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Animal Husbandry

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Puddlejumper gave John Sheppard her most reproachful look, blowing irritably through her nose, and limped off around the enclosure. He briefly watched his best friend Nick Lorne pick himself up out of the dirt and brush himself down, but the man was moving freely, and didn't seem to have been hurt when he was thrown.

"Doesn't look good," he said, sauntering over to where John stood. "I'm sorry."

"No, wasn't your fault," John replied easily, because it was true. He tilted his hat back on his head and tucked his thumbs into the low-slung waist of his faded jeans. "Why people can't keep their cars maintained so they don't backfire, I don't know."

"I'll call the vet."

John gave a half-hearted salute in agreement, and Nick vaulted over the fence to make the call. He was right though, it didn't look good. Peej was clearly favouring her left foreleg, and even if the injury wasn't as bad as it looked, it was going to take some time before she was ready for him to even think about trying to put her under saddle again. John looked at her shoulder, and took a couple of careful steps forward, and a couple more when she didn't immediately run away.

"Come on," he said, low and gentle. "Let's get that saddle off you, girl."

By the time she'd let him get close enough to uncinch the girth, Nick was perched back on the fence and the vet had pulled up in the parking lot next to the training enclosure. It wasn't the truck he was expecting, but he knew their vet had taken on a partner lately.

"You the vet?" Nick called across the parking lot.

"No," a slightly nasal voice replied. "I just like the power rush of parking in the 'veterinarians only' space."

Nick caught John's eye and smirked before jumping down to help the vet with his cases, and John tried to rationalize the disquiet he felt at letting a stranger look at his horse. Dr Zelenka wouldn't have taken on anyone incompetent, John knew that, knew the trouble he'd gone to to find a good partner despite the urgency. He was quick too, which John guessed was probably just because he hadn't been in town long enough to have built up much of a clientele, but he was still grateful for the timeliness.

"Hi," John called, holding Puddlejumper's halter and soothing her with his free hand as the vet and Nick made their way across the dirt. "I'm John Sheppard. We were expecting Dr Zelenka."

"Well you got me."

"Lucky us," Nick muttered.

"Dr Zelenka's daughter...well, never mind that. I'm Dr Rodney McKay," he said, ignoring the hand John proffered, his attention already on the horse. "What seems to be the trouble?"

"Well, we were breaking Peej in, she's used to the saddle now, so we were trying her with a rider's weight-"

"Breaking her in?" Dr Rodney McKay repeated, ice in his tone, and John found himself regretting the inaccuracy of his words. McKay's expression was stony, and his blue eyes glinted with anger.

"We use the Join Up method," Nick cut in. "So strictly it isn't breaking in, in the old-fashioned sense of the term."

McKay thawed visibly, and John found himself wishing he'd explained, wishing he'd caused the change in atmosphere and was faintly bemused by that thought. McKay wasn't unattractive, but he was clearly not a clean-living country boy either. He was a little fuller around the middle than usually attracted John, less toned, and distinctly less easy to talk with.

"Nick was lying across her saddle, and she was coping pretty well," John continued, before Nick could. "Then a car backfired out on the street and it spooked her, she bucked, and I lost the hold on her rope. I think she was going to jump the fence but then changed her mind and she did something to her left foreleg as she turned."

"Right. Let's take a quick look at her then, shall we?" McKay suggested, rolling his sleeves up and crooning to Puddlejumper. John didn't catch much of what was said, but enough to hear 'nasty' and 'man' and 'do to you' far more often than was necessary or comfortable.

Peej tolerated the examination stoically, which wasn't remotely like her. It had taken her two months to get used to Nick to where she didn't bolt away whenever he entered her field, and John figured the new vet couldn't be all bad if his princess liked him. She rolled her eyes back and blew hard whenever McKay ran his hands down her left foreleg, but she made no move to kick him or run away, and John was impressed despite himself. So was Nick, judging by the way he raised his eyebrows.

"Okay," McKay said, straightening back up, and turning to John. "I'm afraid it's not good news, but it could be worse."

John felt his mouth go dry. Puddlejumper wasn't just his favourite of all the horses he had ever worked with, but she was supposed to have been his ticket out of this life, his chance to move on.

"She'll never be a rodeo horse?" John asked, eager to get the worst out of the way first.

"No," McKay replied, his tone clearly implying the stupidity of the question. "She's torn her superficial digital flexor tendon. I can't even be sure she'll ever be rideable, but I think with prolonged stall rest and extensive physiotherapy she might make a saddle horse for light work."

"Right," John said, feeling like his world had ended. He really was the pointless, good-for-nothing underachiever his father had always said, because this scheme, this horse, was the one he'd promised himself would be his last. One last-ditch attempt to make it in the world he'd always dreamed of.

"I realise that's probably of little interest to you, if she's not going to be commercially useful," McKay said, his tone cool again.

"No, no that's not true. I had high hopes for her, but if that's...." He trailed off. "Prolonged stall rest?"

"Yes. Six months I think, at a minimum, and then a gradual return to work. You have a stall for her I presume."

John took his hat off and ran his other hand through his hair.

"I can get one," he said, and it was true. Ms Weir would rent him one, although six months of rent would annihilate his meagre savings and destroy what little credibility he still had with her, but maybe she'd let him work in lieu of rent. "I can rent one here. She usually lives out in the summer; she has a shelter, but not a permanent stall."

"Okay, rent yourself a stall," McKay said, sorting through his kit as he spoke. "You'll need to hose the area down or apply ice, twice a day, I'll leave you some support bandages and come back out tomorrow with the portable ultrasound machine. I'm going to give her an anti-inflammatory injection to tide her over until I'm back."

John nodded, feeling strangely hollow, and McKay stared at him.

"I'm sorry; perhaps I didn't make myself clear. Go and rent yourself a stall," he said, enunciating clearly as if John were stupid, and John realised McKay didn't trust him to put her on stall rest..

"You want to give her the shot in the stall?"

"I want to be sure there is a stall before I give it. The last thing she needs is to make the damage worse because she's comfortable."

John's temper flared, and the few good impressions McKay had made vanished. Okay, so he was a little rough, his hair was a little long, and his clothes a little old and well-worn, but John loved his horses, and there was nothing he wouldn't go without to provide for them and how dare some upstart city-boy vet come here and suggest otherwise. He stepped forward to get in the man's space a little, to call him on his unwarranted assumptions, or possibly to punch him, but Nick got between them before he could decide whether to speak or swing.

"Go talk to Ms Weir," Nick said, putting a hand on John's shoulder and physically turning him away from McKay. "I'll get PJ's leg hosed down and help Dr McKay bandage her up."

John hesitated, but he knew Nick was right, so he walked away with what he hoped was a quiet dignity.

"I was just thinking we might have to move her, if this Weir person doesn't have a free stall," he heard the vet whine and the tone of Nick's reply was gratifyingly sceptical.

"Oh she'll have a stall," Nick was saying as John approached the edge of earshot. "It's just a question of whether he can pay her asking price."

John paused outside the door to Ms Weir's office and took a deep breath. He took off his hat and ran a hand through his hair in a fruitless attempt to make it neater. Then he ran through a mental list of everyone he knew, to try and find some alternative to asking a favour from his boss, but there was no one else with spare stall capacity, especially not for the next six months or more. He hated the idea of giving her that much control over him, but not quite as much as he hated the idea of having to go back to Dr McKay and tell him he had no stall for Puddlejumper. And where had that thought come from? He didn't care what McKay thought of him.

He knocked on the doorframe and entered the cluttered office when invited. Ms Weir was sprawled comfortably in the enormous leather chair behind her desk and smiled a shark's grin at him, motioning him into the room. There was no other chair, so he stood, forcing himself to appear more nonchalant than he felt, and resolutely not wringing the brim of his hat in his hands.

"Hey, John," she greeted. "What can I do for you? Are you looking for more work?"

"If you think you might have some, I'm always looking for more work," John said, trying to decide whether to build up to begging for a stall or just get it over with. "We've had a little bit of a setback with Puddlejumper; she's injured a tendon."

"Oh, I thought I saw the vet here earlier. Or I assumed he must be the new vet Radek was telling me about last time I saw him. Is he any good?"

"Yeah, he seems pretty competent," John said, suspicious suddenly that she knew what he needed and was determined to keep him dangling as long as possible. "Not much in the way of people skills, but Peej tolerated him."

He smiled a little dangerously himself. Puddlejumper had yet to allow Ms Weir anywhere near her, and John was proud of that fact. Ms Weir's face hardened into her most stony expression, the one he usually saw when she was dealing with animal rights activists and overpriced livestock contractors, and he almost wished he'd kept his mouth shut.

"Tendon injury?" she said, steepling her hands on her desk and leaning forward, "that's going to need stall rest, isn't it?"

"Yes, ma'am," was all John could manage to say in response.

"And you don't actually have access to a stall, do you? Since your friend, Lorne, moved in with his girlfriend?"

"Fiancée," John corrected, wondering why when it was basically just like poking a rattler with a stick, "and no. Nick sold his place and he and Laura are planning to build some stables but –"

"That's quite a bind you find yourself in then, isn't it, John?"

He felt his face fall. She was actually going to make him beg. He knew she knew what he needed, and how badly, and how little he made in wages because she was the one who paid him. He'd stopped riding in her rodeos to concentrate on the small herd of young horses he was gradually adding to and training up, and he knew she didn't like it. The crowds had loved him, but he hadn't wanted to end up like his father, riding broncos long after he was too old because he had nothing else.

"I don't suppose you have a stall spare?" he asked, like he didn't know damn well that she had several.

"I might," she said, making a show of thinking about it. "I'm also short a rider for the bareback and saddle bronc events a week from Saturday. I'd hate to have to cancel."

John nodded, playing the same game. There was no way she was even considering cancelling and they both knew that. "I could probably ride," he said with a lazy shrug.

Ms Weir smiled. "Good, and you can work off the rest of what you owe me with work around the yard. I have a few chores at home too. The place needs a man's touch." John forced himself to smile. "Off you go then. Your vet is waiting for you, I'm sure."

Nick joined John on the porch, toeing his boots off as he handed John a beer and took a slug of his own. There was a long silence, during which Nick squinted into the sunset, and John listened to the cicadas and tried not to think about Puddlejumper, who had been more than a little disgruntled to discover she was going into a stall, or Ms Weir and her chores.

"We could get a temporary stall put up here," Nick said eventually. "It'd take a few weeks to get it ready but-"

"You have better things to do with your time." Nick just frowned at him. "I'm serious. It's going to be a lot of work: your ground's not ready, you've got drainage to put in, water, and besides it doesn't make any sense to put up a temporary stall and then tear it down for the permanent ones."

More silence.

"I know. I just...move in here then, just for a little while, rent out your place. We're closer to the arena."

"I'm not a charity case, Nick."

John was surprised when Nick pushed himself up off his chair and stalked off. He kept his back to John, and the tone of his voice was angry when he spoke. "Nobody's saying you're a charity case. I just wish that you'd stop all this lone wolf bullshit and let people help you."

John had no reply to that, because letting people help you left you in their debt, and that was a road he didn't want to head down, even with those he considered his closest friends.

"It's fine. Peej is settled, the mortgage payments on my place are pretty minimal."

"The bank should be paying you to live there, if you ask me," Nick drawled, and John could tell the moment of anger had passed, and he was grateful for that. "I just don't think you want to get yourself indebted to Ms Weir any more than you already are, that's all."

"I know," John said quietly, and Nick rejoined him on the porch where they sat in silence for a little longer.

"Just think about it, okay?" Nick said, getting to his feet. "If you need anything, anything...." He ran a hand through his hair. "You have nothing to prove to me. I know you're not your father."

John stayed out on the porch long enough to compose his face into its usual laid-back expression, then joined Nick and Laura in the kitchen. Nick was leaning her back over the table, pretending he was trying to steal one of the fresh rolls, but really stealing a kiss, and Laura was pretending to mind, and John knew he wouldn't be able to stay here long. His friends' happiness made the loneliness of his own life seem stark and hard and impregnable.

"Oh, hey John," Laura said, ducking easily out of Nick's grasp as soon as she saw him and smiling broadly. "I'm so sorry about Puddlejumper."

She crossed the kitchen and kissed him on the cheek, and John wasn't sure how he felt about the fact that they'd obviously been discussing him.

"Maybe Dr Zelenka would let you keep Peej at the vet's," Nick suggested, setting the table, and gesturing John into his usual seat.

"I think Radek has other things on his mind at the moment," Laura said, "and the new vet seems a little more business-oriented, if you know what I mean. I'm not sure he's going to be quite the soft touch this town's been used to." She laughed. "I'm not sure the town's going to know what's hit them actually."

"He's okay to work with though, right?" Nick asked and it was a casual enough question, but John wasn't sure he'd want to be in McKay's place if Laura said no.

"Sure," she said instead, but it was hesitant. "He's not much of a people person, I don't think, but he's good with animals, and he knows almost everything about almost everything. Except women."

She served up dinner as the conversation continued, roast and potatoes and vegetables, and John didn't miss the fact that she was clearly still on a mission to feed him up.

"So what's he doing out here in the middle of nowhere if he's such a genius?" Nick asked, tucking into his food.

Laura shrugged. "It can't be something professional, or Radek wouldn't have taken him on. Some kind of dark secret from his past, I guess. A shattered love affair."

"Right," Nick laughed, "and does this have any basis in fact? Or is it just something you all decided at your girls' poker night?"

Laura just glared at him, which was answer enough for both men, and they went on eating for a while.

"Lord knows Radek needs the help," Laura said. "We might even hire a new nurse, or I could increase my hours," she said, looking at Nick who shrugged.

"If you want," he said. "Although I'll still expect my dinner on the table when I get home."

"You can expect whatever you want, sweetie," Laura said, smiling, and John relaxed. This was obviously an old routine they were running through. "I'm not sure. The money would come in handy, but with the new house needing so much doing, and the wedding to plan I don't know if I can spare the time. But those things are expensive, so again, back to the money."

"The wedding wouldn't be so expensive if you'd stop inviting people."

"Oh that reminds me," Laura said, sweeping her long blonde hair over one shoulder, and giving Nick a look even John recognised as guilty. "I invited Dr McKay. That's okay isn't it? I thought it'd be a good time for him to meet people, and we work together."

Nick shrugged. "As long as there's room for me in the church, and room for you, I'm easy," he said, which John knew wasn't strictly true, but he didn't think Laura was supposed to know about the agonising decision-making that had gone into his choosing what he was going to wear on the big day.

The conversation turned then, as it usually did lately, to the preparations for the wedding, and the difficulties of who should sit where, whether they'd chosen the right flowers, and what if the weather was bad. Conversation was maybe the wrong word, John mused as he ate, because it was almost entirely Laura speaking, with the occasional interjection from himself or Nick, and eventually even she ran out of things to say. Comfortable silence reigned at the table for a time.

"How can he have had some shocking break-up if he's so hopeless with women, anyway?" Nick asked finally, and it took John a moment to realise what he was talking about.

Laura grinned widely and leaned over to put her hand conspiratorially on Nick's arm.

"Oh now who said anything about a break up with a woman?"

In the morning Puddlejumper was sulking, decidedly unimpressed at being kept indoors in such glorious weather, and John spent some time in the stall commiserating with her, until McKay arrived, late. Peej, traitor that she was, gave a gentle whinny of welcome as he strode into the yard like he owned the place, a large briefcase in one hand.

