The apartment wasn't great--it was barely passable--and Rodney kicked himself again for not asking more questions upfront. "It was the best we could do on such short notice, so close to the start of the semester," Landry had said as he'd handed Rodney the key, looking a little apologetic.
Now Rodney could see why. Fourth floor, no elevator. A tiny bathroom, an old-fashioned kitchen. No garbage disposal. Radiator heat. Oh, God. He was going to freeze. If he didn't die of a heart attack on the stairs.
It wasn't shabby, by any means. It was freshly painted, and the hardwood floors had been refinished sometime recently, and the windows looked new, but it was far from the spacious living quarters he'd been hoping for. There wasn't even a spare room for an office, which seemed completely ridiculous when choosing an apartment for a professor.
This was all Carter's fault, Rodney fumed as he huffed up the stairs with yet another box of books (he'd limited himself to only two hundred, seeing as how he was only going to be here for a few months). He was her first choice for a replacement, Landry had said, and Rodney had been so flattered--and so eager to have Samantha Carter owe him one--that he'd agreed without hesitation. It was an easy gig, only two classes, only one semester. Just long enough for Carter to recover from what was rumored to be a very gruesome accident that proved your mother was right when she told you to look both ways before crossing the street.
There wasn't much he could do about the situation, though. She was laid up and Rodney was teaching her classes, and he'd have to live here while he did it.
One really inconvenient thing about the college area of any town was that it was always, unfailingly, near the dangerous part of town, and the two tended to bleed over into one another. Rodney's apartment seemed to be near the border of the two, which was another reason to hate it.
The one plus about the neighborhood was the coffee shop across the street, wittily named Fuel, which was open both early and late, and served real food, like sandwiches and chili and soups, plus some other things Rodney would never touch, like vegetarian meatloaf (WHY?!?). There was a Vietnamese place down the street, a pizza place one block over, and a grocery store with a killer deli about a mile away. He wasn't going to starve, and for that he was grateful.
He tried to remember that the next morning as he clomped down the stairs, laptop banging against one leg, overloaded briefcase tenderizing the other.
When he got to the entryway, the door stuck, so he gave it a mighty shove and burst from the building, nearly careening right across the sidewalk and into the street. And wouldn't that be hilarious, considering why he was here in the first place.
When he came home that evening, the storefront that occupied a large portion of the first floor was lit up, the door standing open, and Rodney actually gave it a close look for the first time. He'd seen it closed and dark, and assumed it was unused, but now he noticed there was a faded, hand painted sign above the door that said "Junk Cheap."
As he passed by, he saw a jumble of old toys in the window, next to several dozen sets of salt shakers. Great. A resale shop. Probably carted in loads of stuff from the houses of dead senior citizens, infested with fleas and lavender sachet. It made him itch just thinking about it.
The store was dark again in the morning when he left for work. The sign on the door proclaimed the hours to be "open sometimes, closed sometimes."
Exactly the level of motivation that led one to a career in a junk shop, Rodney thought, and carefully crossed the street to get some coffee and a muffin.
Rodney had no intention of getting to know his neighbors. His neighbors, sadly, had different ideas. At the end of his first week in the apartment, a mob of them--average age about seventy-five, he estimated--appeared at his door bearing a smelly candle (lemon, of all things), a plate of brownies, and a welcome card. They overstayed their welcome and drank the last of his coffee, and he wasn't sad to see them go.
The brownies were excellent, though. If he could find the time, he thought it might be worth it to befriend Phyllis and see if he could get more.
As it turned out, finding the time to see the old people wasn't going to be a problem. They were home all the time and seemed to lie in wait for him. Try as he might, it was impossible to make it to his apartment door, no matter how quietly he tiptoed, no matter how late or early he came home, without being spotted and corralled into helping someone with something.
He took Gloria's mail down to the post office, cleaned the spyware off Ernst's computer, emptied Phyllis's trash, and carried about six hundred bags of groceries up the stairs, all over the course of only one week.
The guy who lived in the only apartment on the first floor seemed to be the only other person in the building who wasn't collecting Social Security. Rodney had only caught a glimpse of him one morning, a red sweatshirt and hairy legs vanishing out the front door. He always chained his bike to the banister in the foyer, which made the stair climbing even more annoying, and Rodney hated him and his bike and his hairy legs.
Early in the third week, Rodney's bathroom faucet started leaking. It started as a barely noticeable plop, but picked up tempo and volume rapidly until it reached Chinese Water Torture levels of annoyance. Pretty soon it was keeping him up all night, being conveniently located directly on the other side of the wall from his bed.
That was when he realized he had no idea who his landlord was. He didn't have a copy of the lease, and the rent got dropped into an ancient post box mounted on the wall on the first floor, checks made out to the building name.
He tried to call Landry, but he was out of town at some conference, and not expected back for several days. Rodney detailed his problem for the bored receptionist, but could tell from the tone of her voice that she wasn't going to go out of her way to get his faucet fixed.
Ernst helpfully supplied the name and number of "the fella who used to come and check on the place," which led to a painfully awkward phone call with said fella's widow. Her husband had been the caretaker, she told him, but that had been more than ten years ago, and she didn't remember anything about the owner of the building.
When he came home that night, Junk Cheap's door was propped open, so he stepped inside. It was pretty much what he'd expected: piles of old crap nobody wanted or needed. The walls were lined with shelves, each one heavily packed with tattered books, hideous knickknacks, and dented cookware. Sagging wooden bins held records, and there was a pile of what looked like bicycle parts on a crooked folding table.
A huge, battered wooden desk stood sentry by the door, holding up the feet of the guy sitting behind it.
"Hey," the guy said. His hair was messy and his clothes were wrinkled, but he was younger than Rodney had expected a junk shop guy to be, and surprisingly attractive. He was reading a men's fitness magazine from the 1950s, and one of his red Converse tennis shoes had a rip in the side. There was a half-eaten sandwich, what looked like a BLT, on a paper towel next to his feet, which explained why the place smelled a little like bacon.
"Yes, hi," Rodney said. "I live on the fourth floor, and I'm having a problem with my faucet--leaking horribly, keeping me up all night--and I was wondering, since I didn't rent the place myself and have no idea who to call, if you might know who the landlord is, or a maintenance person?"
The guy blinked at him. "You try replacing the washer?"
Rodney blinked back. "Why would I do that? That's not my responsibility. And I'm a professor, not a plumber."
The guy shrugged. "Yeah, but if it keeps you awake. Seems like it might be easier to just take care of it."
"Thanks for your help," Rodney said snidely, turning to leave.
"No problem," the guy chirped, waving happily as Rodney's sarcasm obviously sailed right over his tousled head.
The next evening, Rodney stopped at the hardware store on his way home and bought a new washer, carefully tucking the receipt in his wallet so he could submit it to the landlord next month, along with his appropriately adjusted rent check.
It wasn't until he was standing at the sink, rolling up his sleeves, that he realized he had no tools.
Annoyed, he stomped back down the stairs to the junk shop. The tousled guy was in his usual place behind the desk, reading a vintage children's book called I Want To Be a Homemaker. A Johnny Cash record with an obvious warp in it crackled on a decrepit record player in the corner; the tousled guy was tunelessly humming along.
"I need a wrench," Rodney said.
The guy slowly, oh so slowly, picked up an old Niagara Falls postcard and marked his place--in a book that had about fifteen pages--and looked up at Rodney. "Can I help you?"
"I need a wrench," Rodney repeated through gritted teeth. "To replace the washer in my leaky faucet."
A few more valuable minutes of Rodney's life ticked by while the guy got up, lazily scratched his belly through his shirt, wandered over to an old dresser, and started digging noisily through the drawers. His tattered cargo pants were a little too big, and they slipped down when he squatted in front of the lowest drawer. His boxer shorts had little pictures of Homer Simpson on them.
"Here you go," he said, after an eternity. The wrench he handed Rodney was coated with rust and cobwebs.
"Wow, thanks," Rodney said, dangling it between thumb and finger. "How much for this beauty?"
