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John passed the keys across to the older couple. "There you go, Mr. and Mrs. Thompson. You made a great choice: I know you'll love your new place."

Mr. Thompson shook his hand, and Mrs. Thompson actually leaned across the desk to kiss his cheek.

"Thank you, sweetheart. Now you take care of yourself," she instructed.

"I will, Mrs. Thompson, I will." John watched the couple leave and turned to put the paperwork in his out tray. As he did so, he heard a raised voice from the other side of the large, open-plan office.

"I'm sorry, are you completely deaf, incompetent, or do you just like ignoring your customers? I clearly said at least two bedrooms and away from busy roads. The last two you showed me were practically on the highway!"

The voice had an impressive volume and clipped Canadian vowels. John looked up to see the voice's owner berating Aidan, who was wide-eyed and shrinking back in his chair.

"I mean, really, are you being willfully dense?"

Shouty-voice was waving his hands around and Aidan looked just about ready for the ground to swallow him up. John crossed the office and patted Aidan on the shoulder.

"Hey, Aidan, why don't you go and help Ms. Villeneuve? I'll deal with this."

Aidan looked at him with gratitude and muttered, "Thanks," before making his escape.

Shouty-voice had wavy hair, and very blue eyes, which he turned on John.

"I thought Lantean Properties was supposed to offer an elite service? I've had better service at McDonalds!" he snapped.

"Listen buddy, we don't tolerate anyone harassing our staff. Calm down or leave," John replied, holding the guy's gaze and narrowing his eyes slightly. Suddenly the guy's shoulders dropped and he squeezed the bridge of his nose, all the fight going out of him.

"I-I suppose I may have been a little-"

"Aggressive? Loud?" John settled into the chair.

"I was going to say forceful. It's just, I hate house hunting, and I chose you because the website said you'd do all the work, and I really don't have time and-"

"How about we go sit over in the client lounge and start from the beginning again," John sad soothingly. "Would you like a cup of coffee?"

"I suppose it's took much to expect that it's not instant?" Shouty-voice asked, a touch of acerbity returning.

"All our valued clients get freshly-filtered, of course." John said, deadpan serious.

"Of course". No-longer-Shouty agreed. The corners of his slightly lopsided mouth turned up as he followed John over to the coffee machine.

"Black, no sugar."

John poured 2 mugs, and handed one over; he watched as the guy stuck his nose into the mug and inhaled deeply. The tiny stress lines on his forehead smoothed out and he gave an oddly endearing smile.

"Thanks. You have no idea how much I needed that."

"You're welcome Mister-?"

"Doctor, actually. Doctor Rodney McKay. Engineering and Astrophysics, before you ask me to look at that mole."

John laughed, despite himself. "John Sheppard. That really happens?"

"You have no idea."

"So, Doctor, what was so hard to find that you frightened our newest team member half to death?" John asked.

"I need a house. Or an apartment, I suppose. At least two bedrooms. Office. In a quiet area. To buy." He took a sip of coffee and closed his eyes briefly, looking tired.

"Would you like us to arrange furniture, appliances?" John asked, making a few notes.

"You can do that?". McKay looked dumbstruck.

"We'll even pack, redecorate, and mow the lawn," John promised. "Any pets?" he continued. "Some homeowner associations have rules about them."

"Only Booster and Beetle." McKay replied. At John's blank look he said, "Two cats, nothing else."

"Kids? Partner?"

"No, as of two days ago it's just me and the cats."

"What happened two days ago?" John asked, curious.

"Girlfriend kicked me out. It's incredibly inconvenient, I'm in the middle of some very delicate experiments and I've got a publishing deadline looming. I just don't have time to go looking for a house. "

John said nothing, just listened to the stream of babble that was clearly second nature.

"I mean, I'm staying with a friend, but she's already threatened to castrate me if I leave my dirty dishes in the sink one more time, and really, that would be a terrible loss to the gene pool." He set his empty mug down.

"Ooookay," John said slowly. "Why don't I scout around for some suitable properties and we'll go from there?"

"Good. Yes, okay." McKay nodded quickly. "Here's how to get hold of me." He pulled a card out of the pocket of his dreadful tweed pants and scribbled on the back. "This is the number of where I'm staying, but try the cell or the office first."

