It starts as an energy spike so small no one else would’ve noticed—except Rodney knows Atlantis’s Circadian rhythms better than his own, and he feels something is off, feels it the way some people sense the brittle electricity in the air, the pull of stiffening joints and know a storm is coming. He watches the spike form and fluctuate, pulsing faintly on his laptop screen like a second heartbeat, slow and slightly irregular. The rhythm finds its way under his skin as the hot water eases the muscles of his back; it settles in his brain like a song he can’t forget as he tugs on his uniform and heads for the still-empty lab. In the grey light of dawn, rain begins to bead on the windows, and he hears the first rumble of thunder, low and distant. The energy readouts look like the bass line from every piece of punk rock he’d listened to in the eighties. The rise and fall, mostly within normal parameters, seem perfectly harmless.
And then they aren’t.
Rodney feels the surge even before the alarms start to sound, bell-like chimes that don’t strike the right chord of urgency, and it figures the goddamn Ancients would treat even an emergency with a measure of detached restraint. He’s halfway to grounding station three when his earpiece echoes with Elizabeth’s questioning voice, and a moment later Sheppard’s familiar “McKay?”
“Already on it,” Rodney says, picking up his pace, still checking the ebb and flow of the energy output on his laptop as he rounds a corner, almost grateful for every hostile planet that has taught him how to run when lives depend on it. The tightness he’s feeling in his chest isn’t from lack of exercise this time.
“Rodney, what’s going on?” Elizabeth asks, far away, a voice in his ear.
“Can’t talk now. Just—” Another ripple on the screen, wave of energy climbing higher, faster, and Rodney’s already calculating the distance to the station and the approximate speed at which he’s moving, and there’s no one closer, no way to get there faster because there’s a good reason they weren’t even using that station after Kolya and the storm and Rodney’s eleventh hour hot-wiring. “Just stay there. There’s nothing you can do.”
“Rodney, should we evacu—”
Sheppard’s voice breaks through Elizabeth’s: “But there’s something you can do, right?”
“Genius here! If I can’t fix it, no one can.” It doesn’t come off as cocky as he wants it to, and Rodney can imagine the look on Sheppard’s face, the gears turning, calculating different equations from Rodney—how many lives if something blows, how much of Atlantis they’ll lose, and if Rodney knows him half as well as he likes to think, somewhere underneath it all, Sheppard’s already planning a heroic, but suicidal attempt to save them all.
It would be futile, Rodney knows. He’s run the numbers and they’re bad. Very, very bad.
“It’s grounding station three. On my way,” Sheppard says, and Rodney doesn’t know how Sheppard knows where the problem is, but it’s Atlantis and she doesn’t easily keep secrets from those that know her best. Rodney doesn’t even waste a breath trying to tell Sheppard to stay away—the man’s like a deer running straight for the headlights of a speeding truck, and there’s no way he’ll listen anyway.
“But that’s—” Elizabeth’s voice wavers for an instant, and Rodney knows she’s remembering too. The unrelenting rain soaking them through, and Kolya putting a gun in Elizabeth’s face, a knife in Rodney’s arm, Sheppard leaving a trail of bodies behind him. They don’t talk about that night. “I thought it was shut down.”
“It was.” Rodney catches a breath as he slaps the touch pad on the transporter, doors sliding closed, then open on a new location. “And now it’s not. Apparently, it’s been storing electrical charges from every storm we’ve had—which shouldn’t have happened, by the way—but with nowhere for that energy to go—”
Rodney wants to lie, wants to say it isn’t going to end in a catastrophic explosion, but he can’t. “You should get everyone to the central spire. And tell people to stay out of the corridors—just in case.” He’s tapping frantically on the keypad, one-handed as he goes, but the spike keeps building, and by the time he gets there…
“You’re going to do something, save the day as usual. Right, McKay?” Sheppard’s confidence sounds absolute, and Rodney hates that this is the day he’s going to disappoint everyone. It’s little consolation he probably won’t be around to deal with the fall-out, or the look on Sheppard’s face when he figures out Rodney can’t fix everything.