"Go ahead and use it. Just bring it back when you're done," the guy said.
"Really? Are you sure you wouldn't like a deposit?" he asked, but once again the guy was immune to sarcasm.
"No, that's fine," he said earnestly. "Happy to help. My name's John." He took a second to swipe one dirty hand on his pants before holding it out for Rodney to shake.
"Dr. Rodney McKay." He shook John's hand in a way he hoped conveyed how very little he cared to make his acquaintance. "I'll be sure to bring this back as soon as possible."
"Take your time," John said, which didn't surprise Rodney at all. He probably had no clue the rest of the world didn't operate on the same frozen molasses schedule he did.
Wrench--or what passed for one--obtained, Rodney went back upstairs, fixed the faucet, got rust all over his hands and his clothes and the bathroom, and came back down to find Junk Cheap closed for the night.
Tossing the stupid wrench through the window really wasn't the best way to repay John's generosity, but that didn't mean Rodney didn't think about it.
He tried to return the wrench three times that week, carting it to and from work, sealed safely in a Ziploc bag to contain the rust flakes. Each time he passed by, Junk Cheap was closed.
On Friday, he was bumping his way down the stairs when the door to the first floor apartment opened, and there was John, eyes half open, hair even more fractious than usual, clutching a coffee mug. He was wearing a T-shirt that said "I Know What Boys Like."
Startled, Rodney stumbled as he reached the last stair. His briefcase banged into the front wheel of that blasted bike, ricocheting into his shin.
"Ow!" said Rodney.
"Hey, that's my bike!" said John.
He should have known, Rodney thought. He really should have known John was the annoying, hairy-legged bike guy.
"Your bike is in the way," he snapped. "And no doubt a safety hazard. I'm surprised the landlord hasn't told you to move it, though I imagine he's probably too busy acquiring skin cancer on some tropical island to worry about us, and speaking of which." He dug around in his briefcase. "Here's your wrench."
John stepped out into the hallway and took it, raising an eyebrow at the Ziploc bag. Through the open door, Rodney could see a tattered orange sofa and a lamp that should have been tossed in a landfill in 1970. His apartment looked just like Junk Cheap, really, right down to the crooked shelves of ratty books.
John saluted Rodney with his coffee mug and went back inside, taking his cruddy wrench with him.
Rodney rubbed his sore shin and went to work and taught his classes, and the day was just like any other, except for the amount of time he spent thinking about the fact that John knew what boys liked.
On Monday evening Rodney was on the third floor landing--climbing the stairs was getting easier every day, he had to admit--when he heard the echo of a familiar voice in the stairwell. He paused and peeked around the corner, looking down the hall just in time to see John coming out of Phyllis's apartment.
Carrying a toolbox and a plate of cookies.
"Thank you so much, dear," Phyllis said, chucking him under the chin. "That leaky pipe was keeping me up all night."
John grinned like the idiot he no doubt was and mumbled, "You're welcome." He hefted the plate. "And thanks for the cookies. Chocolate chip's my favorite."
Rodney ducked behind the wall as John turned toward the stairwell, hustling up to the next landing before he stopped to look again. He leaned over the railing just in time to see John headed back down the stairs, whistling a happy tune as he carted away his booty, the rat bastard.
Over the next two weeks, Rodney saw John and his toolbox come out of no less than four different apartments, one time clutching what appeared to be an entire angel food cake. If he wasn't the official maintenance guy, he was obviously the de facto one, and he was doing a brisk trade in baked goods.
Rodney hadn't seen so much as a crumb of Phyllis's brownies since that first week, even though he'd helped her carry her groceries--cantaloupes and gallons of milk!--up the stairs on several different occasions. And John hadn't even offered to fix Rodney's leaky faucet. Sure, it was probably pretty obvious from the steady stream of delivery guys beating a path to Rodney's door that he wasn't much of a cook, but John could have at least mentioned he knew his way around a tool box and was willing to work for bakery. Rodney knew how to buy bakery.
Twice he saw John in the hallway in the morning, propped in the doorway of his cluttered apartment, sipping at his coffee.
"Morning!" John said cheerfully, each time.
Rodney muttered back at him, and once banged his briefcase into John's precious bike on purpose.
Rodney was right in the middle of giving the pink-haired girl his order when he had a revelation. He'd been working on a very lucrative consulting job for a week or so, and something about the schematics had bugged him from the beginning, something he couldn't put his finger on at first. But right there in the middle of Fuel, he suddenly realized what it was, and just as suddenly figured out the solution.
He was normally a to-go guy, but he didn't want to wait another second (sadly, brilliant ideas could sometimes be fleeting), so he paid for his food and settled in at one of the tiny, wobbly tables. It was still early in the evening, and the clove-smoking poetry writers hadn't showed up yet, so all in all it wasn't too bad, though the music was too loud, as usual.
He was deep in concentration, and marveling at his own brilliance, when someone suddenly pulled the other chair out and sat down at his table.
He looked up, indignant, ready to tell the interloper to scram. "Oh, it's you," he said.
"Hey, Rodney," John said.
"What are you doing here?" Rodney asked, going back to his brilliant idea. He should charge extra for it, he thought. It was that good.
"At my table?"
John slouched down and hooked his thumbs in the belt loops of his jeans. He tipped his head toward the room at large and said, "Looks like."
Rodney looked around. The place had gotten busy while he'd been working. The other tables were all full.
"Hmm. Well. You can sit here if you don't bother me," Rodney said, as the pink-haired girl walked up with his muffaletta and root beer. She had John's food, too, and Rodney was appalled to see he had ordered what appeared to be a vegetarian burger, complete with fake bacon and vegan cheese.
"I thought you ate animals," Rodney said.
"Then why are you eating that?"
"It's good," John said, picking it up with both hands.
"I highly doubt that," Rodney said, suppressing a shudder as some type of fluid dripped out of the burger and onto the plate.
"Wanna bite?" John jabbed it at Rodney's face, as if he were serious. "C'mon. It's good."
Rodney recoiled. "God, no. What's that made from? Weeds? Grass clippings?"
"Soybeans, I think." He took a huge bite, following it with a handful of potato chips.
"Three kinds of meat," Rodney said proudly, holding up his own sandwich. "With real cheese."
John, undeterred, took another huge bite.
Once they dug in to their food, Rodney tried to focus on his work and his sandwich, but no matter how much he tried to concentrate on his notes, his eyes kept wandering upward to look at John instead. John, busy eating, didn't seem to notice the attention.
He wasn't as young as Rodney had initially thought; there were fine lines around his eyes that crinkled when he smiled, and flecks of gray at his temples. They were maybe about the same age, Rodney guessed, though who knew, really, considering how much damage John had undoubtedly done to his skin by spending too much time in the sun. He was definitely tanned--Rodney could see the white skin under his shirt sleeve when he reached for his drink.
His ears were oddly pointy, and his eyes were an interesting hazel color, but it was his lower lip was the most distracting of all, and he kept drawing attention to it by licking it after each bite. He really was ridiculously good-looking.
And getting harder to ignore.
Especially when he kept pressing his knee against Rodney's under the table.
Given his ongoing fixation on repairs, it was perhaps inevitable that one Saturday morning the hot water handle in the shower came right off in Rodney's hand.
He grabbed a towel and went straight to John's apartment, pounding on the door until his towel almost came off. He tucked it a little tighter and kept pounding.
John answered the door in only his boxer shorts, and it immediately dawned on Rodney that they didn't have one decent set of clothes between them. John looked awfully good in his underwear, rubbing his sleepy face. Good enough that just the sight of him was giving Rodney certain urges, and that was bad news. Very bad news. He was the junk shop guy, for God's sake.
John actually looked pleased to see him, eyes widening a little as they slid up and down Rodney's mostly-naked body. "Hey, Rodney." He stepped back and opened the door a little more, an invitation that made Rodney's stomach flip.
Rodney's stomach was a traitor.
He had never had a taste for rough trade, never seen the appeal. And John was so far below him--intellectually, financially, professionally--that it was doomed to be a short affair, with the annoying consequence of having to see him in the building constantly after it ended. He wasn't going there, literally or figuratively.
