Unconventional Heroism

★★Nominated: McShep Fan Awards, 2008★★

banner by sandrainthesun

Dec. 9th, 2007 10:01 pm

Fandom: SG: Atlantis

Characters: John/Rodney, various

Rating: R

Warnings: Slash, language, violence

Disclaimer: Not mine!

Beta: ferret_kitty who managed this beast in under a week, yo. I didn't think that was even possible!

Summary: Genius billionaire Rodney McKay has his share of secrets, investigative reporter John Sheppard is determined to get to the bottom of them. He'd also like to figure out who the hell the man in the metal suit that keeps saving his life is.

Author's Note: If Rodney were a comic book super hero he'd totally be Iron Man, right? Except that possibly he's smarter than Tony Stark, and not a playboy. And John can't always be a military man/pilot, right? Especially not when he needs to be the nosy, jaded reporter after our hero with heart of gold.

sandrainthesun made the completely amazing banner!

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John had made his reputation as an embedded reporter. He'd started out being shuffled from border skirmish to border skirmish. He had gotten his first big break uncovering the genocide in Argentina. His face had been on every television in the country, as he stood in front of piles of dead bodies and told the world earnestly exactly what he'd discovered.

He'd been twenty-four and instantly famous, for all the good it had done those poor dead bastards. Had spent the next ten years of his life bouncing from one war torn country to the next. He'd been a household name, trusted, and he'd seen, touched, lived, spoke of, nothing but death.

His first book went on the New York Time's Best Seller List, followed by his second, and that had given him the momentum to propel himself into political journalism. He'd thought, somehow, that it would be easier to deal with than the death, the meaningless death, he'd been saturated with for so long—it wasn't.

Sometimes he wonders if he spent too much time in the trenches. Especially when he starts thinking of Washington as just another battlefield, complete with its dead and vultures and crimes against humanity. Mostly, it stops mattering after his insider in the White House gets him enough information to impeach the President.

John actually feels kind of guilty about it, afterwards, especially because he'd voted for the man. Yeah, the guy had been a corrupt bastard, but in the end John has to watch his country do its best to self destruct around him, and thinks he should have stuck to the kind of wars he understood.

He gets another book out of the mess, another best seller even with the country's limping economy. And somehow there's another administration, and all the talk of civil war stops and the dollar halts its downward plunge in stock markets around the world.

Time Magazine names him joint man of the year with Rodney McKay. The cover has their faces beside each other; he's smiling and recognizes the photo from the press release right before they'd led the President away in handcuffs. McKay is serious, all big cold, icy blue eyes that stare up off the page, that send a chill down John's spine.

The article says that McKay Industries supplied many of the jobs that helped get the country back on its feet, that his unmanned mission to Mercury has given the country back its imagination. It says a lot, and it says it all without a single quote from the man himself, who had, apparently, been unavailable for questioning.

John starts thinking that maybe politics really aren't his thing.

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There aren't very many people that can trace their entire lives through newspaper and magazine articles. Rodney McKay has the dubious honor of being one of the few who can.

The man's been famous since he was ten-years old, since he built a nuclear bomb for a science project. He'd gotten his first degree at twelve, did most of the design work on the Atlantis space station at fourteen, made his first billion through a mix of military and civilian work by sixteen. McKay Industries was the biggest privately owned corporation in the world by the time the man was eighteen. And it went on and on.

Even his private life had been almost completely recorded. The attack on his mother before he was born, the coma that she had lain in for the last six months of her pregnancy. They'd called him a miracle baby when he'd been born alive and healthy, and only then had they cut off her life support.

His father's death, which many had called an assassination, though there'd been no proof, was even more publicized. McKay had been nineteen, had married and divorced his first wife, the girl who might technically have been his high school sweetheart, that year as well.

Katie Brown-McKay had been planning on millions in alimony, and she'd never gotten them, though she'd gotten through the best colleges for botany in the country, and no one had ever been able to find a suitable explanation for where a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks had gotten the money for it. Everyone had expected a tell-all book within months of the divorce, but she'd kept her silence, for all intents and purposes happy to trek through the jungles of South America with her doctorates.

Rodney's second wife, Laura Cadman, was also the astronaut that he sent to Mars on the Daedalus when he was twenty-four. They were married almost three years, though most of it she spent in space. They'd divorced as soon as she returned, and the tabloids had came all over themselves in glee, snapping pictures left and right of her and the doctor from her mission, hanging all over each other in public.

Everyone had started salivating for the divorce trial, and McKay had disappointed the entire world by, once again, keeping things quiet and civil. The man had even shown up at the Cadman/Beckett wedding six months later, left behind a private jet and nothing else.

Samantha Carter was wife number three, and they'd been called the smartest couple in the world for the duration of their brief marriage. They'd had an entire three months of domestic bliss after a whirlwind romance during one of McKay's liaisons with the military when he was twenty-eight.

They'd actually been remarried twice, never for longer than three months. Dated off and on for four years, besides that, and still showed a distinct tendency to attend various events with each other. And they'd both been damnably close mouthed the entire course of the relationship.

McKay's never had children, legitimate or bastards. Insider information says he used to keep cats. He has a house on each coast, in the Bahamas and the French Rivera, and spends ninety-nine percent of his time working in the basement of his company headquarters in upstate New York. He owns more patents than John even knew existed, is credited with single handedly supplying the American military machine with its weaponry for the last twenty years, and gives precisely five percent of his profits to charity every year.

There's probably more written about him than any other living human being on Earth, and looking it over, John Sheppard can't help but realize that no one knows a goddamn thing about the man himself. He reaches out absently, snags his cellphone and calls his editor.

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Elizabeth Weir has been his editor for the better part of fifteen years. They'd met in Antarctica, where he'd been covering the war over the no man's land that was rapidly on its way to becoming no land at all. She'd been there trying to drag her protestor boyfriend off before someone noticed him. John had met her when she came to find him to make sure he hadn't gotten any footage of said boyfriend making an ass of himself, or her.

She'd been the first person in years to be unimpressed with him. Had told him that he was, indeed, very good, but she was certain he could do better. She'd arched one of her thin eyebrows at him and looked smug and challenging and he'd been working for her within the week.

When he tells her about his newest plans, there's a beat of silence on the other line. When she speaks her voice is dry, "I don't think you'll be able to get him fired from his own company, John."

John snorts, leans back in his chair and kicks his legs up onto his table. That's as good as approval, and he gropes around on the floor until his fingers close around the neck of his beer, says, "Jesus, ouch! Cut me where it hurts, why don't you?" He pauses to take a long drink, "That means I have your blessing, right?"

He can hear her shuffling papers on the other end of the line, and then, "I suppose if anyone is ever going to get anything out of him, it'd be you. But, John, you have to understand that he doesn't talk to reporters." John does not feel the need to bolster her argument by mentioning that he doesn't think McKay really talks to anyone.

Instead, he grins up to his ceiling, drawls, "He'll talk to me."

They always do.

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Except, McKay won't.

Two weeks later and he's gotten nothing but coolly polite rebuffs from every stewardess, lawyer, employee that he's spoken with. He's left messages that he's gotten absolutely no responses to, and hasn't so much as exchanged a 'hello' with the man himself.

It's starting to drive him crazy. Elizabeth doesn't help, sounds nothing so much as amused when he calls her with his frustrations. She tells him that the John Sheppard charm couldn't really be expected to work on everyone, and he scowls because, honestly, he'd kind of though it did. He smiles and drawls, and people tell him everything. It's the way the world works.

Rodney McKay apparently didn't get that memo.

And it's not fair. Especially because he's spent the last two weeks digging apart every and any information about the scientist he can get his hands on, and coming to increasingly outlandish explanations for the complete failure of McKay to respond to him in any way. He's convinced now that McKay's secrets must be even larger than he had at first suspected.

He wonders if the other man tests all of those weapons he makes on puppies, or possibly kittens. Maybe he employs five year olds in sweat shops, or beats up old people in his spare time. John isn't sure what it is, but he can feel the secrets here. Needs to be the one to uncover them.

He figures that's a good enough reason to be sitting in the reception area of McKay Industries, New York Branch, for the fifth morning in a row. The receptionist behind the desk is giving him a filthy look beneath the disarrayed brown mop of her hair. He tries smiling at her, and if anything that just increases the sourness of her expression, and so he gives it up. Settles in for another few hours of staring at the closed door that Rodney McKay may or may not potentially be behind.

A half an hour later he's completely zoned out, and almost jumps out of his skin when the door opens.

He recognizes McKay from the pictures currently littering his hotel room. The man looks like he's been working for hours, all bloodshot eyes and short hair sticking up in a thousand different directions, as though he's been pulling at it. He also looks absolutely pissed, storming up to John, snapping, "You know, goodwill has kept me from filling a restraining order against you so far. I'm starting to think that was a mistake. Go away."

John barely has time to scramble to his feet before McKay is there, and he suffers a brief flash of confusion, because he'd thought... Well, he'd thought that McKay would be taller. Shoves his hand out to cover his surprise, aims for charming and disarming with his smile.

For a long second McKay just stares at his extended hand, and then snorts and shakes John's hand so perfunctorily it manages to feel exactly like a dismissal. And then McKay's got both hands on his hips again, staring up at John viciously.

John clears his throat, not ready to give up hope yet, says, "Look, I'm John Sheppard and--"

"I know who you are. You're famous." Coming from McKay it doesn't sound like a compliment. "You're also unwelcome. And trespassing. And in about five minutes you'll be able to add arrested to the list, as well."

It's been a long time since he was arrested. That had been in Cambodia, and one of the few times he'd really thought he was going to die. The American prison system doesn't hold quite the same level of terror for him, but he's willing to acknowledge that it wouldn't really look good to turn up on all over the internet for pissing off Rodney McKay.

He scrambles for a way to smooth things out, "Look, I'm not trying to cause trouble, I just wanted--"

"A story." And just like that McKay suddenly looks exhausted. He sags, rubs a hand up over his face, and John freezes. He'd expected a lot of things from finally meeting McKay. Vulnerability hadn't been one of them, and he isn't sure what to do with it. He, absurdly, wants to reach out. Soothe.

Thankfully, McKay continues before John can follow through on his temporary insanity, "God. You scavengers." The man's lip curls up, a flash of disgust, "What is it you want information on? The Zero Point Energy theory? The Puddlejumper Program? It doesn't matter. I'll have someone get it for you, if you just—just go away. Go write your article and leave me--leave my people alone."

John opens his mouth, starts to say, "I--" and McKay just waves a hand, turns on his heel and marches back to his room.

The man snaps at the receptionist from half way through the door, "Give him what he wants. Get him out of here." He slams the door, hard enough to make John flinch, because the bang of it is sharp enough to remind his hindbrain of gunfire.

He casts one last desperate look at the receptionist, tries again, "Look, I just want to talk to him. Can't you..." But she's just pointing at the door, her expression set and stern and John Sheppard's not sure how he knows when he's beat, because he can't recall ever being beat before.

There's a first time for everything, he supposes. He sighs, pulls out his card, even though he's probably left a dozen with various members of McKay's staff over the last two weeks. Lays it flat on her desk, tries one more smile, because, hell, it's not like he can make it worse, and sighs when her expression doesn't so much as twitch.

When he calls Elizabeth out in the parking lot and admits defeat she laughs at him, says, "I told you."

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There's nothing else for him to do but head to the airport, and make tracks back to LA, and so that's what he does. Of course, just to make his day even worse, there are no seats available in first class, and he gets shoved into coach between a man that appears to be having a panic attack and a woman trying to control her two children in the row in front of them.

He's got a headache, his internal clock is still all fucked up from this trip to the east coast, he's been completely shot down for a story he was dying to write, and the hits just keep on coming. He grits his teeth, settles determinedly into his viciously uncomfortable chair, and does his best to pretend that he's on a beach somewhere.

They're a little over four hours in the air when he's dislodged by the daze he'd fallen into. For a long minute he just blinks dumbly at the giant screen in the front of the seating compartment where some animated movie is playing soundlessly, trying to figure out what had interrupted his fugue state. It takes an embarrassingly long time for him to realize that it's his cell phone, vibrating in his pocket.

He spends another instant staring down at it, because he knows damn well he turned it off before boarding the plane, but it's buzzing unhappily now, the number showing on the screen long enough to be an IP address.

It's curiosity, and a sudden perverse desire to see if talking on a cell phone really will crash a plane, that makes him answer, voice low so he doesn't wake the snoring people all around him. He says, "Hello?" wondering if maybe he's actually dreaming, and knowing he shouldn't have eaten the extremely questionable pudding that the flight attendants had brought around earlier.

For a long second there's just silence on the other line, and then a desperate voice, thin and whisper small, "Sheppard? John Sheppard?" He tenses in his seat, shoving the woman drooling on his shoulder to the side, because he recognizes that voice. For a second there's a hot flash of giddy stupid relief in his gut, because McKay must have changed his mind, must have decided he'd do the interview anyway.

And then he realizes that the other man sounds terrified out of his skull. He ignores the chill up his spine, says, "McKay?"

"Oh, thank God." The man makes a sound that might be a sob, voice still so low John can barely hear it over the engines and the air filtering units. "Where are you? No. It doesn't matter, no time. I need you to take your phone to the police right now. No! The Air Force or—Sam Carter. Take the phone to Sam Carter right now. You know her, right? You must. You knew me and everyone that knows me knows her and you have to go to her right now, I think she's stationed in Colorado right now somewhere."

The man says it all in one long breath. John has just enough time to start thinking he should protest before McKay's at it again, "I've managed to get an uplink onto your phone that should be transmitting my GPS coordinates, and I should be able to keep the stream working as long as you stay on the line, so for Christ's sake, don't hang up and watch the battery. And—I mentioned the whole taking it to Sam thing, right? You have to do that. Right now."

John can feel his mouth hanging open, and snaps it shut. He blurts, "What the hell?" too loud into the otherwise silent plane, and someone a few rows behind him shushes him. He hunches over further in the seat, cupping his free hand over his mouth and the phone, hisses, "What's going on? How are you even calling me? My phone was turned off."

"Yes, that was very irritating, by the way. The least you could do when you give someone your number is leave your phone on. Do you have any idea how much work it took to convince your phone that it was, in fact, on? And that it had service? Where did you say you were again? Hopefully close to the airport? Because you need to be on the way to Colorado."

It strikes John that most of the questions McKay asks he has no intention of letting anyone else answer. He doesn't have much time to bask in the revelation, because McKay's continuing, "And haven't you been watching the news? Where do you go when you're not stalking me, under a rock?"

John snaps, "Hey." For a man apparently calling him for help McKay is about the least gracious person John's ever met. He'd point that out, but—

"I've been abducted! Wait, oh God, are you telling me no one knows? There's not a task force out there looking for me already? No ransom demands?" The man's voice is rising above a whisper for the first time, and he sounds completely distraught, "Fuck. Look—you really, really have to tell someone, tell anyone. And Sam--"

"Yeah, Colorado, I got that." He does not say that he's not sure how he's going to get there. Or that he doubts Sam Carter is even going to speak with him when he tells her that her ex-husband has hijacked his phone. He realizes his heart is racing, tries to take deep breathes to slow himself down, "You need to tell me exactly what's going on so I can help you, okay?"

McKay makes the laughing, sobbing, sound again. "There's no time. They're going to be back any second and I--oh God--you have to keep the phone on, do you understand? No matter what. Do not shut your phone or turn it off. And...shit."

