Paperwork. John hated paperwork. The higher in rank, the more paperwork there was, it seemed. Delegating didn't solve the problem, as he still had to sign off on reports, supply lists, rosters, complaints, and a heap of other things that kept Atlantis running relatively smoothly, when they weren't being attacked or the Ancient technology wasn't going on the fritz. John was lucky that the smallish population in the city allowed him to be active in the field, at all. The paperwork grew exponentially with every additional person and so did the amount of time he was stuck in the closet called his office. Everything was electronic, too, so he couldn't "accidentally" set stacks of papers on fire and watch his work dwindle to ashes.
John propped his cheek on his closed fist, his elbow on the arm of his chair, and spun idly in circles with the tablet in his lap. He skimmed a digital security report on ladder-rung maintenance with bored eyes and counted down the minutes until lunch. He'd left his office door open, but no one had stopped by to distract him from the tediousness. He'd even welcome a Rodney McKay Diatribe right about now.
"John." John jerked to attention at the words coming over the Ancient PA system. It was Rodney, like he'd wished, but Rodney's voice was reedy and panicked. "Help."
Alarm hit John like a sucker-punch. Rodney rarely called him by his first name and never in that tone. "Rodney?" he said aloud and then tapped the comm-radio hooked over his ear. "Rodney? Where are you? What is it?"
He received no answer.
"Rodney," John repeated more forcefully, already heading down the hall at a run. The office chair spun wildly in his wake. "Answer me. What's your status?"
John took the corner at a fast clip, rushing into the gateroom. He switched channels on his radio from the designated senior staff channel to his team channel, channel two. "Rodney, do you copy? What's your status?"
"John," Elizabeth called to him from across the control room, as he swooped down on the Ancient operating boards. Large monitors flickered with streams of Ancient. Laptops, interfaced with the operating boards, sat open on any flat surface and ran system detail programs. "What's the situation?"
"I don't know yet," John said, reaching past the technician seated before the panel to press the PA system switch. His voice echoed in the vast halls of Atlantis. "McKay, respond. What's your status?"
Elizabeth looked anxiously at John when there was no response. "McKay," John tried again, not allowing the spike of fear to be evident in his tone. "Please respond."
Ronon and Teyla, both glistening with sweat and wearing sparring clothes, hurriedly entered the control room, with Zelenka few steps behind them. John went with a different tactic when he again got no response from Rodney. "Attention Atlantis. If anyone knows the exact whereabouts of Dr. McKay, please respond using the nearest comm panel."
Worry lined both Elizabeth and Teyla's features, as the seconds ticked by with no one answering the announcement. Zelenka bit the edge of his thumb. Ronon hovered like a hawk. John swallowed the panic beginning to clog his throat, switched his radio to the security channel, and gave emergency orders. "All security personnel to the briefing room immediately."
"Do we have any idea where he was last seen?" Teyla asked, Zelenka sliding past her with a concerned frown. He pulled up the biosensor maps on the wall monitor.
"We'll have to initiate an investigation," John said. "I saw him at breakfast, but between then and now, it's unknown. Unless one of you guys have seen him?"
The brief spot of hope was wiped immediately with a shake of everyone's heads. "I am checking the unoccupied portions of the city for life-signs," Zelenka said.
Elizabeth stepped up beside John and depressed the PA switch. "May I have your attention, please? This is Dr. Weir. Would anyone who has seen Dr. McKay since breakfast hours outside of the mess hall please report to the gateroom immediately. Thank you."
"Dr. Zelenka, contact me on channel two if you find anything," John said. "Elizabeth—"
"I'll contact you once we have everyone's statements," Elizabeth said. "Hopefully, we'll be able to trace his steps." She touched John's arm. "We'll find him."
John nodded stiffly, keeping to himself the question whether they'd find Rodney alive or dead. A sharp twist in his chest propelled John from the gateroom. Finding Rodney dead was a nightmare John didn't want to see realized. Ever.