"Morning," John greeted, stupidly pleased that he'd gotten here before the vet, even though it was obviously expected of him.

McKay grunted what John supposed might have been a greeting as he let himself into the stall, and started unwinding the support bandages, crooning to Peej again, this time implying that it was John's fault that she wasn't outside enjoying the sunshine, but never directly enough for John to call him on it.

He rerolled the bandages efficiently and opened the case he'd brought, which turned out to be the portable ultrasound machine. John figured that it had to belong to McKay because Dr Zelenka had a huge, ancient static machine in the office that he called Dora because when it worked it was only as a gift from God. Dr Zelenka was rather too prone to letting invoices remain unpaid, especially recently, and while John always made sure he paid up, even if he hadn't been billed, he knew others in the town were less scrupulous. There was no way Dr Zelenka could have afforded such a shiny piece of equipment.

"Yes," McKay said, pointing to the mass of variegated grey on the screen. "See there? That's your tear. I'll measure it in a second, but it doesn't look like more than thirty percent."

John nodded knowledgably, before irritably wondering why the hell he cared if McKay realised he was too dumb to have any idea what that meant.

"And that's...?" he prompted.

"Could be a lot worse," McKay said, and he sounded genuinely happy about the fact. "I'll need to come out regularly and repeat the scan to make sure things are moving in the right direction, but she should be okay."

He looked up at John from where he was kneeling in the straw bedding of the stall and beamed and, God help him, John felt his heart flutter. He told himself it was just because McKay was so good with Puddlejumper, nothing more, but he knew Laura's suggestion that McKay might not be straight was on his mind. Not that he entirely trusted the source of her information. He'd picked her up from a girls' poker night once when Nick'd had a fractured collarbone and been unable to drive, and he'd never seen anything like it. He could easily imagine the gossip getting way out of hand and becoming pure fabrication.

"Okay," McKay said when he'd packed up and rebandaged and was ready to leave again. "Just walk her in hand for the next couple of months, nothing more than that."

"Right," John nodded, scratching the back of his neck and wishing he wasn't going to have to ask the next question. "How much do I owe you?"

"Oh, well, I haven't really worked out a fee schedule with Dr Zelenka yet." John guessed that had to mean he wanted to charge big city prices, and Radek had baulked. "To be honest I've hardly seen him since I arrived. So, um, just whatever he would have charged you for a house call."

"His daughter's still pretty sick then?" John asked, recalling some of last night's more factual dinner-time conversation.

"Yes," McKay said, as John walked him back to his truck. "They were considering readmitting her, but as far as I know she's still at home at the moment."

"Well if you need a tour of the town, or anything," John offered, before he could stop himself, "I'd be happy to oblige."

McKay stared at him like he was crazy, which was probably reasonable, and then smiled, nervously. "Um, right, thanks," he said just as hesitantly, almost as if he was thought John was joking. "That's very kind of you."

"Just being neighbourly." John smiled as McKay climbed up behind the wheel.

He pulled the door shut and put his seatbelt on, checked his mirrors - much to John's amusement because who would have moved them? - and started the engine. John was about to walk away when McKay rolled the window down and stuck his head out, still looking apprehensive.

"I don't suppose you could point me in the direction of some decent places to get lunch?" he asked. "Preferably close to the office."

John tipped his hat back on his head and hooked his thumbs into his belt. "I could drop by the practice at lunchtime, pay my bill and show you around a few places if you'd like?" he said.

"Great." McKay beamed. "Yes. That'd be great."

John watched him drive off, and checked his watch. Three hours to get Ms Weir's chores done and Peej walked. Probably not enough time to get home and showered and changed afterwards, but McKay was a vet, he probably wouldn't mind if John smelled a little like horses, and it wasn't as if they'd be going anywhere fancy for lunch. He figured he'd better get some of his chores done first, so he wandered over to the notice board outside Ms Weir's office and read the list, his heart sinking with each entry on it. She had to have been saving every dirty, smelly, unpleasant job for months, just waiting for an opportunity like this to come along. He knew that was mainly just paranoia on his part, but it did seem unfair that there was nothing on the list that he could do and remain respectable enough to keep his lunch date, which meant he would have to make the time to go home and shower, which in turn meant he wouldn't get finished in time to get any practice in for the rodeo.

Sure enough by lunchtime he'd cleared the yard's drains and made a good start on the stable block gutters. He'd left his shirt hanging by Puddlejumper's stall, briefly considered leaving his jeans there as well but decided against it and was now regretting the decision because they were filthy and he didn't really want to get in his pickup wearing them. He wasn't too sure whether public indecency laws would let him drive home in a shirt and underwear though, and he was wondering whether shirt, underwear and chaps would be acceptable when Ms Weir called up to him.

"I thought I could fix us a little lunch," she said, holding a hand up to shield her eyes from the sun as she stared up him.

John hesitated because it actually seemed like a genuine offer, kindly made, but possibly that was only because she was on the ground and he was on the roof, so she couldn't stand too close, or keep touching his arm while she spoke.

"Actually I'm going out for lunch," he said, regretting it almost instantly, as her expression hardened. "The new vet."

"Really?" Ms Weir said, and he could see her eyebrow arch, so her next words were a surprise. "I suggest you clean yourself up before you go."

He'd expected her to put up more resistance, maybe even expected her to subtly threaten him with loss of work, but Ms Weir was a businesswoman before anything else, and one thing that was not wise in this business was to inconvenience your veterinary colleagues.

"Yeah," John agreed, like it hadn't occurred to him until she'd mentioned it. "I guess I am a little dirty."

"Come on up to the house and use my shower, if you like," she said, turning away before he had any chance to respond.

He stayed up on the roof for about a minute, warring with himself, but he couldn't go meet with Dr McKay like this, and he probably didn't have time to get home and back, and it wasn't like this was all a ploy of Ms Weir's to get him naked in her house. He hoped. He jumped down and followed her across the yard to her house. He felt faintly nervous, on edge, like he always did when dealing with his boss, and it irritated him, so he schooled his movements into the loosest, most casual body language he could manage. He knocked on her screen door and had the briefest moment to fear what he was getting himself into, and wrestle his boots off, before she invited him in.

He paused in the hallway and wondered what on earth had possessed him to think this was a good idea. Apart from the insane desire to impress a man he'd barely met, who'd done nothing but bitch about him to his horse, and who was going to systematically bankrupt him over the next six months at least. Ms Weir was nowhere to be seen and John's initial unease returned with a vengeance.

"Come on up," he heard her call from the top of the stairs and it was too late to turn back, so he obeyed.

She was standing in a doorway just off the top of the stairs, holding a towel and smiling but it wasn't quite the knowing grin he was expecting. She gestured him into what he assumed was the main guest bedroom. He'd been in the house before, of course - every year Ms Weir threw a Christmas party at which attendance was mandatory - but never upstairs, and it felt wrong somehow, like he was intruding.

"The water's a little temperamental; it's best to let it run for a while before you get in. You can help yourself to anything in the dresser," she said, with an extravagantly nonchalant wave of her hand. "That's all Simon's."

John couldn't help but follow the direction she gestured in, his eyes coming to rest on a large chest of drawers and he realised this was the mythical shrine to Simon. It was disappointingly mundane, just a few toiletries littering its surface.

"It seemed wasteful to just throw it all out," Ms Weir said, her face closed off, and before John could think of a suitable response she left the room.

He waited a moment or two, and then went into the little bathroom and started the shower running. There was no lock on the bathroom door. He padded back through to the bedroom and opened the top drawer of the dresser carefully. He'd only met Simon once or twice, back when John had started working and training at the Weir Rodeo School, and the man had never made that much of an impression. Sure enough the clothes in the dresser were all generic and lacking in style, and John wondered whether turning up in a pair of baggy, ill-fitting pants might actually make a worse impression than turning up covered in gutter slime. He decided to think about it while he took what was likely to be the quickest shower of his life.

McKay was running late, so John sat in the waiting room and flipped through a magazine about modern poultry raising. He heard McKay before he saw him, and he was preceded through the door by a small girl with a rabbit in a carrier. The girl was red-eyed and being protectively clucked over by her mother, who shot McKay a murderous look as they left the office.

"Not good news I take it?" John asked as McKay shooed him through into the back of the surgery.

"What? Steve the Rabbit, no, he's fine," McKay said, perching on a stool to tap away at his computer.

"Oh, she just...she seemed a little upset."

"Well she should learn how to take better care of her pet, and then she wouldn't have to hear about the fact that her neglect has let his teeth grow far too long and now he can hardly eat anything. Speaking of which, I am really quite hungry," he said, turning away from the computer to face a surprised John and grinning widely. "Shall we get lunch?"

"Sure," John said with a shrug, "what would you like?"

"Nothing with citrus," McKay said, stripping off his vet's tunic to reveal, much to what John was not going to think of as disappointment, a tee-shirt proclaiming that he was Mr Fantastic. "I'm mortally allergic to citrus."

"I know a good sandwich place. They make up whatever you want, and they're quick," John added, partly because he couldn't help thinking about the long list of chores he still had to do, and partly because McKay was a lot more disconcerting than he'd remembered.

"Sounds great. Lead the way."

John nodded and let McKay follow him out of the building, relieved to find that Laura wasn't on duty, because he had no desire to become the subject of gossip at the next poker night. They walked a little ways down the street before John realised McKay was hanging back a little and blatantly checking out his ass, which was heartening, John supposed, but also a little disturbing.

It took John almost another block to realise that he was, to all intents and purposes, strutting, and to stop himself, and they were almost at the small coffee shop and sandwich bar when McKay apparently decided he wasn't being obvious enough and actually fell a few paces back.

"Are you-" John started, but McKay interrupted.

"Those are not the pants you were wearing this morning," he said accusingly and then his eyes widened as realisation visibly crossed his expression. "Not that I particularly noticed, but they don't fit you properly and the ones you had on this morning were...oh look, this must be the place, is this it? It looks great."

McKay ducked into the sandwich place too quickly for John to do much other than open and close his mouth a couple of times, and then realisation hit him too, and he felt a smile grow on his face. He reined it in until it was just a smirk, and followed McKay into the shop. He knew what he wanted for lunch, obviously, because a man would have to be a fool to come to the home of the greatest turkey sandwich in the world and not get a turkey sandwich, but he watched McKay choose what he was going to have. He clearly wasn't kidding about being hungry, because he was all but drooling over the counter like a huge and not very well-trained puppy and really, in a grown man it shouldn't have been endearing. McKay finally decided, after several false starts, and since the day was pleasant they took their food outside to eat at the picnic tables on the sidewalk.

John was pretty sure McKay's ass couldn't even have touched the seat before he started eating, but his obvious enthusiasm almost made up for the lack of finesse, and John found himself watching McKay eat more than eating himself.

"So, you moved from Toronto?" John prompted, once McKay's immediate hunger seemed to have been appeased. "This must be a little bit of a culture shock."

"Mmm," McKay said, nodding earnestly and then talking around his mouthful of chicken salad sandwich. "Actually I've been pleasantly surprised. We tend to think everyone in the sticks is practicing medieval veterinary science, but actually Zelenka's pretty good, although he could use some updating."

"I've lived here my whole life," John said, on his own initiative when Dr McKay made no move to enquire.

"Oh," he said, looking wistfully at what remained of John's sandwich, but his expression clearly demonstrated how unfortunate he thought John was. "Are you going to finish that?"

John smiled, and pushed his tray across the table with a disbelieving shake of his head. "Go for it," he said and tried not to think about how enthusiastic McKay might be in indulging other appetites. Simon's jeans were looser fitting than his own, but Dr McKay had already demonstrated just how close his attention to detail could be and apparently he wasn't capable of just wondering silently about something, but had to mention it out loud.

"That was good," he opined, with a low throaty noise of appreciation, "and to think I was worried about the food here."

It was on the tip of John's tongue to ask exactly why he had moved here, if he thought the medicine was backward and the food was bad. He could almost hear Laura in his head urging him on, but it seemed a little too personal, too soon, and what if McKay decided turnabout was fair play and asked John why he'd never managed to leave this little hick town. He knew he wasn't ready to answer that question to anyone who didn't already know the answer.

"So you think you're going to stay around for a while?" John asked and got a frankly appraising look in reply.

"I think I might, yes," McKay said, with a bright smile. "I think it's entirely possible I could grow to enjoy small town life."

"I'll keep that in mind," John said, not sure whether he should be insulted, "and if I find myself with anything suitably redneck on my agenda, I'll be sure to invite you."

"You do that," Dr McKay smiled, blue eyes crinkling in pleasure. "Now I really do have to get back to work, I'm afraid. I have a full schedule."

John leaned back in his chair and watched McKay walk off, then he gathered up their trash and took the trays back into the shop, pausing to compliment the waitress on her new hairstyle. He was halfway through mucking out his third stable when he remembered he still hadn't settled Puddlejumper's bill.

John looked up at a knock on his screen door to find Nick standing outside with an expectant look on his face.

"So?" he said, coming in without an invitation, and John froze. Surely everyone didn't know already, and it had only been lunch, not even a lunch date, just lunch.

"So what?" he asked and Nick looked at him like he'd grown a second head. He held his hands out at his sides and shook his head.

"Your horse?" he prompted and John felt a stupid rush of relief and disappointment run through him.

"Oh, yeah, of course. It is a tear, but it's not too bad. Nine months recovery minimum though, and a scan every two months to keep an eye on her healing."

"That doesn't sound too bad, or, you know, bad but not as bad as it could have been."

"No," John agreed, wondering if it wasn't something of a betrayal of Peej that he really didn't mind the idea of frequent veterinary visits. Which thought brought him to something he was firmly not thinking of as another opportunity to see McKay. "I'm glad you're here actually because we need to figure something out." Nick nodded, making himself at home in John's tiny kitchen. "Bachelor party."

Nick grimaced, but John knew it was for show. "I don't want a bachelor party," he said. "Really, what would be the point? I'm really sure I don't want a bachelor party that you've organised because you're a cruel and unusual man, and who knows what kind of stripper I'll end up with."

John laughed. "No strippers, I promise. Laura threatened to geld me if I did, and I have a nasty feeling she knows how to do it. Just a few of the guys, a few drinks, it'll be fun."

Nick pretended to think about it for a long time, then grinned, and agreed.

"This Saturday then?" John suggested but Nick shook his head.

"I want to make a start on the paddock this weekend," he said. "Actually I was wondering if you wanted to help."

John pretended to think about it. "Let me see. Do I want to spend my weekend doing dirty, heavy, back-breaking work or do I want to kick back, watch some football and drink some beer?"

Nick grinned. "Beer I can offer, and we could have a game of touch if we get far enough ahead, and Laura's going to cook meatloaf and -"

"Okay, okay," John laughed. "It's a date."

By the time John had finished his chores, iced and rebandaged Puddlejumper's leg and walked her, the vet's office was closed, and as his luck would have it, Laura was the nurse on duty the following day. She waved him through to the back office immediately; much to the irritation of the couple of other people who had obviously also decided that as soon as the doors opened was the best time to get to the vet's.

"Honestly," she said, tying her hair up into a complicated and professional knot as she waited for the computer to start up. "You'd think people could give us a chance to have a cup of coffee before they start showing up."

"I can come back later. If this isn't convenient."

