The thing with Ronon's hair was totally, absolutely an accident. And it was his own fault anyway.
Elementalists didn't, as a rule, summon as a panic reflex. Summoning usually required a degree of focus, and calling elemental forces in an unfocused, knee-jerk reaction didn't tend to correlate with surviving long enough to reproduce much. The panic reflex was typically suppressive, and that natural tendency was reinforced by training.
But those were just general guidelines.
Teyla had strange ideas about rest. Rodney wasn't allowed to lose himself in some nice, soothing tinkering, but he did have to get all his tedious paperwork and reports for their investigation filled out. That meant he was in the 'house when Sheppard and Ronon got back from their assignment.
Of course, the first he knew of their return was Ronon's voice saying, "Hey, McKay," and then, seconds later, a face full of water. And he was slipping under again, straining, desperate to summon anything —
Then Teyla was there, snapping his working the way he hadn't needed since he was an apprentice. Sheppard had a bubble of oxygen-depleted air around Ronon, who was holding his breath. Ronon had wrenched humidity from the air, too, so he looked as if he had dunked his head in a bucket. A mixture of steam and smoke wisped upward from his hair.
"What the hell, McKay?" Sheppard demanded, releasing the bubble.
"Are you all right?" Teyla asked Rodney as she tried to loosen his death grip on Chuck's desk.
Chuck poked his head up, gopher-like, from underneath the other side of his desk as Sheppard exclaimed, "Is he all right?!"
Rodney nodded shakily. "Yes. Sorry. It was just —"
"I know. I understand what happened, and you do have an excuse." Her voice steeled. "However. Do what you must, but regain your control. That kind of slip is unacceptable. I do not want to see it happen again."
Rodney was too torn between indignation and shame to manage a coherent reply, so he just nodded again. She was right.
Teyla turned. "Ronon, are you hurt?"
"Nah. I'm fine." He held the singed end of one of his dreadlocks out for inspection and scowled, adding sourly, "I guess."
"Good. I am glad. And if you ever use that water pistol against another member of this 'house again, I will melt it down myself." Ronon promptly reholstered the toy and kept a protective hand on it.
Teyla turned next to Sheppard, who hastily raised his hands. "Hey, I'm just an unfortunate bystander here."
"You are. You are also many months overdue with an apology to Rodney. Remedy that." She shifted so that she was glaring at all three of them equally. "You are all supposed to be adults. Start acting like it."
She marched into her office, slamming the door.
Sheppard frowned. "Apology?"
Rodney cursed Teyla's fetish for having things talked about all the time. "Never mind. It's nothing. She already told me you didn't really mean it."
"Didn't mean what?" Sheppard asked suspiciously.
"You know." Hell, maybe Sheppard was right. Maybe Rodney's alignment was a lot closer to air than he thought, because he usually didn't have anything like this kind of difficulty forcing words out. "That whole thing with … with Aiden, and the storm." He hated being so vague, but he really had no interest in going back through each one of Sheppard's furious accusations.
"Thing," Sheppard repeated, not getting it. "What … oh." He ran his hands through his hair, making it look even more startled than usual. "Shit. McKay … Rodney … I never —"
He looked genuinely upset, and okay, it wasn't that Rodney hadn't believed Teyla, but it had always been possible that she had just wanted to be right. That Sheppard really had thought Rodney's inability to corral the lightning had been incompetence, or negligence, or arrogance, or egotism, or some bizarre kind of jealousy that Sheppard and Ford had been friends before they'd even met Teyla, much less him. But Rodney was pretty sure Sheppard couldn't look that sorry and not really mean it at least a little, not without time to prepare.
He shouldn't be surprised by now that Teyla would be able to figure these things out.
Then again, she had left them to deal with this, and he had no clue what he was supposed to do now. The only things he could think to say would probably sound sarcastic. And Sheppard certainly wasn't going to know what to say to break the ever more awkward silence —
"You're both dumbasses," Ronon said.
Rodney glared to hide his relief at the diversion. "Oh, yes, thank you, Dirty Harry. Where would we ever be without your stellar insights?"
Ronon shrugged. "I'm just saying. You are." He frowned, peering more closely at Rodney, and then spoke right over Chuck's mutterings and throat-clearings. "What happened to you?"
Rodney knew he was sporting the oh-so-stylish "battered raccoon" look. "Oh, you know, the usual," he said, striving to sound casual. "We went out on what should have been an easy contract and somebody tried to kill me."
"Tried to kill you?" Sheppard repeated, his eyebrows climbing. "What, did they play keep-away with your coffee and make you trip into a wall or something?"