There's a creak over the line, like rusty hinges being forced to open, and John hears movement. Hears McKay's voice from further away, louder now, talking to someone else, "Look, I don't know who the hell you think you are, but you can't just--"

John knows the sound of someone being struck. He's heard it a million times in his waking life, innumerable times in his dreams. He sucks in a deep breath, holds it, and hears another blow, a man's loud, unfamiliar voice, "I said he was not to be left alone! I gave specific orders! What is this thing, McKay, what have you built for yourself, hm, you piece of--"

There's a crash, and then static, painfully loud, and then nothing.

For a long moment John sits frozen in his seat, and then he jerks to his feet, shoving his way out into the aisle and sprinting for the cockpit. He leaves his phone, dead for all he knows, open.

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The next thing John knows they're making an emergency landing in some backwater airstrip surrounded by potato farms. The plane is probably the biggest thing in the surrounding landscape, and the other passengers stare out their windows with either shocked, annoyed, or amused expressions on their faces.

John barely notices. He gets dragged off the plane by men with sour faces and Air Force uniforms, hurried across to the waiting chopper and unceremoniously shoved inside. Someone takes the phone from him, there are hands buckling him in, and he allows it. This, if nothing else, is familiar.

He yells across to the lieutenant sitting beside him, over the steady whump-whump-whump of the chopper's blades, "Where are we going?"

The boy might shrug, or it might just be a lurch as the chopper gains altitude, shouts back, "Cheyenne Mountain, sir. You might want to hold on. We're kind of in a hurry."

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Kind of in a hurry turns out to be a huge understatement, and they're apparently still late to the party. John's been on his fair share of military bases over the years, enough to know when the constant energy and motion of every living soul on the base is just day to day life and when it's a crisis situation. This is a crisis situation.

There's a crowd waiting for them outside the chopper, led by a blond woman that John knows from pictures.

Colonel Sam Carter grabs his hand, shakes it once, nods her head towards the base and snaps her fingers at the lieutenant standing behind John, motioning for the phone he's holding. John doesn't bother trying to demand explanations with the helicopter effectively muting the entire area, just ducks his head and runs beside the rest of them for the door.

Once inside, he just doesn't get the chance. Carter grills him as they march through the hallways, pumping him for information about the call itself, how he knows McKay in the first place. There's not much to tell, and he can see her getting steadily more frustrated with him, feels something like guilt curl in his gut, because it's obvious that she still feels something for McKay, especially when, finally, her expression cracks and she asks in a small voice, "Did he sound...was he okay?"

John lies, because she's a beautiful woman, and telling the truth wouldn't be productive anyway, "Yes."

She stares at him for a long moment, like she knows he's lying, but then nods and accepts it, some of the lines around her eyes relaxing. She shifts her posture to something less tense, drops her gaze to his phone, which is currently plugged in to a half dozen computers. Says, "I'm very sorry about all this. We'll do our best to accommodate you comfortably here until we can get you back to your home."

John shrugs, tries for relaxed and is fairly certain he achieves it. That always seems to put the military types at ease, a civilian that isn't losing his shit when things go pear shaped. "I'm still not sure why he called me."

She smiles, soft, still staring down at the phone. John knows the expression isn't for him, he wonders if she even realizes she's making it, if she knows how gentle her voice is, "Should I go out on a limb and assume you'd given him your number recently? Rodney's terrible with phone numbers. Addresses." She pauses, snorts, "Names. If he had--your card?" She looks up at him, one eyebrow raised in question and he nods, "He probably couldn't remember anyone else's."

She's staring at the phone again, and John wonders absently if this is going to end with a fourth marriage between the pair. It'd make a nice ending to the story he can already feel himself working on. He's both surprised and puzzled by the sour twist in his own gut over the thought.

Luckily, he doesn't get much time consider the short spike of ill will towards Carter, because the lieutenant from earlier bursts into the room, face flushed like he's been running. The boy sucks in a deep breath before blurting out, "Colonel Carter, you're going to want to see this."

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Rodney McKay is tied to a chair on the screen in the middle of the room.

He's still wearing the same thing he was earlier in his office, though the white button down and slacks look considerably worse for wear than they had in New York. There are drops of blood splattered across the white fabric of his shirt, and the left side is positively drenched in it. John can see, through the blood and tattered cotton, the rough outline of bandages and wonders what the hell they did to the other man.

He's also got a black eye and his hair is pressed close to his head with either blood or water, John can't tell through the video feed. For a long time John just stares at him, aware that his fists have balled up without his permission, that there's a muscle in his jaw jumping and twitching.

Carter takes a helpless step towards the screen, one hand half-extended before she catches herself, braces her hands on the back of a chair. She says, "Rodney?' voice so tightly controlled that John wonders just how much this is affecting her.

Rodney blinks, half his mouth curling up in what might be a smile, and when he speaks for a half second John thinks that it must be a two-way video feed before realizing that McKay's talking to someone on the other side of the camera, "The record button getting the better of you, over there? I hear it's small and red. And that, oh, pushing it usually works."

Someone snaps, "Shut up, you arrogant bastard."

McKay's mouth snaps shut, eyes momentarily going distant. And then the man tries to take a deep breath, John can see him flinch, watches his shoulders try to curve in, restrained by his bonds. McKay's voice is ragged, but he still manages to sound condescending, "Maybe you should hit it. I've heard that works in these situations."

The other man curses McKay, and the camera angle tips alarmingly to the side before resettling. John risks a look around the room, at the techs all bent over computers, typing furiously, at Carter, staring up at the screen with a sick look on her face, and leans over to the lieutenant whose name he really needs to ask, says out of the corner of his mouth, "But it's working."

The boy smiles, though there's no mirth in the expression, "Yes, sir. McKay managed to convince them that it wasn't. We're assuming he's trying to buy us time to get a lock on them through the satellite uplink, but the signal is scrambled like, well, like a motherfucker."

Over the video feed a door slams, and McKay jerks his head to the side, eyes flaring wide, what little color there was in his face draining away. John recognizes the booming voice from the earlier phone call, a man's deep, rough growl, "I should kill all of you incompetents. It's working fine. Didn't I tell you not to listen to him?"

Whoever's behind the camera starts, "But, sir--"

"Must I do everything myself? Give me that." The man that comes around the camera towards McKay is big, in every sense of the word. Tall and broad and with enough presence that John can feel it even over the video feed. The man's got pockmarked skin, dark eyes, an M-15 in his right hand, and a cold smile on his face.

He looms behind McKay, left hand braced on the man's shoulder, fingers digging into the other man's skin noticeably. There's unnatural stillness in the room around John, and then Carter snarls, tips the chair she'd been holding onto over. She stabs a finger towards the techs watching the screen openmouthed, snapping, "I want teams at every known G.E.N.I.I. location. I want Kolya's family in custody. And I want that satellite uplink traced. Yesterday, people."

John starts filing things away in his mind, because, Christ, he might get a story out of this anyway. He's just opening his mouth to ask who Kolya is, what G.E.N.I.I is, when the man on the screen braces the barrel of the M-15 against the side of McKay's head and drawls, "Good morning, America."

For a half second he wonders if maybe it is morning, if somehow the hours have all slipped away without him noticing. And then he realizes that the other man thinks he's being funny. The man continues, voice light as McKay strains his neck to the side, trying to evade the cold press of the weapon, "You see that we have a very special guest for you today. Won't you say hello to the audience at home, Doctor McKay?"

McKay's chest is rising and falling so quickly that John thinks he might hyperventilate, his eyes squeezed shut. His voice is inaudible, but John can read his lips, "Fuck you."

Kolya--John assumes that the big man with the gun must be Kolya--must be close enough to hear the actual words. There's a flash of anger across his face, and he steps up closer behind McKay, braces a hand on the other man's forehead and jerks it back, tucking the barrel of the gun against the hinge of McKay's jaw. The man's throat jerks up and down as he swallows violently. "I said to say hello, Rodney."

This time John can't see the other man's mouth to try to read his response, but Koyla doesn't look soothed. He slams Rodney's head forward, lips curling up in disgust, grinds out, "You Americans and your manners. You are a blight upon the decent people of this world."

McKay jerks at that, drags his chin up off his chest and looks straight into the camera for an eerie second. There's blood in the corner of his mouth, a long crimson line of it stretching towards his chin, and he smears it by licking his bottom lip, before saying, "I'm Canadian, you moron. You know? Big country north of Ohio, south of the artic? Known for its syrup and hockey and unfortunate hair styles?"

And it's painful to watch Koyla snarl and slide his hand down onto McKay's shoulder again, squeezing until the other man gasps and looks away from the camera, fresh dark rivers of blood staining his shirt crimson as they speed towards his waist. John wonders what they did to him.

Doesn't get the chance to think about it, because Koyla's speaking into the camera again. "For too long we have allowed the American war machine to murder and rape its way across our countries, fueled by inventions of this man. Tell me, you people out there in your homes, do you know how many have died by this man's hands? You who read these articles that call him the man of the year, when he is little more than a glorified butcher, what makes him different than the war criminals that you accuse my people of sheltering?"

Two realizations chose that moment to sneak up on John Sheppard. He turns towards Carter, finds her staring at the screen, arms crossed over her chest, and blurts, "This is broadcasting everywhere, isn't it?"

It's the lieutenant that answers him, still lingering by his elbow, "Every television in America." At John's disbelieving stare, "I said it was a complex signal."

And then his second revelation, burning up in his skull, "They're going to kill him."

Carter flinches like she's been struck, drags her eyes away from the video feed and looks at him with hard blue eyes. Her voice is flat, toneless, "Kolya doesn't kill people, Mr. Sheppard. He executes them." And John knows there's a difference, even if it's only symbolism. Words have meaning, after all.

Kolya is saying, still ranting, "—and that is why Doctor McKay is going to create for us the ability to destroy your weapons. You will know when he has succeeded the day we come for you, to hold you accountable for the sins of you and your fathers and your father's fathers."

John startles, because that wasn't what he'd been expecting at all. He gapes at the screen, right as Kolya grins big at the world watching him. The last thing John sees before the feed breaks up, crackles away to white noise, is Rodney McKay's eyes, huge and blue and scared.

Sam Carter yells into the sudden silence of the room, "Tell me you got a goddamn lock!"

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Afterwards, everyone seems to realize that he shouldn't be running around the base. His phone, of course, they keep. He does manage to talk the lieutenant, whose name he discovers is Ford, into letting him call Elizabeth on one of the base phones before they ship him off.

When they drop him off in Colorado Springs, where they assure him they've got him first class tickets on the next commuter flight out to LA, there's already a local news team waiting for him. He takes ten minutes in the airport bathroom making sure he looks presentable but not too presentable, because, after all, he's just been up all night, following the breaking story of the kidnapping of one of the world's greatest minds. Dark circles under his eyes and rumpled clothes go a long way towards emotional resonance.

John's report hits the local news at six-thirty, and is picked up nationally by six forty-five, is playing everywhere by seven.

He watches himself, on a near endless loop on the airport televisions. It's always been eerie watching himself, but he can't seem to look away. Can't seem to stop hearing himself describe the video he had watched, McKay's stubborn belligerent attitude, Kolya's cold violence.

Elizabeth calls him on one of the airport phones, and he can hear the incredulity in her voice, "You bastard. You're looking for another Pulitzer, aren't you?" John does not point out that awards are presently the last thing on his mind, and that he's still reliving seeing the gun pressed against McKay's pale skin over and over again. That he's not sure he'll ever be able to close his eyes without seeing it.

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John spends the next week waiting for either a nuclear attack or constant videos of McKay being led into a hospital plastered on every television. He buries himself in research, because he doesn't know what else to do, how to keep himself from going crazy. He's not sure why it's all bothering him so much.

Blood and pain and death have been a part of his life for so long he'd thought himself immune to it. It's a surprisingly unpleasant shock to discover that he's still more human than he'd been giving himself credit for. Elizabeth stops calling him after three days, when he continues to show no signs of answering his new phone, leaves a last message that says she's there for him when he's ready to talk.

He's not sure he's even ready to admit that there's anything to talk about. Instead tracks every lead he can on G.E.N.I.I. and the man he knows only as Kolya. That eventually leads him to one of his old contacts from Eastern Europe. Radek Zelenka is less than thrilled to hear from him, but he's also the only man that John knows who stands a chance of hacking into the government files that might give John the information he's digging for.

Because all he finds outside of government records is a few mentions of Kolya's name in some articles about northern Africa and the Antarctic Disagreement. There's not a mention of G.E.N.I.I. anywhere. It's like they don't exist.

And so he calls Zelenka, and the man bitches and bemoans the task, before agreeing to it if John will put in a good word with Elizabeth for him. He spends the next few days researching Rodney McKay, because if nothing else it's more productive that anything else he's been wasting time on. And he has a sick, terrible feeling that maybe he'll be needing the information when he writes the man's biography, which he's sure will sell particularly well after his untimely death.

He's been buried up to his eyeballs in every aspect of the man's life for two days when he gets an e-mail from Radek. It's short, painfully to the point, and for a long time he just stares at the message before closing his laptop and balling his hands into fists.

Radek had written: Let it go, John. Do not contact me again.

For a long time he sits there, watching the world go dark around him. Let it go. And that feels like good advice, but it's not advice he can follow. It's not who he is. Not who he's ever been. He pushes when any sane person would give up, when common sense dictates that it's time to call it quits and move on.

And so he jerks the laptop open again, intent on giving Radek a good chewing out and demanding explanations, preferably the kind he can verify and put to print. He gets distracted when his home page pops up, plastered with pictures of Rodney McKay, looking pale and bloody and surprised to be alive, being loaded into an ambulance.

He stands so quickly his chair topples behind him, hands braced on either side of the laptop as he scans the headlines, eyes jerking back and forth across obnoxiously large text. It says: Scientist Rodney McKay Rescued by Unnamed Bodyguard. It says: Miracle Rescue Two Weeks into Man of the Year's Captivity by Madmen. It says: Billionaire Genius Taken to Campbell Mercy in Whidbey Island, Washington.

John grabs his phone off the counter on his way out the door, not sure why he's going, but knowing he has to. There's a story with Rodney McKay. He can feel it in his bones. And he's damn well going to be the one to break it.

And that means going to Washington. He calls the airport from his car, doing ninety down the freeway.

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Technically, it's before visitor's hours by the time he gets to the hospital the next morning. But the nurse at the front desk recognizes him, flips her brown hair over her shoulder and leans forward whilst smiling enticingly at him. John smiles back, hoping that he's coming off as adorably scruffy from the long plane ride and not just dirty and tired.

He assumes it must be adorably scruffy, when after five minutes worth of flirting he's got Chaya's number and she's letting him in to McKay's room.

He expects the other man to be sleeping. He expects time to gather his thoughts because the plane ride had been remarkably unhelpful on that front. But, then, McKay's made it something of a habit to defy his expectations at every opportunity, and this proves to be no different.

The man is sitting cross legged on his bed, back against the pillows, shoulders hunched over the laptop he's typing on furiously. The man's skin is painted blue by the computer screen, and he looks smaller than John knows he is in the hospital dress, the bruises on his arms and face and neck almost black in the pale light.

John stands for a long moment in the doorway, thinking for the first time that this might be a bad idea. That Rodney had been incredibly irritated with him last time they saw each other. That really, the other man seems to have a startlingly low appreciation for reporters in general.

Unfortunately, it's about that time that Rodney finally looks up. He spots John by the door, blinks once, his expression blank. John tries to think of something to say, but all that comes to mind is that he'd been planning to write a biography about him if he'd died, and somehow that doesn't seem like appropriate sick bed conversation.

It's Rodney that breaks the silence, cocking his head to the side, "You. Sheppard. John Sheppard, right? The reporter. I called you." He sounds slightly dazed, words a little slurred, and John realizes that he's either drugged or in some serious pain. And then McKay scowls, some of the dreamy quality draining from his expression, "I'm going to buy your cell phone company and destroy it. I suggest you find another provider."

