John could think of worse things than being stuck in a transporter with the third corner of his own personal love triangle for going on four hours.
Being permanently grounded. Leaving Atlantis. Crawly things. Pissing off Teyla. Rodney asking him to be his best man.
John shuddered at that last, very real, possibility and tuned back in to Keller's chatter.
"How long did they say it'd take to get us out of here?" she asked.
John shrugged and let his head fall back against the transporter wall with a dull thud. "Woolsey said Zelenka's working on it, but he's still looking for what caused the problem. He needs to know before he can try correcting it." He smiled. "Worst case scenario, Rodney's scheduled back from M76-677 in an hour, so we'll be out in about two."
"Great, we can be his damsels in distress. I guess it's his turn to rescue you." Keller's laugh was forced and brittle as she said it, and John shifted uncomfortably at the sound. He wondered what was going on in her head. "Sorry," she said, although John wasn't sure for what. "We should play a game to pass the time - keep our minds busy," Keller offered. "Prime, not-prime?"
John could see from the tentative smile on her face that she was trying to be nice, maybe even using Rodney's game as a peace offering for the scary laugh, but John - selfish bastard that he was - didn't want to see something he enjoyed tainted. God, he was an asshole. Jennifer was a sweet kid, and a decent enough doctor. Technically, she was probably better qualified for what Pegasus threw at her than Beckett had been.
But she wasn't a kid: she was a woman. The woman in fact. The woman for Rodney, apparently, and John tried really hard not to resent her for that. He couldn't fault her for loving the same person he did. There were things he could fault her for, but he tried not to dwell on those for Rodney's sake and his own sanity. She made him want to punch walls and throw one - maybe both - of them off the nearest balcony every time she said Rodney's name.
He knew he should accept her olive branch and play the damn game with her. At best, he'd get to show off his superior mathematical knowledge and (maybe) feel bad about showing the doc up later. At worst, he'd discover that Keller was a secret math prodigy and even more perfect for Rodney than he already suspected.
A sudden clatter from outside the door pulled him out of his melancholy. He and Keller both watched the door intently for a moment, but there were no other sounds.
Keller turned back to him and pointed to her ear, asking if anyone was talking to John through the headset. He shook his head, and she shrugged. "3097?" she offered.
John forced himself not to grimace. "Nah," he said, "It's less fun without Rodney to shock and amaze. He's so cute when he's flustered." John meant it to be a joke - he really did - but to his own ears he sounded almost wistful. He winced and then immediately smiled to cover, inviting Keller in on the joke.
Keller's smile faltered briefly, but she held onto her cheerfulness as she offered, "I spy?"
John looked up and glanced around the tiny space. There was barely room for the both of them to be sitting on the ground. "I spy with my little eye something dead."
Keller's answering laugh was bright and genuine. "My game idea?" she guessed.
John laughed despite himself. Damn, he hated it worst of all when she went all likeable on him. "The control panel actually, but good one."
Keller giggled again, but she didn't offer up anymore games.
"So," Keller asked after forty five minutes of silence broken only by more of those muffled thumps and some odd clanging. "Since I have you trapped here for awhile, how've you been eating?"
John looked around, a protest on his lips, "What…" But the words died when he caught sight of her knowing smirk. "Oh, ha, ha, Doc."
"I know. I should have been a comedian," she quipped back, looking genuinely pleased with John's reaction.
"And deprived us all of your presence here on Atlantis?" It wasn't until he'd already spoken that John realized how often he'd wished for just that.
As if she knew it too, Keller's smile flattened out. "Colonel…" she started.
"Sheppard? John, are you there?" Rodney's voice through the headset had never been more beautiful.
"McKay. How's Keras doing?" John asked, nearly giddy with relief at the timely interruption.
"Your little boy toy is fine, Colonel," Rodney snarled. "Don't worry, next time you can come with me and see for yourself."
"Awww, Rodney, no need to be jealous. You know I love you best," John teased.
A choked off gasp near him drowned out Rodney's disgruntled response, reminding John that he wasn't alone. John forced the smile off of his face, and dropped the banter. "So how long until you fix this thing?" he asked.