“Of course,” Rodney says, clipped, too quickly, shoulder catching a corner as he careens towards the far edge of Atlantis and the ever-growing fear that time isn’t on his side. “Don’t I always?”
“Yeah, you do.” Sheppard’s voice is too soft, breathing hard, and Rodney knows he’s running too, knows Sheppard feels Atlantis’s heart pounding out of rhythm and thinks there’s something he can do. Even if there isn’t, Sheppard’s going to try. Rodney tucks his laptop under his arm and runs.
When Sheppard gets there, Rodney’s rain-soaked and desperate, already wrist-deep in wires and the dim glow of Ancient crystals. The charge that’s been building in the grounding station is getting stronger with each flash of lightning, and Rodney gets a tiny jolt every time he touches a live circuit.
“This shouldn’t be happening,” Rodney shouts over the sound of the wind, and Sheppard’s standing under the low-hanging roof, out of the rain for the moment, his P-90 aimed towards the console as if a round of automatic weapons fire might help. Rodney knows shooting it didn’t do much the first time, the scorch marks still visible around the open access panel, but he’s half-tempted to tell Sheppard to go for it, just for the hell of it. They don’t really have anything to lose at this point.
“Can you stop it?” Sheppard’s kneeling beside him now, a hand on his shoulder, peering into the tangle of circuitry as if he can actually help. Rodney pulls his hand back as he gets another tiny electric shock, fingers tingling, and he feels Sheppard pull his hand away as he gets a jolt. “Was that—?”
“Static electric build-up. I wouldn’t actually touch me if I were you—there could be sparks,” Rodney says seriously, and Sheppard raises an eyebrow and grins. It’s a moment too late, but Rodney gets it and grins back, suddenly grateful that Sheppard’s always Sheppard, no matter how bad things get. He has a moment to regret that they’ve never done more than generate a few sparks, but then his laptop beeps and he knows it isn’t the time for what might have been.
Rodney glances at the newest data update and points towards the door. “I need Zelenka.”
Sheppard narrows his eyes and starts to raise a hand to the radio.
“No! I mean, not here. I need him in the lab—there’s—” Rodney turns back to the wiring console and keeps working because he’s running out of time and it would be pointless to do all this and still lose the northeast section of the city. “Look, there’s a failsafe program I’ve been working on to remotely shutdown areas of the city if there’s an emergency.”
“Since when?” Sheppard’s suspicious and Rodney ducks his head in closer to the panel, hoping the rain and the darkening sky will be enough to hide the lies that are written all over his face.
“It’s just a test program, something I’ve been playing around with. It’s not even on a networked computer,” Rodney says, yanking out a crystal and replacing it with another. It’s obvious to him that he can’t shut this down; all he can do is minimize the damage. “I’m not even sure if it’ll work, but you need Zelenka to run it, and it requires two command staff codes.”
Rodney has to shout now to be heard over the rain and the growling thunder, and he isn’t sure if the numbness in his hands is from the cold or the repeated electric shocks that he’s almost ceased to notice. He’s thankful for military-issue rubber-soled shoes and the fact that Sheppard’s listening instead of arguing. Maybe there’s a chance.
“Elizabeth’s closer,” Sheppard shouts back even though he’s only a few feet away, body language tense and frustrated because there’s nothing he can do and he knows it.
“No!” Rodney drops the wire cutters and scrambles in his pocket. “It’s not that simple.” Rodney presses a small key into Sheppard’s palm. “Radek’s going to need this key for access.”
Sheppard looks at the key, wet and shiny against his skin, and shakes his head. “Why doesn’t Zelenka have—”
“Because I’m a petty, paranoid man!” Rodney shouts with exasperation, and shoves at Sheppard’s chest. “We don’t have time for me to explain it to you, Major. Just go! Give him the key—Radek’ll know what to do.”