"Not you," she grinned. "And who knows why they're all giving you such dirty looks when you obviously don't have an animal with you. You don't do you? Have something hidden about your person? Because I would hate for Dr McKay to have to give you the safe handling and transportation lecture."

"No ma'am," John said in mock earnestness. "No inappropriately transported animals here. I just need to settle my bill."

"Okay. I'll print it off. I thought you'd come to beg off Nick's barn-raising tomorrow," she said as the printer hummed into life. "I know he probably railroaded you into agreeing to help."

"Not at all, although he did bribe me with promises of meatloaf."

"Oh he did, did he?" She grabbed his invoice from the printer and handed it over. "There you go. If it's too much at one time, Dr McKay's planning to set up payment arrangements, so you could spread the cost over a few months." John opened his mouth to protest, because he always paid up on time, but then Laura grinned at him. "But I'm sure he told you all about that over lunch yesterday."

John turned his attention to his invoice, having learned long ago that protesting the innocence of the lunch would only make Laura more convinced something had happened.

"This isn't right," he said, frowning. "He only charged me for one visit."

"Well, you'll have to take that up with him," Laura said. "Far be it from me to interfere with his system. It's more than my life's worth."

"Take what up with me?" Dr McKay asked, wandering into the office from the other direction. "And once I'm happy that you understand The System, you will be allowed to use it."

"You only charged me for one visit," John said, trying not to smirk at the obvious capitalization of The System, or to catch Laura's eye because she'd make him start laughing.

"Yes," McKay said determinedly.

"But you visited twice."

"I am perfectly capable of counting, thank you, but it hardly seems appropriate to charge you for a second visit when I could have just put the scanner in the back of the truck the first time."

John wanted to argue, maybe even to point out that until McKay had come here he'd have had to borrow a horse trailer and bring Peej here to the practice so that Zelenka could scan her, but McKay was looking at him with an oddly uncomfortable expression on his face. Something about the look in his eyes made John decide to just take the gift as offered.

"Okay, well, thank you, Dr McKay," he said, hooking his wallet out of his back pocket.

"I really think you could call me Rodney," McKay said. "After yesterday." John could imagine Laura's expression and didn't bother turning to confirm his suspicions. "Nurse Cadman, perhaps you'd like to get Mr Caldwell and his pygmy goat into exam room two for me. I'll finish up here with Mr Sheppard."

He waited until Laura was definitely out of the room before he said "John, please, call me John."

Dr McKay - Rodney - treated him to another of his crooked-but-heartfelt smiles and before John had even realized what he was doing, he was inviting Rodney along to Nick's to help clear his paddock. He couldn't see Nick objecting to another pair of hands and he had promised Rodney he'd invite him to anything suitably countrified that cropped up, after all.

"A barn raising?" Rodney asked, looking faintly horrified. "Like in 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers'? That sounds like hard work."

"Well, yeah, it is a little, but there'll be plenty of smaller jobs to do too," John replied, disappointed. "And you won't have to do the singing and dancing part. It'll be fun." He watched as Rodney considered and felt his mood lift when he agreed, still sounding slightly dubious. "Great. I'll pick you up from here around seven tomorrow morning then."


"Yep. Welcome to country living, Rodney," John said, handing over his money and doing his best to ignore the little thrill of pleasure he got when his fingers brushed Rodney's. "Make sure you get to bed nice and early tonight."

John wasn't too surprised to find that Rodney wasn't ready when he showed up at the vet's office the next morning. There was a note taped to the door that read 'come in and don't touch anything' and it was signed 'McKay', in case John wasn't sure who'd left it. He did as the note commanded, because John liked the easy life, and disobeying Dr McKay seemed to be incompatible with it. He found his practical poultry magazine where he'd left it and turned back to the page rating industrial incubators while he waited.

He could hear footsteps above his head and twice they ran part way down the stairs only to turn and go back up, but eventually Rodney appeared.

"Is this okay?" he asked, gesturing to his clothes. "I've never done anything like this before."

"As long as you don't mind them getting dirty, they'll be fine," John answered, wondering if Rodney had had the same difficulties he'd had in deciding where the line was between looking his best and wearing suitable clothes for a day of hard, dirty work. He couldn't really tell which way Rodney had decided to go, because he was dressed in a pair of well-worn jeans and a faded olive green tee-shirt, but he looked fantastic. "We're mostly going to be ground clearing today anyway."

They talked about horses as they drove over to Nick and Laura's, about the little herd that John kept stabled all over the county - one horse here, a pair there - paying for their board with favours and work, and waiting for the day when he could get them all together and finally start the stud farm he'd always dreamed of. By the time they arrived Rodney knew more about his plans than anyone else except Nick and Laura, and he'd known them his entire life.

"Maybe you could keep some in this paddock we're clearing," Rodney suggested as they drew up outside the dilapidated farmhouse that was slowly being renovated to something like its former glory. "Laura said they only have a couple of horses."

"Yeah, but I guess Nick wants to increase his stock, and he can't do that if I'm taking up all his land," John said. He'd come close to asking many times, but he knew they wouldn't refuse him, and he didn't want to be a nuisance. Rodney didn't answer, just shot him a look that John couldn't interpret, and climbed out of the pick-up.

They didn't bother with the house, John guessing, correctly, that Nick would already be at work in the paddock. There weren't any other trucks parked outside, but he assumed it was just that the others hadn't arrived yet. Nick's obvious and quickly concealed surprise at seeing Rodney made him realize his mistake.

"No one else coming?" he asked, as casually as he could manage and Nick shook his head.

"I figured I'd save the good will for when I really need it," he said, "but it's cool that you invited someone."

John had no idea what to make of that comment, and Nick turned away to greet Rodney, but not before John caught a glimpse of a smirk on his face.

"Hi," he said easily, holding his hand out to Rodney. "We met a few days ago. I'm Nick."

Rodney looked at the proffered hand as if it might bite him, and then shook it.

"We did? Oh, well, it's nice to meet you again then. Rodney," he said, "Rodney McKay."

"There's coffee over there, and breakfast," Nick said pointing at a cooler with a flask and a couple of mugs on top of it. "If you're h...okay I guess you are."

Rodney was at the coffee and pouring himself a cupful before the sentence was finished, and Nick turned to John with a raised eyebrow and an amused smile.

"Look, I said I'd invite him if I was doing anything that might help him fit in. He's always lived in a city before now." John grimaced. "I thought there'd be more people here. I'm sorry."

"Not a problem," Nick said good-naturedly, apparently transfixed by watching Rodney make his way through a hearty breakfast in the space of a few seconds. "Think he'll be any help?"


Nick nodded, still smirking. "Great," he drawled.

As it turned out, John's prediction was wrong.

"Oh, now this, this I can help with," Rodney said when they found the oak stump in the middle of where the stable block was supposed to go, and he sounded almost relieved after having proven himself more of a hindrance than a help with a lot of the work they'd done so far.

"You know about getting stumps out of the ground?" Nick asked sceptically. "Because even with the backhoe we rented, it's going to take most of the day."

"Yes, yes," Rodney said, "I'll need some things. Do you have any weed killer?" he asked, not waiting for the answer before continuing, clearly thinking aloud rather than speaking to anyone now. "And I'll need some sugar, a container, the electronics I'll have to scavenge."

"Is there anything we can do to help?" John asked but Rodney just waved him away irritably, looking up a moment later. "Actually yes. I need somewhere to work, and all the things I just mentioned. Preferably somewhere indoors."

Nick didn't look too comfortable with the idea, but relented when John pointed out sotto voce that with Rodney occupied they'd be able to get some work done without having to listen to him whine and complain and demand a break every fifteen minutes. They got him settled in the garage with everything he'd requested, and went back to the field to work on the drainage ditches. They talked about the work they were doing, Nick's plans to change the neighboring field into a training yard and a round pen, the wedding, the bachelor party, John's list of chores from Elizabeth. In other words anything but Rodney and why the hell John thought that bringing him today was a good idea. John wasn't sure whether Nick was simply being polite and staying out of his business until he chose to share it, or just unsure how to start talking about it. He thought it might even be possible that Nick thought they were just friends, him and Rodney. Maybe Nick hadn't realized how fast and hard John was falling for the abrupt brilliant rudeness of the man, such a contrast to the cloyingly sweet courtesy that lay over everything in this town. He was like the taste of lemon cutting through sugar.

"Oh, dammit, citrus," he said to himself, stopping the backhoe and jumping out to run up to the house.

Laura was unimpressed.

"So, what you're saying is that both the salad and the dessert I've already made are no good? I'm going to have to throw them away and go to the grocery store for something else?"

John just looked at her, his most winning and apologetic smile on his face. "I know," he said, "I should have told you before."

"Yes you should," Laura agreed, turning away, her shoulders slumping. John could see her back shaking, and for a brief awful moment he thought she was crying. "God, John, the look on your face," she laughed, not even attempting to hide it any more. "Lucky for you Dr McKay is extremely paranoid and I've heard all about of his allergies at work, and I hadn't actually started making lunch or dinner before you showed up. But yes, next time, a little warning would be nice."

He let her shoo him out of her kitchen, still reeling over the certainty of next time, and when he got back out to the field not only had Nick finished digging his drainage ditch for him, but Rodney was back from the garage clutching what appeared to be a length of drainpipe and a bundle of electrical wires that were still attached to the dial of an old radio.

"You're sure you won't want to grow anything in this area?" he was asking Nick, who nodded, and Rodney tucked his pipe with wires in into a gap in the tree stump and walked away, trailing the wires behind him. "Cover your ears," he said calmly, with a nod to John. "Fire in the hole."

John's brain managed to connect the dots and come up with pipe bomb just before the tree stump exploded into a cloud of wood chips and dirt. As it cleared he could see Rodney looking smug and Nick apparently trying to decide whether he was more impressed, or more concerned.

"Now I wish we had more stumps to clear," he said finally, with a grin that melted off his face as Laura came running out into the field and dragged him aside to give him a piece of her mind.

"Where the hell did you learn that?" John asked, aware of and unnerved by the tinge of awe in his own voice.

"It's just chemistry," Rodney said with a shrug that implied everyone should know how to build a bomb out of things that might be lying around the average household. "I had to learn chemistry to go to veterinary school, so I figured I might as well learn how to do something interesting with it."

"Okay," Nick said, wandering back over as Laura returned to the house. "We're not allowed to do that again."

"We shouldn't need to," Rodney said proudly. "What's left should have been loosened anyway."

They split the work between them, Nick taking the backhoe, and John and Rodney working together on the ground, which John assumed was because Nick wasn't particularly interested in hearing about Rodney's bad back, or his hypoglycemia. John didn't really mind. Rodney's complaining was a kind of background hum and, like the birds and the insects and the sound of the wind in the trees, it rapidly faded into something inconsequential because, for all his griping, he was a pretty hard worker. He was stronger than he looked, too, and once or twice John found himself almost transfixed by the play of muscles under the pale olive-coloured cotton Rodney wore, the bunch and shift of his biceps. The first time Rodney had actually caught him staring he had looked uncomfortable, and glanced down at himself like he thought he might have something on his shirt, or have forgotten to button up his fly. The second time he just looked at John as if John were crazy, but by the third time the tiniest of knowing smiles started to creep onto his face.

They paused at about eleven, for a cool drink and for Rodney to complain that it was too hot to keep working, and that there was no cloud cover, not that it really depreciated UV radiation by more than a small percentage anyway.

"Come on, doc," Nick said, "A day or two in the sun isn't going to kill us."

"Have you seen my complexion?" Rodney asked mainly to his retreating back. "Well, have you? It's very fair."

"Here you go," John said, taking off his hat and placing it on Rodney's head. He waited for a tirade about how little protection it actually offered, but instead Rodney just looked at him, holding his gaze for a fraction longer than should have been comfortable.

"Thank you," he said, and John could have sworn there was something else lurking behind the words, but then Rodney turned away and went back to work, and the moment was lost.

"You should stay," Laura said over dinner, which was entirely citrus-free and made all the more appetising by the day's hard work.

"Oh, I don't think...I'm sure Rodney wants to get home," John said, more because he felt it was expected of him than because he wanted to.

"Actually it makes sense," Nick said. "We can make an earlier start tomorrow if you stay over."

Rodney just shrugged, then winced as the movement evidently reminded him of the strip of bright pink sunburned skin across the back of his neck. "I'm happy to stay," he said, and dug into his dessert as if that settled the discussion. "I'm less happy about doing this all over again tomorrow."

Everyone seemed to realize that he was just grumbling for the sake of it and the conversation turned to inconsequential topics, eased along by a few more beers, until exhaustion seemed to hit them all simultaneously. Rodney yawned expansively and John watched his tongue move in his mouth with a fascination he couldn't even be bothered to pretend to himself was disgusted.

"You guys don't mind bunking up, do you?" Nick asked. "There are two beds in the guest room and the second guest room's not really habitable yet, even by your standards, John."

John felt a flare of anger and shame flash through him. His house was never going to be featured in Better Homes and Gardens, that was true, but it was neat and clean. Normally he didn't mind being teased about it, but in front of Rodney it felt like a betrayal.

"Fine with me," Rodney said, and just like that John's anger vanished.

"I can sleep on the couch," John said, but Rodney shook his head.

"Oh no, you need to get a good night's sleep so that you're suitably refreshed for tomorrow's enforced labor."

"I'll leave some aloe for your sunburn in your room," Laura said, getting to her feet and crossing the room to give John a peck on the cheek. "I'm going to turn in. Good night."

Nick followed her out, and John and Rodney sat for a moment or two, both looking at the floor - or at least John thought they were both looking at the floor, but because he was, he couldn't be entirely sure. When Rodney's sock-clad feet appeared in his field of vision he realized he'd been wrong.

"It's okay," Rodney said quietly. "I'll sleep on the couch if you're uncomfortable sharing with me."

"No," John insisted, lifting his face to look up at Rodney. "I'm not." Which was true in the way he thought Rodney meant, but not entirely true because he had a feeling sleep would be a complete stranger to him if he was going to be within touching distance of Rodney all night.

Rodney smiled a smile John hadn't seen before. He looked tired, and not just from the physical work they'd done that day, and it made something twist deep inside John's chest.

They walked upstairs, John leading the way, trying not to think about the fact that Rodney's face was in line with his ass. He glanced back once, just to see if he was being checked out again, but Rodney was resolutely looking at his own feet, watching them climb the stairs one by one. He held the door to the guest room open and followed Rodney in, then watched him glance back and forth between the huge, sumptuous antique double bed and the narrow torturous-looking roll-away in the corner.

"You take the bed," John said. "You have a bad back."

"Actually," Rodney started, then looked from bed to roll-away again. "I think I will, if that's okay with you."

John nodded, because it really was. The double was comfortable but creaky, and given that he had resigned himself to a restless night, he might as well take the bed that wouldn't advertise the fact to the entire household. He shucked his jeans and considered just lying down, but that seemed a little rude, so he wandered through to the bathroom and found a towel and a new toothbrush for Rodney. He let him have first crack at the bathroom so he wouldn't have to watch him get into bed, or make himself not watch. The plan backfired, because when he'd brushed his teeth and taken a piss and left the bathroom Rodney was sitting on the edge of the double bed, shirt off, spreading the aloe vera gel Laura had left onto the patch of sunburn on the back of his neck. He'd hung John's hat on one of the bedposts.

"Here," John said, low and warm. "Let me."