John took the card and stuck it under the elastic band of his Moleskine.

"Okay, one more thing: what kind of price range were you looking at?" John asked, standing and ushering McKay to the door.

"Unless we're talking multiple millions, don't worry about it," McKay said airily.

John took in the baggy tweed pants, scuffed up sneakers, the Aran sweater with a hole in the cuff, and the slight scruff of beard. He felt a look of doubt cross his face and McKay said, a touch defensively, "Patents are wonderful things, Sheppard. And did I mention the part where I got thrown out of my house? Katie left two suitcases on the stoop. Unfortunately, she chose the worst clothes she could find and I haven't had time to shop."

"Ouch." John winced.

"Yes, it was a quite impressive feat of vindictiveness. Frankly I was surprised she had it in her." He looked almost impressed.

"Okay, well, I'll look through our portfolio straight away and contact you as soon as I find something suitable," John promised.

He held out his hand and Rodney shook it. He had large hands, smooth, with long square fingers. McKay nodded and stepped out into the street, tucking his hands up into the sleeves of the sweater against the cold autumn air.

****

After two days searching, John dialled McKay's office.

"Yes?" an harassed-sounding McKay snapped.

"Hey, this is John Sheppard from Lantean Properties. We have an apartment you might be interested in," John drawled.

"Oh, thank God! I-wait, I need to see it. Can I see it?" John had forgotten how fast he spoke, a quick rat-a-tat tinged with impatience.

"That was why I was calling, Doctor," he pointed out.

"Wait- I need to see when I'm free." There was the sound of rustling paper and the clack of computer keys, all with a background of frantic muttering.

"I can call back later if this is a bad time," John offered.

"No, wait-ah! Found it! My schedule. I lost my PA last week and I'm still trying to track down where she put everything." John heard pages turning.

"Lost her?" He asked to fill the silence.

"Yes, yes, well, not lost. She walked out. Honestly, temps had more backbone when I was one. Now, I have a slot Friday at one o'clock, but other than that I'm pretty booked up."

"That's fine," John said, his mind boggling at the thought of McKay as a temp. "I'll email you the details, and I'll meet you there with the keys."

"Good, I'll see you there." McKay already sounded distracted, his voice fading away as he hung up before John could say anything else.

"You look pleased with yourself, John," Elizabeth said from behind him. He swivelled around in his chair and looked up at her with a grin.

"Because I've just satisfied another customer."

"Satisfied?" asked Elizabeth, her tone gently mocking. John cringed inwardly but said, "Yep, one stressed, sarcastic Doctor turned into one more satisfied client."

"Has he actually seen the property yet?" Elizabeth asked.

"No, but he'll love it. Am I ever wrong about these things?"

****

"I hate it."

"Don't sugar- coat it Doctor, tell me what you really think." John slouched against the kitchen counter as McKay scowled at the cabinets, which were completely non-offensive beige. He'd obviously found time to go clothes shopping, the ratty sweater replaced by a surprisingly well-chosen suit in a deep purple, the jacket of which highlighted some rather nice shoulders, and a striped button front shirt.

"At least see the other rooms before you say no," John coaxed. "The lounge has a brick fireplace."

McKay allowed himself to be led from the kitchen with bad grace.

"Here's the lounge. Brick fireplace perfect for cold nights, great view of the gardens, mood lighting," John flicked the switch to the sconces "and if you don't like this furniture we can arrange something different."

McKay ran a hand over one wall.

"Damp," he said, examining the paper more closely.

"We can repaper if you take the place," John promised.

McKay flopped down onto one of the armchairs and dropped his head back, eyes closed, the fan of his oddly pretty eyelashes brushing his cheeks.

"The damp'll come back," he said without opening his eyes.

"So I guess that's a no then?"

McKay just shook his head slowly.

"Doctor. McKay? Rodney!" John prompted. McKay tipped his head forward and opened his eyes, looking tired.

"It's a no," he said, shoulders slumping.

"Hey, are you OK?" asked John. McKay looked like he was one harsh word away from collapse, his eyes a watery blue-grey and with smudgy dark circles under them.