John takes this as permission to step fully into the room, to swagger his way over to McKay's beside and sprawl out in the chair beside it. Rodney looks worse up close, where the light from the computer does little to soften the old and new bruises on his face, arms, neck. He looks exhausted, sunken into himself, and so of course John asks, "How you feeling?"

McKay snorts, raises a hand to his face and then winces and yanks his fingers away. The pain seems to sharpen him to a better state of awareness, as well, because he narrows his eyes, expression switching to suddenly sharp and calculating, "Still chasing a story, Sheppard? To my hospital room? Isn't that kind of desperate? Or were you that worried that I'd die before you got the chance to pick my brain for whatever witty, satirical paper you're planning to write about my work?"

Jesus. He starts to wonder if perhaps the man ever stops, says, "I swear to God, I don't care about your work." Even thought that is a slight mistruth. Almost everything McKay's created is fiercely fascinating, tugs on places in John's brain that he hasn't used for decades. He'd love to talk the math, the physics with the man.

Still, the lie is worth it, because Rodney's mouth falls open, his eyes flaring wide with surprise. After a long second the other man's mouth snaps shut, and then, "What?" He seems honestly puzzled, and then it slides into offended indignation, "Found a better offer while I was in the belly of the beast, did you? Probably Kavanaugh, that sanctimonious bastard. I'll have you know that the man hasn't had an original thought in a decade."

John takes a deep breath, and thinks that the next time--if there is a next time-- he talks to Rodney McKay he's going to come prepared with a full nights sleep. Says, patiently as he can, "I wanted to write about you, actually."

Rodney blinks, says, "Oh." He's watching John again, so sharply that John can almost feel the layers that he's striping aside. It makes him shift uncomfortably, makes him glad that apparently official visiting hours are open, because suddenly there are three additional people shoving their way into the room, all talking amongst themselves and then stammering to an abrupt stop at the sight of John.

There's a small Asian woman, a petite blond, and a man, one arm slung around the blond's waist.

It's the dark haired woman that recovers herself first. She's got a stack of files cradled to her chest, a flustered look on her face. She stomps over to Rodney's bedside, smoothly squeezing between John and the bed, arranging the files around Rodney, spitting out explanations for each one so quickly that John can't follow them. The fact that she's speaking in another language probably has something to do with his confusion as well.

Rodney snaps back in the same language. He grabs one file and points at another one and after a moment of dumbstruck awe where he just stares at the exchange John realizes that the two of them have officially frozen out everyone else. He turns towards the couple, finds them staring at him with bemused looks on their faces.

The blond he recognizes, now. Laura Beckett, and with that knowledge the man snaps up into familiarity as well. Carson, her husband, and John thinks it's bizarre that McKay's ex and her new husband are visiting him in his hospital room.

He rises from his chair, smiles and extends his hand to them, says, "John Sheppard."

Carson looks puzzled, but shakes his hand. Laura looks more skeptical than her husband, squeezes his hand a little too hard, small strong fingers digging into the spaces between the bones in the back of his hand. It's Carson that introduces them, with his soft Scottish lilt, Laura waiting until the instant after he's fallen silent to cut in with, "You're a reporter."

It's nakedly accusatory, and John starts wondering if all of Rodney's exes are still obviously attached to him. It's kind of eerie. Before he has a chance to confirm that, yes, he is, she's continuing, "I don't think you should be here right now." There's a silent at all tacked onto the end that John hears clear as a bell.

Carson tightens his arm around his wife's waist, his cheeks flushing red as he says, "Laura..."

It doesn't do anything to soothe the look she's giving John, and he knows when to cut and run. He says a brief goodbye, shakes Carson's hand and exchanges a nod with Laura that contains even more antagonism than he'd been expecting.

He pauses in the doorway, surprised by the tightness in his chest when he looks back at Rodney, cocooned by his friends, surrounded by work. He wonders if Rodney even remembers that he was ever there. Calls, "Hey, give me a call, okay, Rodney?"

Rodney waves an impatient hand, a gesture John can't read. He hopes for the best when he turns and walks away.

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Two days later, he gets woken up at oh-dark-thirty in the morning, his phone vibrating noisily on the nightstand. He gropes out for it, face still smashed against the too-soft pillows when he flips it open and manages to slur out, "Hello?"

"I'm going back to New York in two hours."

It takes him a long moment to put together that it's Rodney McKay on the other line, and he wonders if it's going to become habit for the man to wake him up at ungodly hours. He kind of hopes not. He swallows around the thickness in his mouth, pushes up onto an elbow and then flops onto his back. "What?"

"I have work to do and I can't do it here. So I'm going back to New York. I thought I'd tell you. I--" McKay sounds impossibly awake, and John blinks at the ceiling, trying to kick his own brain into gear. "If you want to write your article then I take a coffee break everyday at nine thirty. Be in my office tomorrow."

And that's it. The connection cuts off and John's left staring at his ceiling wondering how many times he's going to be bounced across the country chasing after Rodney McKay for a fucking story. Sometimes, he thinks he's gotten into the wrong line of work.

He raises his hands to his face, groans and curses himself and his own stubbornness. He could have let this slide, could have stayed in California, and he wouldn't have to be flying to New York later today. Because he knows, damn well, that he will be in the waiting room of McKay Industries, bright eyed and bushy tailed at nine thirty the next morning.

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The same receptionist is behind the desk when John shows up at fifteen after nine. His plane hadn't gotten in until two in the morning, he'd grabbed a few desperate hours of sleep in his hotel room, and decided that showing up early would go over better than showing up late. The receptionist is still looking at him like he's the scum of the earth, and he contents himself with staring at the door to McKay's office and willing it to open.

Fifteen minutes later, it does.

McKay looks almost identical to the first time John had seen him, with the exception of the bruises going green and yellow across his skin. John thinks the man might even smile, a quick upturn of the corners of his lips when he spots John, but the expression is swallowed up in the greater exhaustion saturating McKay before he can be certain.

And then Rodney's shifting his attention to the receptionist, talking as he moves towards the door, "I'm expecting calls from Colonel Carter and a Doctor Keller with the experimental heart program at Johns Hopkins. Patch them both through to me if they call while I'm gone. Miko's bringing up some schematics, tell her to put them with the subspace prototypes and do you want anything while I'm out?"

It's all one long, constant stream of words, and it's accompanied by Rodney pointing at him, snapping his fingers, and pointing at the door. John hauls himself back to his feet, falling into step behind Rodney as the receptionist calls after them, "Cheese Danish!"

In the hallway Rodney starts the impatient gesturing again, waves John forward to walk beside him. John opens his mouth for a greeting, but Rodney's apparently already moved past that, "You're on time. Good. How long is this going to take?"

"How long do you have?"

Rodney's steps falter for a half second, like that wasn't one of the answers he'd been expecting. He cocks his head, looks sideway at John. "Ten minutes." John tries not to look disappointed, because holy fucking crap, but he's been spending the better part of the last two weeks on planes, and he tries to swallow around the bubble of manic laughter in his throat. "Today, anyway. Tomorrow I'll have another ten and--"

John's sure that his smile is too big, too bright. Especially when Rodney blinks, mouth falling half open at John's expression. "I can work with ten minutes a day."

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Rodney's idea of a coffee break turns out to be grabbing a cup from the machine by one of the elevators in his building and then running through what is potentially miles of lab and office space. Besides the fact that the coffee tastes like shit, and that Rodney moves surprisingly quickly for a wounded man, John barely gets a handful of questions answered between Rodney questioning and berating his staff.

It's kind of awe inspiring to watch. He gets to see McKay completely take apart a handful of people for mistakes so complex he doesn't even understand what they are, and no one complains. He gets to see McKay grabbing files and correcting equations and once, telling some woman that she did something right, which results in actual tears.

And somehow, by the end of ten minutes, they're back outside Rodney's office, somehow having procured a cheese Danish. John wonders, distractedly, if this is what Rodney's breaks are like, what the rest of his day consists of.

He also wonders how long it's going to take him to put everything together, to get all the information he needs from this man, because there are so many questions. And he needs, needs answers to all of them. It's driving him insane. He's pretty sure that somehow he's decided to write his next book about Rodney McKay.

Possibly because he hates himself in some deep way he'd been previously unaware of.

In any case, all he finds out about Rodney that first day is that he's allergic to citrus, that he never shuts up, and that he hates his own coffee. Which, well, John can't blame him. It's really bad coffee. The next day he brings coffee from Starbuck's, hot and fresh and Rodney McKay looks at him like he might be the second coming of Christ himself when he offers him a cup.

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And that's how it goes. After three days he meets Miko, coming out of Rodney's office with him, and recognizes her from the hospital room. After five he starts bringing the receptionist donuts in the morning and she stops glaring at him. At the six day mark, and apparently Rodney doesn't believe in weekends, because he's still working, John wakes up too late to swing by the Starbuck's and Rodney spends the entire ten minute tour de force around his company looking deeply wounded.

The next day Rodney's five minutes late out of his office, stares hard at John, his expression not thawing even when John hands him his coffee. It's not until John shifts his other arm forward, offering the folded paper bag that Rodney looks anything but pissed off.

For a long moment Rodney just stares at the bag, before taking it slowly and opening it, staring down into it with a surprised expression on his face. And then Rodney smiles, and it might be the first time John's ever seen that expression on his face. It hits him like a punch in the gut, he can hear his own sharp intake of breath, watching the entire world narrow down to the way Rodney's eyes crinkle in the corners, the way his smile is completely lopsided.

John hadn't really been thinking too hard about why he was willing to stay here, day after day, doing his damndest to interview Rodney for ten minutes a day. He hasn't considered exactly why it seems like such a good idea to bring him coffee. Now he's got a pretty good idea.

He only realizes he's staring when Rodney's expression wavers, his eyebrows drawing together in confusion, and John makes himself smile back. That seems to be the encouragement Rodney was looking for, because his expression lightens again, and he turns to the receptionist, the bag cradled protectively close to his chest, "Tell Miko to run the gauntlet for me, today. I'll be with--" he waves vaguely at John, "—in my office."

And that's how John finds himself standing in Rodney's office for the first time. It looks like nothing so much as a mix of warehouse, machine shop, and clean room. If there's a method to the madness John can't see it. There's hunks of metal everywhere, blueprints spread across walls and floor, everything surrounded by a blue glow that is dozens of computer screens.

John stands in the doorway, gaping, and only realizes that Rodney is waiting, quiet and fidgeting by his elbow when he clears his throat. He says, "Wow," because he's pretty sure it's expected, and because it's possibly the only way to summarize his emotions.

Rodney beams up at him again, and it's the second smile in a day. John feels almost drunk on the way McKay's mouth stretches and curves. He repeats, "Wow," and then takes a quick swallow of his own coffee, before he says it again. When he feels the urge has passed he waves his hand, encompassing the myriad of incomprehensible projects scattered around the room, says, "So. Do you ever go home?"

And he only realizes that Rodney really doesn't when the man shrugs, shoving his mouth full of pastry. He says around the apple fritter, "I've been working on a special project. And of course I'm still working on the Puddlejumper Project, and I've got contracts coming due for the Air Force. There aren't enough hours in the day and I haven't perfected time displacement fields yet."

John's not sure if that's a joke or not. Sometimes it's hard to tell with Rodney.

He wants to ask about the special project, but isn't sure if that counts as work or not, and Rodney clams up whenever his research and work are brought up. So he swallows the question down, asks one equally as pressing, "When do you sleep?"

Rodney shrugs, mumbles almost unintelligibly, "Sleep when I'm dead. Got work to do now." It twists something in John's gut, the almost defeated tone of the other mans' voice. He shifts, drowning in the urge to reach out and grab the other man's shoulder, not for the first time.

Says instead, when the silence has stretched too long to be remotely comfortable, "I guess I'll see you tomorrow, Rodney."

Rodney hums, and John knows a dismissal when he hears one, walks backwards towards the door. Rodney's still staring into his office, expression distant, coffee held up to right below his nose. John turns around at the last moment, the doorknob cool against his fingers. Rodney's voice startles him, "Is this—it's taking longer than you want, isn't it? I'm sure you've got other important things you'd rather be doing than this."

It's not true. John fills his free time with researching Rodney's actual work, since he can't discuss it with the man himself. Digs deeper for the still hidden information on G.E.N.I.I., tries to keep tabs on Kolya. His own hacking skills are growing by leaps and bounds, because Radek still refuses to help him, and John needs answers. He says, without meaning to, "No."

Rodney turns to face him, expression considering, "Still. Maybe you'd like to eat dinner with me? Tonight? It would probably be at least an hour. That would be good, right? For your questions?"

And John's not sure if it's an awkward attempt to ask him out on a date or if it's Rodney trying to make more time in his busy schedule to allow John to do his job. He's not sure which is more endearing. And then he realizes that he's thinking of Rodney McKay as endearing, and realizes he's completely screwed.

In any case, he's sure that he answers embarrassingly quickly, "Sure, yes. We should—we should do that. I can pick you up, if you want?"

And that gets him a third smile. "I'll be done here, well, not done, of course, I'll never be done, but I'll be able to take a break around seven. I know this great little sandwich place in town, locally owned, close to your hotel, I think."

John realizes that he should probably be asking why Rodney knows where his hotel is, but he's too busy smiling like an idiot. He says, "Seven, then," opens the door and steps out, still watching Rodney, "See you."

He's just stepping out into the waiting room, meeting the receptionists smug, knowing gaze, when the entire building shakes violently around them.

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Part Two

Every blue print and architectural plan that John can find about McKay Industries says that this building is five stories tall. John knows that this is complete bullshit, would gage the building as at least eight stories, though he doesn't know if the extra three levels are hidden amongst the others or on top.

It's not something that he's spent much time thinking about, though he's thought about asking Rodney about it. He's only thinking about it now because all the windows lining the walls have just been blown in, raining down on him in a jagged shower of sound and stinging skin.

He goes to the ground on instinct, arms thrown over his face, waiting for the glass to settle on his back. And then he's on his knees, looking for cover, for a weapon, for the receptionist. His ears are ringing, and he's fairly certain he can smell smoke on the air. He grits his teeth, crouches and moves towards the reception table, braces his hands on it and is about to throw himself over when ten men, heavily armed, in full combat armor, swing into the room from a helicopter.

John knows his military uniforms, knows his weapons, and knows that these men aren't American. He doubts, seriously, that they're any kind of organized military at all. They have the haphazard look of the people that might call themselves freedom fighters, that others might call terrorists.

They swing their firearms up and John ducks on instinct, throwing himself below the relative safety of the desk as they open up with automatic fire in his direction. On the other side of the desk there's a scream, he thinks it must be the receptionist, loud and surprised and then cut off. John feels anger, huge and terrible, welling up in his gut, digs his fingernails into his palms and thinks about Rodney in his office. Thinks about these people that obviously have no qualms about taking lives.

His cellphone is in his pocket, and he grabs it, dials 911 and shouts, "McKay Industries," as soon as he gets a real person on the line. He's sure that the answering stutter of gunfire, focused completely on his location now, will be enough to tell the operator what the nature of his emergency is.

And then the soldiers are coming around the desk towards him, littering his skin with tiny red dots, each of which mean instant death. He grits his teeth and feels useless and prays that the police get here in time to save Rodney, at least. He watches the soldier in the lead tighten his finger on the trigger, snarls up into his death and waits for the end.

McKay's office door slams open, and he has enough time to pray that Rodney's not being a hero, not doing anything stupid, and then the men arrayed against him are all dying messy, bloody deaths. The roar of the gun behind him is impossibly loud, and he flattens himself on the ground, arms over head again as hot casings rain down on him.