Sunlight streamed through the stained glass windows and painted the flooring with rainbow mosaics. People in the halls stepped aside and hushed voices followed John down the corridors. Ronon and Teyla kept pace a step behind him. John tried to remember if Rodney had mentioned what he'd be working on during breakfast. John might have the intelligence level to understand what Rodney said, but that didn't mean he was always interested in the topic.
Hunched in his chair across from John that morning, Rodney had shoveled food in his mouth while poking at his tablet. John recalled that the expression Rodney had worn was his Everyone around me is completely incompetent to the point of not knowing how to open a paper bag and it is, as usual, left to me to fix things before Atlantis suffers a disaster of epic proportions and I'm forced, yet again, to save the day under tremendous pressure, having merely seconds until Atlantis blows up, sinks, or gets eaten by a giant, city-crunching monster who, of course, doesn't believe me when I tell it that not only am I bad for the digestion, I may cause anaphylactic shock if it happens to be deathly allergic to geniuses, in which case, it may eat everyone else, as I'm the only even remotely intelligent person in Atlantis face. The moment Rodney had opened his mouth to verbalize what was behind the facial expression John had tuned him out in favor of listening to the gossiping nurses at the table behind him. A lot of good it did him knowing about how Carson's date with Lt. Cadman had gone.
Security personnel occupied nearly every seat in the designated briefing room and John wasted no time waiting for the stragglers. "Dr. McKay is currently MIA and, as I'm sure you all heard, is in need of emergency assistance. Divide into standard teams of two—"
Zelenka's voice came over the comm. "Colonel Sheppard."
John half turned from the expectant soldiers waiting for instruction. "Go ahead, Zelenka."
"There are no aberrant life-signs in the unoccupied portions of Atlantis."
John's gut clenched. "Understood."
"Dr. Weir has almost completed gathering information. She will be contacting you momentarily."
"Good. Sheppard out." John faced the security personnel again. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Teyla and Ronon exchange increasingly concerned looks, as they'd also heard Zelenka over their own comms. They understood that not finding life-signs didn't mean that Rodney wasn't out there. But John needed to stay with the idea that Rodney was alive and assigned his people accordingly. "Search parameters are confined to the main portion of the city. One team per floor, and I want every nook and cranny searched, even the personal rooms."
It wasn't the first time they'd had to search floors and John ran down the assigned levels quickly. Elizabeth radioed him as he sent everyone off. "John, I've spoken with the people who've seen Rodney this morning. He was in the lab area about an hour ago, talking about Ancient redundancy. No one has seen him since then."
"So, he's either still in the lab area, or he's taken a transporter to somewhere unknown," John said, starting towards the labs.
"At least it's somewhere to start," Elizabeth said.
"Yeah. Switching to security channel one. Contact me if you find out anything else," John said. "Sheppard out."
Scientists bustled between labs, the hum of activity spilling out into the corridors. John looked into every room, counting the number of people and comparing it to the number of dots on his handheld life-signs detector. Hawkins and Taylor were on the floor, too, searching the other end of it for Rodney. The longer it took for the rescue party to reach a person, the less likely they'd still be breathing. John tried not to think about that fact and continued down the pale-lit hall to the next room.
John had a harder time not thinking about the way Rodney had said his first name with the call for help. It was personal, intimate even in its fearful waver, a desperate plea made as if to a loved one when things reached a certain end. A tense ball of emotions aroused by it had settled in the center of John's chest. Rodney had been in trouble a number of times, but the sound of John's name had had a finality to it that scared John witless. He wasn't good with the whole 'being in touch with his feelings' psychobabble, but he was pretty sure Rodney meant more to him than a friend and even more than that family label Teyla had given them.
"Colonel, we have a door that won't open in section D-52 and a life-sign inside, over."
Hope surged in John. "I'm on my way," he told Taylor, double-timing it in that direction. It seemed too easy to have found Rodney already. Though, Rodney wasn't one to wander off without armed backup. He knew the dangers of going beyond the regular boundaries of the main portion of the city; in fact, he went on and on about them whenever he had to go past those bounds.