"It's been a rough week. First I get kicked out - and finding a new home is a giant pain in the ass, present company excepted - then my PA announces she's taking 6 months out to 'find herself,'" his crooked mouth twisted even more, "and they send me a temp that can barely read. Then my experiments completely failed and I had to spend all last night trying to find out why in order to persuade the research board this evening that they should fund me and not some hideous Lego-based performance art and it's just - exhausting." He ran out of steam and flopped back into the chair.

"Did you eat?"John abruptly, feeling sort of sorry for him.

"Eat?" McKay asked dumbly.

"Yeah- I pulled you out of you lunch break, and from what I remember of all-nighters at school they involve coffee and not much else."

"Um, I think I had a donut? Maybe?" He looked honestly puzzled.

"Look, it's my lunch break too, and there's a café round the corner. Why don't we go and get you something to eat, and we can talk more about the kind of property you're interested in. I might even be able to solve your PA problem."

John couldn't have said why he made the offer, other than McKay's bluntness and honesty was refreshing after the endless euphemism of property-speak. Plus, he'd always had a bit of a thing for blue eyes.

McKay heaved himself to his feet and ran a hand through his curls, ruffling them.

"Does every client get this treatment?" he asked as John locked the door behind them.

"Only the ones that look dead on their feet," John replied.

The café was warm and crowded, full of students lingering over sandwiches and office workers hurriedly snatching their lunches to go. They squeezed into a booth and McKay fell upon a lunch menu and scanned it quickly.

"What can I get you - Doctor McKay!" The waitress stopped in her tracks, pencil still poised. McKay stared at her blankly for a few seconds.

"Ah, yes, um-" He trailed off

"Indira. We met about a month ago? In the botany lab?" she prompted.

"Of course! One of Doctor Brown's grad students?"

"That's it!" She had dark hair coiled into 2 buns stuck through with pencils and a bright smile.

"I don't know what you and Katie did last weekend, but she's been in a great mood. You must have had fun." She winked at him, and John sat back to wait for the explosion.

"Actually we broke up," McKay said flatly.

She gaped like a fish.

"Oh! Oh my, I'm so sorry! I had no idea!"

John broke in. "How 'bout we just order?"

"Yes, of course. What'll it be?" She asked, pulling herself together. They ordered and with a final, "So sorry," she left.

"Well, that was unfortunate," said McKay, staring after her.

"You didn't say your ex worked at the university too. Must be hard, bumping into her all the time."

John hated the awkwardness of break-ups, one of the reasons any recent longstanding relationships tended to be with dogs or inanimate objects.

"Not really - I'm in engineering, she's in Botany. There isn't really much overlap. That was one of her grad students - fungal growth in greenhouses or something equally as fascinating." He rolled his eyes.

John chuckled. "You know, I'm beginning to see why you two didn't work out."

"Oh please, if I waited for someone to actually understand what I do I'd never get laid."

John spluttered, then asked, "So what is you do?"

"I hold two Doctorates, Engineering and Astrophysics, but I'm based in Engineering. The University makes me lecture a couple of undergrad courses and foists idiot grad students on me when I can't avoid them." The look on McKay's face told John exactly what he thought about that.

"They're doing a PhD. They can't all be idiots."

McKay looked at him in disbelief.

"For most of them, their only qualification is their wallets. Do you have any idea of how much people pay for a PhD?"

"Thirty thousand was how much I was quoted," John said, just to see the look of surprise. He wasn't disappointed.

"You, you don't have-"

"No, but just because I sell houses doesn't mean that's all I've ever done," John said, the familiar twinge of regret tugging at him.

Rodney tilted his head and looked at him appraisingly, more alert that John had ever seen him.

"What was your undergrad in?"

Beginning to regret bringing it up, John told him, "Applied Mathematics, with a minor in Physics."

"Masters? You must have one if you were looking at Doctorates."

"I - er, I didn't finish my grad school." He winced inwardly, not wanting to get into the whole sorry story here. Thankfully Indira returned with their lunch, successfully distracting McKay.

John's turkey sandwich was stuffed with real roast turkey and salad leaves, and came with a bowl of potato wedges. McKay looked up from his pasta fazool.

"Those look good," he gestured at the wedges with the hunk of bread he'd sopped in his soup. John pushed the bowl across.

"Here."

"Thanks." McKay said, looking surprised.

They ate in silence for a few minutes, and John gave up on getting his share of the wedges.