Rodney crossed his arms and scowled. "More like gave me a concussion with a wrench, locked me in a watertight room, and tried to drown me, so you're only, oh, completely wrong. But you went to a partial-credit kind of school, didn't you? So maybe that's close enough for you."
Sheppard went back to looking startled and apologetic, but it was Ronon who managed to speak first. "Hey." He looked sheepish, of all things, and maybe a little horrified. "I didn't know. Sorry."
Rodney was probably supposed to wave it off and say it was fine, but no one had ever accused him of being the better man. He meant to snap, or rage, or otherwise take the offensive, but to his own surprise he managed only a plaintive, "Would you please stop shooting me with that thing?"
Ronon shrugged. "Sure."
Rodney needed several seconds to process that. "It cannot possibly be that easy."
"Because I've been asking you that for the past six months and you've never listened before, that's why not!"
The corners of Ronon's mouth were twitching. "You never actually asked before," he claimed, which was an outrageous lie if Rodney had ever heard one.
He opened his mouth again, but Sheppard beat him to it, smacking Ronon on the arm. "You know you're kind of a jerk, right?" he said, and Rodney could only point to emphasize the absolute accuracy of that evaluation. Ronon just continued to look amused.
Chuck cleared his throat really loudly.
"Do you need a lozenge or something?" Rodney snapped. "You're not contagious, are you? Because if you are, you can just walk right out the door. Right after you sanitize every single thing you've touched."
Chuck just regarded him blandly. "She's upset."
Rodney had forgotten about Teyla a little. "Oh, yes, that is a remarkably accurate observation. I'm sorry, are we keeping you from your real calling as the poster child for Maritime Province education?"
"You guys upset her. You need to fix it." He held out some kind of pamphlet.
Rodney ignored it. "Yes? And who appointed you the social monitor here?"
Chuck gave him an innocent smile. "You know, I think maybe we missed a couple of forms you need to update."
Rodney narrowed his eyes. Teyla had made him update all his employment paperwork, claiming that the "no next of kin" thing was actually borderline fraud or some such nonsense, and that had taken a good quarter of his paperwork time so far. That had all gone through Chuck, but surely he wasn't actually threatening anything. He wouldn't dare.
Chuck glanced pointedly over at Sheppard and Ronon, though, and then smiled at Rodney again, confirming he totally was threatening to spill. Rodney did not need that conversation today, so he snatched away the pamphlet, which turned out to be some kind of menu. "Canadian solidarity my ass," he muttered. "What the hell is this supposed to be?"
"She likes the things I've marked. They don't take credit and they don't deliver. Have fun. And don't even think about trying to bill the 'house."
Rodney would have provided his exact opinion of pathetic faux-blackmail schemes, but Sheppard and Ronon each grabbed one of his arms and they hauled him off to the kitchen. They gave him a few seconds to finish sputtering and then examined the menu, which seemed to be for some kind of bakery that was miles away.
If Chuck meant the whole thing to be some kind of secret re-bonding exercise, it failed. Sheppard frowned at Rodney's injured head and said he and Ronon would take care of it. "You'd probably just hit your head again on the car door or something," he said, smirking, but Rodney got the distinct impression he really was a little worried, which was just odd.
Sheppard quenched any warm feelings over that, though, by demanding that Rodney hand over "his share" of cash, pointing to the frankly ludicrous prices in the menu as justification.
Rodney protested in general, because it was expected, but he wasn't unhappy about the plan. He really had no interest in driving around with the rough-and-tumble pair, relegated to the back seat by virtue of the fact that they could both muscle him out of their way. Handing over some cash, letting the two of them work off some energy by running around on errands, and staying behind himself in the nice, relaxed 'house all sounded like a great scheme to him.
He went back to his paperwork, which wasn't exactly fun but did need to get done sometime. His brain was still drifting off into random songs, trying to make up for utterly failing him two days ago, and whenever he thought of Teyla's earlier anger, he found himself humming snatches of "Sunny Came Home" with a smile. It was actually kind of reassuring to see her lose her temper for once. She was so damn reasonable most of the time. It was just unnatural.
An hour later, he wasn't smiling any longer.
Whenever there was any kind of discord in the house, Teyla made sure it got dealt with. She pretty much always checked on everyone, clearing the air and trying to prevent grudges. Sometimes she just listened. But whenever she knew something was wrong, she was always there.
Now, though, Rodney hadn't seen any sign of her, and whenever he passed her door, it was still closed. It was entirely possible he was walking past more often than strictly necessary, even, because it wasn't like her to close herself away from everyone else.