He stood his ground, clutching his towel like a life preserver, and held up the hot water handle. "My shower broke. I need you to fix it."
John gave him a look of bewildered innocence. "Me?"
"Drop the charade, Brando. I know you've been fixing everyone else's stuff the whole time."
Surprisingly, John gave up the pretense immediately. "Okay. I'm not gonna do it for free, though," he said, grinning.
"Oh, of course not," Rodney said. "A man who's content to sit around in a junk shop all day for a net profit of fifty-four cents obviously knows the value of his time."
John nodded. "Exactly."
"Exactly." When John just stood there, Rodney shifted back and forth on his feet and said, "I meant…can you fix it right now?"
John smiled and shook his head, obviously enjoying himself. "We didn't agree on a price."
"I can't bake, but I can buy you breakfast," Rodney offered.
"Deal," John said.
He appeared at Rodney's door a few minutes later, wearing more clothing but still looking adorably mussed. Rodney got out an extra coffee mug and ran across the street for two orders of huevos rancheros while John fixed the shower.
They ate at the kitchen table, and this time there was no computer between them, so small talk--never Rodney's specialty--was unavoidable. He was mildly surprised to find the conversation wasn't painfully stilted or completely asinine. John even expressed interest in Rodney's field of expertise, and seemed to know a little bit about astrophysics himself, no doubt from reading old issues of Popular Science in the junk shop.
The most interesting thing he let slip, though, was that he'd been in the military. That probably explained the heavy-duty slacker lifestyle, Rodney thought. Making up for lost time, all that following orders and shining boots.
All those repressed homosexual desires.
When they were done eating, John helped him clean up. They stood at the sink, Rodney washing and John drying, bumping shoulders, fingers brushing as the dishes were handed off. Once that was finished, John hung around, wiping the table and rinsing every last soap bubble out of the sink, obviously stalling. Rodney busied himself with shoving the carryout containers in the trash, but once that was done, there wasn't anything else he could pretend to concentrate on, and they both knew it.
John leaned against the kitchen counter, hands in his pockets, hips tilted forward just enough to be distracting, and didn't say a word. As they stared at each other, Rodney was acutely aware that if he wanted to have sex with John right now, he could.
He was also acutely aware he hadn't bathed in over twenty-four hours, and that he'd already sworn he wasn't going to go down this road.
"I should shower," he said, gesturing over his shoulder, toward the bathroom.
"Yeah, you should," John said through a slow and lazy smile.
"I'll guess I'll see you around, then," Rodney said, voice suddenly gone a little reedy. "Since we live in the same building and all."
If John was disappointed, it didn't show. He grabbed his toolbox off the counter. "Oh, I'm sure you will," he said, and Rodney could have sworn he smirked at him on his way out the door.
"John insisted we invite you," Gladys said, practically man-handling Rodney out of his coat. "He said you would appreciate a home-cooked meal."
"Oh, he did, did he?" Rodney said, shooting a black look at John, who grinned and waved at him. He was lounging in the recliner with Gladys's fluffy white cat in his lap. "I'll have to remember to thank him."
They were old people, frail and befuddled, and yet they constantly got the best of Rodney. So here he was, on his one afternoon a week when he got home early, railroaded into having dinner with the old folks. And he'd been so close to safety when Phyllis had waylaid him in the hallway. His key had been in the deadbolt and everything.
Gladys shooed him into the living room, where Rodney accidentally brushed against a table, messing up one of the eight hundred crocheted doilies covering every flat surface in the apartment. When he tried to straighten it, he yanked it too hard and knocked over a terrifying Precious Moments figurine, which thankfully didn't shatter.
Once he'd fumbled everything back to rightness, he turned to glare at John and the cat, who were both watching him with an air of bemused superiority. "Shut up," he said, even though John hadn't said a word. The cat yawned.
"How's your shower?" John asked. "Still working okay?"
"Fine, fine, thank you," Rodney said, watching the cat roll on its back for a belly rub, purr running at full throttle. He really missed having a cat. "Give me that," he said, walking over and scooping the cat out of John's lap. As he gathered it up, his fingers grazed John's legs, and even with that glancing contact, Rodney could feel that the muscles in John's thighs were like iron. Rodney thought of the bicycle, and how he probably had a lot of strength and stamina and...
And he was not going there, Rodney reminded himself.
"His name's Roger," John said, nodding at the cat as he brushed a pound of cat hair off his pants. "He sheds a little."
"Was there something wrong with your shower?" Phyllis asked as she tottered over to a chair near the over-stuffed curio cabinet. "I had a pipe that leaked, until John fixed it for me."
"This whole building is probably one big plumbing nightmare," Rodney said as he hunted out a path through the jungle of fragile tables, tiny footstools, and rag rugs that littered the living room. Roger hung from his hands like an over-cooked noodle the whole time, still purring.
There was a reason the other two had chosen the chairs, Rodney realized, and that was because Gladys had the softest, squishiest couch Rodney had ever had the misfortune to sit on. He felt like he was bent in half, knees nearly hitting his chin, and his ass couldn't have been more than two or three inches above the floor. He was never going to be able to get up.
There was a commotion in the kitchen as Ernst arrived, with a twelve pack of what he called "beer" and what Rodney called "that godawful Miller Lite." He headed straight for Rodney, who was trapped in the couch and couldn't flee.
Ernst never could remember that Rodney was not a medical doctor, and Rodney was in no mood for another stomach-turning description of his latest skin lesion. By some stroke of luck, there was no mysterious growth this time, only a letter from Medicare that he swore wasn't really in English, because it didn't make any goddamn sense, and maybe Rodney could look at it for him after dinner and tell him what it meant.
Once Rodney agreed, Ernst passed around the beer, insisting both John and Rodney take one. Rodney opened his and took a sip--terrible--and then set it down on a doily, hopefully to be forgotten until he was long gone. John was either drinking his or doing a really good job of faking it.
Ernst and Phyllis got caught up on the neighborhood gossip, which required no input from Rodney, so he sat back with Roger draped languidly across his legs and let his mind wander. John was completely zoned out, watching Rodney's hand stroke the cat's back, seemingly hypnotized by the repetitious motion.
Dinner was served at 4:30pm on the dot, and getting out of the couch was just as hellish as Rodney had predicted. His spine made a grinding noise, and Roger got pinched between Rodney's stomach and legs, bolting with a pained meow. John finally came to the rescue, yanking him to his feet.
"Don't forget your beer," he said helpfully, as he turned and went into the kitchen.
"Oh, you need another?" Ernst asked. "They go down pretty easy this time of day, don't they?"
"They sure do," Rodney agreed. "Just like…water."
If the beer was a waste, at least dinner made up for it: tuna casserole, one of Rodney's favorites. Gladys made hers with lots of peas in it, and French fried onions on top. He had three helpings. John, who couldn't seem to sit up straight in a chair to save his life, sat next to him, and poked Rodney with his elbow every time he lifted his fork. Roger sat primly on the floor at Rodney's feet, silently willing him to drop a piece of tuna, and occasionally batting him with a paw.
Rodney fully expected the dinner conversation to revolve around backaches and world wars, and he wasn't far off the mark. The upside was that he had nothing to contribute to the conversation, and could eat uninterrupted. The downside was trying to choke down tuna casserole while three retirees talked about their bunions.
Dessert was date bars, and everyone enjoyed them with coffee while Rodney was hunched over Ernst's Medicare paperwork, thanking every available deity that he could escape back to Canada when he was old and gray, rather than navigating the American health care system. Given a choice, though, he wouldn't have traded places with John, who was nodding his way through a monologue about the Great Depression.
Before he knew it, it was all over and he was back out in the hallway, covered in cat hair and holding a plate of leftovers. It was only six o'clock, and normally Rodney would just be starting to think about what to have for dinner. It seemed odd to have a full belly and the whole evening ahead of him.
John came out behind him, carrying his own plate of leftovers, shoving one last date bar in his face. "That was good," he said. "I bet you're glad I told them to invite you."