Hawkins, with her hair pulled back in a tight blonde ponytail, crouched in front of a door near the end of the section D corridor and felt along the threshold. Taylor stood next to her, looking at the handheld detector. He straightened in attention at John's approach. "Sir, the life-sign inside has not moved since I radioed you. We've banged on the door and commanded whoever is inside to open it, but have received no response."
"We've got moisture," Hawkins said, rubbing her fingertips together. She followed along the vertical door seam as she straightened. "It beads all the way up, it looks like."
John checked his own handheld, studying the bright dot of whoever was in the locked room. He banged his fist against the door. "McKay, are you in there?"
He received no response and the dot did not move.
Frowning, John pocketed the handheld detector and waved his hand in front of the sensor, but even with his ATA gene and mental begging, the door stayed closed. He touched his radio. "Zelenka, are you there?"
"Yes. Did you find Rodney?" Zelenka said in John's ear.
"I don't know. See if you can override the locking mechanism for the door to D-52 on the lab level."
"One moment, please."
John studied the door as he waited. Droplets of water ran along the seam. Impatience itched his palms. "We may need a prybar."
"I'll go get one," Hawkins said. At John's nod, she rushed off. Four doors down, laughter bubbled from a biochemistry lab into the hallway.
"Ah, I do not think I can open the door from this location, Colonel," Zelenka said, sounding agitated. "It has been sealed by the emergency overrides of the city."
Now, that was good news. If anyone could cause an emergency reaction from the city, it would be Rodney. "Get down here and see what you can do," John said, pressing the flat of his hand against the door. Be in here, Rodney.
Hawkins returned with the prybar at the same time Zelenka appeared, carrying a tablet and a couple of cables. "Good idea," Zelenka said, indicating the prybar. He popped the control pad for the door and hooked the tablet to the system. "I do not know how long this will take. Remember, the city knows when there is danger and does not cooperate readily."
John took the prybar from Hawkins. "Might as well try both at the same time, then."
The door proved stubborn. Water dripped rapidly from where the prybar was set in the seam of the door. "Taylor, give me a hand here," John said, shifting his grip. Taylor moved to the other side of the bar and positioned his hands alongside John's. "You push, I'll pull. Ready? Go."
John pulled. Taylor pushed. "Sir—!," Hawkins shouted at the same time Zelenka declared, "Ah-ha!"
The door whooshed open, sending John and Taylor stumbling at the sudden release. A wave of water exploded from the room, knocking them over completely. John inhaled in surprise and choked on the lukewarm water rushing over his head. He struggled to right himself, his lungs burning from lack of air. He was drowning!
The water dispersed rapidly down the corridor in both directions and rolled into the open labs along the hall. Sitting up and coughing, John dashed his hand over his eyes and quickly assessed the situation. Taylor coughed, on his hands and knees beside him, soaked thoroughly. Hawkins was helping a drenched Zelenka to his feet. Squawks and yelling spilled from the labs and scientists ran out into the hall to see what had happened.
"Hawkins," John ordered between coughs, "crowd control."
"Sir, yes, sir."
John struggled to his feet, his wet clothing heavy, and stumbled into the room. He heard Zelenka's voice on the radio calling for Carson. Hawkins barked directions to the people coming into the hall. "Rodney?" John called and coughed again.
Puddles formed on the counters and flat surfaces in the lab. Ancient microscopes, test tubes, beakers, and other equipment that hadn't washed from the room littered the floor. John splashed through the remaining water in the previously flooded room. His heart stuttered in his chest when he spotted Rodney's familiar form half-stuffed beneath the counter on the far side of the lab.
John slapped his comm. "I found McKay," he said, dropping to his knees with a splash beside Rodney. Rodney's wet clothing was plastered to his body, his head and shoulder wedged between slats of the open panel on the counter. John put his hand on Rodney's arm. "Rodney, we're here. We'll have you out in a second."
