Rodney had stopped frowning at the readout on his tablet computer in favor of steadily staring at him, all defensive and prickly. His face was red and his lips were set in a tight, thin line; John was sure it was talking all of Rodney's concentration not to say anything. Clearly, he didn't want to dignify what he probably thought was a childish joke with a response. John could tell that McKay was waiting for him to say something first, so he stalled by tracking his flashlight up towards the ceiling and trying unsuccessfully to think the lights on.
"Hey!" John gave in finally, spreading his hands in a conciliatory gesture. "I could have said 'How many Canadian astrophysicists..." He took an unconscious step backwards as he peered at one of the dormant light fixtures, trying to determine if it was damaged or simply without power.
"If it wasn't so painful to hear you dig yourself into a juvenile little hole in the ground, I'd let you keep going just for the sake of scientific curiosity," McKay said tartly. Then, his voice sharp and a little shaky, he shouted: "John—stop! Don't—don't take another step back."
As soon as he heard his name on Rodney's lips, John froze in place, his mind screeching to a halt as though his subconscious felt it was absolutely necessary to drop a flag down at this moment in time to mark the spot for future reference. His eyes snapped back to Rodney, who was standing just as still as he was, one white-knuckled hand clutched at his computer, eyes locked on his. Somewhere in the background he could hear an internal voice telling him frantically that he was taking too long to snap out of it, Rodney was going to notice that something was wrong, whole seconds were passing, for god's sake stop gaping and move!
John blinked, got a hold of himself, and stepped forward, ruthlessly enforcing a sort of casual nonchalance as a defense mechanism and hoping to hell that he hadn't blushed.
"What's wrong, Rodney, another booby trap?" he drawled, focusing his flashlight just under Rodney's face even though there was sufficient light in the room. He thought he saw a flash of momentary hurt cross the other man's face before he reacted just as John had hoped he would.
"Would you get that thing out of my eyes?" McKay said, a little angrily, batting his hands in front of him uselessly as he stepped away. "Far be it from me to stop you from getting yourself stuck in here again in the space of an hour."
"So that would be a 'yes,' then," John said.
"Yes, yes—that's a yes, then." Rodney tapped at his keyboard twice before thrusting the computer at him, the screen filled with Ancient text and what looked like a blueprint. John barely got a look at it; he recognized the puddlejumper symbol from the wall marking one of the open spaces in the diagram before Rodney made an impatient noise and pulled it back.
"I'm not surprised you felt drawn to this place, Sheppard—it was used to train puddlejumper pilots on how to deal with stressful situations," McKay said, smirking a little as he traced his finger along the lines of text on his screen. He looked up. "I'd say you failed."
"The room's broken, McKay." He took a step forward and spread out his arms as if to prove his point—damaged console, broken lights, disabled door. Rodney sniffed as though John's expansive gesture wasn't exactly the sort of melodramatic gesticulation he often engaged in, and started walking in a circle, looking closely at the walls.
"I don't know if you've noticed, but the Ancients seemed to have a very pass/fail attitude about life in general," Rodney said absently, his back to John. "At any rate, don't step directly in front of the console you're probably already walking toward, or you'll end up strapped to the floor by your boots, and I'll end up laugh—" He stopped short, not turning around, one finger in the air like he'd just come up with a new theory of quantum gravity, or something. "On second thought, carry on."
"Funny," John said, skirting the front of the raised section of floor just in time. "How does strapping someone to the floor help them fly?"
"Not fly," Rodney said, his circuit of the room having led him back to face John, blue eyes twinkling over his smug expression. "Stay in one piece. This—" He pointed to the console. "—is a larger version of this." McKay held up his tablet computer. His voice was just one step below insufferable, and it only got worse. "It's for—I don't know what you'd call it—extreme problem-solving. Basically? This room trained their flyboys to think like me. "
"So the room was built to teach pilots how to think on their feet?" John asked, groaning inwardly. This was all he needed. McKay was going to be intolerable for weeks.