"Believe me, I won't forget it," Rodney said, in an appropriately menacing tone.
They paused on the landing, mostly because John stopped walking and blocked Rodney's way. He had a splotch of tuna casserole on the front of his T-shirt. Rodney reached over and flicked it off.
John looked down at the spot. "Thanks."
"I'd advise you to treat that before you wash it, but on that shirt, I’m not sure anyone will notice."
"Hey, this shirt is new," John protested, plucking at it.
"New for you, you mean." There was no way the thing hadn't come from the junk shop. It had a picture of Pac-Man on it, for God's sake.
"That counts as new," John insisted. "I've only worn it twice."
"Right. Well, as much as I'd like to stand here in the stairwell and debate the point all night…" He waved a hand toward the stairs.
"It's still early," John said, pointedly.
Rodney looked at his watch, even though he knew exactly what time it was. "Yes, still plenty of time to get some work done," he said, even more pointedly, and brushed past John, intent on getting back to his apartment alone.
John was eating one of the date bars the next morning when Rodney saw him in the hallway.
"Hey, hold the door for me," he said, or at least that was what Rodney thought he said. It was hard to tell through all the dates.
"It's raining," Rodney pointed out, because John was headed out the door with his bike, and that just seemed foolish. "And you aren't wearing a helmet."
"I'm just going down to the post office," John said, flipping the hood of his sweatshirt up. He trotted down the stairs, bike bouncing beside him, and pedaled away before Rodney could chastise him again.
Rodney tried to shrug it off, but it wouldn't be shrugged, and he was more aware than ever of exactly how he'd come to have John for a neighbor in the first place. Cars were big and heavy and deadly, and people were soft and easily broken. Samantha Carter could vouch for that fact.
He had some time to kill while his 10am class sweated through a surprise quiz (yes, he was exactly that kind of professor), so he checked his email, and then somehow found himself researching bicycle accident statistics, which led immediately to checking prices on helmets. Like anything else, they had a pretty big price range, but even a cheap one would be better than nothing, he assumed. John probably didn't make much money off the junk shop, but surely he could afford to spend thirty bucks on some protection for his brain. There was even a model with a skull and crossbones pattern on it.
He finally decided he was obsessing, and made himself focus on other things, but he felt the smallest bit of relief when he got home and saw John's bike was back in its usual place, unscathed.
A couple of days later, Rodney was coming into the building when John's door banged opened and he burst out into the hallway, nearly giving Rodney a heart attack, though he supposed he should have been used to it by now, as often as John seemed to appear there when Rodney was coming and going.
"Hey," John said, "Can you help me with something?"
Since John lived on the first floor and did not appear to be in possession of any grocery bags full of cantaloupes, Rodney said, "Maybe. What?"
"My stupid computer--"
"You have a computer?" Rodney was shocked.
"Why wouldn't I have a computer?" John asked, frowning in confusion.
"I'm just sort of surprised to learn you own anything made after 1980, that's all."
John rolled his eyes. "Can you just look at my computer? Ernst said you helped him clean 'the spy robots' off his."
"You think you have spy robots?"
"I think I do, yeah."
"Well," Rodney said. "I don't work for free."
"I'm making dinner right now."
"Really? No one from the Denture Brigade feeding you tonight? No stockpile of delicious desserts in your apartment?"
"Nope. Making it all myself."
"I'm allergic to citrus and I don't eat anything pretending to be meat," Rodney felt compelled to specify.
"Okay, first of all," Rodney yelled, "you're using Internet Explorer? As far as I'm concerned, you deserve a crappy browsing experience."
In the kitchen, John hummed noncommittally in reply and turned on the faucet. He seemed to be running the water a lot, especially when Rodney started shouting things at him from the spare bedroom.
It took a while for John to finish making dinner, so after he got rid of the spyware, Rodney spent some time installing Firefox and cleaning up the desktop. Then he wandered around, looking at all the weird stuff in John's apartment. His love of kitsch was extreme, even for a gay man, and he had an insane number of candles. While John was setting the table, Rodney checked to make sure the little red light on the smoke detector was blinking, just in case.
Dinner turned out to be excellent. Lasagna--made with real meat--and a huge, greasy, dripping loaf of garlic bread, and Rodney wasn't forced to waste one millimeter of stomach space on salad. Contrary to what his unfortunate menu choices at Fuel suggested, John knew how to make a good meal.
Talk over dinner was about movies, mostly. Which franchise had the best overall quality, which one had taken the biggest nosedive, and which James Bond was the best.
They stumbled to the orange couch afterwards, Rodney still clutching his napkin, and--inspired by the dinner conversation--watched Goldeneye. John started out sitting on the opposite end of the couch, but seemed to sort of melt over into Rodney's personal space as the movie progressed. Rodney tried to ignore him, and think about how hairy his legs were, instead of how pretty his mouth was.
John got up after the movie and banged around in the kitchen some more, and pretty soon the sweet, sweet smell of coffee drifted into the living room. A few minutes later, Rodney had a cup of coffee in one hand and a chocolate cupcake in the other.
"Ohmahgah," Rodney said through a mouthful of cupcakey heaven. "So good."
"Mmmm," John said, closing his eyes and dragging his tongue through the frosting on his cupcake. Rodney had paid for porn only half that good. "You want another one?"
Rodney thought about it as John finished his cupcake and licked his fingers. He wasn't really that interested in another cupcake, but the other thing he wanted was far more complicated. Despite his best intentions, his willpower was finite, and John had been steadily chipping away at it.
What the hell. The semester was up in a few weeks. He'd be moving out soon. "No," he said, then, "Come over here."
John was noisy. It was a good thing they lived in a building full of old people.
Rodney wasn't really sure why he was surprised to get a phone call from Landry the next day. It was exactly the sort of thing that would happen to him.
Carter needed another semester off. Rodney was staying. The arrangements had been made with both the university and the landlord, if he chose to accept the offer. Which he did, because he was not inclined to make dumb decisions regarding his career (except that one time).
The only sticking point--the one he did not discuss with Landry, obviously--was John. Instead of a short fling with a nice, clean ending, they were back to potential disaster and ongoing awkwardness.
On the other hand, Rodney had certainly left John's apartment that morning wanting more, and if John felt the same way, it could be a pleasant couple of months.
"I guess I'm not moving out until June," he told John the next night over barbecued ribs.
John licked the corner of his mouth and nodded. "Okay," he said, and that was that.
They didn't talk about it, but they kept seeing each other. At first they seemed to regularly find reasons to meet up a couple times a week and end up in bed, and that was fine with Rodney. Life was always better when it involved regular sex, and the odd threadbare T-shirt or pair of mismatched socks in his laundry basket was hardly a burden to bear in exchange for getting well and thoroughly laid.
The sex was good, and got better once they got past the awkward, exploratory stage. John didn't appear to have any weird kinks or fetishes; he just liked orgasms, and wasn't that picky about how he got them. He was more intense than Rodney had expected him to be, given his laid-back attitude toward life in general, but it had been a long time since Rodney had been to bed with someone as enthusiastic as John was, and he liked it, even if it sometimes left him feeling like he'd taken up professional wrestling.
Rodney had never been into strenuously athletic sex, but John was limber, a trait Rodney quickly grew to appreciate. John would say, "Here...let me...okay..." and bend his leg at some impossible angle, and Rodney would slide another half inch deeper and it was heaven. It was hard to argue with results like that.
The only sticking point was the shower, which Rodney considered a place where you got clean and John considered an extension of the bed. He liked to follow Rodney into the bathroom in the morning, but nothing killed Rodney's libido like being pressed up against ice cold tile. He tolerated it, though, because even though he preferred sex in comfortable places, he also really liked watching John jerk off, and he knew how quid pro quo worked.
Much to Rodney's relief, it turned out John's legs were just an anomaly. The rest of his body wasn't any hairier than any other man Rodney had slept with, and it was mainly just his lower legs, anyway. His thighs were...well, Rodney spent a good deal of time thinking about John's thighs. He had no complaints about them at all.