And then there's something hard and metal closing around his arm, hauling him to his feet. He blinks at the war zone that minutes ago was something close to home. Stares at the dead soldiers, bodies torn to pieces, broken and bloody, like children's dolls played with too roughly. Stares at the receptionist, dead on the floor, staring sightlessly up at the ceiling. Stares at the man-robot-thing holding him up and feels his mouth fall open.

"What the fuck?" And then, because John's always caught on quickly, it's a large part of the reason he's still alive, "The bodyguard. You must be—Is Rodney alright, did you get him out?"

The man shrugs, expressionless metal face giving nothing away. John had expected, somehow, that the man would have been bigger. But the suit, or whatever, is barely taller than John, though it is much broader than him. It's all gold and crimson, save for the electric blue eyes in it's armored helmet. The voice that comes of it is metallic, scrambled, like the feed through a bad walkie-talkie, "He's fine. I need to get you out of here. There's going to be more."

John says, "What?" and then the man is dragging him towards the window.

For a half second John thinks, horrified, that the man intends to throw him to the earth so far below. Instead, the man readjusts his grip, metal arm tight and almost pinching around John's waist, holding him flush against cold hard metal. He says, voice still crackling, "Hold on tight." And steps out into the open air.

For a long second they plummet, and John thinks he might have tried to scream, but all the air's been stolen out of his lungs. He grabs desperately at the metal suit beneath his hands, fingers digging into gaps in the armor, and then there's a roar of sound.

They stop inches from the ground, John jerked hard at the sudden stop. The man releases him, and John holds on, trying to grasp what just happened, before the man says, "Look, you have to get out of here," and shoves him away.

John stumbles, trips, because the man had been hovering a few inches off the ground, the air under his feet shimmering from the heat of whatever the hell was keeping him up. John stares up at him, outlined in the midmorning sun, and hears bells and whistles behind his ears. Says, "Where are you going?"

The man hesitates for another moment, and John wishes he could see his face, "There are more of them in there. If they get their hands on the tech—they could cause a hell of a lot of problems. They could kill a lot of people." And then the man is shooting back upwards, suit catching the light, glowing like fire, disappearing back into the building.

John stares, dumbstruck, right up until the police cruisers pull up all around him, sirens blaring. He whirls around on them, snapping, "I need a phone. Now!"

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One of the deputies has a phone with all sorts of handy video and internet options, and is suitably star struck by John to offer it up on a platter. Five minutes later he's got a video uploaded on three different sites, reporting live, first on the scene of the attack on McKay Industries by an unknown group.

He's still got blood running down the side of his face, shards of glass in his skin. He stares hard at the screen, wills himself to maintain that crucial eye contact with a billion people he can't see, as he tells them about the death of Rodney McKay's personal secretary, about the man himself, still unaccounted for, about the armored body guard that had saved his life.

By the time he's done there are SWAT teams everywhere, and the local news crews have all arrived, bringing with them the rumor that the Air Force has sent a squadron of 302s and the Navy a Seal unit. John doesn't point out that they're either going to be too late or completely unnecessary.

Just lets himself be directed into one of the ambulances now on scene, lets an EMT, some poor panicking kid, pull hunks of glass out of him and stitch up the cut above his eye. And then he's done, and John rolls up his shirt sleeves to cover the spots of blood on the fabric. There's only so far you can push the bloody look before sympathy turns to bitterness when people start thinking you're milking it.

It's been maybe ten minutes since the man in the suit deposited him on the ground, and the SWAT team is arrayed before the doors and John looks around for a camera man that he can hijack.

He gets himself in position, trying not to think about where Rodney is, trying to convince himself to trust the body guard, to believe the other man must be safe. Is just taking a deep, steadying breath before they roll, when the front doors explode outward. He swears, loudly, going to the ground for the third time in fifteen minutes, bruises protesting the movement.

And then he's on his feet, staring at the door. At McKay's staff, pouring out of the building, all looking lost, confused, but none of them crying. A few of them are bleeding, some of them leaning on each other for support, but none of the injuries look too severe. And bringing up the rear, carrying one woman in his mechanical arms, is the body guard.

John can't say that he notices, because Rodney is not among them, and the sudden, surprisingly thick worry in the back of his throat cripples the rest of his thought process. He wonders what they've done to him, if they've taken him again or just killed him outright this time.

He clenches his hand tight around the microphone he's no longer aware of, finds himself sprinting towards the scientists, the camera man making a distressed sound behind him and jogging to try and keep up. But John's running within steps, and god knows running is one of the things he's best at. He leaves the man in his dust, legs pounding until he reaches the body guard.

He notices, with some tiny corner of his brain not presently consumed by the fact the Rodney is missing or hurt or worse, that the body guard is carrying Miko. She's limp in his arms, bleeding from a head wound, but John can see her chest rising and falling as she breaths.

The body guard doesn't so much as shift when John shoves him, stares down at him with that damn inscrutable mask when John snarls at him, "Where the hell is Rodney? You were supposed to be protecting him! Where is he?"

And then there are cops and paramedics everywhere, and John barely hears the robotic voice of the other man before he's shoved away, "Rodney's fine, he's fine. Sheppard! It's--"

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It's hard to find out where Rodney actually lives. Not one of the huge houses that he hates--and John had been surprised to learn that, somewhere around the third day of their sessions. And not work--though John fully believes he must spend most of his time there now. But where he goes, sometimes, his actual home, or at least the closest thing he has to one.

It turns out to be an apartment on the outskirts of town, far more on the rundown side that John would have expected. John's not sure what he's doing there at seven that night, except that he doesn't know where else to go. He hasn't been able to find Rodney in any hospital, in any morgue, anywhere.

And so he's standing outside 6760A Shoestring Apts., running his fingers back through his hair and straightening his shirt. He bites his lip, shifts again, and finally manages to convince himself to rap his knuckles against the door.

For a long, terrible moment there is nothing but silence all through the hall around him, and he bites the insides of his cheeks to keep from letting the agony show on his face, even with no one around to see it. And then there's a crash, and muffled cursing, and the weight lifts off his shoulders so fast he's dizzy with it.

He gets a hand braced on the doorframe, sucks in a deep, shuddering breath just as the door swings open.

Rodney McKay stares up at him, hair wet and plastered close to his head, thin tee-shirt in a similar state across his broad chest. His eyes are huge, his lips parted in surprise. He's also leaning on the door every bit as heavily as John's leaning against the frame, looking exhausted and like even the act of standing is causing him exquisite pain.

John steps towards him, unable to stop himself, surprised by the hoarseness of his own voice, "Rodney." And then another step, past the door, into the man's space, and it's natural to put his hands on Rodney's shoulders, to curl his fingers against the damp fabric of the man's shirt, the strong muscles of his shoulders beneath, "Rodney. You're alive."

"Of course I'm alive." Rodney is looking at him like he's lost his mind, but not shaking him off, "I told--I told Meredith to tell you I was alive." And John does not point out that he hadn't believed that man in the suit, that he'd had no reason to. Does not say that Meredith is not the name he'd expected Rodney's big bad body guard to have.

Says instead, before he does something insane like force Rodney against a wall and ravish him, "I came to take you to dinner."

Rodney blinks, mouth opening and closing, eyes darting down to John's hands on his shoulders, now balled so tightly in his shirt that John's not sure he'll ever be able to let go. Says, "I... Dinner? I could do dinner. Just—just let me get dressed. Okay?"

Unwinding his fingers from Rodney's shirt is one of the hardest things he's ever done.

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Rodney's little sandwich joint is nice. It's almost abandoned now, a few customers in booths, and only one man behind the counter. Of course, the man behind the counter is big enough to be three people, giant-big with dread locks that add another few inches to his already impressive height. He's also covered in tattoos beneath his button down shirt and apron.

He greets Rodney with a nod and a gruff, "McKay. You havin' your usual?" All John gets is a skeptical look, and he's not sure if the man is flexing his biceps at him or not. He tries to look suitably impressed and intimidated, nods a greeting.

"Hey, Ronon. Yeah." Rodney looks over his shoulder, meets John's eyes briefly, "This is John Sheppard."

Ronon grunts, "Yeah. I know." He's already grabbing bread, freshly baked by the smell of it, big hands dancing over food as he arranges a sandwich to the specifications he apparently has memorized. "Get you something, Sheppard?"

John's starting to wonder if all of Rodney's friends that he meets are going to hate him on sight. It seems slightly unfair, especially because of all the myriad and creative sins he's indulged in, he's fairly certain he's never done a damn thing to McKay. He says, "Yeah. Turkey on white for me. Everything on it."

Ronon arches an eyebrow at him, voice low and dry, "I see you've got a real adventurer on your hands, McKay."

John has no idea why it should mean so much when Rodney stiffens beside him, snaps, "He's a good guy." He does know that he's far too tired to even think about suppressing his smug smile, and barely manages to stop himself from resting a hand low on Rodney's back to direct him over to their table a few minutes later, sandwiches in hand.

They make idle small talk over their food, and John's self aware enough to know that they're avoiding talking about the important things. He can't help it. Neither can he help staring, noticing things he had missed back at the apartment.

Rodney's got strange marks on his temples, pale red circles that look almost like burns. They're on his fingertips, as well, and he's sure that there's a line of them along his collarbone. He's not sure how to ask what they are, or if there are more of them, and knows that sooner or later Rodney's going to look up from his sandwich and realize that he's staring.

To deflect the question and distract himself, he says, "So. Meredith, huh? You build that suit he wears?"

Something flashes across Rodney's face, too fast for John to read the emotion, "Yes, of course. As though there's anyone else that could have." The man pauses, like he's on the cusp of asking John something, and John waits, doing his best to be patient. "You can't tell anyone this, but it's—well, have you heard of Ascended tech? It's something I've been working on for some time now, it's--"

He doesn't mean to blurt out, "You've perfected the electroimpluse system? I thought it couldn't be done, that it wouldn't meld properly with the brain's electromagnetic field?" He thinks that he's made a terrible mistake, for a moment, that Rodney will freak out now that he's revealed that he's been paying close attention to his work.

But then Rodney smiles, leaning forward with his elbows braced on the table, hands coming up to gesture in the air, "That's what I thought! But! I figured that if I shifted the parameters to a wider degree of impulse conversion then I could force the electroimpulse system to—at least briefly—accept a human mind's unique neural structure and--"

"And then it would work." John licks his lips, leans closer himself, "But only on the person it, what, melded with, right?"

Rodney deflates, but just slightly, "Yes, yes, I'm still working on ironing that out. I'm pretty sure that it's just a question of working through the various deviations in impulse conversion before I can fix the problem completely, though." He pauses, still smiling, "The government's been trying to convince me to name the armor. For some reason they don't like Electroimpulse-Electromagnetic Armor. Say it's too wordy."

John laughs, doesn't mean to, and feels immediately contrite when Rodney flushes. He reaches out, fingers just brushing Rodney's elbow. "Well, it is kind of a tongue twister, Rodney. What does Meredith want to call it?"

There's that flash of unfathomable emotion across Rodney's face again, "He likes Electroimpulse-Electromagnetic Armor."

Somehow, John doubts this to be the case. He decides to just let it slide, though, leans back in his chair and suggests, "Well, you could go with my suggestion." And then, at Rodney's blank look, "You didn't watch the news, did you? Completely missed my award winning coverage of the life and death plight of everyone at McKay Industries?"

He doesn't expect Rodney to flush again, eyes going suddenly wide and worried, doesn't expect the guilt in the other man's voice, "Oh, God, should I have? Because, I'm sure I can find--" and then he's standing up, motioning urgently towards Ronon, "You still have that TV in the back, don't you?" And when the big man nods, "I need to use it. I'll--"

John catches his wrist, which doesn't actually halt Rodney's sudden forward momentum, and so he reaches out with his other hang and snaps his fingers through the other man's belt loops. He looks pointedly at Rodney's half finished sandwich, drawls, "I'm pretty sure I can provide you with an adequate dramatic recreation, Rodney."

The man fidgets for a moment, standing above him, and then says, "Oh, right. Of course you can," and throws himself back in his chair. "So what horribly arbitrary name did you give my creation?"

"I called it," he pauses, for dramatic effect, and Rodney throws the salt shaker at him, "Ironman. And believe me, having spent a lot of time with the military type, they'll love it."

Rodney looks a mixture of shocked and offended, and John wishes he had a camera, because the expression is absolutely priceless. Things devolve back to a lighter nature after that, and by the time John takes Rodney home he's sure that part of the conversation has been completely forgotten, but Rodney leans against his doorframe, fiddling with the keys, says, "Ironman, huh?"

"Gotta admit it's got a ring to it."

Rodney smiles up at him, shaking his head, says, "Get some sleep, Sheppard." And then, halfway through his door, "See you in the morning?"

For a long moment the question hangs between them, and it feels heavier than it should be. Like he's agreeing to something more than questions and coffee. He shoves his hands into his pockets, rocks back onto his heels, drawls, "Wouldn't miss it for the world."

He's still standing there when Rodney closes the door.

hr

He's not sure what he expects the next day. It's not for Rodney to come stomping out of his office, just as he's always done, snagging his coffee and flashing John one of the no longer so rare smiles of his. And then they're dodging around rubble and construction workers, Rodney treating the men the same way he treats his staff.

John waits until a lull in the snapped orders and various bangs and whirls of heavy equipment to ask, "What were they after?"

He doesn't think Rodney's really paying attention when he answers, voice far away, "Me." Rodney's watching a group of men trying to do something to a gigantic hydraulic door. He thinks they're trying to keep it from falling to the ground. Which he understands. He doesn't understand why the door apparently leads to nothing but a flat wall.

He takes a too big drink of coffee, blaming the sudden clench in his gut on the burn, "At least they didn't get what they came for then, right?"

Rodney hums, and then he's shoving his half drank coffee back into John's hands, starting for the men with a determined look on his face. He's snapping, "Hey, hey, what are you doing? You're going to overload the tensile sensors and it'll--"

John stops listening, because he sees what Rodney means a half-second before it happens. The door lurches in the men's hands, unbalancing two of the three men with the first jerk, the other making a surprised, pained sound as the weight of the entire thing suddenly bears down on him and then Rodney is there, John a half step behind him.

The metal is cold beneath his fingers, and he doesn't remember dropping the coffee, but obviously he did. He grunts, shifts his grip and flexes his knees and feels the door catch, after a half second, halting its downward movement. In the corner of his eye he can see Rodney, likewise occupied, turning his head to glare down at the men on the floor, snapping, "Get up here and hold this. I'll adjust the sensors—which you should have done in the first place—and save you all crippling injuries, how about that?"

And then Rodney is moving towards him, ducking and wedging himself between John's legs and the wall. John shivers at the press of warm broad back against his thighs, tries very, very hard not to look down. He's known that he was attracted to McKay from the first time he saw him, but he'd been doing so very, very good at smothering it.

Rodney's muttering, voice a rumble in his ribcage translating itself into shivers up John's legs. His knees slip a little wider, quite without any permission from him, and he feels Rodney sink back further into him, can feel the twist and flex of the muscles in his arms, moving against the skin of his inner thighs.

He bites his lip, closes his eyes, and prays for Rodney to get the sensors adjusted as soon as humanly possible.

He's breathing impossibly heavy, ferociously glad that he'd decided on a heavy sweater and blue jeans this morning, when Rodney makes a triumphant sound and the door lurches upwards without any help from the rest of them. Rodney watches him curiously as he stammers his way through a hasty retreat, and John feels like he's losing his mind when he manages to almost slip in the coffee he spilt earlier in an attempt to get away from Rodney before he does something idiotic.

He's almost safely out the door when Rodney calls after him, "Dinner?"