“McKay, are you sure there isn’t—”
Rodney knows what he’s going to say, can see it in the determined set of Sheppard’s eyes, the frustration of being helpless. “There isn’t another way, and none of this will matter if you don’t get there in—” Rodney checks his watch, “less than ten minutes.”
Sheppard takes a step back, conflict clear on his face, and Rodney shouts, “Sheppard, go!” even as he turns back to the console, trusting that Sheppard might want to fight him on it, but he’s not going to, not when it’s Atlantis at stake. He hears the sound of boots pounding on the wet floor, the slide of the doors closing behind Sheppard, and Rodney takes a moment to bury his face in his hands and just breathe.
A crack of thunder almost drowns out the voice on the other end of his radio.
“—you still there? Rodney, come in, please.” Of course Zelenka’s been in the lab since the alarms started to sound, and Rodney knows he’s seeing the same data that Rodney is, making the same conclusions.
“Yes, yes, where else would I be?” Rodney says tightly, twisting two ends of wire together to re-direct at least some of the discharge towards the ocean instead of into his hands.
“Have little electro-shocks damaged your brain? There is nothing more you can do there. Data suggests grounding station will reach maximum capacity in less than seven minutes, and then it will—well, explode, most likely destroying that section of the city.”
“I know that.” The grounding station looks like someone’s performed open-heart surgery on it, electrical circuits stretched over the edge of the balcony, crystals bound together with wire and electrician’s tape. Rodney plugs his laptop into the console and is genuinely surprised when it doesn’t explode in a shower of sparks. “Yes, yes, yes. Okay, this might work. Did you bring up the shield schematics like I asked?”
“You did not ask, you bellowed like wounded yak, and yes, I have them, but I don’t see how that will stop—”
“We can’t stop it, but we might be able to save the city.”
There’s silence on the line, but only for a moment. “What do you propose?”
Rodney’s busy trying to determine the exact coordinates of the corners of the grounding station on a hastily drawn Cartesian plane when Sheppard interrupts.
“How’s it coming, McKay?”
“Aren’t you at the lab yet? I thought you were supposed to be good at this running thing.” Rodney’s mouth is running on automatic as he checks his math against the numbers Radek sent him. There’s a very good chance this plan isn’t going to work either, if they even get the time to try it.
Sheppard sounds like he’s out of breath and Rodney can almost see the glare over the radio. “And I thought you were supposed to be good at fixing this stuff, McKay At least that’s what you’re always telling us.”
“Stay off the line, Major,” Rodney says, although it’s the last thing he wants. He’d much rather back-and-forth with Sheppard, who’s probably almost at the lab. Rodney clicks the radio back to a private channel. “Radek, I’ve got the location codes for this door and I’ve got two other points that should provide adequate coverage. I’m sending the coordinates now.”
“I am not certain this will work, Rodney,” Radek murmurs, and Rodney can picture him on his stool in the lab, pushing his glasses up on his nose as he shakes his head at the numbers.
“Neither am I, but—” Rodney sets the door so it can’t be opened without a command over-ride, and uses his pocket-knife to rip open another panel on the far edge of the balcony. “—you’re the best engineer I’ve ever worked with, Radek. If anyone can make it work, you can.”
Rodney can hear Zelenka’s fingers pause mid-keystroke. “You said something nice to me.”
Rodney clamps down on the laugh that’s threatening to ruin his credibility, and snaps, “Well, don’t let it go to your head. So far I don’t have anything telling me the shield’s been rerouted to these coordinates.”
“There. Shield is coming down, and—” Rodney can already hear the cacophony of official voices going off in his ear on the command channel as they lose power to the shield.
“You really don’t have to do this.”
“If I don’t, we’ll lose the city.”
“Only the east—”
“No, the city.” He says it slowly enough that Zelenka gets it, and Rodney keeps going, rigging the second panel so it can read the hurriedly-wired relay from the door mechanism; he crosses the balcony and starts to jury-rig the third set of wires, hoping that crystals never meant to take this kind of power-load will be able to hold for the few moments they’ll need. “There’s a naquadah generator one floor down, not to mention all the crap the marines have stored in that room near the transporter.”