It got colder, and it snowed, and they started doing things that would probably be considered dates, like going out to dinner and visiting museums. John had his own things he did, but mostly he seemed to bum around, except for the few hours a week he spent in the junk shop. He knew where all the good bookstores were, where the best parking was at the aquarium, and which movie theater served beer and pizza.
Rodney was obviously new to the city, and it was nice to have someone who knew all that stuff, even though it meant tolerating the inevitable give and take of interests. As long as they got to stop at Apple so Rodney could moon over all the latest products, he was willing to stand around in the Yankee Candle store for a while, trying not to sneeze.
Stinky candles aside, Rodney was relieved to discover he really enjoyed John's company. He could be a wiseass (the sarcasm immunity he'd displayed in the beginning turned out to be a form of wiseassery in itself--John was pretty much a constant source of sarcastic comments), and his taste in television was execrable, but he knew how to bicker without turning it into a fight, and didn't get all bent out of shape when Rodney unintentionally insulted him.
They usually stayed at Rodney's place, because John's mildewy books made Rodney sneeze, and because John's mattress was a nightmare (also, Rodney was secretly convinced it was second hand and that someone had probably died on it). It didn't take long for the busybodies in the building to figure out what was going on. They had no hesitation about knocking on Rodney's door if they were looking for John, which was how Rodney ended up coming out of the bathroom stark naked one morning to find Gladys in his kitchen, describing her clogged drain to John in excruciating detail.
"Man, Gladys sure can scream," John said after she left, rubbing his ear and grimacing.
"That wasn't Gladys," Rodney said.
Neither of them had plans for Thanksgiving, so they cobbled together a passable dinner, complete with pie, built around a pre-cooked turkey they picked up at the catering place down the block. It wasn't Rodney's holiday, technically, but he was fond of any day that revolved around eating, and he had a deep love of mashed potatoes.
Some of the old folks didn't have anywhere to go, which meant John invited them, too. Phyllis brought a chocolate pie, and Ernst brought a bottle of Mogen David, and they all crowded around Rodney's kitchen table while John carved the turkey with surprising skill.
Rodney wasn't paying much attention, so he would never be able to explain how it happened, even under threat of pain and torture, but one minute he was going for another spoonful of green been casserole, and the next minute Phyllis said the words "gay marriage."
Ernst went into an immediate uproar, banging his fork on the table. John was cringing next to Rodney, who was trying not to drop his entire plate into the cranberry sauce.
"Um..." John said, intelligently, before giving up and reaching for the gravy instead.
Rodney decided to concentrate on his meal and act deaf.
"I told Gene down at the bowling alley," Ernst said, loudly. "I says I know a couple of them queers, live in my building, and they're just like you and me. One of 'em is a doctor, and the other one fought for his country. I don't give a good goddamn what they do to each other in the privacy of their own bedroom."
"Well, uh, thanks," John said, as Rodney coughed up a piece of sweet potato.
"I think it would be nice if you boys could get married," Phyllis said.
"Gaakak!" Rodney said. John started pounding on his back, really whacking him, until Rodney pushed him away, gasping. "Breaking my spine won't help, thank you."
"Drink some water, dear," Phyllis said, pushing her glass toward him.
"Damn politicians. It's nobody's business," Ernst declared, hacking viciously at a piece of turkey with his knife.
"I heard we're supposed to get more snow tomorrow," John said, looking desperate. "Lots and lots of snow."
Phyllis's chocolate pie was excellent, and she left the remainder behind when she went home. A desirable trait in a dinner guest, in Rodney's opinion. Ernst left the rest of the wine, too, and Rodney dutifully accepted it, fully intending to serve it to him the next time he visited.
After everyone was gone, Rodney finally collapsed onto the couch, stuffed to bloating.
"I heard you're a queer," John said, sprawling beside him.
"I guess so. That was a first for me, being called a queer by a man old enough to be my grandfather."
"God, I'm so full, I think I'm going to pass out."
They dozed in front of the television for a bit, avoiding the clean-up duties waiting for them in the kitchen. When he regained some lucidity, Rodney tried to grade some papers, but it was slow going. John slumped beside him, eyes glued to a football game, a familiar, pliant weight against his arm. It gave Rodney a warm and fuzzy feeling, like eating French toast usually did. Domesticity had its advantages.
Reality set in again the next morning when John plied him with warm donuts and fresh coffee before hitting him up for help re-stocking the shop. Rodney was caught off guard and with a mouth full of jelly donut, and John seemed to take his muffled protests as a yes.
John kept all his spare junk in what had once been another apartment on the first floor, and when he needed to restock the store, he just went in and picked out some stuff. Rodney knew about it, but had never been inside.
"Holy crap," he said, when John opened the door and turned on the light. It looked like the kind of place you'd see on the news, after someone realized the crazy old hermit with the hoarding problem was dead. "Is it safe to be in here?"
"Why wouldn't it be safe?" John asked. He turned sideways and started edging between two teetering stacks of boxes. Within seconds he'd disappeared completely.
"Well, we could get crushed by a falling tower of National Geographic, for one thing." The place was full almost to the ceiling, precariously crooked piles of stuff everywhere. "Ew. Is that a real squirrel?" he asked, inching away from the taxidermy nightmare perched on top of an old exercise bike.
"What?" John yelled, from somewhere.
"Never mind!" Rodney yelled back.
There was some rustling and some grunting, and then John crawled out from under a table loaded with ice skates. He was clutching a bulging plastic trash bag. "I knew it was back there somewhere," he said, getting to his feet. His hands and knees were dusty.
"Do I want to know what's in there?"
"Clothes," John said. He grabbed a cardboard box and began filling it with the ice skates. "Can you get some records off that shelf?"
Rodney looked where John was pointing. He had records, all right. Lots and lots of records. Ratt. Lawrence Welk. Patsy Cline. "Wow. Saturday Night Fiedler," Rodney said. "Hard to believe someone would give that up." He selected a hefty stack. "This enough?"
John looked over. "A few more. The bins are pretty empty."
This was what he got for not asking about heavy lifting ahead of time, Rodney thought. "Why does everyone in this building always want me to carry their stuff around?" He added another couple inches of records. "If I hurt my back, you're on massage duty."
"I'm always on massage duty."
"I didn't mean that kind of massage."
"I like that kind of massage."
"So do I," Rodney said, before he could stop himself. "God, we're having one of those cutesy couple conversations," he groaned, then seized up with alarm when he realized he'd just referred to them as a couple. Phyllis's plans for their big gay nuptials aside, they'd never said one word to each other about the status of what was going on between them, and people could get weird about that kind of thing. In fact, Rodney himself had gotten weird about it on occasion, though this didn't appear to be one of those occasions. John struck Rodney as the kind of guy who would get very weird about it, though.
Rodney glanced over at him, but he didn't seem to be aware of anything unusual. He was still sorting through the skates, wearing a scrunched up thinky face expression that showed no signs that it had bothered him. He looked up when he felt Rodney watching at him. "What?"
"Nothing," Rodney said, and grabbed a few more records, back be damned.
The storage room wasn't the only thing John needed help with sometimes.
"I can't believe you're afraid of bugs."
"I had a bad experience," John said. He shivered delicately as the spider crept another millimeter closer. "Can you hurry up?"
"Moving as fast as I can here." Rodney ripped another foot of toilet paper off the roll and added it to the massive ball already in his hand. The trick was to get enough toilet paper between you and the bug so you wouldn't feel that awful crunch when you smooshed it. "You were in the military. Did they only send you places with no bugs?"
"I had other things to worry about."
Rodney approached the bathtub as stealthily as he could and then pounced, mashing the wad of toilet paper down on the spider and scooping it up.
"There. Dead," Rodney said, after flushing the whole mess down the toilet. John peered suspiciously into the toilet bowl. "It can't crawl back up," Rodney assured him.
"I think I'll run down and use my bathroom instead," John said, still eyeing the toilet nervously.
"Oh, for--no. No. You are using this bathroom, because you just made me come in here and kill that thing, so drop those pants, mister."