"I think these symbols might actually be part of a puzzle they had to solv— Oh, come on, Sheppard, is that the best you can do?" he demanded once John's pun had registered. McKay whirled around to give him a withering look of disgust before starting to pace in concentric circles in front of the doorway, eyes darting from wall to wall looking for patterns in the ideograms.
Just before it happened, he realized McKay was going to step dangerously close to the panel he'd warned John away from. For a split second, he considered not saying anything, letting it happen—but he remembered the look on Rodney's face when he'd nearly stumbled onto the booby trap. John realized he had no idea whether the water mechanism was completely disabled, and even though he was sure Rodney would be able to extricate himself, there was no telling how long that would take... He moved forward swiftly, knowing even as he did so that he was just a little too far away to reach the other man even if he threw himself in the way.
"Rodney wait! Don't—"
McKay had circled too close to the console; his notoriously sharp focus was directed elsewhere as he squinted at the symbols on the opposite wall, hand flying over the keys of his tablet. John's shouted warning came too late, just as the other man stumbled on the lip of the low dais the console stood on. Rodney toppled, eyes flashing back towards John in surprise and confusion before looking away to pull himself up by the edge of the control panel, still clutching the computer. There was a dull hissing sound, then a sharp, sliding series of THWACKs as metal straps shot out from beneath the panel and wrapped themselves firmly around McKay's boots before burying themselves in the floor.
John held his breath. Rodney stood still, uncharacteristically silent, his shoulders tense beneath his jacket. John couldn't see his face, but somehow that was worse.
"Rodney..." he started to say in a voice that was choked between apologetic and soothing.
"Just—" McKay's voice was sharp, and John could see the muscle in his jaw clenching, though the rest of his body was eerily motionless. "Just give me a minute," he repeated, with less vehemence. John felt tightness in his chest and realized that oxygen really was sort of necessary, though the feeling didn't go away, even after a few deep breaths. The seconds ticked by, punctuated only by Rodney setting his tablet computer down very carefully and crossing his arms. John felt worse than when he'd been seven years old and had learned just how much his father hated water balloons—and this hadn't even been his fault. Not really. He internalized a long sigh and plodded over into Rodney's line of sight, though he couldn't bring himself to make eye contact.
"Do you, uh." John coughed, his hand pulling nervously at his neck. "Do you need— Can I help you with—" His eyes flicked upwards, no longer able to avoid the draw that McKay always seemed to have on his attention. Rodney's eyes were wide, his mouth set in a grim line. The instant they made eye contact, however, Rodney shifted from mostly unhappy to completely incredulous in no seconds flat.
"You did that on purpose! You totally did that on purpose!" Rodney poked an indignant finger in his direction before setting his chin at an angry angle and crossing his arms again tightly. John felt a little off-balance, as the other man looked more like a chastising parent than someone trapped in a room with a nasty habit of filling with frigid seawater.
"Rodney, I swear, I didn't mean for that to—" John broke off at the disbelieving huff, and started over. "Look, ok, yes, it crossed my mind—"
"I knew it!"
"—but I was sure you'd be able to get out of there even if it did happen." John held his hands out in between them in a placating gesture, but that was doing about as much good as the low, earnest tone of voice he was using. "Then I remembered the look on your face when you—when you called out to stop me—" when you called out my name "but it was too late to stop you, and—"
"Oh no, no no no no, Colonel, you are NOT allowed to try to get out of the blame with flattery," Rodney said, shaking his head and starting to turn away from John before stopping short and making a pained noise. He passed a hand over his face, the other bracing himself on the console. "I should have kept my mouth shut."
"No, I'm serious," Rodney muttered. "I should have just stayed quiet and you'd have gotten stuck and then I could be doing something productive right now while Zelenka or someone less overqualified got you un-stuck." John was convinced for about half a second before he shook his head.