"So tell me more about what kind of house you're looking for," he said, sneaking a wedge out from under Rodney's hand.

"Hey!" Rodney made another grab for the wedges, pulling the plate closer. "Like I said, somewhere quiet. The cats aren't house cats and I want them to be safe. Somewhere I could move into by the end of the month. At least 2 bedrooms, or a spare room I can use as an office. Light, warm. Oh, and good soundproofing," he added as an afterthought.

"Noisy, Doctor?" John drawled, making half an innuendo.

"I play the piano. And for God's sake, call me Rodney."

"Anything else, Rodney?"

"A deck, or a balcony, but I'm not married to it," Rodney replied airily, spooning up the last of his pasta.

"You always this tough to please?" asked John, half in jest.

"Why settle?" Rodney grinned happily

"Why indeed?" John said, smiling back and signalling for the dessert menu.

****

"You're in a good mood Sheppard," remarked Ronon, back at the office later that afternoon.

John looked up at Lantean Properties' favourite contractor and said, "Aren't I always?" He tilted back in his chair and propped his feet on the desk.

"No, you make people, clients, think you're happy. There's a difference."

John winced as his old friend, as usual, got straight to the point.

"I am a little ray of sunshine," he said dryly.

"Yeah, definitely a good mood. This got anything to do with your 2 hour lunch date?"

"That lunch was with a client. Anyway why are you here?" John asked.

"Don't change the subject. She hot?"

"He was telling me what he wanted in a property. It was a working lunch. Geez, Ronon, what's with the matchmaking all of a sudden?"

"It was one date, Sheppard. And she wants to know why you haven't called her."

The 'date' had been a disastrous dinner with Teyla, Ronon, and one of Teyla's weird new-agey friends. Teer believed in auras, crystal healing and burning sage to banish negative thoughts. John had no idea why Teyla thought they'd ever be suited and half-suspected it was an elaborate practical joke on the part of his newly-married friends.

He shrugged elaborately. "I'll get around to it," he said, swinging his feet off the desk and standing up.

"Anyway, unlike you, apparently, I have work to do. " He clapped Ronon on the shoulder and stalked over to the new properties board.

"Hey, Shep?" John turned. Ronon was grinning, the bastard.

"You didn't answer my question. He hot?"

John rolled his eyes and didn't answer, not thinking of Rodney's little-boy smile, his blue eyes, or the way his hair curled at the nape of his neck.

****

"Evan, he there?"

"What the hell did you get me into, Shep?" Lorne's crisp voice was still amused.

"Hey, he needed a PA and you needed the work. You've lasted longer than the last one," John said, absently doodling rotor blades at the top of McKay's file. He'd known Lorne for years and when he'd offered to see if he would fill in for the missing PA Rodney had jumped at the chance. Evan was efficient, discreet, politic and, after 10 years in the Air Force, immune to shouting.

"I can imagine."

"He's not that bad," John protested, feeling the bizarre need to defend Rodney.

"No, not if you shout back. He did send me all the way over to Botany to pick up a suitcase, which was so not in the job description."

John laughed. "Did you see his ex?"

"Dunno, is his ex a 6'4'' Canadian guy?"

"Not that I know of. Her name's Katie something." John corrected one doodle to make it more aerodynamically efficient.

"Nah, this guy was David or something. Anyway, did you call just to talk about McKay, or did you actually have a point?"

"I've found another property. Is his schedule free any time this week?"

He heard the click of a mouse. "Tomorrow at 10am, or tonight at 5pm. You could take him to dinner again."

He could hear Evan smirking.

"It was a working lunch! What has he been saying about me?"

"Relax. He did ask me about your masters though"

"What did you say?" John asked, tense.

"You don't talk about it much. I figure it's your story to tell."

"Thanks," John said. He was relieved Lorne had left it up to him. He wasn't ashamed of his past, but explaining it was somewhat exhausting and it wasn't something he really wanted to think about too much; it just made him regret it all over again. "OK, put me down for 10am and I'll email him the details. Tell him I'll come meet him at the University, the place is close by."

"Done. Dress up pretty," ribbed Evan.

John stuck his tongue out at the phone.

****

The engineering building was surprisingly elegant, and Rodney's office was right at the top. John tapped at the door and went in.