John smirked at him and reached for his zipper. "Now what?" he asked as he kicked his jeans aside.
That was sort of the way things went around Rodney's house, now. He didn't really mind.
Rodney wasn't at all sure what to do about Christmas. They'd already agreed to spend it together--John was either estranged from his family, or didn't have one at all. He never talked about it, and since Rodney was happy to leave his own familial status untouched, he didn't pry.
It was the presents that had him flummoxed. He assumed he should get John a gift, since they were obviously beyond the fuckbuddy stage. But what did you buy for a guy who already had an apartment full of stuff, and owned a store full of even more? And how much should he spend?
He'd just get something small and not too pricey, he told himself. He didn't want John to feel weird that he didn't have much money to spend on presents, or think Rodney was getting too serious. He wouldn't go overboard.
"Holy shit," John said when he unwrapped the iPod.
The flabbergasted look on his face made Rodney feel compelled to justify the purchase. "I thought you could use it when you ride your bike," he said. "And I thought you might like having something that hasn't already been owned by four other people."
John already had a sizeable pile of opened presents next to him, including several pairs of boxer shorts with crazy patterns on them. Those had been a hit. The skull and crossbones bicycle helmet had not been as well-received, but Rodney fully intended to make him use it.
"It plays videos, too," Rodney added, since John seemed too stunned to properly appreciate it.
"Holy shit," John said again.
"And I loaded it with some songs already." One hundred songs, hand-picked, and much agonized over while Rodney sat at the computer, iTunes in one window, a pet project in the other, in case John got curious.
"Oh, no," John said, looking at the iPod fearfully.
"Your gratitude is overwhelming," Rodney sniffed. "But don't worry, it's mostly digital versions of all that stuff you have on vinyl."
"Oh, okay," John said, with obvious relief. "That's awesome. Thanks."
"Though I did put a song or two on there I thought you might enjoy," Rodney admitted, his conscience getting the best of him.
John covered his face with his hands. "Not Celine Dion. Please, no."
"I only like that one song!" Rodney protested. "It's very uplifting."
"And I wish you hadn't told me. I have to mentally block it out, or my dick doesn't work."
"Your dick seems to work fine. Can I open my present now?"
Rodney only had one gift under the potted plant that was standing in for a Christmas tree, but it was a pretty big one. When he opened it up, it was his turn to be flabbergasted. Inside was a La Pavoni espresso machine.
"My God. I can't believe you...God."
It was on the tip of his tongue to ask how in the hell John could afford such a thing, but somehow--intervention by the Spirit of Christmas Tact, maybe--he stopped himself before he said the words.
"You like it?" John asked, but he was looking pretty damn smug. He knew he'd scored a home run.
"Oh, yes," Rodney breathed. While he was ripping the box open, John went into the kitchen and ferreted around in a cabinet above the fridge. "Ha! I knew I smelled espresso beans!" Rodney said when John dropped the bag in his lap. "You kept telling me I was nuts."
"You are nuts."
"Insult me all you want, I don't care. Help me get this thing out of the box."
Once they got all the packaging off, Rodney hefted the machine into his lap and just looked at it. "It's beautiful," he said, awed by how shiny and wonderful it was.
"Let's set it up," John said, pushing his way through an ocean of wrapping paper and broken Styrofoam to reach for it.
Rodney hugged it to his chest and stared at it some more. "And it makes eight espresso shots at a time," he said reverently.
"Hand it over, I'll plug it in." John tugged on it, but Rodney held on.
"Look at the chrome," he sighed, stroking the handle. It was perfect. Perfect. He'd never owned anything so perfect.
"I'm starting to feel a little jealous over here," John said.
"Hush. I just want to touch it a little longer."
"Your heart will go on. Gimme that thing." John got up on his knees and pried the machine from Rodney's arms, but before he could get away, Rodney grabbed his wrist and pulled him down into a quick kiss.
"Thanks," he said.
John smiled and kissed him back. "You're welcome."
Despite the persistent stereotype, John was the only guy Rodney had ever fucked who actually did fall asleep immediately after sex. Whenever they fooled around in the middle of the day, he always needed a nap afterwards. Rodney didn't care, because orgasms usually energized him, and he got a lot of stuff done while John snoozed in his bed.
He liked it, working in the quiet apartment, slouching into the couch cushions, putting his feet up on the coffee table, typing to the rhythm of John's soft snores. If he turned and looked over the top of the couch, he could usually catch a glimpse of John in the bed: dark hair against the white pillow, sticking up in all directions, or an out-flung arm, still tan from a summer on his bicycle.
If there was one thing as predictable as John's post-sex naps, it was that he was ravenously hungry when he woke up.
"Hey, how do you feel about sandwiches?" he asked, pulling on his sweatshirt. "I'll run down to the deli."
"Sounds good," Rodney said, typing away. "Get me a club, extra pickles--"
"And some coleslaw," John finished for him. "I know what you always get."
"Hmm. Yes, I suppose you do," Rodney said. He knew what John always got, too. Turkey, with mayo and lettuce. Possibly the most boring sandwich Rodney could imagine, but John seemed to love them.
John came up behind him, leaning over the back of the couch. "Watcha doin'?"
"Writing a letter to the landlord, asking him to send me an extra key to the apartment. I'm going to put it in the box with my rent and hope he reads it."
"Why do you need an extra key?" He walked away before Rodney could answer that, then came back and asked, "Have you seen my other shoe?"
"I think it's behind the bedroom door. And I need another key so I have a spare if I get locked out. What if I lose my keys? What if I get mugged and they run off with everything in my pockets?"
"Why don't you just have another one made?" John called from the bedroom, then said, "Found it!"
"Because I should have been provided with more than one when I moved in. It's standard procedure." He peeked over the couch, and was rewarded with a nice view of John's ass as he bent over to tie his shoe. "Honestly, the guy who owns this place is a poor excuse for a landlord."
"Give me your key," John sighed, coming back to the couch. "I'll stop at the hardware store and get a copy, if no one mugs me and steals the original on the way there."
Rodney fished around on the coffee table for his keys. It was lot more cluttered than it used to be, what with all the candles and sudoku books. "Here," he said when he found them. "Thanks." He turned back to his laptop. "And get one made for yourself, too," he said, then hunched his shoulders and stared hard at his computer screen. He waited for John to say something, but he didn't, and after a bit the door opened and closed, and he was gone.
When John came back with the food, Rodney saw there were two spare keys on his kitchen table. One was in the paper envelope from the hardware store. The other was on John's key ring.
As time went on, Rodney noticed that Junk Cheap's hours seemed to coincide with his own work schedule more often than not, and he got in the habit of stopping at the shop when he got home, standing around while John closed up.
March had come in more like a lion than ever, dumping several inches of snow on the city on an almost daily basis. It was all over his shoes and clinging to the cuffs of his pants when Rodney came into the store, stomping his frozen feet.
John was at his usual spot behind the desk. In a nod to winter weather, he'd traded his sneakers and T-shirts for battered boots and a godawful pea-green sweater with holes in the cuffs that he stuck his thumbs through. He was reading a book called Best Biker Fiction and slurping on a juice box.
"Expanding your horizons?" Rodney asked, keeping well away from the scary antique space heater that looked like it would burst into flames any second.
"Yeah. I'm thinking about buying a motorcycle," John said. "You wanna be my ol' lady?"
"Oh, God. You want a leather daddy, don't you? I knew it. It's a horrible look for me."
John waggled his eyebrows meaningfully. He had cobwebs in his hair and on his sweater, which meant he'd been digging around in the storage space again. He looked too good to resist, so Rodney rubbed the cobwebs out of his hair and kissed his forehead.
John smiled goofily, looking a little pink around the ears at the unusual public display of affection. Feeling a little pink himself, Rodney took a look around the shop so they wouldn't keep grinning at each other like loons.
It did appear there was a whole new wave of crap in the store. A couple customers, kids wearing spiked belts and patched jackets, were digging through the clothing racks in the back, delighted with the new stock.