"There's no way you'd have let me get stuck in the first pla—"
"Oh, really?" Rodney really needed to stop interrupting him mid-sentence. "Well. What does that say about YOU, Sheppard?" The hurt look in his eyes was completely justified, John thought, gut-punched. He looked up at Rodney, who was all fragile superiority and injured pride, and that tight feeling was back again.
"Hey," John protested, his voice a bit weaker than he'd intended. "I tried to stop you!"
"Right, right. This after you goaded me into—"
"It was a joke, Rodney," John said—and when the hell had this started to hurt? This... this banter was them, always had been, but somehow their conversation had tangled up in some sort of strange current that flowed on top of everything and prickled it with tension. He sighed, and looked at Rodney with as contrite an expression as he could manage. "Just tell me how to get you out of there."
"Not a chance," Rodney snapped, reaching up with lightning swiftness toward his earpiece. "I'd rather risk my physical safety with my moronic underlings—they at least have motivation to get me out of here in one piece."
John was surprised at how painful those words were. Rodney actually looked like he felt betrayed, and while John knew deep down his reaction was highly irrational, this made him very, very angry. Before he even realized what he was doing, he strode over to where McKay was stiffly poised to bark orders into his headset and snatched it right off of his ear. He'd moved so quickly that the only contact Rodney had with him was a hot flash of knuckles brushed against the inside of John's wrist. Rodney nearly overbalanced himself leaning over with an outstretched hand, grasping at nothingness where John had just been, but he was caught by the straps, and it was too late.
"You're not calling anybody," John said unnecessarily, holding up the stolen earpiece before placing it very deliberately into the front pocket of his pants. It was still warm from having been worn all day, and that heat combined with the warmth that pooled in his gut from watching Rodney's wide-eyed gaze follow his hand there made John hope to hell the dim light was enough to hide his body's reaction. Rodney's eyes lingered, and John felt his face flush, certain that he'd been found out, and why did it have to be now, when he was for all intents and purposes trapped here just as surely as McKay was?
"I—" Rodney started slowly, and here it was, here would come the accusation—and Jesus, John, can't you keep your stupid feelings to yourself—but then McKay continued on, and John's rush of relief wasn't nearly as strong as it should have been. "I can't believe you did that. You actually..." His voice trailed off, and he finally looked up (thank god) at John's face, into his eyes where John could watch the transition from disbelief to outrage in seven one-second steps. "Give that back!"
"No." John shook his head firmly, sternly suppressing his own desire to flick a thumb across the tingling spot on his wrist. "Show me what to do."
"It's not—" Rodney's eyes slid back down, burning a hole through his pocket and beyond. He licked his lips, and John started running through an Apache pre-flight checklist in his head desperately, the routine just a little distant after three years in Atlantis but still enough to distract him. "It'll have to be trial and error, a-and—and the only place to interface is out in the other room," Rodney said, his hand trembling as he reached out to examine the screen on his computer. Rodney flashed a couple of frightened glances around the room at the various places where water still dripped onto the floor. He cleared his throat, and spoke again, his voice more confident. "I mean, obviously, I have had more experience being trapped in enclosed spaces with the imminent threat of drowning, but I do much better as the person doing the, um."
"Rescuing?" John said, unable to prevent the smile. "I'm sure you can explain it to me," he added confidently, reaching out a hand for the tablet computer. Rodney shook his head a little, pulling it close to his chest in what John was sure was an unconscious gesture.
"It's not that I don't trust you, it's just that, well, messing around with the controls without having any idea of what they do could end up with me stuck in here with the doors locked shut and the water coming back in, with the added benefit of my being strapped to the floor."
"So, it's not that you don't trust me—it's... that you don't trust me," John clarified. Rodney actually had the presence of mind to look horrified for a split second before taking a deep breath, looking him straight in the eye, and holding the computer out with both hands.