“Major Sheppard could—”
“There’s no time. This way the only thing we lose is the grounding station.”
“And you,” Radek says, his typing loud and agitated through the radio, and Rodney wishes he were better at saying things like I respect your work and I could’ve been nicer. Instead, he mumbles, “Well, I’d rather have you get my job than Kavanagh,” and he’s pretty sure the Czech phrase that follows is something affectionately insulting.
“Shield’s coming back on,” Radek says, and Rodney can hear the snap in the air all around him as power surges through the relays he’s coupled together from crystals and wire and sheer determination. “Yes, yes, it’s working. The shield has reformed using the three panel relays as the outer markers for that section. When station goes, the shielding should hold.”
Rodney slides down against the wall and lets out a huff of breath. “Make sure it holds, Radek. Re-direct power there if you have to, but—”
In the background, Rodney can hear Sheppard’s voice, getting louder as he gets closer to Zelenka’s still open connection.
“—the key, Radek. I’ve got the key for the failsafe. We’ve got to shut down—Rodney’s still out—”
Rodney closes his eyes and he’s almost glad there’s so little time before the discharge because as soon as Sheppard realizes what Rodney’s done he’s going to kill him.
“Major, that is key to Rodney’s secret stash of coffee.” There’s the sound of something metal being dropped on a stainless steel counter, and Rodney counts to two before he hears, “McKay, you son of a bitch!” and the sound of ceramic breaking.
“Most unfortunate,” Radek murmurs. “Favourite coffee cup has lost battle with gravity.”
Rodney winces—he’s had that “astrophysicists do it with a big bang” mug since graduate school. Suddenly it sounds like Sheppard’s right there beside him, voice low and angry in his ear. “You get the hell out of there, right now, McKay. That thing’s going to blow in …”
“Approximately two minutes fourteen seconds at the current rate of electrical discharge,” Radek supplies helpfully.
“Jesus,” Sheppard whispers, and Rodney knows he’s looking at the monitor, seeing the new shield configuration because Sheppard’s not anything close to stupid, which is why Rodney’s always liked working with him. “Drop the goddamn shield and get him out of there. You can put it up again before—”
“There is no time,” Radek says firmly. “It takes almost two minutes for a complete shield activation—”
“There’s got to be something—”
“Believe me, Major, if there was anything, I would do it.”
From the sound of his breathing, Rodney knows Sheppard’s running again, and it’s a good thought, a stupid sweet thought to come to Rodney’s rescue, but they both know there’s no time.
“I suppose it would be too much to hope that you’re on the opposite side of the shield from the impending explosion?” Sheppard sounds pissed off and a little bit like he’s been running flat-out for thirty minutes straight and is about to cough up a vital organ.
“Sorry.” Rodney watches the lightning flare overhead and he can hear the grounding station humming with barely contained power. It won’t be long now. Time to consider his options. “I’m trying to decide if I’d rather be close to the console, meaning I won’t feel a thing, or—”
“Get as far away from the station as possible. Use whatever you’ve got for cover.”
Rodney can’t help the laugh that escapes. “Good advice, Major. Get as far away from the explosion as possible. Thanks.” But he brushes the rain off his face again and heads for the angular corner nearest the door. It’s possible there might be some protection there, if only from the elements.
“Dammit, you don’t have anything to prove, McKay. Just drop the damn shield, and—”
“I can’t, Major. There isn’t time, and we can’t afford to lose the city.”
“We can’t afford to lose you either.” Sheppard’s in good shape, but Rodney can tell he’s starting to feel the burn of pushing himself. “I’ll get a jumper. I can fly in and—”
"Well, I'll--there's got to be something--"
“Yeah, well, the good of the many ...”
“This isn’t Star Trek, Rodney! I’m not playing that scene with you—” Sheppard’s voice gets lost in a flash of lightning so bright Rodney’s still seeing spots when the thunder clap shakes the walls. “—do you hear me, McKay? I’m not fucking doing that. We’ll find—”
Another flash and Rodney knows this is it. For a moment everything stops and the only thing he can hear is the growing hum of energy, and he pushes back into his corner, feeling the world start to come apart around him.