"What do you want for dinner?" Rodney asked, wiggling his numb toes to generate a little warmth.
"I've got a pot of chili on the stove," John said. He tipped his head back to check the old cuckoo clock that hung on the wall behind him. It no longer cuckooed, but still kept time. "Should be almost done."
"Did you get sour cream and cheddar cheese?"
"Yep. And those little crackers."
"And beer." Excellent. "As soon as these guys are done, I'll close up."
Rodney stood around, fantasizing about big bowls of chili, while the kids finished searching for the ugliest and most eye-searing clothing items in the store. When they came up to the desk, John totaled their purchases up on the dilapidated adding machine that was only one step above an abacus--maybe only half a step, because the keys tended to stick.
As the customers were leaving, a skinny kid with bad acne brushed past them on his way in, leaving the door standing open.
"We're closing up," John said pleasantly as Rodney grumbled in the background. He was cold and hungry and...
The knife came out of nowhere, flashing as the kid held it up. "Gimme the money," he said.
John froze. Rodney gaped.
"Gimme the money!" the kid said again, louder and angrier.
Rodney couldn't help himself. "You're actually robbing this place?" He was aghast. "Are you stupid? It's not even worth your time. He keeps the money in a shoebox."
"Shut up!" the kid yelled, voice going screechy on the last syllable. The more he shouted, the redder the spots on his face got.
"Seriously, he makes about three dollars a day. Before taxes. Isn't there a gas station down the street?"
"Quiet, Rodney," John murmured.
The kid jabbed the knife at the air in front of Rodney's chin. "I said shut up!"
Rodney wasn't sure exactly what happened next, except that someone pushed him so he went sprawling on his belly right on the hideously dirty floor, and then the knife skittered past his nose. When he looked up, John had the kid in a lock, one arm across his throat, the other holding the kid's arms behind his back.
"Lemme go!" He tried to kick John, which only resulted in his leg flailing uselessly and hitting nothing. It would have been comical, if Rodney hadn't been scared shitless. John snarled and propelled them both forward, pinning the kid to the desk.
"This was a bad idea," John said through clenched teeth. His voice was low and raspy; he sounded like a completely different person. "A really, really bad idea."
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, just let me go," the kid begged. He stopped struggling and went limp against the desk, panting harshly.
Rodney lurched upright, patting himself hurriedly, checking for stab wounds--adrenaline could mask the pain until it was too late, and the next thing you knew, you were bleeding out next to a pile of fifty cent shoes.
"If I let you go, you'll just do this to someone else," John said. "And maybe next time someone'll get stabbed."
"I won't," the kid said shakily. "I swear. I've never done this before, and I won't do it again. I swear." He seemed terrified enough that it might have been true.
John hauled the kid back up and walked him to the door, arms still pinned behind his back, and shoved him out. "Don't come back here again," he said.
The kid hit the concrete on his hands and knees, then scrambled to his feet and darted off, looking like he might cry. John shut the door and locked it. He was barely even short of breath.
"Oh, God," Rodney said. "I need to sit down."
John hurried over. "You okay, buddy?" he asked, guiding him to the chair. When Rodney nodded, he said, apologetically, "I really pushed you. You probably hit your head."
"No, no. I’m." He was what? He wasn't even sure. "Fine," he decided. "I'm fine." Curiously, he was. "Wow. I can't believe that. That was..." He flapped his hands around, unable to come up with any other descriptor but flappy hands.
John nodded. "Really fucked up. But you're okay, right?" His hands kept moving over Rodney's shoulders and arms, patting and squeezing.
"No." At John's terrified look, he rushed to clarify. "I mean, yes, I’m fine, and no, that wasn't just fucked up, it was...it was amazing."
"Amazing?" He took Rodney's face in his hands and held him still. "Are you sure you didn't hit your head?"
"My head is fine. Stop trying to check my pupils."
John smiled tightly, still looking worried. "Your face is a little dirty," he said. He licked his thumb and scrubbed at Rodney's cheek. "And I was in the military, as you're so fond of reminding me whenever you kill a bug. They did teach me a thing or two."
"Yeah, I know. But I wasn't expecting that. You're, you're a crazy badass or something, and, and. That just so weird, because you're so...you."
Rodney didn't really know any other way to put it, any other way to explain what had just happened, like walking into a room you'd been in a thousand times, and suddenly realizing it didn't look anything like you'd always thought.
The John in Rodney's mind was not the kind of guy who could fend off a robbery. He was the slacker mentality personified, with his cluttered junk shop and his old clothes and his weird books and his bicycle. He'd been sitting right here in this chair the first time they'd met, and he'd seemed so harmless, so vacant and unmotivated.
Except he wasn't any of those things, and, God, what had just happened had been hot. John had disarmed the guy (and Rodney had missed the whole thing, which pissed him off) and scared him away and not even broken a sweat. He was tough.
And Rodney really wanted to blow him, right now this second.
John didn't object.
After that, John seemed to take some kind of sick delight in dropping surprising tidbits of information on Rodney, just to see his reaction. Rodney spent those weeks in a perpetual state of disbelief, constantly re-adjusting his idea of who exactly John Sheppard was, and he was decidedly different from the guy who had seduced Rodney with baked goods and James Bond. Sometimes, Rodney thought life had been a lot simpler back when he believed he was dating an aimless hottie with a dead-end job and no gag reflex.
John said things like, "When I took the Mensa test," and, "After I got my pilot's license," and, "When I was in Afghanistan," and, "While I was working on my thesis."
Rodney usually snorted coffee through his nose or ran into a piece of furniture, because in addition to being rather unexpected insights into John's life before Junk Cheap, these bombshells were usually announced at really inappropriate times.
"Man, I haven't had this much sex in a bed since I was married," John said, as Rodney was leaning over to toss the condom in the trash.
Rodney hit his head on the lampshade in his haste to roll over. It rocked back and forth, alternately throwing yellow shadows and blinding light, and he fumbled to make it stop before turning to boggle at John. "You were married?"
"Sure," John said, stretching and yawning. "What's the big deal? You've been with women." The corner of his mouth was tipped up in the amused quirk that normally signaled an impending mention of Rodney's long-carried torch for Samantha Carter.
"Yes, but that's me. You're so--" It was maybe best not to finish that sentence, Rodney realized, too late.
John knew exactly where he was going with it, though. "So much gayer than you?"
"Well, yes. You really had a wife?"
"Yep." He flipped on to his stomach and let his head sink into the pillow. "Mmm."
"Ummhmm." His eyes were starting to drift shut, right on schedule.
"Get under the covers," Rodney said, slapping his bare ass.
John stuck his lower lip out, eyes still stubbornly closed. "I'm too hot."
"Yes, you're hot right now, but you'll fall asleep and then you'll get cold and then you'll wake up and crawl on top of me and wake me up with your freezing cold feet. So get under the covers."
John's put-upon sigh was well-honed, suggesting a lifetime of practice. "My ex-wife wasn't this bossy," he grumbled, sliding beneath the blankets and pulling them up over his hips.
"She also wasn't a man."
"Yeah. I noticed that, too."
Spring finally decided to show the hell up, but the weather didn't get much better. A cold and rainy Sunday wasn't good for much except sex, and they were saving that for after lunch, so Rodney got out his file folder of financial stuff and sorted it into piles on the kitchen table. He needed to start thinking about his taxes.
The lightbulb went on, and why it had never occurred to him, he didn't know, but the landlord's name had to be in the tax records. He flipped open his computer and headed for Google, and from there to the city's property tax rolls.
Thirty seconds later the page came up. Rodney stared at it, dumbfounded. When he was finally able to move, he stood up so fast he knocked over the chair.
"Whoa. Take it easy," John said from the living room, where he was watching another in an endless parade of Airwolf reruns. Then he noticed Rodney crossing the room, bearing down on him. "What's wrong?"
"You own this building!" Rodney yelled.
For just a second, John looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights. He opened his mouth, maybe to deny it, but must have changed his mind, because he didn't say anything. His shoulders drooped and he put down the remote, sighing. "How did you find out?"