"Since I have no idea how you managed to break it in the first place," Rodney paused expectantly, but the tense presence next to him kept John from retorting. "Maybe an hour. Just sit tight. And breathe shallow."
John frowned, but Rodney had already signed off. He shifted awkwardly on the floor. "So, Rodney's back."
"I gathered," Keller said, still sounding cheerful but there was a strain under the tone.
"He said it'd be an hour. With proper motivation I think it'll be about half an hour."
"And by motivation, you mean pressure." Now Keller just sounded disapproving.
"It works," John said defensively. Sure, he could be tough on Rodney, but only because he believed in him. And it did work. He'd proven that time and again. "He has it in him: he just needs a little encouragement."
"You bring out the best in him," Keller observed softly, almost as if she was speaking to herself.
John shrugged, not comfortable with the thoughtfulness in her tone or how her thoughts were paralleling his own. "I guess. Mostly I think he just overestimates to make himself to look better," John lied.
"No, you don't," Keller said wisely, but she left it at that, slipping back into silence
John was grateful for the first twenty minutes. But then the noises outside the transporter stopped, and the quiet sat heavily in the air. "You know," he said, "Rodney…"
Keller looked up, looking almost as nervous as John felt.
"Sheppard?" Once again Rodney's voice saved John. This time without the filter of the headsets. He had no idea why they hadn't been able to hear anyone before - as far as he knew there was only the door separating them from the rest of Atlantis. They hadn't even touched anything before the power had failed completely, plunging the transporter and its two occupants into total darkness.
"John? Are you okay?" Rodney's voice was muffled by the still-sealed doors of the transporter, but John felt his spirits lift at the unique blend of concern and confidence that was all Rodney. Until he caught sight of the hope-filled smile of his companion and remembered that Rodney was her knight in shining armor, and he was just Sancho Panza in this story.
"Rodney," Keller's voice was too soft to carry through the door, but John didn't think she was actually trying to talk to her boyfriend. She was saying his name as if it was a talisman to ward off bad spirits. The joy and hope and trust and - he hated to admit it even to himself - love in her voice made John feel like the lowest man in the universe both for harboring a secret crush on her boyfriend and for loathing her entire existence in his city.
John had to clear his throat against the lump forming there before he could answer. "Yeah, buddy, we're fine."
"John? Oh, thank God. I've almost got you. Just give me…" Rodney paused, and when he spoke again he was obviously addressing someone else. "Get out of the way, moron. I could have had him out an hour ago if you'd quit helping me. Or you know, called me when Atlantis's military leader managed to get himself stuck in what is, essentially, an elevator." John's melancholy was no match for the dulcet sounds of Rodney's berating, and John smiled despite himself, turning to share his pleasure with Keller unthinkingly.
She smiled wanly back at him, but it was obvious to him that she didn't share his delight in Rodney's wicked tongue. Of course, he knew that already. Unfortunately, so did Rodney. Some days John had to work twice as hard to get him wound up into a proper rant.
Finally, there was a crack of light, blinding to his blown pupils, just a sliver, but growing bigger by the second as two very familiar hands pried the doors the rest of the way open, and then Rodney was right there in the doorway, backlit so that he was haloed in the light. There was alarm on his face that faded to relief as he took John's hand between the two of his and hauled him bodily out of the transporter and straight into his arms for a brief hug.
"John," he said, turning him into the light so he could see John properly. John was now facing into the small space he'd shared with Keller for so long, giving him a perfect view into the transporter where a confused-looking Keller was being helped out of the transporter by another doctor. "Are you okay? Feeling lightheaded?" Rodney was asking, "I don't think those things are air tight, but I couldn't be sure. We should get you looked at just in case."
"Rodney," Zelenka said pointedly, indicating Dr. Keller standing quietly behind Rodney. Rodney whirled, face brightening when he spotted her.
John braced himself for a tearful reunion.
"Jennifer, thank god." Keller smiled shyly, all signs of hurt erased until, "Could you look at Sheppard? He was trapped in the transporter all day."