He took the tube of gel from Rodney's unresisting grasp and spread a little onto his fingers. Rodney turned so that he was offering his back to John and bent his neck. John must have hesitated just long enough for Rodney to decide he'd changed his mind, because he started to lift his head and John didn't want that; he wanted to accept the tacit invitation to touch in case it was never given again. He reached out and traced the edges of the sunburn with slick fingers, feeling the heat of the damaged skin and wishing he'd been less cavalier about Rodney's self-professed fair skin.

"Oh that feels good," Rodney moaned and John had to agree, even reddened and sore, Rodney's skin felt wonderful beneath his fingertips, and he let them stray over a wider area when Rodney didn't stop him. He kept his touch gentle and soothing even when Rodney started to lean back into him, still making the same breathy noises of pleasure, but he couldn't quite stop himself from leaning forward to nuzzle at nape of Rodney's neck, inhaling the scent of sunshine and exploding trees.

"Turn around," John whispered and Rodney complied immediately, staring at John with wide blue eyes, his pupils dilated with what John hoped was more than just the dim lighting. "You're burned here too," he said, tracing a finger down Rodney's nose to where the sharp tip of it was pink and would probably be peeling by morning, "and here."

He wiped a thumb over each pink cheek, fingers spread around the sides of Rodney's face and drew him in for a brush of lips, soft at first, only the barest of touches. He let his mouth fall open and kissed Rodney again. His lips were faintly chapped from being outside all day, but it only served to make the inside of his mouth taste all the smoother and wetter when he opened up to John's inquiring tongue. He tasted of toothpaste, which was pleasant enough but not what John wanted, so he set to work kissing the mint flavour away to get to the Rodney beneath it.

Rodney's hands came up around John's back, strong and sure, and John only realised he was being coaxed gently backwards when the bed gave a loud creak and Rodney froze. John, used to the guest bed, shifted his weight further onto the frame and off the springs, but when they tried again they got the same loud creak and Rodney pulled away.

"Do you think they knew?" he said with a sigh. "Do you think that's why they put us in here with the noisiest bed in the galaxy, because they knew we wanted to do this?"

John smiled. "You were the one who didn't want to go home," he said leaning in for another kiss. "Just think of it as a challenge."

Rodney's eyes sparkled in the lamplight and he grinned, and when they kissed again John could taste his amusement in the shape of his mouth. Rodney kissed like he ate, determined and focussed, not that John was complaining about anything, except maybe that their positions were awkward. Rodney slid a hand under John's shirt, palm flat and fingers spread like he couldn't touch enough of him at once, and John could understand that, because he felt the same. He pulled away from the kiss for a moment, gratified to feel Rodney move with him at first, and pulled his tee-shirt over his head, turning to throw it somewhere near the roll-away.

"Oh," Rodney moaned, and John felt blunt fingers trace the edge of the tribal eagle design tattooed across his shoulders. They were careful, almost reverent, and John turned a little more to let Rodney look and touch his fill. "Oh that's...didn't it hurt?"

John shrugged, aware of his muscles moving under Rodney's hand.

"Not really," he said, turning back to find Rodney had one sceptical eyebrow raised. "Okay, yes. It hurt. It hurt like a bitch, but it's –"

"It's beautiful," Rodney interrupted, and then shuddered. "I hate needles. Which is ironic really given how many vaccination boosters I give in an average day, but I'm phobic about them being used on me."

"You're not going to get a tattoo, then?" John grinned, and Rodney paled beneath his sunburn.

"No chance," he said, shifting out of John's arms and standing to remove his pants. "I can't even give blood."

John thought he might have had a witty retort on the tip of his tongue, but Rodney had shimmied out of his boxers along with his jeans and was standing by the side of the bed looking slightly self-conscious and perfectly naked and it was lost. He stood, wrapped his arms around Rodney and kissed him again, moaning into his mouth as Rodney's hands found his waistband and tugged. John recognized the command in the gesture, and obeyed immediately, and oh yeah, Rodney was a genius, because it felt even better to push up against him with nothing between them.

"Can we...?" Rodney said, breaking a kiss to tilt his head at the bed. "Because everything I've got hurts, and I really want to enjoy this."

John smiled. "Everything?" he asked, circling his fist around the heavy weight of Rodney's cock and stroking.

Rodney made a desperate noise at the back of his throat, and pushed his hips forward and John couldn't help but look down and watch Rodney fuck his hand.

"Oh God," Rodney moaned. "Oh God, yeah."

He sucked and kissed a path down John's neck to where it met his shoulder, and closed his hand around John's cock, matching the rhythm John had set. It was clumsy and too rough and not enough and wonderful and every time their knuckles brushed Rodney gasped.

"Wait, wait," he said and the hand that had been clutching at John's ass let go, and stretched toward the bed. When John realized what it was Rodney was going for, and that he couldn't reach, John snagged the tube of aloe for him. He popped the cap and poured a generous amount between them, hissing as the cold gel hit warm flesh.

"Fuck, yeah," Rodney moaned, aligning their slippery cocks and rutting against John with a little grunt on each thrust and forget the creaky bed, they might as well have been doing this in Nick and Laura's room it was so fucking obvious.

"Shhhh," John soothed, and Rodney's gaze locked onto John's, eyes wide and unfocussed and desperate, and John watched him bite his lower lip to keep quiet as he came.

"Oh, oh that was...." Rodney sighed, looking swollen-lipped and wanton.

"Yeah," John whispered, close enough that a couple of hard fast strokes had him coming too, one hand clutched around Rodney's shoulder to keep himself upright.

Rodney wiped them down with his boxers, and they helped each other to the big bed, settling into it with a minimum of noise from the springs. John lay on his back, looking up at the ceiling and trying to recall when he had last felt this relaxed, while Rodney wrapped himself along John's side.

"Tomorrow I'm going to take you home and we'll do that right," Rodney promised into John's shoulder.

"I'm going to hold you to that," John said, pretty sure Rodney was already asleep.

John woke to a knock on the bedroom door. Sunlight was pouring through the window and bathing the bed in a warm glow that fit his mood perfectly. Rodney had turned onto his stomach during the night and was drooling into the pillow next to John's face. The now slightly more insistent knocking at the door didn't seem to be disturbing him at all, and when John pushed at his shoulder he just grunted and burrowed under the comforter a little more.

"Hang on a second," John called, climbing from the bed as silently as he could, which wasn't very, and retrieving his underwear and tee-shirt from the floor by the roll-away. He kicked Rodney's boxers under the bed with a solemn promise to himself that he'd remember to get them later and went to answer the door.

Laura stood on the other side holding the phone. She was wearing a bathrobe and had a towel wrapped around her head and John couldn't read her expression.

"It's not for you," she said. "It's Dr Zelenka."

John froze. He had no idea what to do or say. 'I'll wake him' sounded far too intimate, but he couldn't just let Laura barge in and wake Rodney herself. Aside from anything else this was Laura's house and he had a ridiculous guilty feeling she would know what they'd done last night just from being in the room.

"He'll call you back," Laura said into the phone, and handed it to John. "Wake him up and get him to call Radek," she said. "It's urgent. Eliska's in the hospital."

Then she turned away, leaving John standing in the doorway, looking at the phone like it might explode in his hand. He closed the door and walked across the room to where Rodney had moved into the middle of the bed, but apparently not woken at all.

"Rodney," he said, reaching out to touch the one shoulder visible above the blankets. He had intended to shake it, but the resulting action was more of a caress and once he'd started he didn't want to stop. "You need to call Dr Zelenka. His daughter's in the hospital."

Rodney mumbled something incomprehensible into the pillow, and snaked his arm out from under the comforter. He snapped his fingers irritably until John guessed what he wanted and handed the phone over. Rodney dialed the number with one thumb, from memory and without lifting his head to look at the keypad, only sitting up when Zelenka answered. The sheets pooled around Rodney's waist and John felt an almost irresistible urge to slide back into bed with him, to wrap himself around Rodney's sleep-warm body, but Rodney's attention was clearly all on the conversation he was having, and Laura knew he was on the phone, so John left him to his conversation. He wandered downstairs to where Nick was making breakfast and poured out two cups of coffee.

"Sleep okay?" Nick asked, turning away from the pile of pancakes and bacon he'd already made.

John made a noncommittal noise of agreement, firmly reminding himself that Nick always asked him how he slept, it was politeness, nothing more. He set his mug down at his usual place at the table, and gestured with the other to the kitchen door.

"I'm just going to take this up for Rodney," he said, watching Nick's expression carefully, although it didn't change from his usual wry amusement.

Rodney had finished on the phone by the time John got upstairs, and had laid back down. He continued staring at the ceiling as John walked in but his gaze flickered in John's direction when he perched himself on the edge of the bed.

"Everything okay?" John asked, knowing it was a stupid question. "I brought you coffee."

John wasn't sure whether it was the promise of coffee that brought about the change, but Rodney smiled and turned onto his side and took the mug from John's hand.

"Zelenka's daughter's in hospital, so I'm on call until further notice, which is fine, if that's what you meant. Otherwise...." He smiled, the same sad tight smile as John had seen yesterday and the resultant ache in his chest was stronger than it had been last night. He reached out a hand and cupped Rodney's cheek, stroking a thumb along his cheekbone, and leaned forward to kiss him. The bed gave a loud and melodious squeak and they both laughed.

"It's a conspiracy, I'm sure of it," Rodney said, but his smile was broad and genuine now.

John assumed Rodney's promise to take him home and ravish him the next night had just been one of those things people said but didn't mean, so when PJ whinnied as he was finishing up her bandage the next evening he didn't take any notice. Or he hadn't until Rodney had politely asked if he could give her an apple. He looked up to find Rodney leaning over the stable door and scratching Puddlejumper's nose while she gazed at him with a dopey and adoring expression on her face.

John greeted him with a lazy smile, not wanting to seem too eager, and shrugged. So Rodney had continued his scheme to charm PJ by producing the apple and holding it out for her to take off his palm.

"You have something to hold me to," he said. "If you still want to."

And John had casually agreed that, yes, he remembered, and no, he wasn't particularly busy that evening, so sure, they could go back to Rodney's place. It had turned out to be the best thing John had ever agreed to.

"There's an apartment above the practice," Rodney said, when John hesitated as they pulled up outside. "I'm staying there until I find somewhere to buy."

Which was good enough for John, who hadn't really been thinking that Rodney might've had some weird thing about fucking in his office, or about collars or anything like that, and an hour later wasn't sure he'd even care if Rodney did. There was no way on earth he was stupid enough to turn down another opportunity to get laid that well. So when the arm Rodney had flung over his waist tightened in response to John's attempt to leave, and Rodney muttered a sleepy 'don't have to go', John had stayed. People would think he was leaving the vet's office in the morning anyway, he rationalized, not the den of iniquity above it.

Rodney had invited him over the following Friday, offered to cook, and because John was nervous about the next day's rodeo and thought an evening with Rodney might help him relax, he agreed. It had been nice to have someone fuss over him a little; the only other person he could recall cooking for him in recent years was Laura, who didn't fuss over anyone, ever, and who treated him as though he were a member of the family and therefore expected to make do and pitch in. Rodney had obviously gone to a lot of effort, especially considering he'd worked late covering for Dr Zelenka, whose daughter was still in the hospital. John had made breakfast in bed for both of them before leaving for the rodeo because Rodney had dark circles under his eyes already and John wanted to kid himself that Rodney would get some sleep over the weekend.

He hadn't invited Rodney to the rodeo because he hadn't practiced much and he had a feeling he was going to do badly, a prediction that turned out to be correct and that led to him nursing a beer and a sore shoulder on Sunday evening and trying to tell himself that looking good in front of Rodney McKay was really not important. He also made plans to step up his training.

"You can invite him, if you want." Nick said, out of nowhere as far as John was concerned. They were discussing the bachelor party, finalizing details, and John replied with a reflex 'who?' even though he knew who Nick was talking about.

"Your new friend; the one you can't stop talking about." Nick said, easy and casual, but John wondered if he was jealous. He almost asked, but he knew Nick would say no and John wouldn't know if that was true because he'd never put Nick in this position before so he had no frame of reference.

"I'm serious," Nick had said, while John was still sorting through his thoughts, and promising himself that he wouldn't mention Rodney again that evening. "Invite him. He's funny."

John had felt oddly warmed by that, like it mattered what his best friend thought of the man who was teaching him all the ways his body had of feeling pleasure, but he hadn't invited Rodney. Not to the bachelor party, and not to dinner at Nick and Laura's the following week, but it didn't matter because Laura invited him.

"What?" she'd said when John had baulked. "The poor guy's barely had time to eat all week." Which John knew wasn't true because he'd been over to Rodney's twice to cook for him. Well, actually to watch football on his giant TV and play with his state-of-the-art sound system, but the fact remained that he had cooked, and he hadn't even minded when Rodney had fallen asleep in front of the television.

It still felt weird though, watching Rodney accept a beer from Nick and stand in the kitchen, leaning against the counter and talking to Laura as she made dinner. It seemed wrong, somehow, like the barriers between compartments of his life had been breached, and he knew he was quieter than usual because they all shot him concerned glances from time to time. They moved to the living room after dinner, because Laura wanted to watch a movie that was on and John wasn't sure of the etiquette of inviting Rodney out to the porch, to talk with him and Nick. He wasn't sure he wanted that anyway, for Rodney to be that much in his life, so they wound up sitting on the sofa in the darkened living room watching a made-for-TV chick-flick. Rodney was asleep before the first commercials and spent the rest of the movie making little snuffly noises and fidgeting until he'd managed to get himself horizontal. His feet were in John's lap and John caught himself idly stroking them a couple of times, but it was dark, and he didn't think anyone had noticed.

Two weeks later they repeated the exercise, except that this time it was John who invited Rodney, after checking with a bemused Nick and Laura, and it didn't feel so strange. In fact it felt sort of nice, hanging out in the kitchen together and joking with Rodney about how long it would take him to fall asleep in front of the TV this week.

As it turned out he barely made it through the opening titles, despite assuring everyone that he wasn't tired.

He'd got his second wind by the time the movie finished. John could tell by the way he pounced almost before the guest room door was shut behind them. Rodney slid a hand into John's hair, and the other around his waist and then to his ass after a fraction of a second, and kissed him, long and dirty, and John didn't even try to stop it until both of Rodney's hands were working at his fly.

"We can't," John said, well aware that he'd sound more authoritative without the breathy quality to his voice. "Not here."

Rodney just looked at him for a second before going back to undressing him like John hadn't spoken at all.

"I mean it," John said. "I don't want to." Which was a lie, and he knew Rodney knew it too, because not two seconds ago he'd been pressing his hard-on into Rodney's and rubbing against him. "Not here."

"They don't care," Rodney said, dismissively.

"I care," John said, leaning back to stare at Rodney, wide-eyed. "Oh God, Rodney, have you asked them?"

Rodney glared. "Yeah, we talk about it all the time at work, Laura and I. All the hot sex you and I have and whether she minds us fucking in her house," he said. He looked at John and gave him a suggestive smile.

"I'm tired," John said, as Rodney peeled off his shirt and discarded it. "We didn't all spend the last two hours sleeping."

"I know, but I'm not tired," Rodney countered, in a low tone that made John's dick twitch even though he was determined not to cave. "I need you to tire me out, so I can sleep."