John doesn't turn, just throws a hand up, prays his voice doesn't sound quite so breathy as he knows it does, "Seven!"

hr

Elizabeth calls him just as he's pulling into Rodney's parking lot, and he contemplates not answering, but she's been so worried about him lately, and he does so hate making her worry. He flips the phone open, tipping his head to the side to cradle it between his shoulder and ear, and grabs the bags in his backseat.

He's vaguely aware that it might be presumptuous of him to go get the sandwiches, and a six pack of beer, but he doesn't particularly want to sit through another evening of Ronon glaring at him and very pointedly sharpening his knives. Besides, there's something fiercely appealing about the idea of actually having Rodney all to himself for an hour or possibly two. It'll be good for the story.

He says, "Hey, beautiful, what's going on?"

She snorts, "Flattery isn't going to get me to stop worrying about you, John." He doesn't point out that it has in the past, just makes a noncommittal sound and saves his breath for running up the flights of stairs to Rodney's apartment. After a second, she apparently realizes that he's not going to say anything on the subject, continues, "What the hell are you doing?"

He shrugs, a gesture that nearly costs him the phone, only then realizing that she can't see it anyway, "I'm about to eat some dinner. You'll be so proud, this is my second business meal in a row for less than twenty bucks. I told you I'd get that spending under control."

There's a long stretch of silence, as he pounds his way up the final half dozen stairs, and she sounds puzzled, "You're eating with...McKay?"

He corrects without thinking about it first, "Rodney. Yes." And then he's in front of the door, and there's a welcome mat out that wasn't there yesterday, and a sticky note on the door that says: Showering. Long day, I'm starving. Come in.

He thinks about Rodney in the shower, and feels a spike of hunger that has absolutely nothing to do with food. He's vaguely aware that Elizabeth is saying something, but he doesn't hear her, says, "Talk to you later, Lizzie," and reaches for the doorknob.

By the time Rodney comes out of his bathroom, skin still moist and a little red, hair sticking up in a hundred different directions, John's got the sandwiches and beer arranged on his kitchen table. For a long second Rodney stares at him, then at the food, then back up at him, and John can feel nervousness burning like fire down his nerve endings, hears himself say, "I got your usual. Is this--"

He means to ask if it's okay that he brought the food back, but Rodney's interrupting, "Let's take it to the living room," snagging his sandwich with possessive hands and the beer that had been John's until two seconds ago. John follows, because he's not sure that he's actually being given a choice in the matter.

They end up on opposite ends of Rodney's couch, the television on in the background. John tries, really, he does, to make this something like an interview, but Rodney's obviously exhausted. Most of his answers are little more than grunts, and then John gets distracted by the news. By the time he looks up from a commercial, dreading having to announce that he needs to be getting back to his hotel, Rodney is asleep.

For a long time he just stares at the other man, head thrown back against the couch cushions, one leg folded up under him, arms wrapped around a pillow in his lap. He thinks about waking him, about trying to drag him off to his as-yet-unseen bed. Settles for liberating the throw off the back of a nearby chair, for pulling and tugging until Rodney ends up mostly horizontal, and spreading the bright orange fleece blanket over him.

He doesn't mean to linger there, watching Rodney sleep, but that doesn't stop it from happening. He doesn't mean to run his fingers back through the other man's hair, tracing his fingertips lightly over the still irritated skin on his temples. Rodney stirs restlessly, pushing up into John's palm, making a tiny needy sound and John curses, withdraws.

All the way back to his hotel he can feel the burn of the other man's skin under his own.

It's not the first night he dreams about being fucked by Rodney McKay, but it is the first time he's been willing to admit it to himself in the morning.

hr

After that, dinner sort of becomes another thing between them, though better than half the time it's literally a working meal. John can't say he minds, because there's something almost hypnotizing about watching Rodney type, put something together or take something apart. The fact that Rodney's also eating, and usually talking, while doing it just makes it that much more fascinating.

He thinks it's been about a week since that first evening spent in Rodney's living room, when he realizes that he's sitting in Rodney's lab, the other man completely distracted by his calculations and sandwich. There's papers everywhere, devices either finished or on their way there.

He thinks that it would be nothing to snap a few pictures with his phone, that he could have a story, could break McKay Industries wide open. And he knows, then and there, that he's in way over his head when he feels a wave of disgust at himself for even considering it.

Rodney snaps his fingers off to the side, says, "Hand me that wrench, will you?" And the sheer absurdity of being asked for a wrench in this place of whirling machines and hyper-advanced physics, is enough to surprise a laugh out of him, and derail his train of thought from its frightening headlong plunge. Rodney gives him an odd look, and retrieves the wrench himself.

hr

Of all the things they talk about, and they talk about everything, they don't talk about Rodney's kidnapping until one day Rodney resettles himself on the couch, turning to face John, and says, "You know, those people that blew up my building were the same people that took me. Kolya. I mean. That bastard. He was there. I saw him."

John feels himself tense up, forces his hands to unclench from the fists they'd automatically balled up into. He's never really forgotten how Rodney looked, tied to that chair, bleeding and hurting and alone, but sometimes he manages to go a day or two without the image rising up behind his eyes. He knows the anger is never going to go away. He doesn't even want it to, grinds out, "Oh yeah?"

Rodney hums agreeably, "Yeah." His expression is soft, gentler than John's used to, mellowed by the beer he'd brought over. And then Rodney's blurting, like he can't get the words out fast enough, "I lied. Before. When I told you they were after me. They were after my work, and--" he takes a deep breath, face scrunching up like the words a leaving a sour taste behind, "—and I think they got some of it."

John hates himself for saying, "Who?" Hates the proof that he really can't turn it off, that even here, in this moment when he wants to gather Rodney up and tell him everything will be okay, he's still digging. He's not sure what it says about him, but he knows it's nothing good.

He expects Rodney to close off, to get quiet and distant the way he does when John presses too hard somewhere he shouldn't press at all. But instead Rodney just stares at him hard, says, "I—I'm not supposed to..." and then his expression firms up, almost angry, and he's leaning over into John's space, "But it's what you want, isn't it? What you've always wanted?"

And he wants to protest, but can't, because there's at least a little bit of truth there. Because he has wanted it, all along. It's just that there's so much he wants more, now.

Rodney doesn't give him the chance to wrestle his demons down enough to answer, talks low and fast, "They're the G.E.N.I.I. It's some ridiculous military acronym, and I don't know if we made it up or they did. It doesn't matter.

"We think they started out as a brain trust in England, geniuses with a bend towards anarchy, who recruited others of like mind and then broadened their intellectual standards when they discovered that blowing up buildings and murdering people could safely be called grunt work. They made a play for me out of Stanford, and, well, as good as I am at building weapons, I prefer for them to be in the hands of someone who won't be tempted to use them to blow up my favorite fruit stand. Though, honestly, I'm starting to think I'm the only one that can be trusted with that kind of responsibility."

Rodney sucks in a deep breath, jerking up from the couch and stomping over to his desk, ripping drawers open and grabbing sheets of paper. He forces them into an awkward pile, marching back over to John and dumping them unceremoniously into his lap, "There. Names. Dates. Places. It's all there, so just—just take it and go away."

John gapes down at the papers in his lap, shoves them aside and stands, follows Rodney when he retreats back towards the desk. "Rodney, Rodney, damnit, wait! Stop! I don't--"

"But you do!" And this is Rodney angry. He'd forgotten how this looked, and doesn't appreciate the refresher course, "It's a story to you, and you never said it wasn't, I just let myself pretend. I just thought—It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter what I thought, does it? Please. Just go away. Go write your story."

John tries again, because this is ridiculous, catches Rodney's arm and tries to force eye contact and Rodney jerks away from him like he's infected with leprosy. Rodney's snarling, "Fine. Fine." And before John can move he's stomping out his own front door, out into the night, and by the time John manages to convince himself to move, by the time he stumbles down to the parking lot, Rodney's car is gone.

He goes back upstairs, puts the papers back in Rodney's desk, and turns to go.

He'll never know why he pulled out his notebook then, why he scrawled down the three phone numbers and the address on the top sheet. He thinks he knows, even as he does it, that he'll hate himself for it later.

hr

The numbers and address help, and suddenly he's got money trails to follow, and names to put on this hate he's carrying in his chest. He's got a story, rolling over and showing him its belly, and he feels something of the heady, giddy joy he feels whenever he's about to blow something big wide open.

There's a lot of work to do, all of a sudden. Tracing fake Swiss bank accounts to fake German bank accounts, to, bizarrely, a tiny credit union in Iowa. To using death certificates to trace back to mug shots two decades old, to accidentally stumbling upon a picture of Kolya, in the background of a casino opening in Vegas with some young red head on his arm.

It's just as well that he's swamped in information that needs sorting because Rodney won't have anything to do with him, now.

He pounds on Rodney's office door until security arrives and escorts him off the premise, the petite woman threatening, very clearly, with gestures even, to break both his knees if he ever comes back. He shows up at Rodney's apartment with coffee, with donuts, with chocolate, with sandwiches, with beer, and none of it gets him in the door. He leaves what he's sure are potentially hundreds of messages that consist of him pleading with Rodney to call and then hanging up.

It's around the time that he starts sending text messages in a similar vein that he realizes that he's actually not a teenage girl, and Rodney is actually not his boyfriend, and starts thinking it might be time to go back to California.

He calls Elizabeth to tell her the good news while throwing his clothes with more force than strictly necessary into his suitcases. He keeps finding receipts for Rodney's sandwich place in his pants pockets, and it's not improving him mood. He snaps, "Son of a bitch!" at receipt number nine, and Elizabeth goes silent for a beat.

And then, "John, are you sure you--"

He interrupts with, "No," because he's not sure about anything except that he's fucked this whatever-it-was he had with Rodney up, and somehow he doubts that was what she had been planning to ask.

Her voice is softer than he's heard it in a long time, that gentle big sister tone she only uses when she thinks he needs talking down, "Maybe you should--"

And he doesn't feel like being gentled, right now, "No. He doesn't want me here." And doesn't that just burn like a son of a bitch. He'd spoilt himself with Rodney's smiles, with his easy genius, with his soft snores when he inevitably fell asleep on his couch. He feels like an addict, trying to quit cold turkey. "He doesn't want me here." And for the first time, maybe, he really believes that.

"Oh, my god." Elizabeth's voice is a whisper, she sounds shocked, in awe, like she's just had an epiphany. She says, "You're in love with him."

He hangs up on her, throws the phone down on the bed, and stares at the disarray he's made of his luggage. He does not think about her last words, and he doesn't answer when she immediately calls back. Just grabs the suitcase and empties it onto the center of the bed, starts refolding everything to something that might almost be confused for neat.

It's utterly quiet after that, almost like all the sound has been sucked out of his room, and he's sure that's why he manages to hear the soft click of what can only be a safety being thumbed off a gun. He doesn't think, lunges for his phone, and throws himself beneath the bed and thinks he's going to feel like a complete jackass if he's wrong and--

The gunfire shreds the previous silence. He can hear glass shattering, the soft crunch of drywall being eaten up by hot lead. He curses, loud but still completely swallowed by the retort of the gun, and manages to hit the dial button on his phone. He's not sure who he selected to call, doesn't care, yells and hopes it's audible over the cacophony around him, "Someone's trying to kill me! I need--"

The last two words are yelled into silence, as the weapon's fire stops, and John bites down hard on his own tongue. Well, so much for hoping they'd think he was dead and go away. He holds his breath, goes perfectly still, that insane human urge to be still, silent, invisible taking over momentarily.

And then the bed is flying across the room, crashing into the far wall, and John looks up, dumbstruck.

For a half second, he thinks it's Meredith. There's a similar design to the suit, but this one is all silver and black, and bigger than Meredith's. This one has a machine gun attached to its arm, nozzle still smoking and leveled on John's forehead. John says, "Fuck," because that about sums up the situation.

The man in the suit makes a sound that might be laughter, if the electric interference was filtered out, says, "You have dabbled in matters beyond your pay grade, John Sheppard. I am sorry to inform you that I have been sent to, hm, rectify that situation."

And John says a little prayer of thanks to any god that might be listening, wonders how long he can keep the man talking, "You could just give me a raise."

"No, I think not." The man steps further into the room, and glass crunches under his feet. John wonders where the hell the police are, because someone had to have heard the gunfire, even if his call didn't get through to anyone. "I think I will kill you now, and go home a famous man for ending your meddling."

John dares a look down at his phone, still on, and connected to someone, and figures what the hell, he might as well try for some answers if this is how he dies, "You're G.E.N.I.I., this is what you stole from him. The suit."

The man shrugs, and it's an incredibly bizarre gesture in the suit, "You say stole, but we would have paid him for it, if only he had listened to reason. Sadly, for all involved, he did not." Another shrug, "But it matters not, because we have it now, and what better use for our final test run than the removal of his lover?"

"I would have went with assassinating the President, myself. It's not too late, you could still do that." It seems petty to point out that he's not Rodney's lover. Or even his boyfriend. Or, hell, even his friend at this point. "I hear Jack's sleeping with Rodney, too, you know. If that's a prerequisite." He feels vaguely guilty for trying to send this bastard to Jack O'Neill, even with the other man threatening to kill him.

"You talk too much."

"It's just cause I think you're such an interesting guy." There's a faint sound on the edge of his hearing, a whine growing louder really damn fast, and he hopes it's sirens. Not that he really thinks the police stand a chance against this thing, but he's sure that they'd at least be able to distract it enough for John to get the hell out of its way.

"I am sure they will think you are hilarious in hell. Satan will be in stitches. Goodbye now, John Sheppard." And the thing hefts the gun higher, gives him a jaunty wave that seems highly inappropriate for an assassin. John thinks that this is really not at all how he had imagined dying.

He rolls to the side, even though he knows the gun is going to tear the room apart, because there's no way he's going to sit there and die on his knees. He hears the man pivot, sprints for the bathroom with the vague intention of flinging himself out the window and then running the hell away, somehow. He's aware that the whine has grown to a roar, almost deafening, and then there's a burst of heat at his back, and a crash that knocks him temporarily off his feet.

He twists back towards the room, stares in shock for a long moment.

Meredith is straddling the other man, pounding his metal fist down into the other man's helmet over and over again. After a moment Meredith spares him a look, snaps, "Get out of here, John! Run! I don't know--"

The man under him twists, throws an elbow that catches Meredith in the jaw. John takes an involuntary step forward, and then realizes that there's absolutely no way he's going to be an advantage in that particular fight. He sprints past the two men, out the front door of the hotel room, throws himself over the railing, lands rolling on hard, unforgiving pavement, and comes up running.

There's a burst of gunfire, and the harsh sound of bullets against metal. John ducks and dodges, instinct, finds himself running towards a Humvee with some vague notion that the vehicle provides safety. He throws himself behind the vehicle's tire, sucks in a deep breath, and takes off again.

There's a crash behind him, and he risks a quick look over his shoulder. The man in the silver suit is pushing himself to his feet in the parking lot. John can't tell if he jumped down or if Meredith threw him, doesn't matter, because it's pivoting to face him. John curses, low, and tries to convince his legs to move faster.

Another crash, this one metal against metal, and again and again. John takes another look, and stumbles over his own feet, not sure he actually believes what he's seeing. Meredith's pulled a street light out of the road, is smashing it into the other man, over and over again.

The metal of the street light is already bent and warped almost beyond recognition, but the other man isn't moving much anymore, either. Its suit jerks with every blow, but it looks involuntary. John watches Meredith smash it once more, right in the face, and then the man tosses the light aside, falls to his knees.

John watches him grab the other man's helmet, watches him twist and pull until it comes apart in his hands. John catches a glimpse of dark hair, and then Meredith's wrapping his hand around the other man's head, fingers visibly tightening around the man's skull. And then Meredith lets go, shaking himself, pushing up to his feet and swaying.