For a long moment, Rodney didn't move and John's throat tightened in a way that couldn't be blamed on partially drowning. Then, Rodney's arm flopped and flapped, and he snapped his pruned fingers and pointed sharply at the counter.
John slumped with a weak laugh of relief.
They had to cut Rodney out from beneath the counter, which gave John something to hold over Rodney's head. John needed to focus on the humor or the lingering fear would overwhelm him, especially once he'd learned what had happened. Rodney had managed not only to set off a fire suppressant system, but had made it malfunction. He'd lost his radio while searching for a cutoff switch and then found out the PA comm panel on the wall didn't work. He'd gotten the PA working just as the water reached the ceiling, sent his distress call, and then sucked on an oxygen output hose beneath the counter until help arrived.
"And none of it would've happened if the Ancients didn't have so many redundant systems," Rodney said, sitting on the edge of an infirmary cot, his towel-dried hair in need of a brushing. Carson finished examining him as he explained to Elizabeth, Ronon, Teyla, and John. Zelenka had gone to fret over the water damage to the labs. "Even their redundancies have redundancies. It's like this place was designed purposely to frustrate the hell out of me."
"I'm sure that's exactly what the Ancients were thinking when they built Atlantis: 'Let's piss off Rodney McKay'," John said, earning a sour look. He crooked a half-smirk in return and continued dripping on the floor. His toweling off had only dried his head and hands.
"I think what it means is that we'll have to be more careful when tampering with the system," Elizabeth said. "We're lucky nothing serious happened."
"I'd say nearly drowning is pretty damned serious, Elizabeth. Especially to me," Rodney said. "What is it with me and water? This makes three times I've nearly died from submergence, and this time I didn't have a puddlejumper to protect me."
"Well, we are glad that you are okay," Teyla said. Ronon nodded in agreement.
"We don't know that I'm okay, yet," Rodney said with a wave of his hands. "I could have any number of complications from swallowing a roomful of water."
"You're fine, Rodney," Carson said. "In fact, you're the picture of perfect health. For you, anyway."
Elizabeth's posture relaxed, the last bit of tension leaving. "That's good to hear."
"Dr. Beckett?" a nurse called.
"Aye, coming." Carson nodded his head to everyone. "Excuse me."
"I should be going, too," Elizabeth said, as Carson hurried off. Ronon pushed off the wall he was leaning against.
"We shall see you later, Rodney." Teyla left with Ronon and Elizabeth.
"I suppose I should go and see how much of a disaster the Ancients caused because of their incompetence." Rodney hopped off the cot and held the hospital gown closed behind him.
John figured he'd better get changed out of his wet clothing and get to organizing the mop-up of the labs. He had one more question to ask, though, now that they were alone. "Hey, Rodney, I'm curious. Why did you call for me on the PA instead of saying where you were or anything about the flooding?"
"I apologize for leaving my copy of 'One Hundred Ways to Request a Rescue' in my room," Rodney replied. He tried to pick up his wet clothes from the floor without exposing anything. "I only had enough time to say one or two words before my imminent death. I chose the two shortest that would convey my dire need for assistance without confusion."
John felt a sharp drop of disappointment that shouldn't have been surprising. He'd been reading something into the call of his name that, of course, wasn't there. It was Rodney, after all; affection gave him hives. John didn't want to have to deal with his own feelings, anyway. "Next time, say where you are first. You might not have a handy cabinet to get stuck in that has an oxygen hose."
"That was pretty fortunate, wasn't it?" Rodney tucked his clothes and shoes under his arm and headed out of the infirmary. John fell into step beside him. "I found it in my frenzied panic to breathe."
John had gotten caught on the second sentence. "You mean to tell me you didn't know there was an oxygen hose before you called for help?"
"I didn't have time to make a floor plan," Rodney replied. "It was a good thing I found it, since it took you, oh, forty minutes to rescue me. I can only hold my breath for fifty-eight-point-three-five seconds. With this continual drowning thing I have going, I suppose I should work on increasing that amount of time."