"Well, tough," John said, and then inspiration struck him. "Although...I do have something that'll put you to sleep pretty quick, if you're anything like me." He walked over to the nightstand and pulled out the drawer, intending to retrieve the copy of War and Peace from where he'd abandoned it.

He froze. "Did you bring those here?" he asked, in a whisper.

"Why would I bring a box of twelve?" Rodney asked, incredulously, picking up the bottle of Astroglide and juggling it from hand to hand. "Even I'm not that hopeful. I brought three: one for tonight, one for tomorrow morning, and a spare. Twelve condoms for an overnight stay? That's just greedy."

"Don't break the seal," John hissed and Rodney treated him to his extra strength 'you're a moron' smile.

"It's a bottle of lube, John, not the Ark of the Covenant."

"They'll think we used it."

Rodney gave John his most patient look.

"Look," he said, putting the lube back in the drawer and taking John's hand. "We don't have to do anything at all tonight if you don't want to, but this...." He gestured to the nightstand. "I think it's sweet, and I think you're all wrong about this being the guest room. This is your room."

Rodney had offered to go downstairs and sleep on the couch - John had told him no, figuring that would only make it really obvious that he and Rodney weren't just friends - then had climbed into bed and fallen asleep. Or at least John had thought he was asleep, and was faintly concerned that he'd offended him, but when he eased himself into the bed Rodney did his usual trick of moulding himself to John's side and John felt something inside him unclench and relax.

"You know," Rodney muttered against his neck. "If you don't want me here, you could always invite me to your place."

John had recognised the challenge even if Rodney hadn't and he'd invited Rodney for dinner late the following week. He spent as much of the intervening time as he could cleaning the place up, but it wasn't much more than a patch job, and he knew Rodney would see straight through it to the shabbiness underneath. He'd hoped for bad weather, so that the kids next door would be inside yelling and screaming at each other instead of in the yard next to his, but the day was glorious sunshine and clear blue skies.

The house was as neat and as clean as it was ever going to get by about two hours before Rodney was due to arrive, and John had to force himself to sit on his couch and watch something on TV. When he couldn't find anything to hold his attention he tried reading a book. He'd read the same paragraph approximately fifty times when he heard Rodney's truck pull up outside and he leaped to his feet, took a deep breath and ambled out to meet him. He had a feeling this might be the end of whatever this was with Rodney because the gulf in their living standards was about to become pretty damn apparent. Not, to be fair, that Rodney really lived above the veterinary practice; it was just temporary quarters, to tide him over, and John understood that, but the portable belongings Rodney had brought with him were obviously top of the line where John's were bargain basement.

He slouched against the porch post, legs crossed at the ankles, and watched Rodney climb inelegantly out of the cab of his truck because there wasn't really room for it next to John's pick-up. He scraped himself along the narrow gap between his truck and the fence, which was going to leave little flecks of peeling paint on his ass, and joined John on the porch.

"Hi," John said, and he was grateful that Rodney didn't try and kiss or hug him because the kids next door were staring at them through the gaps in the fence, and John knew they were on sentry duty for their nosey mother.

"Hi," Rodney replied, and he looked so happy, positively bursting with barely repressed joy that John was almost tempted to kiss him anyway, and to hell with the neighbors. "I brought this."

Rodney held out a bottle of wine for John to take and just a glance at the label told him it was a good bottle, better than the one he had breathing in the kitchen.

"So, do you want to come in?" John asked, and he really meant it as a question, because he could see his house through Rodney's eyes, and it wasn't pretty, but Rodney just beamed and bounced a little on the balls of his feet.

"Sure," he said, but John didn't miss the way his gaze darted around, taking in the front yard, which was dusty and growing nothing more than a few weeds; the front porch, which needed to be sanded down and repainted; and the front door, ditto.

"Are you always such a source of entertainment to your neighbours?" Rodney asked when they had made it to the kitchen.

"Pretty much," John said, grateful when Rodney didn't pursue the matter. He poured them each a glass of wine and forced himself to drink his slowly. "We're having steak. I hope that's okay. My signature dish is duck a l'orange, which I didn't think would be such a good idea."

"Steak sounds great," Rodney said. "Can I help?"

"No, that's okay," John shrugged. "The stove's a little temperamental, just um, make yourself at home."

Rodney sat down at the table, carefully placing his glass on the coaster and John almost told him not to worry about it because it was a cheap, crappy dinette set anyway, except that he'd put the coaster there, so it would seem a little weird. He kind of wanted Rodney to know that he knew his house was shabby, and that his furniture was cheap, in case Rodney thought this was John's idea of living well. He had the distinct impression that Rodney was a man who liked his creature comforts.

Rodney seemed oblivious to John's discomfort, and had taken him at his word and made himself at home, leaning back in his chair and talking a mile a minute about work, and Eliska, and how hard it was to find good real estate. If John hadn't known that Rodney always talked a lot, he might have thought he was nervous too. They ate, Rodney with such visceral pleasure that John couldn't tell if he was going out of his way to be nice or if he was just being Rodney, and ended up on the lumpy sofa making out with the TV on in the background.

Eliska was out of the hospital the following month which was how Rodney came to be the vet covering the rodeo and knowing he was out there, watching, made John even more anxious to do well. He'd gotten in less practice than he would have liked, but since that was mostly due to the amount of time he'd spent with Rodney, he wasn't really complaining. The news of his return had gone down just as well as Elizabeth had anticipated, which shouldn't have been a surprise - she was good at her job - but the reaction of the crowd when his name was announced still surprised him. He'd ridden okay, not his best performance by any stretch but acceptable enough given his age and the length of time he'd been out of the game, and in all honesty he was just happy not to have hurt himself.

He was talking to Nick about the bachelor party, half-dressed after a quick shower, wearing a white wifebeater and the jeans Rodney had not particularly noticed on their second meeting, and dragging a towel over his unruly hair in a half-hearted attempt to dry it.

"So the whole gang'll be back together again," John said. "First time since the summer we graduated from rodeo school."

Nick laughed, as he always did. "I don't think you can call it graduating," he said.

"Closest thing to graduating Chris ever managed," John said, and they both sobered. "The whole gang except for Chris."

"Yeah," Nick agreed. "Still doesn't seem real somehow."

"Tell me about it. That he could just be gone like that."

"Although he always did drive like a lunatic." Nick chuckled. "Laura made me promise I'd never ride with him."

John smirked, tossing the towel into the laundry bin in the corner of the dressing room and sitting to pull on his socks and boots.

"I bet you never did, either. You are so whipped."

"Oh, hey, speaking of whipped." Nick said, not bothering to deny it, "did you hear Mike got his tattoo removed? Eleanor made him." He raised his eyebrows briefly. "And then there were four."

John opened his mouth to comment on Mike and his lack of cojones but the moment was interrupted by Rodney bursting through the door and pinning John to the wall with a hand in the centre of his chest.

"Don't you ever do that again," he said, fury and terror vying for dominance in his expression. "I have never been.... God, when those guys had to come and rescue you from that horse, I thought...well I thought all kinds of things: that you were going to be killed or maimed or suffer some kind of awful spinal injury and be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life."

He broke off and threaded one hand into an extremely surprised John's hair and kissed him. Hard. When he seemed to have ascertained, by thorough oral examination, that John was essentially unharmed, he pulled back, visibly sagging as the adrenaline wore off.

John caught Nick's smirk and felt himself blush to the roots of his hair, even though Nick had tactfully averted his gaze.

"Rodney," he said warningly, which Rodney seemed to take as an invitation to start talking again.

"I'm serious. I don't think my heart could take that again. I thought I was going to die of fright."

"It's my job," John said, uncertain how to get Rodney to back off, and take his hand off the side of John's face so that Nick would stop grinning. "And 'those guys' are the pick-up men. They come on for everyone."

Rodney waved his hand - the one that wasn't still holding onto John like he might disappear if he let go - airily. "I didn't watch any of the others," he said dismissively.

"Well, I'm, um, I'm going to go order the first round," Nick said, sounding awkward but still amused. "Any preference, doc?"

That got Rodney to remove his hands from John, if only so he could turn his most incredulous glare on Nick "What?" he said.

"Beer. Do you have any preference what beer you have?"

"I'm not I?" he asked, looking from Nick to John, who was too busy glaring at Nick to offer any help.

"Sure you are," Nick said, with a shrug.

"Oh, well, whatever you're having," he said. "All your beer tastes like crap anyway."

"Please don't do that," John said, once Nick had left, and Rodney looked confused for a fraction of a second.

"I can't help it if your country makes beer that tastes like nothing."

"I'm not talking about that," John sighed. "I'm talking about the public display of affection."

"Okay, first off, this is not public. Also, that was not a display of affection; it was a display of 'thank God you're not horribly brain damaged from being thrown off a wild horse for the entertainment of hundreds of baying Americans'."

"Well, while I appreciate your concern-"

"Nick knows. You do realise that?"

"Yes, yes of course I do, but there's a difference between knowing about us and having to watch you suck my face off."

Rodney stared at him for a long uncomfortable moment and when he spoke his voice was pinched. "Fine," he said. "You stop riding in the rodeo, and I will never touch you where anyone might see ever again."

"It's my job."

"Then get another one."

"Yeah, because it's that easy. This is a small town, Rodney, with small town morals. I have to be careful."

"So I'm a liability? Is that what you're saying? Not only am I an embarrassment, but I'm affecting your employment potential as well?"

"That's not what I meant, Rodney," John called after his retreating back and then to the door when it slammed behind him. "Rodney."

John was surprised to find Rodney at the bar, although it rapidly became clear that he'd only gone to claim the moral high ground. He was painfully polite to Nick, thanking him for inviting him and for the beer, and then left when he'd finished drinking it. He didn't speak to, or look at, John at all for the twenty minutes they sat next to each other. Over the next few days when he answered his phone, he was cold and civil, and cut John off as quickly as possible. On the third day he pointed out that he really didn't want to speak to John, thank you, but he had to answer his phone because he was the vet on call for the entire town, so could John please not call unless there was a problem with Puddlejumper?.

John didn't call again, but he did find himself looking at the help wanted ads in the back of the local paper even though he'd promised himself that his next job would be working for himself. He helped Nick with his paddock but he didn't stay over, partly because the guestroom reminded him of Rodney, and partly because Laura would shoot him reproachful looks when she thought he wasn't looking. He suspected Nick had told her not to talk to him about Rodney. After a week he couldn't stand it any more.

"Do you think I was a jerk to him?" he asked Nick one evening as they drank their beers in silence on the porch.

There was a long pause, which was answer enough really.

"I think you're an idiot," Nick said amicably.

"He told me to get another job."

"Yeah, I know."

"But I'm an idiot?"

Nick laughed, but it lacked his usual good humor. "I can't believe you think I'd mind him kissing you," he said and John realized that this was why Rodney wasn't being discussed, not only had he pissed off Rodney, but he'd pissed off Nick as well. "And for what it's worth I think he's right. You should get another job, before you find yourself living your dad's life."

That was how John ended up parked outside the vet's office at lunchtime the next day. Laura was the nurse on duty, and he didn't want to face having to deal with her and trying to pretend everything was fine, so he was waiting outside for Rodney to go for lunch. He was trying not to think of it as stalking, or to imagine Nick's expression when he came to the police station to pay John's bail and take him home. He was so intent on his purpose that it took him about ten minutes to realize that Rodney's truck wasn't parked in its usual spot, wasn't parked anywhere in sight.

In the time it took him to formulate and discard a number of theories, ranging from Rodney had gone back to Toronto and hadn't even said goodbye to his truck had broken down and he was stranded somewhere in the countryside, a taxi pulled up outside the practice and Rodney got out. He looked pale and drawn and John was out of his pick-up without even thinking.

"What happened?" he asked, catching hold of Rodney's elbow and smoothing a hand over the side of his face. "Are you all right?"

"You're touching me," Rodney said, but he sounded too exhausted to make it really cutting. "In public."

"You look awful," John said, ignoring Rodney's comment because he had no answer for it, and he couldn't seem to stop touching Rodney anyway.

"Thank you. I feel awful."

"Where's your truck?"

"At the hospital," Rodney said, yanking his arm out of John's grip and nearly overbalancing himself in the process so that John had to put out his other hand to keep him upright. "Please let go."

He sounded so sad, and so distressed, that John let go even thought it almost hurt to do it. "What happened?" he repeated and Rodney sighed.

"Nothing happened. I went to the hospital, they took a blood test. I may possibly have passed out. They wouldn't let me drive home."

"You hate needles, you should have told me you were going for a blood test. I would have taken you."

Anger seemed to give Rodney new strength and he straightened up a little.

"For one thing, I'm not speaking to you, and for a second, hospitals are public places and I thought asking you to take me might have looked a little, I don't know, gay."

John's temper flared. "I'm sorry about that," he hissed, sounding anything but and Rodney gave him a smug look, arms folded across his chest.

"Well, finally," he said, then frowned. "I'm sorry too, for the job thing. That was...I shouldn't have said that."

"No," John agreed. "Although I'm choosing to assume you were just worried about me."

"It was more like out of my mind terrified, but yes." He gestured to the door. "I'm going to go in now."

"I could...." John said, trailing off so that it wouldn't hurt so much when Rodney turned him down.

Rodney held his gaze for a long moment, and John could see him weighing his decision. He looked exhausted, and John hated himself for his part in it.

"I don't want to be your dirty little secret," Rodney said wearily, and shrugged. "Sorry."

John watched Rodney walk to the door of the practice, his shoulders rounded and head down like he was carrying the weight of the world, and John couldn't let him leave.

"I've never done this before," he called after Rodney, his heart pounding in his ears as if everyone in town could hear him, and would know what he was talking about. "I didn't mean to...I just didn't think...."

He couldn't find the words to make Rodney understand that what he had with him, he hadn't thought he'd ever get to have. That it scared him as much as it thrilled him, and he didn't know what to do with it. He knew he had to try, knew right down in his gut that letting Rodney walk out of his life would be the stupidest thing, in a lifetime of stupid things, that he would ever do.

He hadn't even realized he was moving until he was almost up to the door, close enough to watch the warring emotions chase each other across Rodney's expression when he turned. John did notice then that he was holding his hands out like he would to a skittish horse, and a bubble of hysteria threatened to burst through in inappropriate laughter.

"Don't let me fuck this up," he pleaded, pulse racing, but resisting the urge to check the street in case anyone could see what he was about to do. He reached out the hand closest to Rodney and brushed his knuckles against Rodney's hand, not quite brave enough to actually clasp it in his own but aware that words weren't going to be enough.

"Come in," Rodney sighed, sagging further, so that John couldn't decide if he'd scored a victory or made things worse.

They ended up in the kitchen, facing off across the butcherblock table, and because he couldn't look Rodney in the eye John found himself staring at the tiny circular bandage on the inside of Rodney's elbow where they'd drawn his blood.

"It wasn't for HIV or syphilis or anything, so you can quit worrying," Rodney said after a moment. "What did you mean by you've 'never done this before'?"

It took John a while to realize what Rodney meant, and he could sense Rodney's impatience growing while he worked it out, and that didn't seem fair really, because he'd never even thought about it before.

"This," he said, gesturing futilely between himself and Rodney.

"Wait, wait, wait a minute," Rodney snapped. "Are you telling me.... Please don't tell me I'm the first guy you've slept with?"

"No, I-"

"Oh thank God for that," Rodney slumped into one of the chairs at the table. The one John had started to think of as his, although not consciously. "I would have been much gentler with you. So first time what? With a vet? With a Canadian?"