John doesn't realize he's running back until he's there, kicking at the unconscious or possibly dead man in the silver suit in passing. Meredith is staring down at his hands, turning them over and over again, like the suit is going to change if he looks away. John says, "Hey," because he isn't sure what else to say.

Meredith startles, focuses on him, or at least John assumes he does. The blankly expressionless face is kind of impossible to read. He says, "John," and then he's closing his hands on John's shoulders, squeezing almost hard enough to hurt, scanning him up and down with his eerie blue eyes, "Oh, God, you're okay, you're—I thought I might be too late."

"Rodney sent you?" He tries not to feel giddy that Rodney sent his personal body guard to save him. But he can't help but hope that might mean forgiveness. Can't help but think that this is a good sign, even besides the fact that he's still alive and fine.

"What? Oh, yes. Yes. He did. And then, uh, he told me to take you somewhere safe." Which is all the warning John gets before Meredith is literally scooping him up. The metal is cold against his skin, hard, sharp edges that dig into his ribs and hips in awkward places.

He says, staring up at the side of the man's mask, "We've got to stop meeting like this," and then they're moving far too quickly for him to say anything.

hr

Turns out Rodney's idea of safe is a military base, which is logic that John can't really disagree with. They end up in Norfolk, where Meredith drops him off and promptly disappears, muttering something about his batteries dying. John's left in the capable hands of the medics, who bitch at him as though being nearly hypothermic is his fault, swaddle him in blankets, and leave him on a infirmary bed.

Stress and exhaustion and cold all conspire against him, and he falls asleep embarrassingly quickly. He doesn't feel as though he's been asleep long, though, when a familiar voice jerks him out of his dreams. He rubs at his face, his fingers no longer feeling stiff and immobile, pushes himself up to a sitting position and peers groggily around the room.

The area he's in is completely empty, and he shakes his head, and slides to his feet. Follows the soft murmured voices forward, trying to figure out which one he had recognized. And then there's Rodney's voice, "Look, I need to start studying this thing immediately, they could have made changes to it, and we need to know."

"This'll only take a minute, Rodney." A woman's exasperated voice he doesn't recognize, and he nudges the door open as quietly as he can, edging himself through, trying not to draw any attention to himself. "And I did fly all the way up here from Baltimore for you, so just hold still and be quiet for five minutes."

Rodney is sitting on a bed, his back to John. He's shirtless, his skin wet and glistening in the fluorescent lighting, hands braced by his hips. John can read pain and tension in the line of the other man's spine, and takes an involuntary step forward.

The woman by the edge of the bed turns towards him at the movement, eyes going wide when she spots him. She says, "Oh, hello!" brushing her hair back from her face, laying a hand on Rodney's shoulder. "Mr. Sheppard, right? How are you feeling?"

John ignores her in favor of taking another step closer to Rodney, reaching towards him, "Why are you all gooey?"

Rodney jerks forward before John can touch him, grabbing the folded robe off the bed and pulling it almost angrily onto his shoulders. John lets his hand drop, fingers curling up against his palm, because he'd forgotten for a wonderful second that Rodney was pissed off at him.

When Rodney does finally turn to face him, though, he looks more tired than angry. There are bruises on his face, and the angry red circles on his temples are back in full force. His knuckles, tense where Rodney's crossed his arms, are red and John can't tell if they're bleeding or not. John forgets, again, that they're not on the best terms right now, steps into Rodney's space and grabs one of his hands, rubbing a finger over the battered knuckles, hissing, "Christ, Rodney, what happened?"

Out of the corner of his eyes he sees the doctor open her mouth, and Rodney casts her a dark look, before saying, carefully, "Accountants."

"You got in a fight with accountants?" He doesn't even try to disguise his surprise, aware that he's still cradling Rodney's hand and not sure how to let it go. The robe doesn't cover nearly as much as Rodney's shirts usually do, and John can see the line of circular welts down his chest, the strange liquid that's smeared across his skin.

"It was more of a disagreement." And he realizes that they're talking, that it's almost teasing, and feels something in his chest lighten. He slides his hand, lets his fingers circle Rodney's wrist, squeezes, just a little. "They're vicious."

"I can kick their asses for you." He's not sure even he knows what he's saying. Just knows that he's drifting closer into Rodney's space, that he can smell something almost sharply electric on the other man's skin. That Rodney's warm, so warm, that John just wants to grab him, hold him, taste him.

Rodney smiles, then, soft and crooked. He shifts into John, and it's forgiveness and coming home and John can hear Elizabeth's voice, in the back of his mind: You're in love with him. And he is. God. He is. Everything else fades, the doctor with her befuddled look, the room itself.

He says, "Hey," tilts his head to the side and leans closer, watches Rodney's eyes go soft and unfocused.

And then the doctor clears her throat, says, "I'm...sorry to interrupt, but I really need to, um, you know," she waves her hands, "With Dr. McKay. Um. I mean. I'm sorry." John glares at her, vaguely aware of the fact that he's backed Rodney against the hospital bed, that without realizing it he'd curled his hand around the man's hip, that he'd been this close to kissing him.

Rodney's breathe whooshes out in a rush, and he says, "John, meet Doctor Keller."

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He gets kicked out of the room for Rodney's whatever the hell, and it's only then that he realizes that Rodney's being seen by a doctor who flew in from Baltimore to a military base to treat him. The panic of it makes him freeze, and then there's nothing for it but to find a computer.

He's sure that a few months ago he wouldn't have been able to get anywhere on the computer, but he's spent far too much time trying to find the G.E.N.I.I. to be anything but highly proficient with computers at this point. He sits down, cracks his knuckles, and gets to work.

Two hours later he has the information he needs, though it's not the information he wants. He can't find Rodney anywhere, the few people that are willing to talk to him tell him that Rodney's busy dissecting the enemy suit. He ends up commandeering a set of quarters and crashing out on the narrow cot, exhausted physically and emotionally past his limits.

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He wakes up alone. This time he manages to find a head, showers and cleans himself up as best he's able. It's a relief to no longer smell like stale sweat, to have a clean mouth again, though the stubble is irritating as hell. Unable to find anything else to stall himself, he goes to find Rodney.

He's fairly certain that he's been wandering around the base for hours, when Rodney's voice creeps up on him. He jerks, backtracks to the hallway he just passed and sprints down it, breathe catching in his throat. And then there's an open door and Rodney's voice, "—you don't understand, Sam, it wasn't as strong, and I don't know why. It doesn't make sense. They duplicated the tech perfectly."

John pushes into the room, not even bothering with subtlety this time. Rodney's alone anyway, bent over a computer, talking into the screen. The Ironman armor is standing to one side, inside what John assumes is some kind of giant battery charger, the enemy armor spread out on the floor in front of it, completely disassembled.

He recognizes Sam Carter's voice through the computer, "Perfectly? But that means--"

Rodney waves an impatient hand, his other coming up to pinch the bridge of his nose, "I know. There could be, well, there could be a lot more. And one wasn't any problem, but, Sam... If they came en masse, they could... It would be bad. Very, very bad."

Sam's voice sounds tense, worried, "I'm sure we'll think of something, Rodney. You'll be--"

That's all the further she gets before John steps up and slams the top of the laptop closed. Rodney blinks at the closed computer, then up at John. The dark circles under his eyes are even deeper now, his bruises still cherry purple, and John grabs him, hard around his biceps, shakes him. He demands, "Why didn't you tell me?"

All the color in Rodney's face just drains. His mouth opens, closes, and then he chokes, "What?" He's shaking under John's hands, and he realizes that he might be squeezing too hard. That he might be hurting Rodney, and tries to make himself release him, but can't. "I don't know--"

"You're dying, Rodney! Why didn't you tell me? How couldn't you tell me?" He shakes him again for emphasis.

Rodney's expression crumbles into something like relief, he shudders beneath John's hands, shaking his head. "No, no, John. It's not—I'm not dying." Rodney's laughing, high and desperate, his hands coming up to ball in John's shirt, pulling hard enough to tip John side to side. "I'm not dying, you idiot."

"Yes you are! I saw, I saw the medical reports. Your heart is—God, it was torn to shreds. What did they do to you? How are they keeping you alive now? You could, you could be gone at any moment. I can't—and you're not allowed, okay? You're not allowed to die." He considers that he's ordering someone not to die, and wonders if he's finally lost his mind.

Rodney laughs again, sweeter and less frantic, rocks him side to side one last time before removing his hands from John's shirt. "I'm not, I'm not, look--" and then he's reaching for his own buttons, long fingers tugging one after another after another open.

John wants to stop him, wants to say: Let me. But all he can do is watch, fingers tightening around Rodney's arms till he knows he's got to be leaving bruises. He breathes, "Christ," eyes riveted to Rodney's pale skin, the light brown hair curled close to his chest. "Christ, Rodney," and he doesn't understand why he sounds so goddamn broken.

And then Rodney's pulling his shirt aside, and John's mouth falls open, around words he can't vocalize. He can feel himself moving, leaning forward to rest his forehead against the warm skin over Rodney's collarbone. He lets go of the man's left arm, drags his fingers across his chest, onto the strange, metallic circle imbedded in his skin.

His voice sounds far away, "What is it?" The metal is cool under his fingers, a contrast to the heat of Rodney's skin. There's strange blue glow to the metal, one that pulses almost like the beating of a heart. He flattens his hand over the surface of it, bowed slightly outward so that his palm fits over it perfectly.

"My heart was torn to shreds." Rodney shrugs, one of his hands coming up, covering John's on his chest. "So I built a better one. Keller's been keeping an eye on it, because, well, medical sciences were never one of my strong suits."

John slides closer, presses himself up against Rodney, turning his face into Rodney's neck. It's easy to hold him, to get an arm around his shoulders and pull him close. Their hands are still trapped between them, awkward, but he doesn't mind. Not when Rodney's fingers curl around his, when Rodney's arm slides around his waist, palm big and broad spread across his back.

"I should really call Sam back, you know. Since you hung up on her, and all."

John says, "Yeah," and doesn't let go.

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Part Three

They do end up calling Sam back, and John listens with half an ear to the technobabble that the two bat around. He keeps a hand on Rodney, on his shoulder or back, ignoring the way Sam's eyes keep drifting to the contact. When Rodney jerks to his feet, explaining that he needs coffee before heading for the door, John stands to follow and Rodney waves him back down, says, "Keep Sam company, I'll be right back."

Which is how John comes to be staring at Sam Carter through a computer screen, with absolutely nothing to say to her. He lets himself sprawl in the chair Rodney had been occupying, grins at her and drawls, "Hey there, Colonel. You're looking good." And wow, jealousy is a sneaky bastard, because it's all he can do not to add: All dolled up for Rodney?

She looks at him like she can hear it anyway, one eyebrow slightly raised, mouth quirked up in the corners. "How are you doing, John?"

He shrugs, "Oh, you know." He cuts his eyes towards the door, lets his grin make the small slide to lecherous. When he turns back to the Carter she's watching him sharply, her lips pressed together, her eyes hard. "Been hanging out with Rodney."

"I heard," and then she's leaning forward onto her elbows, expression tight and serious, "Listen to me, John Sheppard, Rodney's had, well, he's had a rough time of things. Especially lately. If this is some sick attempt of yours to get a story out of him then I'll make sure that you never write a damn thing again. And your face won't be nearly so photogenic."

John grins back, slouches further, "And here I thought you were his bitter ex-wife."

She shifts, uncomfortable, and John considers again how easy it is to push the buttons on these military types, "Love was never the problem in, well, any of our marriages. Rodney just wasn't—well, he wasn't the doctor I was looking for." And there's something there, something he knows he should be picking up on, but before he can figure it out Rodney's back in the room.

He's saying, "Making friends, you two?" while summarily dumping John out of his chair and shoving an extra cup of coffee into his hands. And then he's right back into strategizing, sinking into the near mind meld with Sam where they communication in unfinished sentences and complicated gestures. "So, we can't let them make the first move."

Sam's already shaking her head, "No, Rodney, I can't support a plan that involves--"

"I already have three more suits in construction, all I need are pilots for me to finish the link up and then we won't have to worry about this problem at all." Rodney pauses, takes a long swallow of his own coffee, and then shoves the empty glass haphazardly aside, "But until then, we can't risk them attacking multiple targets and they won't while--"

"I think you might be overestimating their grasp of military tactics, Rodney. They probably don't even realize that--"

"They know Ironman's a threat, Sam. If they didn't before they do now. That man--" This time Rodney cuts himself off, hands balling into fists on either side of the laptop. Sam makes a soft, questioning sound and Rodney snaps, "Didn't make it. They're going to find out, and they're going to make a move and they're going to do it soon, unless we do something first."

"Rodney--"

"I'm not asking for your permission. I'm asking for your opinion on where they're keeping the suits and I'm asking for military backup because if—if they win, you're going to have to blow the fuck out of the entire area, and hope it's enough to stop them."

Sam makes a face, but doesn't frame another protest. John kind of wishes that she would, because he can't help but think that it doesn't sound like a good idea for one man to take on a potential army of the mechsuits. He also wonders why Meredith isn't being included in this particular meeting.

It's hours later, when they finally finish up.

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John dogs Rodney's heels back to his room, aware that he's wasted an entire day listening to Rodney and Sam talk about the potential end of the world. Rodney pauses outside the door, cocks his head up to look at him, says, "John?"

John lets himself sway closer, watches Rodney's eyes widen as John closes the distance between them. He drops his voice low and intimate, "I wanna come in." He's not asking, it's just statement of his intentions. He leans closer, watches Rodney sink back against the wall, and moves himself into the other man's space, into Rodney's warmth. "That okay?"

Rodney's staring at him like he's crazy, "Um. Yes?"

John grins, doesn't even try to keep it from the wicked tilt it's striving for, reaches out and twists the doorknob. Herding Rodney into the room is no harder than bracing a hand on his hip and applying a little pressure, and John follows.

And then Rodney's saying, "But I can't stay up to talk, have to sleep. Tomorrow is...tomorrow is going to be a big day." In fact, he's already heading for the bed, toeing his shoes off as he goes. It's something almost hypnotizing watching him pull his shirt free of the waistband on his pants, watching him stretch his arms above his head and then flop down onto his bed.

John says, wondering when it became okay for him to be pursuing Rodney, and how he's supposed to make the other man realize that he is, "Yeah. That's okay." He follows Rodney, kicking off his own boots, undoing the top few buttons on his shirt. "I'm tired myself."

Rodney's watching him, eyes hung up on John's fingers, and he contemplates removing his shirt altogether, and then remembers that he's the one with the obsession, and leaves it on. He nudges Rodney with a knee, giving the other side of the bed a significant look, and after a moment Rodney obediently shifts over to make room.

John lets himself sprawl onto his back, tucks his hands behind his head and closes his eyes. He can feel Rodney staring, cracks an eye open and squints up at him. Says, "Thought you were going to sleep."

Rodney flushes, the tips of his ears going red as he shifts to a more horizontal position. "Right. I. Didn't they give you a room?" He sounds honestly puzzled, and John wants to kiss him so powerfully it's almost overwhelming. Instead he lets Rodney settle onto his stomach, lets the man blink across at him from his pillow.

Then, and only then, does he shrug, "I've gotten used to your snoring. Can't fall asleep without hearing it first."

Rodney snorts, "I don't snore," but he's smiling, squeezing and prodding at his pillow. "You snore." John rolls his eyes, but doesn't protest. Shrugging provides an excuse to shift closer to Rodney's warmth, and so he blatantly abuses it.

He falls asleep to the sound of Rodney snoring, a half an hour later. When he wakes up, sometime in the small hours of the morning, Rodney is curled up against him. Rodney's head is pillowed against his shoulder, an arm thrown across John's chest, one leg hooked over both of John's. He's still snoring, very softly, and it soothes John back into a deeper sleep.