Rodney fidgeted. The other two men probably ought to be back by now, given the way they both drove. He could wait. Sheppard was terrible with anything that had to do with feelings, but he knew how to be charming, and that might cheer her up. Ronon might actually be good at talking to her, for all Rodney knew. He really didn't know Ronon half as well as he should have, considering how long they'd been in the same Wheel.
He could even throw Chuck in there, if he had to. If Chuck could manipulate the rest of them into some bizarre food-related scheme, he could deal with talking to Teyla.
Any of the three would probably be better at it than Rodney. He could just wait.
He drank a cup of coffee to brace himself — and, yes, to stall. No salvation appeared, so he took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, went back to her office door, and knocked.
She called for him to enter. He made his way into her office, but as soon as she saw him, she tensed so obviously that he couldn't possibly miss it. "Yes?"
"I'm sorry," he blurted, because he really hadn't meant to stress her, even if the whole thing with Ronon had been an accident and provocation. She looked surprised by his statement. She also looked really drained, so he added, "Are you okay?"
She considered him for several seconds and then just sagged, pushing her keyboard away and rubbing at her forehead. "It has been a very long week," she said wearily.
She was obviously tired. So maybe she hadn't slept all that much better than he had. He couldn't imagine how he had missed that all day. Granted, they hadn't spent a lot of time together, but they had talked a few times about minor things. Maybe he should have had lunch with her when she had asked, instead of just pulling something out of the freezer and eating at his desk as usual. Or at least brought a cup of coffee for her now.
Her left hand still rested on the desk, so he edged forward awkwardly to place his fingers against the back of that hand. He really wasn't any good at this, but he wanted to do something for her.
The more public areas of the 'house were carpeted in deference to the sensibilities of their typically non-Elementalist customers, but Teyla must have spent a fortune on the livingstone foundation and flooring. That did help. It still wasn't the same as being in contact with unaltered earth, though, and he wasn't interested in stripping off his shoes and socks, and he really hadn't ever had the temperament for grounding anyway. He was pretty sure he was drawing something, but it didn't feel very effective.
Teyla placed her other hand around his, obviously meaning to stop him.
He tried to pull his hand back, feeling his cheeks start to burn. "Yes, I know, stupid idea, you can do it better yourself —"
"It is different when done by someone else," she said. She wasn't holding onto him tightly enough to hurt, but she wasn't letting him go, either.
"I'm not — oh. It is?"
"It is." She turned her left hand over and guided his hand to press his fingers against her wrist. "You were not trained?"
"Well, no, I — there wasn't much cross-training in my program, and the military didn't exactly list grounding in the approved supplementals." And he had never bothered to study it on his own, because it only made sense to concentrate his attention on the many fields he was good at, rather than wasting time on things he could never master. "I know the theory, but …."
"Very well. First, contact points. Any contact can work, but certain points are more effective. Loosely speaking, more central points are more effective than outward ones. So moving roughly inward, you may use the palms or the soles, the inside of the wrists or ankles, the base of the skull or spine, the forehead or the sides of the throat, the —" She broke off abruptly and then softly cleared her throat. Was she blushing? "I believe that should be sufficient for now."
That explained why she'd moved his hand, at least, and maybe why she was still holding it in place. "Okay, contact points. Got it."
"Next, flow. Your draw is too 'fast'. You want to draw less through and more to."
He tried again to pull away, because he really hated being mocked, but she didn't let him go. And … well, she was throwing his own words back at him, and she was smiling, but unlike everyone else who had ever done that, she didn't actually look like she was mocking him. And that wasn't like her anyway. "Right. More static flow. Fine."
"Good. Now try again."
He did try, and he could see how her advice made a difference, but he really didn't think he was that much more effective. It didn't help at all that he felt amateurish and inept, and he hated feeling that way, so he wasn't remotely centered. He broke off. "Fine, good to know, but this isn't —"
"There is also spin," Teyla interrupted, unperturbed. With her left hand under his right, all she had to do was straighten her fingers a bit to make contact with his wrist, and then she was grounding him. "A standard grounding calms and centers, but a fire spin is a bit more energizing."
She shifted her draw as she spoke, and he could feel the very slight difference. It wasn't as effective as a cup of coffee, but it did make him feel a little less stiff and draggy, the way getting up to stretch or walk around after hours at the computer could.
"You will find a fire spin the most natural, of course," she said. Her draw shifted back towards earth but kept going past it. "But there is also the water spin. That has a more numbing or muffling effect. It is useful for calming panic and easing discomfort."