"I trust you," he said in a voice that was completely steady, even though his hands were not. John blinked, waiting for the world to lurch sideways or the sky to open up or something momentous to happen, because, god, if he hadn't already been in love with Rodney by then, that would have been the moment, right there.
A second later he was stepping up and taking it, feeling like a total jerk as he avoided Rodney's gaze (but, really, the man was already trapped in a room known for its affinity for ice-cold, watery death, did he really need to know John's Not-Just-a-Crush had just gotten much, much worse?) in favor of heading out toward the antechamber where the holographic console was. Just as he moved sideways to push through the disabled doors, Rodney's voice echoed through the room.
"Colonel, how exactly am I supposed to give you instructions without my radio?"
"Nice try," John said grimly, and walked the rest of the way to crouch down next to the projector, looking for the place to interface the tablet with.
"Is it hooked up yet?" came McKay's distant voice, filtering through the space between them.
"Getting there," he shouted back.
"Do you have any water? I'm going to get really dry if I have to keep screaming at you like this."
"If I didn't think you'd be yelling just as loudly over the headset..." John said, a little louder than he'd intended.
"I heard that!"
"Good, it means we don't have to scream to be heard," John shot back. An incoherent-sounding grumble followed, and John took advantage of the fact that Rodney couldn't see him and grinned broadly.
"Any time this century, Sheppard!"
"Hey, Rodney, if you want water, just keep telling me to rush," John threatened, finally managing to hook the two systems up correctly. He wondered as he watched the flickering lines of Ancient code across his screen if this was how McKay felt when his team kept bugging him for input when he was working on something important.
"He is so lucky I have a weakness for overly attractive Lieutenant Colonels!" The words were muttered, floating to his ears in a barely-there way that had him questioning whether he'd really heard them at all—but they were followed almost immediately by an unmistakable hiss of "Shit! and a worrying 'thunk' sound. John scrambled to his feet without another thought, drawn to the sudden, dizzying idea that was buzzing persistently around his head. He suddenly really, really needed to see the look on Rodney's face.
"Rodney? You ok there?" he called out from the other room. The noise really had seemed loud, and given Rodney's fixed position, there weren't many options as to how it could have been made.
"I'm fine, Sheppard." The sound was muffled, like McKay's face had been covered when he spoke.
"You sure? It sounded a lot like you hurt yourself," John said, jogging into the room to see Rodney, back bowed, his head buried in his arms in what looked to be the world's most uncomfortable position, ever.
"Well, I didn't. So, unless you have some water or a powerbar—" Rodney asked plaintively, voice still loud to reach John in the other room.
John pulled one of the latter out of his vest and started to unwrap it. He circled around to the back of the console just in time to see Rodney pop his head up in surprise, as if he hadn't been aware that John had gotten so close. Close enough to see that Rodney had a reddish mark on the left side of his face.
"Looks painful," John said neutrally, holding out the half-opened powerbar just far enough away that Rodney would have to reach out to grasp it. He expected the man to snap at him, to complain about the stupidity of military flyboys or something, but McKay just muttered something mostly incoherent about feeling better if he wasn't stuck, and pulled the food from his hand with none of his usual biting manner. It was strangely disappointing, but did nothing to calm the twist of fear-hope-anxiety in his chest. Still, he'd never known Rodney to be hurt without loud protestations, even on the occasion that an injury was self-inflicted. Something was definitely up. John decided that tact wasn't really a factor when the subject of one's impromptu interrogation wasn't going anywhere.
"What's going on, Rodney?" He expected to hear a withering 'What do you think is going on? I'm bolted to the floor!" Instead, he was favored with what he was sure McKay thought was a suitably blank look.
"I don't know what you mean."
"I heard…" John felt about two feet tall as his throat closed up and he fell silent. He'd been about to say 'I heard what you said,' but he just… couldn't, he couldn't do it. "It sounded like you hurt yourself," he said instead, his voice sounding dull and distant even to his own ears.