"With someone who doesn't seem to realize that there are people in the world who would gladly kick his head in if they knew he was sleeping with me."

"I can see why they might be jealous," Rodney said, and John almost rose to the bait except he wasn't completely sure which of them Rodney thought they'd be jealous of. "First time it's ever been more than just sex?"

And there it was, hanging between them over the table for John to refute or confirm, and he had no idea which to do. He wished he had a coin to flip so that the decision could be fate's instead of his own, and recognized that for the cowardice it was. Rodney was looking at him with an oddly fond but tight expression on his face and John could see that he was moments away from waving a hand and saying it didn't matter.

"Yeah," he said, before Rodney could give him the way out he so desperately wanted.

"Really? That'," Rodney said, and John didn't know whether to feel insulted. "I'm...well I'm a little surprised, because you're...I guess I could give you a second chance," he finished airily.

"Yeah?" John drawled, refusing to allow himself to sound as elated as he felt. "That's nice of you."

"Yes, it is, isn't it?" Rodney agreed, grinning lopsidedly, and John got the distinct impression that Rodney had seen through his laissez faire attitude.

There followed a brief and awkward silence, which John broke by offering to take Rodney back to the hospital to get his truck.

"I don't feel up to it right now," Rodney said. "Panic attacks are exhausting. Oh, but thank you, for, you know, offering."

"Well, I could put you to bed, instead, if you like," John drawled, daring to risk a slight smirk and more relieved than he wanted to admit to himself when Rodney smiled.

"I would like," he said, levering himself up out of his chair by leaning heavily on the table. "Although I should warn you it is highly possible I will actually just fall asleep." John just looked at him, because falling asleep seemed pretty much par for the course lately but he found himself encouraging it, because Rodney so clearly needed more sleep than he was getting. "I hardly slept at all last night."

"Call outs?" John asked, slinging an arm around Rodney's waist even though he didn't need that much support, and helping him through to the bedroom.

"Um, no," Rodney said sheepishly. "I just got so worked up about the blood test this afternoon that I couldn't sleep."

"Oh," John said, feeling guilty all over again for not having been there. He wanted to ask what the blood test had been for, but wasn't entirely sure if he had any right to, or if he'd just be prying.

"I figured I should try," Rodney said, sitting on his side of the bed to take his shoes and socks off. "It was purely selfish really. If I'd wanted to work alone, I'd have taken on an empty practice."

"Right," John said, none the wiser, and Rodney smirked.

"You can't tell Radek though. I don't want to get his hopes up. The chances of my being the same tissue type as Eliska are pretty remote." He slumped back onto the bed, stretched out sideways across it, with his feet still on the floor and yawned expressively. "You staying?"

"Yeah," John said, running his hand along the pale strip of belly exposed by the riding up of Rodney's shirt and thinking that he might actually get a decent night's sleep himself tonight, for the first time since the rodeo last weekend. "I'd like that."

He bent to plant a kiss on the skin his hands were caressing, encouraging the shirt further up to grant him access to Rodney's chest. His lips found the tight bud of Rodney's nipple as a hand settled in his hair and John realiszed that this was new too. He knew what to do to please Rodney, knew where his ticklish spots were, where he liked to be touched and where he only liked to be touched when he was already so turned on he could barely think. And Rodney knew all the same things about him, and instead of being dull and predictable and all the things he'd always told himself a relationship would be, it was wonderful.

"Oh God, John," Rodney moaned, arching up off the bed as John scraped his teeth gently over Rodney's collarbone. "I missed you so much."

John climbed up onto the bed, kneeling beside Rodney, then bent down and kissed him and Rodney seemed to understand the apology, because his arms came up around John's back and he moved them until they were on the bed properly. Rodney tucked himself along John's side, and John dropped a kiss onto the top of his head. They stayed like that long enough for him to realize that Rodney had fallen asleep, and that he wasn't going to get his makeup sex right away, and that he didn't mind nearly as much as he would have expected. He pulled Rodney into a closer hug, getting a murmured 'not asleep' for his pains, and then let himself doze.

"Hmm," Rodney said a moment later. "Perhaps you misunderstood. I'm not asleep, and I know you're new to this so I'll spell it out for you. This is the point where you make it up to me for your terrible behavior through the medium of incredible sex."

"Is that right?" John queried, rolling Rodney onto his back and grinning. He helped Rodney out of his clothes, unable to resist kissing him frequently, which slowed their progress towards nakedness but not enough for Rodney to complain again. "You wouldn't happen to be taking advantage of my ignorance, would you?" he asked when he was stretched out on top of Rodney.

Rodney beamed up at him, eyes twinkling with mischief, and John conceded that he really was an idiot, to have come so close to losing this. He kissed his way down Rodney's body, smiling against his skin. Rodney's hand petted his hair affectionately, fingers tightening against his scalp as John licked a broad stripe of wet heat along Rodney's cock and then swallowed him down. He let himself enjoy the heat and weight and taste of Rodney, barely aware that he was rubbing his own cock against the bed until Rodney muttered a thick-voiced 'come here' and encouraged him to move. Rodney guided him into a kneeling position, one knee on either side of Rodney's head, and matched every movement of John's mouth on his cock. It was quick and desperate after that, almost like Rodney felt he'd nearly lost something important too.

With Nick and Laura's wedding coming up fast, John found his time taken up by rehearsals and anxiety attacks of his own, mainly centred on his best man's speech. He was fairly sure he was competent enough not to lose the rings, but less sure of his ability to walk the extremely fine line between revealing some of Nick's wilder exploits as a younger man without offending anyone and still entertaining those of their old friends who already knew about them. Rodney wasn't much help at all. Although he did correct a few grammatical errors, John found when he went over his speech notes one morning.

"It's not that I don't appreciate the gesture –" Rodney said after John invited him to the bachelor party.

"It's not a gesture," John interjected, slightly out of breath from running Puddlejumper around the yard. "Nick asked me to invite you."

"Asked you to invite me, or said you could if you wanted?" Rodney asked, and John wondered how the hell he managed to be so perceptive without ever appearing to pay attention to any social niceties whatsoever. "And it's sweet of you, but really, I can think of better ways to spend a Saturday night than with a bunch of cowboys all reminiscing about the good old days."

John grinned lewdly and shrugged. "Well sure," he drawled. "So can I, but you have to remember I am going to be with those reminiscing cowboys –"

"I can entertain myself, John, for one night."

"I'd like you to come," John said, and Rodney smiled. It was his favorite of Rodney's smiles - his favorite of all Rodney's expressions, in fact - carrying the tiniest hint of 'you're a dork' and a whole lot of 'but I adore you' and he couldn't help but lean over the stable door, PJ's reins still looped around his arm, and take Rodney's face in his hands and kiss him. He even managed not to immediately look around the yard to make sure no one had seen them when he pulled away.

"Well, that's good enough for me. I don't need to come and if you want to crash at my place afterwards, that'd be good."

John nodded, and he knew he would, even though Rodney's was technically further from the bar they were going to. He'd have to make sure Nick got home safely anyway. He'd just drive back to Rodney's when he was done.

"John, I was hoping to catch you." Ms Weir startled him as she strode across the yard while he was putting Puddlejumper back in her box, and he turned to face her with a heavy heart. "Dr McKay."

Rodney nodded, and muttered something under his breath that John wasn't entirely sure was a greeting.

"What can I do for you, ma'am?" he asked, although he had an idea he knew.

"I'm short again for riders," she said. "This Saturday."

John hesitated, the air in the stall seemed to grow heavier, thicker somehow. He hadn't actually promised Rodney he wouldn't ride in the rodeo again, but he was pretty sure Rodney thought there had been an unspoken agreement. Hell, he thought there had been an unspoken agreement, and he didn't really want to ride anyway because Saturday was Nick's bachelor party, and his shoulder had really only just stopped bothering him from last time.

"What events?" he asked, keeping his tone conversational. Maybe if it was just the saddle bronc he'd do it; that event was early enough in the program that he'd still be able to get home and changed and out on time.

"All the rough stock," Elizabeth said, holding his gaze coolly. "Kyle's damaged his elbow in training."

He wanted to say no, but he couldn't seem to find his voice, and Elizabeth put a hand out to lean on the door of PJ's stall in what seemed to John to be a highly significant fashion.

"I realise it's short notice," she continued, as if she were oblivious to the conflict in his head, which he suspected she wasn't. "So I'm prepared to pay your entrance fee and I'll pay you triple what I normally do for stepping in."

She raised an eyebrow at him, and he actually had time to wonder if she knew he was behind with his mortgage payments before he dismissed the thought as paranoia.

"How much do you want for the stall rent for the next six months?" Rodney asked from behind him and Elizabeth's eyebrow arched even higher.

"Fine," John said, before Rodney could embarrass him any further. "I'll ride."

"Great," Elizabeth nodded, turning and walking back the way she came.

Rodney barely waited until she was out of earshot before he erupted.

"Are you insane?" he asked, not waiting for an answer. "All the rough stock, so that's saddle bronc, bareback and bull-riding, the most dangerous sport in the world. Three point two percent of bull riders are injured and thirty-six percent of those injuries are serious, and you may not care about-"

"I'm not taking your money, Rodney. This is my job."

"It's just money-"

"Which is an easy thing for people who have plenty to say. I couldn't pay you back, except in trade, and I'm not that kind of boy."

"I wouldn't want you to pay me back," Rodney said, sounding wounded. "I just, I can't watch you do that again."

"So don't watch," John said with a shrug, like it didn't matter, like he didn't know Rodney was only concerned for him.

Rodney pushed past him and out of the stall. He started to walk away then rounded on his heel. His face was tight, and when he spoke John could tell he was upset.

"If you change your mind-" he said.

"I won't." John cut him off, trying to keep Nick's voice out of his head, telling him that he was an idiot, that he was going the same way as his father, because that was exactly why he couldn't take Rodney's money, why he couldn't rely on charity. He'd gotten himself into this mess by bailing his parents out over and over, against advice and against his own better judgment; he would get himself out of it.

"Call me Saturday," Rodney asked. "Just...I'll need to know you're okay."

John nodded, feeling the tightness of his neck muscles protest the movement, and then Rodney was gone.

As it turned out, it was Nick who phoned Rodney on Saturday, although John didn't find that out until much later. When he came to, all he could really remember about Saturday was having breakfast in the morning, just a piece of toast and a cup of coffee because he was nervous. The first thing he became aware of was that his throat was sore and dry, but as consciousness returned it quickly became apparent that things were far worse than that. He found it hard to make himself care at first, despite the fact that not remembering your day could never be a good thing, and neither could the fact that one of his legs was in a fairly fancy-looking cast. He had a feeling that wondering how many people he could get to sign it should not be at the top of his list of things to worry about. Later on, when the drugs had worn off a little and he'd stopped feeling like he had the week after he'd had his wisdom teeth removed, he realised that everything he had hurt.

He was also starting to get his memory back. He could clearly remember Rodney phoning in a last-ditch effort to make him see sense, and he was no longer too high not to realize that the 'I told you so' payback was going to be a bitch. He could remember doing okay in both the horseback events but his only recollection of the bull ride was the clear memory of thinking 'hung up, I'm hung up, shit shit shit', which answered the question of why he was in the hospital, if nothing else.

Eventually one of the nurses apparently realized he was awake, or possibly dropped by to do some routine observations, given that a nurse came and took his blood pressure and shined a flashlight in his eyes every fifteen minutes for the rest of the night. Thankfully she also gave him some ice chips for his throat and pressed a cylinder into his hand and explained that he could give himself another shot of morphine when he needed it.

"I know you cowboys," she said pleasantly. "Too tough for your own good, every one of you, so you make sure you use that, okay? They'll take it down later tomorrow, but for tonight, you use it."

"Yes, ma'am," John had said with a smile that informed him that half of his face was bruised.

They let Nick in to see him, because he was listed as John's next of kin, and John tried to persuade them to let Rodney in as well, because he had a feeling he had some apologising to do. The nurse on duty suggested he'd had enough visitors for one night anyway, so the change of next of kin could happen tomorrow, and it had taken the combined charms of both John and Nick to make her change her mind.

"Hey," Rodney said, settling himself into the chair by the side of John's bed and looking like he had no idea what to say.

Silence followed, stretching between them until Rodney broke it with, "So how are you feeling?" which made John laugh until that made him realise how bruised his abdomen must be.

"Still alive," he said. "And actually, pretty good, considering."

Rodney looked at him with a complicated mix of fondness and disbelief in his expression.

"Which would have nothing to do with the morphine, of course," he said, and John knew then that they'd be okay, they'd get past this.

"You can get it over with tonight if you want," John said, clarifying when Rodney merely gave him a perplexed look. "The 'I told you so'."

"Oh don't don't really think I wanted to be right, do you?" He sounded almost angry, and he seemed to recognize that himself because he dropped his head into his hands and shook it. "I'm sorry. It's been a rough couple of days. I'd give anything to have been wrong about this."

John reached out with the hand that wasn't holding his analgesia button and grabbed Rodney's wrist, pulling it away from his head and onto the bed so that he could entwine his fingers with Rodney's. Rodney squeezed briefly, and then pulled his hand away, glancing at the door to be sure they hadn't been seen, and John felt a stab of grief that he'd done it because he thought John wanted him to. Then his brain caught up with what Rodney had said.

"Couple of days?"

"It's Sunday night," Rodney said, matter-of-factly. "I spent all of yesterday worrying about you, and then Nick phoned. You were in surgery for a couple of hours, and they were worried about your brain so they kept you anesthetised for most of today. Hasn't anybody told you?"

"It's okay," he said in response to Rodney's obvious displeasure at the lack of information sharing. "I guess I won't be riding for a while. Oh, Puddlejumper," he said, trying to sit up and regretting it when the movement hurt everywhere.

"Nick's taking care of her," Rodney said, in a tone that implied that should have been obvious. "And I've spoken to Elizabeth and she's agreed to let her stay in her stall and we'll figure something out later, so you don't need to worry about anything except getting better." John nodded, although he knew that wasn't true, but he didn't want Rodney to know he was in arrears on his mortgage in case Rodney offered to pay it. He didn't think he was capable of turning him down at the moment. "I'm going to go home. You get some rest, and I'll see you tomorrow."

"Okay," John said, wanting to ask Rodney to stay but recognizing the unfairness in that request. "I'm sorry, by the way."

Rodney smiled, getting up out of his chair with an effort that revealed how exhausted he must be. "You're just sorry I was right," he said, with a smirk. He glanced at the door again and dropped a quick chaste kiss onto John's mouth before straightening back up again.

Sure enough, the next day they took down John's patient-controlled analgesia and started his physical therapy, the combination of which seemed inherently cruel to John, but it did leave him feeling significantly more lucid than the morphine drip had. Rodney dropped by at lunch time, with a bag full of everything John could ever wish for to entertain himself. There were books and magazines, a state of the art handheld games console, and an MP3 player already loaded with music.

"Aww, Rodney," John said when he handed it over. "You made me a mix tape. You must really love me."

He realized what he'd said a split second after Rodney evidently did, and the tension was palpable. He wanted to take it back, to blame the painkillers, or the boredom, but somehow that didn't really seem fair because it wasn't true.

"Yes," Rodney said eventually, half a smile curving his already lopsided mouth. "I guess I must."