She finally released her grip on his hand to reach up and across, trailing her fingers very lightly along the right side of his face near his injury, and the dull headache that had plagued him all day was suddenly not quite as nagging.
His expression must have changed, because she frowned very slightly. "You should have told me sooner," she chided softly. She dropped her right hand back down to take his left wrist. "A medial or bilateral application is also more effective than an offset one," she added as he felt the grounding strengthen.
It took him a few seconds to focus his thoughts. "This isn't — I was supposed to be helping you. I didn't come in here to give you more work."
"I do not mind," she said, her smile amused. "Grounding another is work, but it helps me to ground myself. And I do appreciate the sentiment." Her eyes studied him closely and her smile softened. "Do you remember the day we met?"
He winced. That had really not been his finest hour. He had just been so angry back then, and the licensing board's refusal to count military contract experience towards full certification had been just another insult. No one would hire an unlicensed independent Elementalist, and having to find a Wheel willing to take him on was preferable only to signing with a training facility. Teyla's endless talk of teamwork and bonding had annoyed him further, because he hadn't known. Not back then.
She had been suitably impressed by his qualifications — and singularly unimpressed by Rodney himself. He already knew she was planning to turn him away before she suggested a casual demonstration of skills, but they were both going through the motions of seeing the interview through. He had already spent the time and money to get there, and she probably figured the afternoon was a loss anyway. If Sheppard hadn't made a light-saber joke, Rodney would probably still be looking for a posting. Or sitting around his apartment with only his cat to hear his insights and complaints, his licensure still incomplete.
He had been wrong. He knew that now, even if he would never admit it to anyone else. He would really rather not be reminded of that whole experience. For Teyla to be thinking about it now was definitely not a good sign. She was still smiling at him for some reason, though, gentle and fond.
She kept hold of his left wrist and reached up again, with her left hand this time, to touch the side of his head once more. His headache eased further as her fingertips traced tiny patterns lightly along his skin. She could claim she was grounding herself too as much as she liked, but she was still exerting herself more than she should, especially after the job they'd just had. "You shouldn't —" he tried to protest, torn between comfort and worry, but she shushed him without breaking contact. She was looking him right in the eyes, as if she was searching for something.
Apparently it was his day for awkward silences. Teyla was always the one who broke those, dammit, but she kept almost saying something without ever quite producing anything. He was growing increasingly nervous of the way she was looking at him, but something about her expression kept him pinned in place as the seconds stretched.
The sudden racket of Sheppard and Ronon thundering their way into the reception area broke the spell.
Teyla stroked the side of Rodney's face one last time and gently broke contact with a strangely rueful twist to her smile. "I have kept you too long —"
"We should go see what those two are up to," Rodney said, interrupting her purposely. He didn't like the thought of leaving her alone in her office again. That wasn't her. "There's no telling what chaos they might wreak without adult supervision."
He only meant to get her to go with him without giving away their plan, since he didn't know if the guys had actually been successful, and he kicked himself when she sighed wearily, saying, "You are probably right."
Trying to fix it would probably only make things worse, so he just headed out of her office, glancing back to make sure she was following. Chuck caught his eye and gestured subtly towards the kitchen, as if Rodney couldn't hear the clattering from that direction. Rodney just rolled his eyes at him.
As soon as they entered the kitchen, Sheppard rushed over to block their sight of the table. "Oh, hey!" he said nervously to Teyla, adding a muttered, "McKay —"
Rodney just shrugged. "It's food. The kitchen's as good as anywhere else." It looked like they had been trying to put together some kind of tray to take the food to Teyla in her office, but there was no real point to that now, and this was better anyway.
Teyla had angled her way around Rodney, and Sheppard gave up trying to block her, though he shot Rodney a dirty look as he did so. "You have been to Halling's?" she asked, surprised and pleased.
"Yeah, well, we just …." Sheppard gestured aimlessly, then took a deep breath. "We're sorry about, you know. Earlier."
Teyla looked delighted and touched. Rodney realized abruptly he would do a lot to make her smile like that. A lot. He blinked, startled, and shoved that insight deep into a corner of his mind to contemplate later. Much later.
Teyla inclined her head graciously. "And I apologize for my temper. Thank you all, very much. You did not have to —" She broke off, clearly startled. "Ronon?"
Rodney looked over and —"Whoa!" Which made him sound like Sheppard, but he was surprised.
Ronon rubbed his hand over his startlingly short hair. "Easier to just cut it off. Feels weird, though."