"I—well, I slipped," Rodney stuttered out, his tone defensive. John's head jerked up so fast he imagined he heard the wind rushing past his ears.
"On what?" he interrupted incredulously as Rodney crossed his arms and frowned.
"I doesn't matter. Look, can you please just go back in there and get me unstuck?" Rodney almost shouted the words at him, the muscles in his arms flexing as though they were still trying to gesture, even while restrained. McKay was starting to look trapped—which was ridiculous, because he was trapped, and had been for quite some time, but somehow the man had managed to stay poised and in control through most of it. Until now.
"I wanted to see if you were ok, Rodney," John said, borrowing McKay's 'I'm speaking to a very slow child' tone of voice.
"Well, thank you! I'm grateful, really," Rodney said, sounding anything but. "Honestly though, I'm fine! Shoo! Go fix!" The longer John stood there and stared calmly at McKay, the more worked up the scientist became, until he was actually making shooing motions with his hands. The warmth at the pit of John's stomach flared up again at Rodney's nervous, blustery behavior—because he recognized it, knew it all too well. Rodney was hiding something. Something he very much didn't want John to figure out, and the fact that he grew more agitated with each passing minute meant that he was expecting John to figure it out very soon.
John thought he kind of recognized the feeling.
"I'd rather you tell me what made you hit your head," he said softly, taking a step forward.
"John," he corrected, earning himself a sharp blue glance that nearly knocked him back a pace. How had he ever thought Rodney was easy to figure out? There had been an entire cocktail of emotions in that look, not the least of which was the bright flare of what John really wanted to be hope. Rodney blinked, and it was all gone, replaced with an annoyance so transparently false that John imagined he could still see the hope in its place.
"What?" McKay—and that was definitely McKay, not Rodney speaking—asked. He passed a hand over his eyes and started complaining sourly about the room, John's capability as a rescuer, and the uncomfortable nature of being stuck with no one willing to help—and John took his chance. He moved quietly around the console and up onto the low platform just as Rodney's rant hit fever pitch.
"Look, can you please go back out there and get me un-stuck? I'm not really at my best right now and—oh, my god, what are you doing?!"
John had reached out to grasp Rodney's chin and tilt his head to the side, ostensibly to look at the mark on Rodney's face. As soon as his hands made contact with Rodney, however, the man had stiffened, his hands stopping their aimless wanderings to freeze in place. His mouth hadn't stopped moving, however, even when John leaned forward, emboldened by the fact that Rodney may have frozen in place, but he hadn't pushed John away.
"I'm shutting you up, Rodney," John said, his voice sounding low and foreign to his own ears as he spoke the words against Rodney's shocked and unresisting mouth. It wasn't a conventional kiss—wasn't really a kiss at all, a kiss would probably have been less intimate, eyes closed and instinct taking over. As it was, John's lips brushed Rodney's, their breaths mingling, eyes meeting for a brief, revealing second before Rodney's lids closed, lashes trembling against his cheeks. John forced his breathing to steady, but Rodney's breaths came in short, stuttered brushes of heat, his pulse racing beneath John's fingertips. They stood like that for what felt like an hour, torturous and heady, before John spoke again.
"If you want me to move, you're going to have to push me away," he said, voice barely above a whisper. Each time his mouth moved, he felt, tasted Rodney's breath, sweet and soft, and his hand shook so much at Rodney's jaw that John shifted it to his shoulder instead, thumb moving warmly against the collarbone. He was unbelievably turned on, aching with it, but their bodies weren't oriented in a way that hinted whether Rodney was as well—and he was damned if he was going to move a muscle, now, not after challenging Rodney like this. "But, if you want me…"
At that, Rodney groaned, low in his throat, his hand coming down to rest tentatively on the arm John held at his side. John clenched that fist tightly, too tight, needing the pain and the pull of muscle to stop him from sliding his hand into Rodney's soft—it would be soft, his mind babbled at him, soft and warm and—hair and pull him in, to take and take. His self-control was at an all-time low (or high, depending on one's perspective), and John couldn't stop himself from tipping his head to the side ever so slightly, nudging his nose against Rodney's, and even that relatively innocent contact flowed through his body as liquid anticipation.