When he wakes up Rodney's gone and alarms are blaring.

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He ends up accidentally grabbing Rodney's shoes, and they're half a size too big. He feels awkward running down the corridors in them, even more awkward when he realizes that his shirt is hanging half open. He doesn't take the time to stop and re-button it back up, just keeps sprinting for the room where he last saw the Ironman suit.

By the time he makes it to the room it's already empty, and he curses. Then there's nothing for it but to run until he finds the other people in the most obvious state of panic, and throw himself into their midst. It's a mess of screaming, aggravated people, flashing computer screens, and general disorganization.

John takes advantage of the confusion, slides into an uninhabited work station and convinces the computer to let him into the system. For a long moment he can only stare in dumbstruck denial at what he sees, and then he leans backwards, curses under his breath. Hisses, "Goddamn Rodney for being right, anyway."

And that's when he spots the armored men sprinting by in the hallway outside. He looks around the room, the panicked mess that is slowly gathering itself into order, and at the men obviously headed somewhere, and pushes himself out of the seat. Five minutes later he's in a helicopter, the poor lieutenant he ambushed still looking shell shocked from John's low, pointed explanation of press credentials and freedom of speech and why, yes, he would be accompanying them to Washington D.C.

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The National Mall is burning.

John can see the flames reflected in the water, up the side of the Washington Monument. He gapes at it, wondering how much will be destroyed by the time this is over, why more isn't destroyed already, and hears over the radio, "There he is!" And then, "Holy shit!"

Something goes by the side of the helicopter, so close that if John had been leaning out the door he could have touched it. He catches a flash of red, gold, and then there's a whump of sound so loud it hurts as Lincoln explodes into a thousand marble shards. It all happens in less than five seconds, and John stares at the ruined memorial, trying to make sense of what's happening.

And then something's stirring in the rubble of the memorial, and John realizes it's Meredith. The man glows, the flames turning the metal suit to a living, liquid thing. It's too far away for him to be sure, but the armor looks dented.

He doesn't get the time to think about it, because then the man is rising, flying towards them so quickly he's nothing but a blur, by them and gone faster than the human eye can track. John snaps, "Follow him!" and is surprised when the pilot actually does.

Meredith is a spot in the distance, not growing any smaller now, and John thinks he must be over the White House. He wonders if O'Neill was in residence, wonders if that building is going to be burning as well. He doesn't have to wait long to find out.

The White House is not burning yet, but the huge hole in the roof isn't promising. Neither is the fact that Jack O'Neill is standing on the front yard, waving a shot gun at the four huge metal men arrayed against him. One of his secret service agents is trying to haul him off. The Vice President, Daniel Jackson, there for reasons that John can't even begin to fathom, appears to be more in line with O'Neill's plan, and is possibly throwing rocks at the gigantic machines.

One of the mechanical men raises it's arm, the gun there almost humming, and John thinks he's about to witness the assassination of a President and looks around on habit for a camera, any kind of camera at all. It's because of this that he misses Meredith slamming into the robot, the two hitting the ground so hard that they end up dug in, feet deep.

They're hovering over the lawn, like they've made it this far and then reached a stalemate, and John leans over to bellow into the pilot's face, "We've got to get down there! Get the President out!"

The man nods, his face pale, and just like that they're moving. John keeps one eye on the President, one eye on Meredith, bracing his palm on the other man's face. There's a whump of sound, a wave of heat so thick and sudden that the chopper rocks with it. John shouts, grabs for something solid and still nearly gets tipped out onto the ground.

By the time he looks back up, Meredith is drawing his fist back, slamming it into the other man's face before bracing his palm over it again, repeating the process. He manages four blows, before the three other men in suits open fire on him.

Bullets ricochet across the yard, and O'Neill's bodyguard has apparently had enough, drives both the President and Jackson to the ground. John's seeing congressional medals of honor in the man's future, and casts his pilot a sharp look because they should be on the ground by now. The man flushes, and they're moving sideways, setting down on the green lawn not two feet away from the three prone men.

John doesn't think, he's just out of the chopper, running hunched over to the three men, grabbing Jackson's shoulder and tugging him towards the helicopter. The body guard already has O'Neill on his feet, pulling him along as Jack scowls. John can see his lips moving, but can't hear the words over the whirl of the blades, over the weapons fire all around them.

The pilot leans out of the helicopter as Jackson and O'Neill are shoved in, yells, "We can't take everyone, she won't get airborne!"

And it's not like there's a question on who's going to stay behind. John cuts a quick look towards the man's rank, reaches up to pat him on the shoulder, "It's okay, Major, get the President out of here. I'm sure we'll be fine." He's not, but it sounds like the right thing to say, and it takes some of the worry out of the other man's blue eyes.

The secret service guy beside him grunts, yells into John's ear, "I will stay with you." And John just nods, because he'd kind of figured that was how it was going to be, and motions for Major Lorne to get the hell out of Dodge.

It's only as the chopper rises, already heading south, that he dares turn his attention back to the continuing fight.

Meredith is on his knees, one of the other robots each holding an arm, while the third rains blows down onto his helmet. The fourth metallic man is still limp on the ground where he'd been left. John's not sure if there are sparks jumping over the surface of the suit or not. Doesn't plan to go closer to find out. In fact, he doesn't plan to do anything but get to someplace with a camera.

Which doesn't explain why he's bending, scooping up the shot gun that O'Neill discarded. It's loaded, and it feels painfully familiar in his hands, long days spent on the shooting range coming back to him. He tightens his grip, and listens to the sound of metal grating against metal, and thinks he's tired of Meredith always getting to play hero, anyway.

He's vaguely aware of the secret service guy grabbing his own sidearm, aware that the chopper is far enough away that its sound is no longer as all-encompassing as it was. Mostly though, he's aware of the smoke on the air, the grass under his feet, Meredith making terrible wounded sounds every time the other men land a blow.

Firing on the blue and silver suits doesn't actually do anything, besides cause some pretty sparks. John pops the empty casing free anyway, levels the now empty gun on the men for a lack of anything better to do, and snarls, "Let him go."

The one that had been hitting Meredith pauses, head cocked to the side. John wonders if it's measuring distances, calculating trajectories, judging their possible threat levels. He figures that it must dismiss them, that it can't think they stand any kind of chance against it, but it shifts a step back from Meredith anyway, brings its arm up.

The secret service guy, apparently unable to turn off the protect instinct, shoves John sideways and down as the whirling that seems to precede weapons fire from these things splits the air. And somewhere, Meredith is yelling, "John! NO!"

He'll never know how the other man manages to get to his feet, but he does, dragging the other two men up with him. When the third man opens fire, it's directly into Meredith's metal chest.

And then Meredith's twisting, a movement from his knees up through his shoulders that sends the man holding his left arm crashing into the man standing in front of him. Those two go down in a twist of metal limbs, and Meredith's already turning on the third, palms flared out, filled with violent blue light. He's snarling, "I've made some slight modifications to the armor, see?"

The sound it makes when the energy shoots towards the third robot is insanely loud, and John can only think: energy weapon, how cool is that? And then the suit is falling backwards, a gaping, smoking hole in the middle of its chest. Meredith's shouting, "How do you like that one? Useful, huh?" And then twisting towards John, "What the hell are you doing here, are you crazy?"

The other two enemy suits are rising to their feet, and Meredith switches his attention back forward, draws his arm back, and slams it down like a hammer into the side of the one man's head. There's still a blue glow dancing around his fist, and it transfers itself to the other suit, which jerks and twitches and then goes limp.

The last man appears to take stock of his surroundings, and then he's launching himself skyward, near deafening John as he breaks the sound barrier. John stares after it, already nothing but a fading spot, and then throws himself forward, towards Meredith who is starting a slow collapse towards the ground.

He tries to catch the other man, but the armor is heavy, and so it mostly just ends up bearing him along towards the ground. This close, he can see all the dents and gouges in the metal, the marks of blows graven into steel like it's nothing. He imagines what it must have done to the body beneath, grimaces, "Christ, are you okay?"

The other man is flat on the ground now, curled up in on himself. John tugs at the helmet, looking for switches, for buttons, for something to take it off. Meredith's voice is cracking, like it's not transmitting properly, "John—here, you got to get—I can't—it—thought I could but I can't, I can't, it's—broken--"

John gives up on getting the helmet off, traces the indentations that the bullets left in the man's chest plate for lack of something better to do with his hands, hears himself, "It's fine. It's fine, we'll get you back to base and Rodney'll fix you up and--"

There's sharp, wheezing laughter from the suit, and John's eyes widen, realization hitting him like a punch in the gut. He opens and closes his mouth, fighting with the words in his chest. "Oh, God. Rodney?"

Rodney laughs again, mechanical and harsh and still somehow instantly recognizable as his. "Was wondering when—out. I've got—after it—got to—to its home base." And then he's trying to push himself to his feet, and John tenses at the exposed wiring he can see, the gaping wounds in the metal.

"No. Rodney. No, it's broken."

Rodney shakes his head, and there's a buzz of pure static. John can't tell if it's a mechanical failure of Rodney trying to say something. "Have to try anyway. No one else to do it." And John wants to protest, but there's not, not really. He's seen what these things can do, and he's sure that Rodney's built failsafe upon failsafe into the suits.

"I can do it. Get out of the suit. Let me use it, I'll do it." He's not tired, not beat all to shit already. He's got to stand a better chance than Rodney against however many more of those bastard things there are other there. But Rodney's already shaking his head again, and John can't help but notice that one of his eyes is dull, the light behind it gone out.

"—melded to me, John, my brain is the only one—it's getting away—to go." Rodney's trying to push him back, a few of his mechanical fingers twisted almost beyond belief. And John knows he's going to let him go, knows he has no choice, but it's still hard to do.

In the end he takes a deep breath, reaches up at wraps his hands around the side of Rodney's helmet, pulls himself up because it's impossible to pull the suit down. The mask doesn't exactly have a mouth, just smooth metal, and John presses his lips against it anyway, tastes dirt and metal and electricity and then slides back to the ground. He says, surprised by how rough his voice is, "For luck."

Rodney says nothing, but the big metal hands do come up, do cup John's face for one long, impossible moment. And then he's gone, the sound barrier shattering as he chases after the enemy suit.

John pivots, turns to look at the secret service guy, watching him with a blank expression and one severely raised eyebrow. John shrugs, wipes the back of his hand across his mouth self consciously, says, "Don't suppose you have a camcorder?"

He'll never know where the man pulls the tiny camera from. There are some questions he doesn't want answers to.

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He tells the camera all about what he's seen, the last few days. All about Rodney McKay and his Ironman armor and the people that had stolen it and made these horrible copies. He tells it about the electric heart, and what that bastard Kolya had done that made Rodney need one. He tells it everything.

And then he thinks about Rodney, fighting God knows how many enemy soldiers because he's the only one that can do it, out there, alone. It's surprising, how good it feels to erase all his carefully crafted words. The secret service guy, who John finds out is actually named Teal'c and is from southeast Iowa, does the eyebrow raising thing again, but doesn't comment.

John says, "I don't know about you, but I'm going home."

Teal'c shrugs, "Indeed."

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He doesn't head back to the military base, has a gut feeling that if, that when, Rodney comes back that won't be where he goes. It's impossible to get a cab anywhere in the city, everyone's panicking and there's looting in the street. It's been a long time since John hotwired a car, and that's one more unpleasant memory from Afghanistan, but there are some things you don't forget.

He borrows a Jaguar, because if you're going to steal a car, you might as well steal a really nice one.

All the airports are closed, the entire country is shut down, and so John just turns the car north and drives. No one is open, and so when the car runs out of gas he abandons it, moves on to another, and another, and another, all the way back up to New York.

He loses track of time somewhere around hour twelve of driving, and what he thinks might be the fifth car. Sometimes he thinks about turning on the radio, looking for news, but he doesn't want to know. Doesn't want to hear secondhand that Rodney died in some distant country, that he went out brave and unknown, when he should never have went out at all.

He just drives, the only car on the road. Even the police are conspicuously absent, not that he minds. By the time he pulls into Rodney's apartment's parking lot he's half in a daze. His legs shake, his hands curled up around the absent shape of the steering wheel.

He's halfway across the parking lot when he recognizes the woman leaning against the long black limousine across from him as the leader of Rodney's security force. The woman inclines her head towards him, opens the passenger side door of the long car and motions him in. He says, "Hey."

She doesn't smile, but she's scowling considerably less than she was last time he saw her, "He has been asking for you for some time. He is most irritated by your inability to properly use your cell phone."

The car is nice inside, all leather and a mint air freshener and soft jazz on the radio. He reaches over and turns it off, waits for the woman to let herself into the driver's side and slide the long car out of the parking lot. He wants to say something, anything, but the words are all tangled in his throat, and so he just stares out the windshield as she drives him to McKay Industries. He's grateful when she doesn't talk to try to fill the silence.

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Rodney's in his lab, which seems fitting in ways that John can't properly articulate. The woman leaves him at the doorway, bobbing her head again and murmuring something about going to get Rodney sandwiches. John hesitates, for just a second, on the threshold, before stepping in.

He'd seen the chair in the corner that Rodney's sprawled in before, but thought nothing of it. There'd been thick wires all over the arms, and he'd figured it was possibly some kind of torture device, and left it at that. Now, the wires are all plugged into the metal device that serves as Rodney's heart, and he's staring up at the ceiling, hands clenched around the arms.

There's a bucket of water beside him, John sees as he gets closer, already tinged pink with blood. There are rags, folded neatly beside it, and John bends, snags one and dips it in the water. Rodney doesn't look up until John rings it out, the music of the water clashing against itself startling him out of whatever daze he'd been in.

He looks bad, his mouth bloody, one eye red with burst capillaries. The burns, John's sure they're burns now, on his temples blistered up this time. Rodney's shirt is off, presumably to allow the wires access, and his skin is a roadmap of bruises and scrapes and burns. He grimaces up at John, makes an even worse face when he sees the rag, says, "Hey."

"Hey yourself."

It's easy to kneel between Rodney's knees, to slide the rag across his chest, gentle as he can over angry red and purple skin. Rodney flinches anyway, hissing, "I need to work on better inertial dampeners. And shielding. And the nerve relay system can almost certainly be adjusted some. I don't know what I was thinking when I decided that I should be able to feel things through the suit."

John shrugs, because he's still not sure he can manage actual conversation. Wipes at Rodney's skin until his hands and the rag are almost unrecognizable beneath the blood, and then he rinses it. The water feels too cold, and he contemplates getting up to get more, though he has no idea where his present supply came from.

Rodney, apparently either doesn't recognize or care about his reluctance to speak, "Where were you?"

"Driving," he shrugs again, raises the rag to Rodney's right arm, and rubs small circles into his skin. "All the planes were grounded." He realizes that he's apparently having trouble meeting Rodney's eyes, and curses himself for a coward. "And I had to get back." He does not add: to see you. He has a sick feeling that it's obvious, anyway.

Rodney grunts, shifting his arm away from John's ministrations, and he realizes that he had been pressing directly onto a particularly livid bruise. "I listened for you. On the radio. But I must have missed you. I'm sorry." And the worst part of the entire thing is, that he can tell Rodney means it. That Rodney would have listened to him spill every secret he has, probably wouldn't even have blamed him for doing it, or at least would have forgiven him.

God. He hates how easily McKay can make him feel like a complete and utter bastard. Says, "I didn't report anything, Rodney. I just. I just drove up here." He trails the rag down to Rodney's wrist, circles it slowly, traces each of his fingers with a care he's not sure he's ever shown to anything.