At least that explained why they had taken so long. But Ronon was hardly recognizable without the dreadlocks, and their absence was basically Rodney's fault. He squirmed. "I never meant to —"
"It's cool," Ronon said. He grinned. "Change is good."
Rodney's guilt vanished. "Oh my god, you are such a walking stereotype."
Ronon just chuckled. "Pot? Kettle."
"Excuse me, I am not hot-tempered —"
"Break it up, you two," Sheppard ordered, sounding both exasperated and amused. Then it was his turn for some startled blinking. He was clearly just as surprised as the rest of them were by his sudden venture into peacekeeping.
Teyla laughed softly and went over to the table, removing the contents from the tall paper bag. "You will all join me, I hope?" she said as she sat.
"What — this is for you," Sheppard protested.
"John, you have gotten enough for six people here, and these are much better fresh. Please?"
Rodney thought again of Teyla alone in her office and sat. "I could eat."
"Mc—" Sheppard started, but he must have seen Teyla's grateful look too, because he gave up and sat down, and Ronon followed suit.
They had gotten a huge batch of some kind of pastries and a giant cup of iced tea. Rodney was soon glad he had already eaten lunch, because the pastries looked a little like cookie squares but were airy and insubstantial, with a texture a little like phyllo but more delicate. They came with a honey that was meant to be drizzled over them, but apparently they were really supposed to be eaten with fingers rather than silverware, so of course the honey got everywhere within moments. Teyla divided the tea among five coffee mugs, calling Chuck in briefly to give him a share of the treat. Rodney wasn't normally a fan of tea, considering it a weak substitute for coffee, but this tea was sturdy, close to espresso in taste. It was probably meant to balance the sweet nothingness of the pastries. Rodney would prefer a thick slice of cake with a strong cup of coffee any day.
But Teyla was so obviously happy to be sharing this with them. As they ate she told them about growing up with this Halling character, back when they were kids in Athos and then later as they were adjusting to life in the US. She was vague about certain details of their escapades in a way that made Rodney suspect she had been the troublemaker, which he honestly wouldn't have guessed, though maybe he should have.
Teyla kept glancing at him whenever she mentioned the ways she and Halling had been friends, just friends. She had been friends with the guy's wife, too, and she was "spirit-mother" of their kid. She and Halling were the success stories of their relocated community. His bakery offered standard goods but traditional Athosian foods as well, such as their current snack, which apparently reminded Teyla of the summer mornings of her childhood.
It was a good thing Ronon didn't have the dreadlocks anymore, because he wasn't even trying to be careful with the honey. Sheppard had taken one look at him and immediately chosen to use a fork, regardless of tradition. Rodney wished he had done the same, because he couldn't come close to Teyla's grace with the sticky fluid.
Even she was not entirely able to avoid a mess, though, a smear of honey winding up on her chin despite her practiced caution. Rodney tried to pass her a napkin, but of course that stuck to his hand and wouldn't come off, and trying to use his other hand to pull it away got his hands stuck together.
Teyla laughed and Sheppard snorted. Ronon started chuckling, and Teyla took one look at him — messy as a toddler — and started laughing harder. Rodney was annoyed, hating being laughed at, but then Ronon reached towards Sheppard's hair with his sticky, sticky hands, and Sheppard's scramble to get away made Rodney lose it.
Sheppard retaliated by whisking a draft across the pile of napkins, sending it flying at Ronon. Ronon tried to dodge, but he had no chance of evading them in time and was soon bristling with flimsy paper squares. The honey concentration was greatest on his hands and face, of course, and the napkins sticking to it left him halfway to the Invisible Man. Teyla was positively giggling, and Rodney kept almost managing to catch his breath but then laughing again whenever he saw her expression.
They did all eventually manage to calm themselves. Rodney studied the paper stuck to his hands, trying to determine if freezing the honey would make it come off any better, and Teyla reached over to take his hand. Still hiccupping occasionally, she dipped yet another napkin into her tea and then used that to wipe the paper-and-honey-mâché from his fingers. The tea worked surprisingly well as a solvent, considering they had all just been drinking that stuff. It certainly worked better than Ronon's similar attempts with water. The man was going to need to shower in the tea at this rate. Sheppard was still refusing to come within a meter of the table, apparently unaware that Ronon had somehow managed to get a shred of one of the sticky napkins to land on top of Sheppard's hair.
Rodney carefully looked away, because if he started laughing again he would end up with one hell of a headache. He looked at Teyla instead, and she glanced up from her work with his hands to smile at him.
He hadn't understood what a Wheel could be, the day they met. He had thought all her pretty words were so much nonsense.
He had never been happier to be wrong.