"I checked the tax records. All this time I've been trying to find out who owned this place, and making arrangements for my own repairs and...oh my God, I'm sleeping with my landlord!"
"Don't expect a break on your rent," John said.
"Why the hell didn't you tell me?"
"Nobody knows," John said. "I was living here when the building came up for sale, so I bought it, and I was already helping everyone with odd jobs anyway, so I just kept doing them."
"That still doesn’t explain why it was a big secret."
John shrugged. "I guess this way I'm not The Man. I'm just the guy who lives on the first floor."
"You know what I mean."
Rodney flopped down on the couch. His brain was spinning, picturing a hundred times when it had come up and John hadn't said a word. "You made me change my own washer."
"And you survived."
"I asked you if you knew who owned the building, and you didn't tell me. Why would you--?" The look on John's face said it all. "You were fucking with me."
"Yeah, I was. But you were being kind of an arrogant dick, and it was just so easy."
"I was not an arrogant dick."
"'I'm a professor, not a plumber,'" John mimicked, in a snippy voice.
Rodney threw a pillow at him. "You're an asshole."
He caught it and tossed it on the floor, scooting closer. "Would you have slept with me if you'd known I owned the place?"
"Probably not. I--hey! You lured me into bed under false pretenses!"
"I guess I did." John got up on his knees and moved over to straddle Rodney's lap, hands working his zipper, and it wasn't even lunchtime yet. "Do you care?"
It turned out he didn't, much.
The problem, Rodney realized later, wasn't that John hadn't told everyone he owned the building, it was that he hadn't told Rodney, and that pissed him off. He couldn't stop stewing about it, because he wasn't just another tenant, and that led to another thought that pissed him off.
It was three in the morning, but Rodney didn't care. He poked John in the side until he woke up.
"Wha?" John said, sounding barely conscious. He slid over, trying to worm a hand under Rodney's T-shirt.
Rodney straight-armed him. "I gave you a key," he said.
"So?" John asked, making a frustrated noise as Rodney continued to hold him at bay. "Lemme..." he whined, wiggling closer and trying to get a leg over.
"So? That was a big moment! Don't try to snuggle with me, you jerk." Rodney made a valiant attempt at fending him off, but it was like wrestling an octopus. "I gave you a key, and it turns out you had one all along. You have everyone's keys!"
"I like your key best," John mumbled, and it was no use fighting, so Rodney gave up and let him attach himself like a tick. He sighed happily as he drifted back to sleep, one hand jammed into Rodney's armpit.
"You better," Rodney said.
John snored in his ear.
Samantha Carter, too banged up to teach, had not been too banged up to work on a pet theory and write a truly brilliant paper that had landed her a cushy job with the United States government. While Rodney had been toiling away, doing her job for her, and climbing all those stairs.
She did send him a pound of really good coffee, though, and an Amazon.com gift certificate.
Now that her job was open, they were offering it to Rodney permanently. He accepted it, of course.
"I assume you'll want to make permanent living arrangements," Landry said, and Rodney agreed. He'd handle it.
Though how he would handle it was the question. As much as he'd disliked his apartment at first, certain aspects of it had grown on him, hairy legs and all.
When he got home, John was sitting at the table with a can of soda, reading an old Mad magazine.
"Landry called today," Rodney said. "I'm not leaving in June after all."
John sat up straighter than Rodney had ever seen. "What?"
"They offered me the job for real. I'm staying here, I guess."
"Yes. Is that a problem?"
"You mean here here?"
John didn't normally have this much trouble understanding English. "Yes."
He looked down at his magazine, fiddling with a tattered corner. "I, ah. I already rented the apartment. To someone else."
"Oh," Rodney said, swallowing. "I see. No big deal."
John didn't say anything else. Nothing at all to indicate that sure, they'd see each other less once they weren't living in the same building, but they'd still see each other. He said nothing at all.
Rodney went over to the fridge and got a bottle of water. He was okay with it, he told himself. It had been fun, and had lasted longer than he thought, but that was that.
No big deal.
They didn't see each other much the next two days, and Rodney figured that was probably for the better. It would feel less like going cold turkey when he moved out.
He'd just sat down with the classifieds and a brand new red pen when he heard John's key in the lock (the key he hadn't needed, Rodney couldn't help but recall), and then the thump of his messenger bag hitting the floor in the foyer.
Rodney wasn't happy to hear those familiar sounds. This whole protracted break-up thing was awkward and weird, and he'd discovered that he didn't really like knowing ahead of time exactly when a relationship was going to end. It seemed wrong to have a deadline, a countdown to breaking up.
John hesitated in the kitchen doorway, which was unusual. He normally acted like he owned the place, and, boy, if that that hadn't been a clue.
"Whatcha doin'?" he asked finally.
"Looking for an apartment," Rodney said, trying not to sound bitter.
"Yeah, about that." He skulked into the kitchen and took a seat, drumming his fingers on the table.
"This one has a balcony," Rodney said, circling one of the ads. "And a garbage disposal."
John frowned. "You want a garbage disposal?"
"Of course I do. Everyone wants a garbage disposal."
"Huh," John said. Several seconds ticked by while he apparently contemplated that. "So, anyway. About your apartment."
"Three bedrooms and a den. Wow." He circled that one, too. "And twenty-four hour security."
"Oh, a pool." Another red circle.
"Rodney!" John slammed his hand down on the newspaper, fingers splayed, making Rodney jump and totally blocking his view.
"Hey!" Rodney said.
"I'm trying to talk to you."
That was the last thing Rodney wanted to do--he preferred short, unemotional goodbyes--but he put down his pen. "Okay, talk. But hurry up. I need a place to live."
John squinted up at the light fixture and blew a breath out. "I was thinking you could live with me."
It wasn't at all what Rodney had expected, but it was somehow the most logical thing he'd heard in a really, really long time. Stunning, sure, but he was used to making leaps of logic. And though his first instinct was to agree immediately, he knew that was probably a bad idea. He'd spent the last two days thinking John meant more to him than he meant to John, and he'd be damned if he was going to agree to live like that.
He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. John finally looked at him, but he was more nervous than Rodney had ever seen him, fidgeting, eyes darting everywhere.
Sometimes being naturally blunt had its advantages: "Are you in love with me?"
John closed his eyes and pitched forward, groaning. His forehead hit the table with a thump. "Do we have to talk about this?" he said, words muffled by Ikea's finest laminate.
"Yes, we do," Rodney said. "This is a big deal. Two names on the mailbox, jointly owned furniture, nursing someone else through the stomach flu. Plus, I'd just like to know, because I'm in love with you." It was actually pretty easy to admit it to the top of John's head.
John didn't move or say anything, but Rodney saw the tense line of his shoulders relax as the muscles loosened into a more familiar slump.
"Well?" Rodney prompted.
"I'm pretty sure I am, yeah," John told the table.
"Only pretty sure?"
He finally sat up. There was a bright red spot in the middle of his forehead, and he looked really annoyed. "Christ, fine, yes," he said. "Are you going to move in with me or not?"
Rodney was, he totally was, but he refused to give in so easily. "I'm allergic to your books," he said.
John didn't even hesitate: "I'll keep them in the shop."
"Your place is too small."
John got up and left the room, and when he came back he was carrying a big cardboard tube. In it was a blueprint of John's apartment, showing an expansion into the storage area behind it. Adding the other apartment easily doubled the space, though Rodney had no idea where John intended to put all the spare junk.
Everything was neatly labeled, including the two bathrooms, and one nicely-sized space that said "Rodney's Office." There was even a sunroom off the back.
"This one has a pool," Rodney said, tapping the newspaper with his finger.
John picked up the red pen and scribbled on the blueprint, an arrow pointing to the kitchen sink that he labeled ADD GARBAGE DISPOSAL -->.
The housewarming party lasted until the unbelievably late hour of 9pm. Everyone overstayed their welcome, and drank the last of Rodney and John's coffee.
Phyllis brought brownies.
John in his T-shirt, made for me by fullygoldy!