John's heart stuttered in realized fear. Pure luck had kept Rodney alive. The final note he'd heard in Rodney's voice when he'd said John's name over the PA had been there for a reason.
"What's wrong?" Rodney said. "You've gone as white as a sheet. Don't tell me you're getting sick. If so, get away from me. I'm too important to be besieged by ill—ahh!" He stumbled as John dragged him suddenly into an unused closet off the hall. "What's with the yanking?"
John didn't answer. He dropped Rodney's elbow as the door slid closed, braced his hands on the shelf at chest height and bowed his head, as he hammered back his unnecessary panic. He hadn't wanted to show his emotional state in the hall.
"Colonel, as lovely as this closet is, is there a reason you've pulled me in here?" Rodney asked. The interior lights had risen with their presence, illuminating the small space and bare shelves. John stared at the droplets of water clinging to the tops of his boots.
"Just… don't do that."
"Don't do what?" Rodney said, confused.
John could feel Rodney staring at him. "I will do everything in my power to keep that from happening, as my genius would be completely wasted if I'm dead. But you know that. So, what is this really about?"
John wanted to know the answer to that himself. Or actually, he knew the answer, but wasn't ready to acknowledge it. He smoothed his features, straightened, and gestured at the shelves. "I wanted to show you this closet."
"Why would you want to show me—" Rodney stopped abruptly and blinked at him a couple of times. "I nearly died."
"You didn't," John said tersely, wanting to get away from that topic.
"I did, and then you got all funny and dragged me into a closet." Rodney flapped his hand. "I've seen people do this before, and then they come out looking messy and reeking of sex."
Heat seared John's ears and cheeks. "I didn't bring you in here to have sex," he said, almost choking on the words. A different sort of panic gripped his gut, as a bit lower he felt a stirring at the thought of sex with Rodney.
"You didn't?" Rodney sounded somewhat disappointed. "Oh. Okay. In that case, why did you bring me in here?"
John floundered, still reeling from getting aroused by Rodney. Rodney's brows lifted. John opened and closed his mouth. Rodney turned to the shelves. "My, look at the lovely shelves. I am very impressed, Colonel."
"With some scrubbing and paint, it'll be just like a closet on Earth." Rodney tilted his head, looking at John. "Thank you for showing me. I've always wanted a closet like this."
John got the urge to smack him, and things shifted back to normal. "It's a good closet."
"It is." Rodney nodded sagely. "It's the best closet I've ever been in. Not that I've been in many closets, mind you. There was this one, though, when I was in Colorado, it was the cutest little closet you've ever seen. It had flowered paper on the shelves and a spring fresh scent."
"Sounds great." John bit the inside of his cheek to keep his grin in check. "You'll have to show me sometime."
"It's a date." Rodney smiled triumphantly for some reason. Then, he snaked out a hand, grabbed the back of John's neck, and planted a short, hard kiss on John's surprised mouth. "Your metaphor has become cliché, John, but what else should I expect from someone in the military?"
John was certain that he was insulted, but the sound of his name on Rodney's lips felt like another kiss that stole his power of speech. His mouth tingled.
The hospital gown fluttered around Rodney's bare legs as he released John and turned to the door. John got a glimpse of a naked behind before Rodney grasped closed the gown. "Ta-ta, Colonel. I have a wonderful closet in my room if you want to stop by later and check it out."
The door slid open with an awkward wave of Rodney's arm, which still held his wet clothes in the crook of it. He left the closet with a jaunty step and John staring after him, dumbfounded.
The door slid shut again. John slumped against the shelves and looked blankly at the pale green ceiling. Rodney had kissed him. Rodney had implied he wanted to kiss him again, among other things. John was… not-so-surprisingly okay with that.
He felt wrung out suddenly, though. The events of the past couple of hours decided to take their toll and he dragged himself from the closet to go and change into dry clothes. His feet moved even slower when he realized what Rodney's watery accident would require him doing.