipient: astridv, for Sticks & Snark
Author: 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. 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 [dreamwidth.org profile] dread_pirate, who knows SGA only from what I've told her and is surely very confused by now; in-fandom beta by greyias and frith_in_thorns; locale review/advice by valleya and the fine folks at drop_the_u. My devoted thanks to all. Remaining mistakes are of course my own.
Archives: Single page at Dreamwidth | Chaptered at AO3

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.

{}

Part 2