"Oh, god," Rodney gasped, surging forward, the hand at John's arm sliding up under his sleeve as he burned the words into John's mouth hotly, wetly. Rodney tasted like coffee and desperation, and suddenly it was John who was racing to catch up, fingers tangling in Rodney's shirt at his waist as Rodney nipped at him and tasted him, his other hand hooked into John's vest to pull him closer. John forgot that he was supposed to have the upper hand, that Rodney was the one trapped; he was lost in the pleasure of finally. Rodney rocked forward, his thigh brushing against John's leg just as his tongue curled around John's, the movement so sensual and calculated that John felt like he was flying and drowning all at once. He rocked back, earning a gasp and another 'god!' from Rodney, followed by a similar exclamation from his own lips as Rodney's hand slipped down his arm and pressed against his ass.
Instead of making their movements more frantic, this seemed to make them more real, keying into the feeling of devastating intimacy from earlier. John slid his hand up to card it through Rodney's hair, pulling Rodney's lower lip into his mouth to suck on it before freeing it to do the same to the other. They traded soft, swollen kisses, heavy with emotion, until John willed his eyes to open, brushing his mouth against Rodney's one last time before pulling back a few inches. He was breathless, his pants tight and his pulse racing, above all unbelievably horny, but he was happy, his whole body thrumming with it. Rodney's eyes were still closed tightly, his body twisted into what was probably a very uncomfortable position, his lower body pressing warmly against John.
John let himself trace his eyes down Rodney's body, taking in the uneven breaths, the way he'd arched as close to John as possible under the circumstances—and, wait. His left foot was turned, oriented toward John, but weren't his boots supposed to be…
"The trap released," John said, brushing his fingers against Rodney's neck before pulling his hand away. Instead of opening his eyes, Rodney slid his foot forward, testing to see if John was right and incidentally creating a glide of delicious friction against John's groin. He let out a ragged breath and tried to step prudently away, but the hand at his waist tightened.
"Huh," Rodney said. "You're right. It must be on a timer."
John knew—well, he was pretty sure… okay, almost sure that he and Rodney were on the same page, but he had put the other man in a pretty impossible situation, trapped and taunted, so it was only fair to offer him an out, in case… well. In case. He pulled his hands away reluctantly, shuttering his eyes from the way Rodney looked, lips red, hair mussed, clothes in disarray, all because of him.
"So, if you want to step away," John started, knowing McKay was smart enough to catch a double meaning when it was handed to him on a platter. Rodney opened his eyes, pinning him in place with a look so knowing and affectionate that John blushed. It figured that, with his usual impeccable timing, Rodney would choose now to catch every nuance and hidden meaning John hadn't intended to reveal. Untangling his hand from John's vest, Rodney let his own hands drop, his face turning serious.
"I have a weakness for overly attractive Lieutenant Colonels, remember?" he said gently, his mouth quirking into a smile. "I'm still trapped here until you—"
John thought the words would be even better if he tasted them instead of heard them, and he was right. The kiss was intense, full of promise, and the best part of all was the fact that Rodney didn't move a muscle, not even when John trailed a tingling hand down his forearm to find Rodney's wide, clever hand tightened into a fist. John stroked his tongue against Rodney's as he stroked his fingers against his wrist, coaxing his hand open to rub his thumb into Rodney's palm, hot and sweaty. John broke the kiss by stepping back, tugging Rodney along with him via their joined hands.
"Well, that answers that question," John said, trying for a thread of humor in his voice and getting a broken, deep tone instead.
"You had to ask?" Rodney shot back, tentative and vulnerable. They shared a look of understanding before making their way across the room and out the door into a teasing argument, their words picking up the connection where their hands left off.