Somewhere a small desperate voice is yelling, “Rodney? Rodney!?”
“Holy shit,” he says, and the world goes white.
When Rodney opens his eyes half the balcony’s missing and there’s no way grounding station three is ever going to work again. He thinks maybe they’ll just put a nice wreath in its place because even he would have a hard time reconnecting a smoking black hole. Rodney’s pretty sure he lost consciousness at some point because he can smell burnt hair and his heart feels as if it’s trying to beat through his chest. Rodney’s never been happier that shields operate on a system of curvature rather than angles because he’s got a pretty good idea he was at least partially protected in his little corner, when by all rights he should be just as black and destroyed as grounding station three. He takes an unsteady breath and starts to panic when he has to concentrate on breathing, and every instance of anaphylactic shock comes back in an flash of terrible recognition until he realizes he isn’t dead, or even dying, even if he is a little singed around the edges.
“I’m not dead,” Rodney murmurs, wrapping his arms numbly around his knees. His hands are tingling and the skin is pink, but there doesn’t appear to be any permanent damage. “I’m not dead,” he says again, just to hear the words. The third time he says it louder, each word a beautiful truth, and when there’s nothing but static on the radio, he yells it: “I’m not dead if any of you actually care!” and then he says, “and it’s still fucking raining,” just because it seems profoundly unfair that he’s going to survive explosive electrocution only to get pneumonia.
The earpiece doesn’t respond and Rodney tosses it over what’s left of the balcony, or at least the new jagged edge that’s closest to him and he hopes, a little spitefully, that it hits someone whose life he’s just saved and reminds them that maybe he could use a little help here.
Then there’s a faint shimmer and hum as the shield shuts down and Rodney can hear Sheppard before he sees him, giving instructions to the trauma team to haul ass, telling Radek “yes, yes, it’s down, and he’s—he’s fine,” as he stops in the doorway and just stares at Rodney.
“I wouldn’t say fine exactly,” Rodney murmurs but he can’t help but grin and Sheppard’s grinning right back because they’ve both gotten into the habit of cheating death on a regular basis and today’s no exception.
“You look fine to me,” Sheppard says and his hands are gentle on Rodney’s skin, helping him to his feet, steadying him against the rain-slick wall while they wait for Carson’s crew. Rodney leans into Sheppard’s warmth and thinks he’s already come back from the dead today, so there really isn’t anything to lose. He reaches a shaking hand up to cup Sheppard’s cheek, ignores the look of surprise and just leans closer, eyes falling shut, lips brushing softly against Sheppard’s mouth. Rodney wonders if it’s a mistake when he feels Sheppard’s breath against his lips, then nothing. There’s a wonderful heat pressed against him as Sheppard’s arms go around him in an awkward hug, and the ache in Rodney’s chest makes it a little harder to breathe. He holds on to Sheppard as hard as he can because maybe this is the most he’s ever going to have of him, and Rodney wants it, he wants it so badly he can feel the sting of it burning his eyes.
Hands tighten in the loose fabric of Rodney’s shirt, and it takes a moment for him to get that Sheppard’s pulling back, away, forehead tipping forward in some semblance of the Athosian greeting, and Rodney licks his lips and wonders if he should apologize. He should probably apologize, but he just can’t seem to find the words.
Sheppard shifts his head side to side, and Rodney has to listen hard to catch the words, low and hoarse. “—you stupid, son of a—”
“Hey,” Rodney says, but his heart isn’t in it. He’d be name-calling too if the situation were reversed, and he gets that Sheppard’s angry for a lot of reasons that probably don’t have much to do with Rodney.
“—gave me the key to your goddamn coffee stash!”
“It’s very good coffee,” Rodney whispers, letting his hands rub against the warmth of Sheppard’s arms, as if by touching him he can convince them both he’s alive.