Her face fell, but John admired the speed at which it morphed into a stony mask: he couldn't have done it any better. "I know. I was with him," she said without a trace of reproach in her voice.
Rodney turned back to John. "Yes, yes, but…" It took a second, but John could see the moment Rodney's ears caught up to his mouth. "Wait, what?" He kept looking at John, as if seeking confirmation. John nodded slightly, trying to disguise the motion from Keller.
Rodney whirled back around to Keller. "You were?" he asked, stepping closer to look her up and down.
"Yes," Jennifer answered, a rueful smile forming, "the whole five hours."
"Oh," Rodney said, "Well, that's…that's good. I mean, no, not good that you were stuck as well, but at least you had each other. You know, immediate medical attention if Sheppard somehow found a way to sacrifice himself to the transporter to save your life or something."
"Rodney," John whined. "I did not try to sacrifice myself to the transporter. I don't think that's even possible."
Rodney stepped back a little so he could see them both - forming a literal triangle to John's internal amusement. "You'd find a way. You've been trying to get yourself killed and leave me with these morons for years. As if I could handle this place without…" Rodney's mouth shut abruptly and his cheeks went pink.
John smiled lazily, "You're onto me. It's all been a ploy to drive you crazy."
Rodney snorted. "I wouldn't put it past you."
"Rodney," Keller said, interrupting their back and forth, "thank you for rescuing us. Both of us." She looked at John briefly and then suggested, "Why don't you have dinner with Colonel Sheppard tonight to reassure yourself he's okay?"
John stared at her. She was watching Rodney, studiously ignoring John.
"But. We have plans tonight." Rodney said uncertainly, and John knew that Rodney couldn't quite remember if that was true. "And I need to be sure you're alright?"
"We had plans a half hour ago, and you never noticed I was missing." Keller said it gently, but Rodney flinched anyway.
"I… John was… Zelenka called me," Rodney tried to explain.
Keller put a hand on Rodney's arm to stop him. "It's okay. I was going to have to cancel anyway, lots to do. In fact, I better get back to work now since I've wasted half the day playing games with the Colonel." She turned to John briefly. "I think we're done with that now."
Rodney's face fell as he looked between the two of them, obviously guilty and uncomfortable with it. "Yes, well, since you're both alright. Saved again by my overwhelming genius…" John rolled his eyes but didn't try to stop his smile. Keller's expression remained slightly strained tolerance.
"Go ahead, buddy," John said, "get back to work before the minions sink the city."
Rodney nodded but hesitated. "You're sure you're okay?" he asked, eyes darting between the both of them.
"We're fine, Rodney," Keller assured him. "We'll go to the infirmary to be sure. Both of us," she added pointedly when John opened his mouth to protest.
Rodney nodded and started to turn back to Zelenka, but Jennifer's hand on his arm restrained him again. She leaned up to place a small kiss on Rodney's cheek. John thought he heard her whisper something into Rodney's ear, but it was too quiet to hear. He didn't think it was meant for him anyway.
Then Keller released Rodney, turning the opposite direction toward the infirmary without a backward glance. Rodney touched his cheek with a troubled expression, and gave John a lingering look. John shrugged and reluctantly turned to follow Keller. As they reached the end of the hall, she turned again and John followed her gaze with his own eyes. She was watching Rodney, so John let himself as well.
"I spy with my little eye," Keller said softly, sadly, "a man in love."
John swallowed audibly, pain clutching around his heart. He nodded and then spoke past the lump in his throat, "Rodney."
"Yes," Keller agreed. She turned and met John's eyes. "But he's not in love with me." She didn't let John look away, her eyes daring him to argue with her. He shook his head, and she smiled at him, pityingly. "We're not the only ones who can see how wonderful he is," Keller said, "And the others may not be as gracious in defeat as me. Carpe Diem, Colonel." With that advice she turned the corner.
John paused a moment longer, eyes seeking out Rodney again. Rodney was staring back down the hall at him, and John found himself moving back towards Rodney without consciously deciding to move. Rodney frowned and moved to meet him, still watching him with eyes filled with worry and something else.
Something John was finally allowing himself to hope was love.