Rodney scowls, says, "Oh," like he's trying to figure something out with that big brain of his. And then he's shifting, turning his hand so that his fingers are winding around John's. He moves again, like he intends to lean forward, and then hisses like it hurts and relaxes back into the seat. "Did you listen to the radio on your way here?"

John shakes his head, shifting closer to Rodney since Rodney can't shift closer to him, reaching out for his other hand as well, snugging his chest in against the juncture of Rodney's thighs. "I couldn't--" He thinks, that if he had found out Rodney had died in that car, in any of those cars, he might have lost his mind.

It earns him another, "Oh." And then, "For a reporter sometimes you don't talk very much, you know that?" John hums, contemplates leaning the rest of the way in and laying feather light kisses across Rodney's bruised skin. "I won. Since you didn't hear."

John laughs, short and breathless, squeezes Rodney's hands, enjoying the thrill of it when Rodney tightens his fingers back. "Never had a doubt." And it's such a naked lie that he's sure it must show all over his face. But Rodney just smiles, like he doesn't mind, and John realizes that he's staring up into Rodney's eyes without knowing quite how that happened. He's sure that he'd been avoiding it.

Rodney says, "You kissed me goodbye."

John says, "Yes," because he's not about to deny it, even if at the time he hadn't thought about it as goodbye. It had been, and it makes him a little bit sicker with himself. He lets himself lean forward, rests his chin against Rodney's chest, because he can't seem to break eye contact now that it's been established.

It doesn't change the fact that he desperately needs a change of subject, "You told me from the very beginning it was you, didn't you? Meredith. I think that the second thing I must have read about you, way back when, was your birth notice in the Toronto papers. Meredith Rodney McKay. Don't know how I forgot that."

Rodney's face twists up, "It was my mother's name."

John smiles, because he'd known that, but Rodney says it like it means something, like it's a pain he hasn't forgotten yet. "I didn't run the G.E.N.I.I. story either." He doesn't mention that he never got the chance. It doesn't seem important, because he never will.

"I know. You can. If you want. I'm not—I can't ask you not to. It's what you do, John." John's shaking his head, trying not to enjoy the slide of Rodney's skin under his chin too horribly much. He's fairly certain he's failing in a major way.

"I'm writing a book about you." It wasn't what he'd been planning to say, but it's what comes out anyway, like a confession that he can't hold back. Rodney's eyes go wide, and he tenses, hissing and not even trying to conceal the sudden flash of pain across his face. He wants to say: it's the nicest thing I can give you, it's all I have to give. Says instead, "Not about your work, or Ironman, or the G.E.N.I.I., just you, Rodney."

"Oh." And his expression changes, morphs to something John can't read, that glow that he gets sometimes. Like John said something right, even if he doesn't understand what it was, or why it was the right thing. "Oh." And then, "I'll read it?"

John laughs, because, God. He pushes himself up, away from Rodney's chest to avoid the wires, leans in again so that their foreheads are pressed together. Says, breathing in Rodney's air to form the words, "You need to see a doctor."

"Just need to recharge my batteries a little while longer." Rodney tilts his head, lips just brushing over John's as he speaks. It's not a kiss, as far as John can tell neither of them even intend it to be. It's just, contact, one more piece of skin against skin and the realization that he's starving for it is a heady, dizzying rush.

He says, "Hey," aware that the already charged atmosphere in the room is suddenly frighteningly electric. Rodney makes a tiny sound, breath panting against John's mouth.

And that's when someone knocks on the door, and the Rodney's security woman calls, "I have returned with sandwiches. And Ronon. He is very worried about you, Rodney."

Rodney makes a torn, tiny sound, lets his head fall back and calls, "Come on in, Teyla."

hr

Rodney eats, unplugs himself gingerly from the chair, and then somehow manages to pass out while John is trying to help him stand. John's not sure if it's exhaustion, if he should be calling emergency services or just getting the other man to a bed. The soft snoring, all of two seconds later, muffled against his neck, eases his worry.

It's awkward, getting down to the floor with an armful of Rodney McKay, and he's sure he wouldn't have made it without Ronon stepping forward and directing matters. Or rather, he would have made it, it just would have happened a lot quicker and probably also resulted in him cracking his own head wide open.

He flashes the big man a grateful look, leaning back against one of Rodney's desks and letting him sprawl across his chest. Ronon even returns the expression after a moment, a flash of softness on his hard features before he's looking away.

John clears his throat, says, "I'm just gonna..." and waves a hand at Rodney, curled up against him like a giant cat, face smashed up against his neck, arms curled up between their chests. He's sure it looks ridiculous, because they're both grown men and Rodney's for all intents and purposes sitting in his lap, but it doesn't feel worth it to try to change a thing.

Teyla pauses in the act of gathering their trash, exchanges a look with Ronon before turning his gaze to John. "Yes. That is for the best. We will just..." and she motions vaguely towards the door. John's not sure if the gesture is intentionally mocking of his own, or not. It doesn't matter, because then she and Ronon are leaving, already whispering to each other, secrets he's not privy to, secrets that for once he has no desire to know.

Rodney mumbles something that might be his name, and John wraps an arm around him. And then the other, because Rodney's skin is kind of cold. And then there's nothing for it but to lean his head against Rodney's, close his eyes, and try to sleep.

hr

When he wakes up, Rodney's gone, and the space he's left behind is cold. For a long moment John just sits, feeling the loss every bit as physically as he feels the sharp pain in his lower back and the kink in his neck. Rodney's voice startles him all the way back to wakefulness, "—out there, for all we know. I can't take the chance of not being prepared, Sam."

John pushes himself to his feet, ignoring the fact that his left ass cheek is completely numb and that there's a big wet spot on his shoulder that means Rodney didn't get up too long ago. Sam Carter's voice is curiously clear for a transmission, "All our best intelligence says you wiped them out. You razed it to the ground, Rodney, I don't think you can assure that they were completely destroyed any better than that, unless you want us to go sow the land with salt, as well."

Rodney snorts, but he doesn't sound amused, and John starts picked a careful path over computers and machines, deeper into the lab where he can hear their voices. "Your intelligence has been wrong before." He thinks that it must come out harsher than Rodney intends, because a moment later he's softening it with, "If just one copy of the schematics survived, they could do this all over again. I have—I have to assume the worst."

John turns a corner, and there they are, in living color. The Ironman armor is laid out on a table in the middle of the room, Rodney bent over it, up to his elbows in the thing's guts. He's got his tongue poking out one side of his mouth, face screwed up in concentration. He's not the only one wearing that expression.

Keller is beside him, obviously trying to run some tests, and by the souring look on her face having limited success. Across from them, Carter is standing with her arms crossed, saying, "You know, we have whole armies for taking care of this kind of thing. It's kind of what we do."

Rodney shrugs, and Keller smacks at his shoulder, makes a frustrated sound that almost covers Rodney's grunt of pain. Almost. John's not sure how he got through the door and over to Rodney, but there he is, sliding close behind Rodney and then moving sideways until he's sandwiched himself between Keller and Rodney. He grins brightly at the room in general, says, "Morning."

Rodney spares him a brief look from whatever it is he's doing, bumps his hip against John's in greeting. He still looks utterly exhausted, and like he just went nine round with a cement block, and John starts scheming to get him into a real bed ASAP.

He thinks that it's going to be a job and a half keeping Rodney from killing himself. Before he can properly start panicking over the fact that he's apparently planning on taking care of Rodney, the other man is speaking, attention turned back to Carter, "My actions, my consequences. I created them."

There's an uncomfortable pause, where he can almost feel Rodney wanting to say more, and he nudges him with his hip again to prompt the words free. "I've destroyed the Gen II's, Sam. They're, it's too much power for one person to have. I won't supply anyone with more of them."

It's not the first time he's seen Sam Carter angry, but it is the first time he's seen her angry at Rodney. She takes a step towards them, face flushed, "Doesn't seem like you're destroying this one."

Rodney looks up again, John can see his hands going still inside the machinery. He says, voice faint and distant, "If you think I'm going to be a threat then just kill me now, because I'm not going to change my mind." Sam's fingers twitch, just briefly, towards her sidearm and John feels something cold and sharp as ice twist in his gut. He aborts his reach for Keller when Sam shakes her head, and shoves her hand in her pocket.

John grinds out, "I think you should go," and Sam looks at him for the first time, eyes big and surprised.

And then she's nodding, free hand coming up to wipe across her mouth. "Yeah. Yeah." Keller heaves a put upon sigh, gathering up her things and heading towards Sam. Both of them angle towards the door, though only Sam pauses in the threshold, says, "Make sure he gets some sleep, Sheppard."

John says, "Yeah," after they're already gone.

hr

Rodney makes it perfectly clear that he has no intention of going anywhere until the Ironman armor is in some kind of usable state again. Short of knocking him over the head and dragging him away, John's run out of arguments to get him to go back to the apartment and sleep, and so he improvises.

Teyla isn't hard to find, standing outside the office with a studiously cool look on her face. She's also perfectly willing to lend John the limo and wait with Rodney while John tracks down Ronon. It's not that John really thinks Sam would kill Rodney, it's just that... Well, he feels better for knowing that she'll be with Rodney until he gets back.

Ronon's at his sandwich place, baking bread, and for a half second John thinks the other man will turn him down outright. But then he nods, calling instructions over his shoulder to the boy who had been assisting him before following John out to the limo.

John makes one failed attempt at small talk on the way to Rodney's apartment, which consists of him considering nudging the other man in the ribs and discarding the idea, and instead saying, "So, you and Teyla, huh?"

Ronon snorts, rumbles back, "You and Rodney, huh?" And John decides to let the subject drop.

At the apartment Ronon actually ends up lugging the mattress downstairs and up onto the roof of the limo by himself. John tries not to feel overly impressed, and gives up when Ronon decides he's taking the box spring, too, and disappears out the front door like it weighs nothing. He worries that he might have to stop the other man from taking the entire bed, but Ronon seems content to poke around in Rodney's kitchen, after that.

John packs.

He's got a pretty firm grasp by now on how Rodney dresses himself, throws shirts and pants and socks into a bag and then realizes he forgot underwear. He tries really hard not to feel like a teenager when he goes through Rodney's underwear, which is nothing to write home about, in any case. He grabs toothpaste and toothbrushes, because somehow one of his had migrated to Rodney's bathroom.

It reminds him that his own possessions where pretty much turned to bullet ridden rubbish not long ago, and he sighs, and goes through Rodney's clothes again in the vague hope that something might fit him. There's few pairs of jeans that he judges look long enough, and while he's sure that all Rodney's shirts are going to be big enough to make him feel like a girl, that doesn't actually make them unwearable.

He throws his scavenged cloths in another bag, grabs both and finds Ronon organizing Rodney's spice rack. For a long moment they just stare at each other, and then John shakes his head, and starts for the door.

He gets distracted by a flash of orange halfway there, and turns back to the living room. Ronon raises an eyebrow when John snags up the orange fleece off Rodney's couch, but lets the subject drop without comment when John looks pointedly at the spice rack, nice and neat and sporting perfect alphabetical order.

hr

Elizabeth calls him while Ronon's relocating the mattress and box spring into Rodney's lab, and he thinks about ignoring the call. Instead he answers it, leaning against the limo, titling his face up to the warmth of the sun. She says, "Jesus Christ, John! I thought you were dead!"

He grins, because he can and it feels good to, drawls, "Common misconception."

She mutters what sounds like another blasphemy under her breath, and then, "I heard you were in D.C. for the attack. Something about saving the President's life?" An expectant pause, "Well, where's the footage, John? I've bee expecting a report out of you for two days."

"No report." It's odd, how big of a relief it is to vocalize it. She makes an aghast sound into the phone, and he thinks she must have dropped something, because there's a muffled crash. He answers the next question before she can ask it, "I didn't see anything I thought should be in the news."

She says, "John," like she's worried and confused and possibly a little hurt.

He says, "You were right," because she was, and that's all the explanation he can give her. And then he hangs up.

hr

Rodney still ends up ignoring John and the rest of the world for another eight hours. John allows it, right up to the point where Rodney starts swaying alarmingly, and then he figures that if bashing him over the head really is the only way to get him to take a break, well... He's sure Rodney'll forgive him in the morning.

Surprisingly though, when John rests careful hands on his shoulders and pulls him away from the Ironman armor, he goes willingly. For a half second more he stares down at it, and then he's shifting his attention to John, blinking up at him with nothing but exhaustion written over his face. John says, softly, "C'mon, you need sleep."

For a moment he thinks Rodney will protest, but then the other man bobs his head, lets John steer him into the forward portion of his lab, the corner where they've got his bed set up. Rodney blinks down at it for a moment, says, "Huh."

"Ronon did most of the heavy lifting." Rodney lets John direct him down onto the bed, watches with a dazed expression as John pulls off his shoes and presses him down against the mattress. It's the work of a moment to get Rodney to roll over and make room for him, to get the blankets situated comfortably over them.

And then Rodney's curling towards him, pulling him with strong hands into a position that suits him, mumbling, "You're wearing my shirt." John hums in agreement, watching Rodney rub the fabric between his fingers for a long moment. "I like that."

There's heat, low in his gut, the flare of warmth and affection and want that he's done his level best to ignore all day. He wants to reach out and grab, hold and possess and claim, and knows he can't and shouldn't. Rodney's one big walking bruise, and exhausted past the point of completely understanding what he's doing, as far as John can tell.

And so he keeps his hands to himself, and isn't ready for it when Rodney leans down and kisses him, soft and dry. By the time John gets with the program, tilting his head to the side, Rodney's already pulling away, saying, "Mmm," and, "Ow," and settling his head on John's shoulder.

He's snoring between one breath and the next.

hr

John publishes his next book six months later, to predicted ridiculously high sales. He knows part of it is due to all the free press he and Rodney have been getting. Sometimes he wonders how many people bought the book for the steamy sex scenes that he had not deigned to include. Still, he can't complain.

He still laughs every time there's a picture of the two of them plastered across a magazine, thinks back on being named co-Man of the Year with Rodney. Anymore, the headlines tend to be more along the lines of: Billionaire Rodney McKay Spotted with Daredevil Reporter John Sheppard on Romantic Beach Stroll. Or: Couple Plans to Relocate to McKay's Native Canada so They Can Wed. Or, John's personal all time favorite, a picture of himself in one of Rodney's too-big shirts, the wind billowing it out in the front: Miracle Baby for It Couple?

He thinks the best part is that they always manage to get it wrong, even if it makes him wonder how much he's been less than accurate about in the past. Mostly, he's just grateful that everyone else still seems blissfully unaware of Rodney's connection to Ironman past that of builder, that no one says much when he never does a story and refuses to so much as comment on anything he sees in Rodney's lab or apartment.

Across from him Rodney shifts, closes the book and lays it carefully down on the table. He hasn't said a word since he started reading it hours ago, had just buried his nose in the pages and read, letting the coffee sitting by his elbow go cold and tepid. John feels slightly cruel for making him wait until it was published to read it, but he had wanted, needed, it to be perfect before showing it to Rodney.

For a long moment there's silence, Rodney staring at the book instead of him, and then, "That's how you see me?"

John shrugs, noncommittal, and Rodney looks up in time to catch the tail end of the movement. He rolls his eyes, pushing out of his chair and stalking around the table to John. He mutters, "You could have just said so, idiot," and softens the sting of it by straddling John and kissing him.

John's sure that there should be familiarity to kissing Rodney by now. That he should be immune to the rush of hunger and need, but he's not. It rises up, desperate and starving within him, and he groans against Rodney's mouth, arching up into his heat. He pants out, when Rodney pulls away to litter tiny little bites down his jaw, "So, you liked it?"

Rodney laughs.

::go to unconventional heroism snippet —>::

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