Recipient: astridv, for Sticks & Snark
(Other headers at Part 1.)
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.
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."
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?"
Epilogue (added 31 May 2010)