Then he'd changed the subject, mentioning that Eliska was coming to the dialysis unit three times a week, and maybe John would like to visit her there. It was such a non sequitur of a comment, and so pointless, given that John already knew, that he recognized that Rodney wanted the subject to stay changed. Not that it changed what Rodney had said, or the fact that it was the first time anyone had ever said it to John. Even a second round of physio later that day couldn't wipe the smile off John's face and it was the first thing he remembered the next morning when he woke.

Nick came in later, with a change of clothes and John's mail and a look on his face that clearly suggested he thought Rodney should have been running these kinds of domestic errands for John. John wondered if Rodney thought he should have been asked too, and the thought made him uncomfortable, but not quite as uncomfortable as the idea of Rodney in his house, unsupervised. The man was entirely too curious for John's comfort, and while John thought he'd probably try not to pry, chances were something would happen, like a bill arriving and then Rodney would notice the words 'final demand', and it would be too much for him to resist.

"That's it?" he asked Nick after he'd shuffled through the pile of mail. "Nothing from the bank?"

Nick just shrugged, which was probably reasonable. It was hardly like he would think John believed ignorance was bliss, or would have done anything with any of John's mail, and he felt himself relax a little. Another month's reprieve for all the good it would do him. He glanced down the bed at his leg in its fibreglass cast. It was going to be a little while before he was earning again, and he tried not to think about how long it would take him just to earn enough to pay off his arrears, not to mention his newly incurred hospital bills.

"How's Peej?" he asked, mainly to distract himself.

"She's good," Nick had answered, looking uncomfortable, and for a brief moment John had been certain something awful had happened to her. "I'm hoping to put a roof on my stalls this weekend. We could move her there, if you want."

"You don't think Ms Weir would mind?" John said. "She may have only agreed to Rodney's terms because she figured she'd get more money in the long term, because of keeping Peej for longer."

"I don't think Ms Weir is the priority here," Nick said, and John wanted to point out that she was his boss, but it wasn't as if he'd be going back to rodeo riding now. He actually started to point out the fact that she might ask for all the rent up front if they took Puddlejumper away, since she was, in a way, security for the payment, and as he did realization hit him.

"He already paid her, didn't he?" John asked, and Nick's silence told him all he needed to know.

"He just didn't want you to have to worry," Nick said, like that made it acceptable.

"He knew I didn't want him to," John said, working his way up to righteous indignation. "I told him that already, before –"

"Before you broke your leg," Nick interrupted. "I don't think it's unreasonable for him to think that changes things."

"Ms Weir wouldn't have thrown Peej out; she'd have waited until I was back on my feet again."

"He's terrified you'll do something stupid like go back to the rodeo after you're healed," Nick explained, and his tone was controlled, which John knew meant he was getting annoyed. "Seriously. I've had a whole lecture on how fractures don't heal as strong as they were before and how you could end up with an amputation if you break that leg again."

"Really?" John drawled, hiding his anxiety behind nonchalance. "They never said anything about that."

"Well, I think maybe he was thinking of dogs and cats and stuff, but either way, he's out of his mind with worrying about you, so cut him a little slack, okay?"

"I can't just take his-"

"Yes. You can. I don't think he's used to not being able to do anything to help. He can do this for you. Just-"

"Just let him?"

"Yes." Nick sat back in the chair by the bed and John knew that as far as he was concerned the conversation was over, but John didn't feel any better. There was an awkward silence for a while, which hurt, because silence was normal between them, but it had never felt awkward before, or at least not since the night all those years ago when he'd told Nick his terrible secret. Maybe that was why Nick had shut the topic down so hard, because he wasn't as okay with John's preferences as he was trying to be, and that was another kind of hurt, sweet and sharp at the same time.

"That simple?" he said, because he'd never been a man to resist picking at scabs.

"I don't see what's complicated about it," Nick said, fidgeting slightly. "Suppose things were the other way around, and you had something he needed. You'd give it to him, no question, wouldn't you?"

When it was put like that John could see his point, because he would give Rodney anything, but he couldn't give him this. He couldn't give him control over John like this, because to give it away was to lose it himself.

"Yeah, sure, if it was a cup of sugar or a...a...I don't know something else inconsequential, but this is-"

"Yeah, I know, John. This is money, but it's also Rodney."

John had conceded, reluctantly, that maybe Nick was right. He had no prior experience of a real relationship to fall back on anyway, so maybe this kind of thing was normal, and besides, he was willing to take a blow to his pride for Peej. Nick didn't seem all that comfortable discussing it further anyway and John resolved to talk to Laura when she visited, but as it turned out he didn't find an appropriate moment to bring it into the conversation.

They let him out of hospital for the wedding, which was perfect and ran like a military operation, as John might have predicted with Laura at the helm. He'd offered to step aside as best man, since he wasn't able to stand for the toast and hadn't actually finished his speech, but Nick had just given him a look that he'd seen too many times to be able to misinterpret. It was the busiest, hardest day he'd had since his accident, and by the time the evening reception rolled around he was all but dead on his feet. Dead on his crutches at any rate, which were hurting his arms, so he'd given up on the mingling and dancing and being accosted by Nick's family so they could tell him he'd grown, or he hadn't changed at all, and when was he going to find a nice girl and settle down?.

He'd found himself a nice quiet corner to sit in, once his duties had been discharged, and the tables cleared away after the dinner. The reception was being held at Nick and Laura's place, and the weather was fine, so it was outside in the back field. A temporary dance floor had been laid down, with tables and seats around the outside. They had a live band playing at the far end of the dance floor, and John's position was perfect for being easy access to the house and to the beer, while being far enough away from the amps that he could hear himself think. As the evening dimmed, lights on the trees and shining from the house came on, but John stayed relatively obscured by shadow, which suited him just fine since he'd had his fill of talking about his accident already after the ceremony.

Rodney had been perfectly well behaved all day, which John hadn't even realised he was worried about until he didn't need to be. He was dancing with Eliska at the moment. Despite him doing his damnedest to escape she had cornered him and insisted, and Rodney had glanced over to John with a 'save me' expression on his face, but whatever he'd seen on John's had convinced him to accede to her demands. She looked as tired and as happy as John felt, while Rodney waltzed her irritably around the dance floor, her little feet on his.

"I think perhaps there is someone else he would rather be dancing with," an accented voice suggested from the chair next to him, and John turned to acknowledge Dr Zelenka, managing to keep all but the slightest hint of 'oh my God Rodney really meant it when he said he talked about me at work' off his face.

"Kids love him," John said easily, aware of how affectionate he sounded and finding he kind of liked it. "Sadly it's not mutual."

Zelenka smiled, but it didn't hide his fatigue, and John wondered what it must be like to watch your child slowly dying. Watching his parents had been hard enough.

"Oh, I think Dr McKay protests too much about a lot of things," Zelenka said, and John figured he had a point, especially when the next song started and Rodney made a great show of disgust but didn't actually leave the floor. "When he first arrived, I thought I would never survive all the complaining. Then suddenly I realized it is only complaining. His heart is in right place, he just prefers to pretend he does not have one."

John smiled to himself at that, because it was the perfect description of Rodney's care of him since his accident. Outwardly he'd been begrudging and irritable, but he'd also been attentive and proactive, and his moaning had paradoxically meant John had never felt like a burden.

"No more," he heard from the dance floor when the song ended. "Really. I need to rest."

Rodney threw himself into the chair next to John and sighed, and John and Dr Zelenka exchanged smirks.

"Worn out by a six-year-old, Rodney, that can't be good."

"I am not worn out, thank you," Rodney said, although he didn't offer an alternative. "Apparently you would have danced with her," he said to John disapprovingly. "You always dance with her, and since you have wilfully incapacitated yourself, the mantle fell to me."

John quirked an eyebrow, too tired to really rise to the bait of 'wilfully incapacitated' even though he wanted to. "I don't think I've ever danced with Eliska," he said watching the realisation that he'd been played by a little girl cross Rodney's expression. "But I would have."

They sat for a moment or two, watching the dancing. Eliska climbed up onto Zelenka's lap and promptly fell asleep, and John found he envied her a little; not that he especially wanted to sit on Rodney's lap, but a quiet doze with his head on Rodney's shoulder and maybe Rodney's arm round him sounded pretty good just now.

"I'd have danced with you too," he said, turning his head to murmur into Rodney's ear and unable to resist leaning his chin on Rodney's shoulder, aware that he wouldn't have done it if they weren't sitting outside the well-lit area of the reception.

"Well, what a shame you've broken your leg then. We'd have made quite a stir," Rodney said, and without being able to see his face, John couldn't entirely read his tone, but he sounded more amused than annoyed. "And you're assuming I want to dance with you."

"Everyone wants to dance with me." John could hear himself slurring his words a little, and he knew he was probably close to falling asleep. The day had been much longer and more eventful than any since his accident, and it was all catching up with him.

Rodney brought an arm up around John's shoulders and patted the top of his arm companionably." Sure, John, everyone wants to dance with you. You want to go home?" he asked. "Getting tired?"

"Soon," John yawned, because the thought of hauling himself out of the chair and getting home sounded like entirely too much effort when he was so comfortable here.

Rodney and Zelenka were talking about what a lovely wedding it had been, and the band had started playing slower music, and John must have fallen asleep because he was woken by a beeping sound and Rodney moving his arm from around his shoulders to search in his pocket.

"It's mine," Zelenka said.

"But I'm on call," Rodney countered, and he sounded put out that anyone would be calling Dr Zelenka instead, as if it was a slight.

"Hmm? Yes, I know," Dr Zelenka said, sounding distracted. "I don't even have my...oh." He got to his feet, handing a still-sleeping Eliska to an unimpressed-looking Rodney and started searching his pockets in earnest until he found his cell phone. "It's the hospital."

"You can go in the house," John said, levering himself up from where he'd slumped against Rodney's side. "They won't mind and it'll be quieter there."

Dr Zelenka took off to the house like a deer, ducking around the dancers on the dance floor with a celerity born of adrenaline. He stopped to apologise briefly once or twice when he actually barrelled into people, and John was amused to hear Rodney tut each time.

"There goes my weekend off," Rodney said, shifting Eliska and holding her at as close to arms length as he could manage without her actually sliding off his lap. "With any luck."

Sure enough Zelenka was soon back from the house, looking even more harried. John raised an inquisitive eyebrow as the vet scurried around collecting his and Eliska's things before scooping her up from Rodney's lap.

"They have a donor," he said with a broad grin that faded quickly. "It is not a good thing that I am so happy, I suppose. Someone's family is grieving tonight."

"Yes, yes," Rodney said, waving him in the direction of the side lot, where all the cars were parked. "It's very tragic, but it won't have been in vain and so on."

Zelenka hoisted Eliska onto his hip, and took off, turning when he was a few paces away.

"Oh, Rodney," he said. "Next weekend-"

"Way ahead of you," Rodney shot back. "Go."

So he'd gone, but before John or Rodney could say anything Ms Weir had sauntered over. John complimented her on her dress, and hoped she hadn't seen him asleep and drooling on Rodney's shoulder, because he still wasn't sure if she knew about him and Rodney, and he wasn't sure what he'd do if she didn't give him his job back when he was better.

"You don't mind if I steal Rodney for a turn around the dance floor do you, John?" she asked, and John didn't know if she was asking because she did know, or because she'd be leaving him all alone at the side of the dance floor. He wasn't sure which he hoped for more, so he shrugged, ignoring Rodney's frantic, and not especially subtle, head shaking.

She didn't even get as far as leading Rodney out onto the floor before Zelenka was back and he looked so frantically worried that John was half on his feet before he remembered that the cast made him ridiculously lumbering.

He said something in what John presumed was Czech before he corrected himself. "My car is blocked in. I need people to move their cars."

"Okay," Rodney said, clearly glad of the distraction. "Which people?"

"This I do not know." Zelenka said. "There was a red pick up, a dark blue, I think, anyway, it's difficult to be sure in the moonlight, but anyway, a dark I do not remember."

"Are you sure you should be driving anyway?" Rodney queried critically. "You seem a little strung out."

Zelenka glared at him. "Yes, of course I am a little anxious, please excuse me, my daughter is about to undergo major life-saving surgery."

"Well, I realise that," Rodney countered. "But she's not if you end up in an accident yourself because –"

"I'll take you," Ms Weir interrupted. "My car's on the road."

"Poor Radek," Rodney said, watching their rapidly retreating backs. "He doesn't stand a chance." Then he brightened, grinning at John. "Still, it saved me from having to dance with her."

The next week had been relatively uneventful, or at least filled with events that had quickly become routine. Trips to the physiotherapist at the hospital and visiting Eliska as she recovered from her kidney transplant while he was there, phoning Rodney to remind him to have lunch, then coming home to find Rodney crashed out asleep on his sofa. In hindsight, John knew he should have realized it was all too good to be true.

The day started like any other Saturday. Rodney brought coffee and breakfast into the bedroom, confiscated the ruler John had insinuated into his cast so he could scratch his leg, and slid back under the covers, all without really waking up. He curled himself around John, who was pretending to be sulking because Rodney should know how damn itchy he was under his cast, and kissed his jaw. When Rodney's cell phone rang not two minutes after he'd burrowed under the covers to give John a combined good morning and sorry blow job, John wished he'd spent less time pretending he minded Rodney's caretaking.

"I'll be right in," Rodney said into the phone before hanging up, switching to fully awake from sleepy morning sex mode instantly. "Sorry John, got to go."

John waited until Rodney had dressed and left before he jerked off, because he didn't want Rodney to think he was making a point, and then settled himself back against the pillows for a nice relaxing morning in bed.

He was woken by the mailman, managing to get to the door just as he was leaving the property. He signed for the certified letter with a heavy weight settling in his gut, because he recognised the bank's insignia on the envelope and he thought he knew what it was going to be. It wasn't really even a surprise that they'd decided to foreclose, but it still hurt. The fact that he hated this house didn't change the fact that it was all he had left of his family.

He was surprised then, to find that the letter was only to inform him that the bank had sold his mortgage to a private investor, but not half as shocked as he was to discover the investor was Rodney. He forced himself to read it again, in case he was wrong, but they'd actually named him: Dr Rodney McKay, DVM. He almost couldn't make himself believe it because Rodney had been so brazen about it, just carrying on like it was nothing at all that he now owned John. Judging by the date on the letter he'd barely waited for John to get out of surgery before he'd pounced.

He managed to keep his tone steady while he spoke to the nurse on the phone, who told him politely that Dr McKay was in surgery at the moment, but if he'd hold on she'd go and let him know John was on the phone. Then she put the receiver down, presumably on the desk, and John heard her walk away, voices, and then: "He says he'll be home for lunch."

"Tell him not to bother," John said through gritted teeth. "Thank you."

He hung up after he heard her repeat the message verbatim, dropping the phone onto the table and wondering with a sick hollow feeling what the hell he was going to do now. He couldn't pace because his cast wouldn't let him, and he couldn't just go back to bed and hide because the bedroom was full of Rodney. Hell, the entire house was full of Rodney.

He tried a couple of times to see the idea from Rodney's point of view, but even allowing for his relatively unusual outlook on life, John couldn't find any way that buying someone's house from under them could possibly be considered a normal thing to do. The fact that Rodney hadn't mentioned it made John think that he had known it was wrong, but John couldn't quite work out what Rodney had hoped to gain. Did he just want to control John? Or have some leverage to force him to publicly acknowledge their relationship? What if he thought this meant John wouldn't have to work and could stay home all day granting Rodney's every whim?.