“—all I could think was you trapped on the other side of the goddamn shield—”
“Like Spock,” Rodney interjects, but Sheppard’s not laughing.
“—and I couldn’t do anything. Too late to even say anything and then you—you kiss me—”
Rodney finds the words, but he isn’t sure he means them. “I’m sorry?”
“—when there’s a medical crew on the way, you’re shaking like a leaf, your heart’s going crazy, and you’re wheezing like an asthmatic chain-smoker.”
Rodney realizes the rattling sound is his breathing and there are streaks of black wherever he’s touched Sheppard. Rodney pulls back, shoulders pushing into the wall, and maybe they can chalk it up to post-traumatic stress.
“Look, we can just forget—”
“Rodney, if I kiss you the way I want to right now, I’ll probably kill you, and I really, really, don’t want to do that. Understand?”
Suddenly the distance and the clenched fists and the set of Sheppard’s jaw say something else entirely, and Rodney nods, speechless, closing his eyes. He lets Sheppard support him until Carson arrives with blankets and an oxygen tank and a needle that makes the world go hazy and soft.
Carson tells him he’s lucky to be alive, and Rodney is the first one to agree. There’s every reason that he shouldn’t be walking around Atlantis today, even if when Carson releases him he’s still favoring one leg and his hair’s shorter than it’s ever been. In his field uniform, he could probably pass for one of the marines.
“Not so much,” Sheppard says, with a quick jab that barely lands on Rodney’s midsection, but Rodney doesn’t care because he’s alive and there’s nothing better.
“Well, no one would mistake you for a marine either, Major,” Rodney returns, although Sheppard just nods and says, “That’s ‘cause I’m Air Force.”
They step inside Rodney’s quarters, door sliding closed, and it’s like a shield goes up behind them. Rodney limps to the bed, clenching and unclenching his hands against the lingering pins-and-needles feeling in his fingertips. Sheppard sits beside him, tentative, and for a moment the only sound is Rodney’s breathing, faintly strained, and the loud pounding of his heart that he’s sure Sheppard can hear.
“So, um—” Rodney begins, “this morning, after the explosion, you said you wanted—and I was just wondering—”
Sheppard hangs his head and grabs Rodney’s fidgeting hand. “You just got out of the infirmary.”
“Yeah, but I’m good, Carson even said so, and—” Rodney wants it to be more than adrenaline and electrocution; he wants to know what it feels like to have Sheppard kiss him back. “You could be gentle.”
“No, I really don’t think I could,” Sheppard says, and something in his voice makes Rodney look at him. Dark hair is falling over his eyes because they’ve been too busy trying to survive to worry about little things like haircuts and feelings and kisses. His hand, the one that isn’t holding Rodney’s like he’ll never let go, is clenched in the pale blue sheets of the bed, and suddenly Rodney knows that whatever he thinks he’s seen in Sheppard’s eyes is nothing compared to what he’s been hiding.
“John?” Rodney tries out the name tentatively, knows if he doesn’t play this right he’s going to lose him, and tugs firmly on the hand he’s holding until Sheppard shifts, giving in, giving up, and Rodney lays back on the pillow dragging Sheppard with him, arms tight around him so he’ll know it isn’t just him. Rodney buries his face in John’s hair and breathes him in, feels John doing the same in the curve of Rodney’s neck, and it’s almost enough to block out the scent of rain and ozone burning.
“No one can say we don’t have sparks,” Rodney says, relieved at the weak laugh against his shoulder. “Electricity even.”
“I might go so far as to say there was almost spontaneous combustion, although I kind of got started without you on that one.”
John’s looking at him now with a resigned half-smile and haunted eyes; everything he’s ever been afraid of showing is right there on his face. Rodney cups his cheeks and kisses him gently, again and again, until Sheppard’s mouth starts to move against his in a desperate, sweet kiss that sends shivers down Rodney’s spine.
“Don’t ever do that again,” John whispers, dark and low, body settling into the warmth between Rodney’s legs, and Rodney nods, ready to promise him anything, ready to believe anything, even this, is possible today.