It was painfully like watching history repeating itself, only with John in his father's place. The exact place he had worked all his life to avoid being. He never borrowed money from anyone; he paid his own way, settled his bills right away. The mortgage was something he'd gotten to bail his parents out of a hole of his father's making, and that couldn't be helped, but he'd always saved for anything else he wanted, or worked for it. He couldn't stand the idea that Rodney had forced him into a position of financial dependency on him without even asking; he really wasn't sure that he wouldn't have picked eviction over having to beg Rodney for every little thing he wanted because of his prior claim on John's income. Watching his father – and even worse, his mother – crawling to friends for the money to pay the electricity bill, or a car repair, or just enough to buy some groceries had been the worst part of John's life when he was younger, and he had vowed then to live within his means, however pitiful they might be. He would never forget the first time his mother had asked him for money, money he'd been saving to buy his first horse, carefully scrimping every penny he earned. She'd come crying to him in the night, and the look of shame on her face had etched itself into his memory and changed his attitude towards her forever.

By the time Rodney pulled up outside, John had worked himself into a fury of righteousness, but all the brilliantly cutting things he'd thought of to say evaporated as Rodney threw himself out of the driver's seat, leaving the door wide open and ran up the path to the porch.

"Oh thank God you're all right," he said as he reached John and he ran a hand down the side of John's face and then the beck of his head as if checking for injuries. "Kate said you'd sounded crazy on the phone, I thought maybe you'd fallen and concussed yourself or something."

"I'm fine," John said, pulling away from Rodney's touch irritably. "And I'm not crazy, I'm furious."

"Well I didn't think you were actually crazy, but I thought you might be confused. Head injuries can...why are you furious?"

It was delivered in a tone of such genuine baffled curiosity that John's temper flared again. "Because of this," he said, waving the letter from the bank at Rodney.

"Oh that," Rodney said airily. "That''re furious about that?"

"Yes. Of course I am. You bought my house-"

"Well, no. I bought the mortgage-"

"Which basically means the house, since I have almost no fucking equity in it, and let's not forget that I'm probably going to have to default on repayments since I can't work."

Rodney looked at him for a moment, clearly perplexed. He put his hand out to touch John's forehead, this time as though checking for a temperature. "Well," he said slowly, "that's why I bought it. I assume you don't have mortgage insurance or health insurance or anything."

"That's not the point."

"Of course it's the point," Rodney said, like he was an idiot.

"I can't afford that kind of thing. We don't all live in your nice happy secure little world."

"The bank was going to take your house," Rodney said looking at John as if he might turn out to be crazy after all.

"So you thought I'd rather have you take it? You couldn't have been more wrong. I don't know what the hell you were hoping to get out of this-" Rodney, still looking confused and concerned rather than the contrite John had expected him to be when he realized he'd been found out, started to walk towards the house. "Oh no you don't," he said. "It's not yours yet, and I don't want you on my property any more. Get out, or I'll call the police."

"You haven't fallen. Have you?" Rodney asked gently. "Hit your head on something? Taken something you shouldn't have?"

"Because if I don't want to be paying you for the privilege of living in my house I must be crazy."

Rodney's eyes widened in disbelief. "What are you talking about? I don't want you to pay me anything. I've released the lien. The house is yours."

"And you just want my eternal gratitude," John snorted incredulously.

"I don't want anything," Rodney said. "I just didn't want you to be homeless."

"Right. Well you know what I want? I want you off my land. I want you out of my life. I want to have never met you."

Rodney looked stricken, but he seemed to get that John was serious. "I really think we should talk about-"

"There's nothing to talk about. If you wanted to talk you should have done it before you went behind my back and pried into my finances."

"I didn' were in hospital when the foreclosure notice came," Rodney said, earnestly. "I didn't think-"

"No. That's very apparent."

John folded his arms and set his jaw, staring at Rodney until he got the message and walked away. It was the hardest thing John had ever done to let him go, but he didn't think he could ever trust Rodney again, didn't think he would ever be able to look at him without remembering this betrayal.

He spent the rest of the day slowly removing every last trace of Rodney from the house, which took even longer because of his leg, and by the evening he was exhausted, but not enough that he could sleep.

It took him two days to realize that Rodney had said a foreclosure notice had arrived, which meant Nick had to have given it to Rodney. So Rodney had cost him not only his dignity and, in the long run, his house, because there was no way he could afford to make payments on it and Rodney had no reason to give him any extensions now that they weren't together anymore, but he'd also cost him his oldest and best friend. The only reason he didn't cut Laura off as well was because without someone to help him he was basically a shut-in until the cast came off, but even their interactions were cold and distant once she'd realized she wasn't going to be able to talk him out of his decision.

Within a week he was climbing the walls with loneliness he'd never experienced so acutely before because you couldn't miss what you'd never had.

"You do realize you're being an idiot again," Nick asked, inviting himself onto John's front porch as if nothing had happened, as if they were still on speaking terms.

"And you do realize that I have nothing to say to you," John replied coldly, torn between unacknowledged relief that Nick didn't seem to be paying him any mind, and the same righteous anger he'd felt since he'd found out.

"Yeah, well I have plenty to say to you, so I guess that works out okay." Nick replied, pushing himself up to sit on the porch railing and then making a liar of himself by not speaking further.

John glared at him and Nick had the decency to look slightly sheepish.

"Look," he said. "I'm sorry about the foreclosure thing; maybe I shouldn't have told Rodney about it, but what did you want me to do? Let them throw you out of your house?"

"You didn't have any reason to worry. I wouldn't have imposed on you and Laura."

Nick swallowed, hard, and looked away. When he looked at John again his eyes were hard, and his expression furious. "Yeah, John, that's why I did it. Nothing to do with the fact that Rodney would do anything for you-"

"That's what makes it so bad," John interrupted, oddly grateful for the chance to explain how right he was. "Do you know how much I owed?" He didn't wait for the answer in case it was yes; he didn't think he could cope with that. "Forty grand. I can't repay that."

"I don't think he wants you to repay it."

"What?" John retorted, aware that he was losing the upper hand by raising his voice but unable to stop himself. "So I just get to be, what? His whore, his kept man?"

Just to throw gas on the fire of his anger, Nick laughed. "Am I a whore?" he asked, head cocked to one side, and apparently genuinely amused by the idea, not that John was falling for it.

"It's not the same," John muttered.

"Why not? Laura earns more than me now."

"You're setting up in business, sorting the house out, it's a temporary thing."

Nick smiled, self-deprecatingly. "Yeah, okay, John, whatever," he said.

"I'll bet you don't owe Laura forty thousand bucks."

"I don't owe Laura anything. It's not a loan, John, it's called 'being in a relationship'." Nick pushed himself off the porch railing and stood with a sigh. "That's how it works. You share the good times and the shitty times and what's hers is mine and what's mine is hers."

"I get that," John said, although he didn't, not really. "But forty thousand bucks is a lot of money."

"Yeah, to you and me. I don't think it's that big a deal to Rodney, though. I think he thought he could help, so he helped."

"He's a vet, Nick, not a drug lord or an investment banker."

Nick quirked another smile at him then. "Do you guys actually talk to each other at all?" he asked. "Or is it all fucking and fighting with you?" John felt the blush rise up his throat and Nick must have seen it too, because he laughed. "Sorry, my mistake. Holding hands and fighting, whatever you kids are calling it these days."

That had been the last straw, the idea that Nick and Rodney had not only plotted behind his back to humiliate him, but that they had secrets, that they were laughing at him, like he really was some kind of dumb gigolo. He threw himself out of his chair, just managing not to trip over the cumbersome weight of his cast, and lunged for Nick, who sidestepped with the grace of the fully able-bodied. He held out an arm to stop John from falling over, and that was the final nail in the coffin of John's dignity.

"You know what," he spat, wrenching himself away from Nick's support as soon as he was able. "Fuck you. You and your wife and your perfect family, and your easy fucking life."

Nick just looked at him, and that made John even angrier. He felt like a joke, like everyone in the world was laughing at him, and Nick patiently standing in front of him waiting for him to get it all out of his system was easily the most infuriating thing he had ever experienced. He swung again, less wildly because he'd learned his lesson about balance, but Nick still avoided the punch easily.

"Okay fine," Nick said. "You want to go a round with me, we can do it when your cast's off, and I'll kick your ass just the same, because I'm right about this."

"You're not right. You betrayed me, you betrayed my trust. Both of you did."

"Jesus, John, can you even hear yourself?" Nick asked. "You sound like a romance novel heroine."

"I can't believe you would do this to me," John said, quieter now, some of his fury abating. "I can't believe you would do this to me."

"Because I knew your dad? This is not the same-"

"Because I only sponge off people who can afford it? Or because he didn't sleep with his creditors?"

"Oh, yeah, because I'd forgotten that you only started fucking him because he's seriously loaded."

"Look, I know he works very hard and-"

Nick cut him off, with a smile and a shake of his head that John couldn't interpret. "No, no, you don't get it. He doesn't have to work at all. That's how loaded."

"Oh God," John breathed, feeling like all the strength had gone out of him. "Now I can't go back. If Rodney ever found out that I knew-"

"You really hadn't talked about this?" Nick asked, disbelievingly, and John shook his head.

"I don't see how it would have come up. Oh hey Rodney want to come over for dinner Friday and we can compare bank balances?" He eased himself back into his chair because he didn't feel like his legs would hold him up any longer.

Nick sat himself on the other chair and leaned forward. "You never talked about what he did before he came here?"

"No. I know he was working in Toronto."

"Well, yeah, but not as a vet. Apparently he invented the software program most vets use in their offices. The ones they had before were so complicated that only the most intelligent people, by which I think he meant him, could use them. This one's supposed to be intuitive enough that anyone can use it. It's made him a small fortune."

"So why come here? And why'd you have to tell me? He'll think I only went back because of the money if he knew that I knew."

"Yeah, or he'd think you'd decided to behave like a grown up for a change. I don't think it's a secret, John, he told Laura. As for why go back to vet practice and why come here, I think you should ask him." Nick got to his feet and smiled. "I think I know why he stayed."

It took John most of the rest of the day to work up the courage to go and see Rodney because he really had no idea how to say he was sorry. Laura was on duty, and gave him a sympathetic look that just made him all the more afraid that he was wasting his time.

"Does he have an open appointment?" John asked, and it had sounded so much cooler in his head.

"Oh for God's sake John, you don't need an appointment," she said, opening the counter door so she could herd him through to the back office just as Rodney came striding out into the waiting room.

He looked terrible. Pale and drawn, and John could tell by the dark circles under his eyes that he hadn't been sleeping. "Oh," Rodney said, catching sight of John, and he looked like he might just tail turn and run back the way he'd come. "Oh, um."

"Hi," John said, as casually as he could.

"Hi." Rodney tried a tiny smile, but John could see he was wary, and he felt guilty for having caused that, but he didn't know what to say to make it go away. He let the silence run on until it was excruciating.

"You have to promise not to buy me any more houses," he said.

"Okay," Rodney said, smiling a little more and nodding. "What about us?"

"Well, that's what I mean," John said, confused. "I'd like to give 'us' another try, but-"

"Yes, yes, I got that. What about buying us a house?"

"Oh," John said. He thought this might be a test, but then he didn't think Rodney was that kind of devious, so maybe it was a genuine offer. Either way he had no idea what to say, so he settled for repeating himself. "Oh."

Rodney blinked and nodded, tiny tight movements, then looked away. "Um, yes, of course," he said. "I...sorry...I just..."

"I have nothing to contribute," John said, a little coldly, because he'd really hoped it might not just be him who'd learned something about relationships. "Even if I sold the house you bought me, I don't think...well, of course you know how little it's worth, because you bought it."

"I really am sorry about that," Rodney said, gesturing anxiously with his hands. "Which isn't to say that I wouldn't do it again, but I would have talked to you about it, tried to make you realize that I wasn't trying to buy you. I was just trying to give you some space, while you were getting better, and it's really not as if-"

"It's fine," John conceded. "I was a little freaked out, but you have to understand that I've always promised myself I wouldn't get into debt, not with anyone important to me. I watched my parents do that, watched it lose them their friends, and I didn't want to be like them, crawling from person to person asking for handouts and loans that everyone knew would never get repaid."

"You didn't ask me for anything," Rodney said. "I don't want you to ever feel you have to."

"I think if you'd told me what you planned I would have tried to talk you out of it," John said, because he had no idea how to respond to what Rodney had just suggested, even though he knew it amounted to 'what's mine is yours'.

"I'm sure you would have tried," Rodney said, with a smirk. "I also don't think you've actually seen me at my most stubborn yet, and I thought you had better things to be concentrating on at the time. I thought you'd be pleased not to have to worry about it while you were injured."

There followed a silence, but it was almost comfortable, or at least John thought the potential for comfortable silence was present. He wondered, for the first time, how Rodney must have felt to have had such a generous gift thrown back in his face.

"So have you seen a house you want to buy us?" John asked, carefully casual in his tone, and Rodney looked at him for a long and uncomfortable moment.

"Kind of," he said, equally careful. "I haven't put an offer on it or anything, because I get that I'm supposed to ask you first, that you don't like surprises." John raised an eyebrow. "There's a cattle farm up for sale, about three miles up the road from Nick and Laura's place. They haven't been able to sell it as a going concern, and I guess you might not need all of it, but we could always sell some of it off later, or keep rescued animals in it that come in via the practice, and obviously this is only if you like the place, and I want you to be honest, and if it's not what you imagined, or what you wanted-"

"Rodney," John warned.

"What? Yes, yes, sorry. I thought it might make a decent place for your stud farm."

He swallowed nervously, looking at John with a crooked smile and fidgeting with his hands. John was too shocked to say anything for a moment or two, because it really wasn't every day that someone went ahead and just handed you all your dreams on a plate, and in the time it took him to process his tumultuous thoughts Rodney's face had fallen.

"You want to buy me a stud farm?" John said, cautiously, as though Rodney might have been joking.

"Us," Rodney said, "although, if you really can't stand the idea, and I suppose it might make our relationship a little obvious-"

"Do you want to live on a stud farm?"

"I want you to be happy," Rodney said, like it was really that simple. "I've been looking ever since the first time you told me about it, because I really don't know what to do with my money, and you looked so...I think that was when I fell in love with you really, although I didn't realize it until much later, but listening to you talk about your plans made me want to help you make them happen."

"Okay," John said, but Rodney just continued to look at him, hopeful but wary.

"Okay as in...?" he prompted.

"As in okay you can buy us a stud farm, and okay I'll move in with you."

"Are you sure?" Rodney asked, and John was surprised to find that he was, even if he was a little nervous, he was definitely sure. "You're not going to freak out on me again?"

"I can't promise that," John said, "And I want to see all the financial stuff, and contribute what I can, but yeah. I probably will freak out later," he warned. "Because this is, this is just-"

"A lot to take in?" Rodney suggested.

"It's everything I've ever wanted," John agreed. "And a few things I didn't even realise I wanted." Rodney's brow creased in a frown, and John could almost see him going through a check list of everything John had said about his stud farm and failing to find anything that hadn't been in the plan. "I'm talking about you," he clarified, stepping forward and cupping the back of Rodney's neck, before pulling him in for a kiss he could only hope would tell Rodney the things he couldn't find the words for.