"Hiya," he said to Evan, staring at the piles of paper that covered every surface. The office looked like a very small, localised whirlwind had passed through.

"Hey. His schedule's slipped; can you wait about 20 minutes?" asked Lorne, pouncing on a file folder and slotting it back into a cabinet.

"Sure. What happened?" John gestured at the mess.

"Well, I'm beginning to see why he got so angry at his last temp. She clearly had some moral objection to alphabetising. You can sit over there." He waved over to a battered brown sofa. "Lotte has been waiting longer - if you don't mind?"

"Not at all." John sat next to the nervous-looking girl with pink hair, and gave her one of his best smiles. After a moment she grinned tentatively back and asked, "Are you seeing Doctor McKay too?"

"Yeah, but I'm not in any hurry. You take as long as you like."

"I shouldn't be too long - I'm just stuck on one thing."

"What are you studying?" John eyed the notebook she was gripping tightly.

"Astrophysics. Dr McKay takes the final year seminars, if you're brave enough." She gave a small laugh. "He's not really that bad, I suppose, as long as you realise 'at least you're not a complete moron' means 'well done.'"

She relaxed a bit and opened her notebook.

"I just can't seem to work out his equations right, and these are his only office hours."

"May I see?" John asked. He shouldn't ask, really. It wasn't his place anymore, but the math, as ever, drew him in. She passed the notebook across, and John scanned the equations, feeling the familiar tingle at the back of his mind.

"Something's off." He agreed, seeing the problem. "Do you have a pencil or something?"

She handed him a red felt tip pen. He circled a few of the values and handed the notebook back.

"Check those over again."

She bent over the book, then: "Oh! I can't believe I was so dense."

"You been worrying about anything?" he asked.

"Well, I have finals in a few months and a big project to finish and I had a huge fight with my roommate and, I suppose I was worrying, a bit. The more I worried the less it made sense." She re-wrote the equations, pulled a calculator out of her bag, and worked on them for a few minutes.

"Is that right?"

John looked at her scrawl.

"Yes, far as I can tell. Do you understand what you did wrong?"

Before she could answer Rodney called from the door to the inner office. "Lotte? Evan said you've been waiting?"

She stood, shifting her notebook to her hip, and picked up her backpack.

"Oh it's OK, Doctor McKay. John helped me." She turned to John, "I meant to ask, are you a new tutor?"

Rodney snapped his fingers: "He's a realtor, and you'll excuse me if I think he's not the best person to check your work. Let me see."

He checked the notebook, then nodded and handed it back.

"Yes, yes, this is fine. It's not like you to make such a basic error. Are you sure you're alright?" He looked almost concerned, and John felt a wave of fondness for him.

"I'm fine now I know what I did wrong. Thanks, Doctor McKay. Thanks, John!" She waved over her shoulder at them as she left.

Rodney turned to stare at John.

"You're wasted as a realtor."

"It was undergrad physics, McKay, not rocket science."

Rodney just stared at him as though he could see straight to his bones. "Hmmm. Take me to this apartment. But I'm not forgetting this." He picked up a bright orange fleece and stopped at Lorne's desk.

"I'm out for an hour or so. If Kavanagh calls, tell him he's an idiot and he's lucky he's got me to prevent the massive explosions."

Lorne made a note.

"Will do, Doctor."

Rodney picked up a potted plant. "Is this new? I don't remember this."

"David, um, dropped it off this morning. It's a rare type of fern. He thought it would brighten the desk."

To John's amazement, the tips of Evan's ears were slightly pink. Rodney just rolled his eyes and shouldered his backpack, holding the door for John to follow.

****

"You'll love this one," said John as they waited for the elevator in the apartment complex. "Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, fully furnished, huge lounge, and there's a balcony."

"Lay off the realtor-speak. I did read the description," Rodney said, but affably.

"So you don't want to hear about the super efficient air conditioning or the log-effect fireplace?" The doors opened and they entered, John pushing the button for the floor.

"All I want to know is how quick I can move in. Laura threatened to castrate me again this morning."

"You have such a way with women McKay. I generally stay away from the scary exes."

Rodney sputtered. "She's not an ex. She's dating an old friend of mine who's waiting for his visa to come through. I really need a place of my own. Carson should be coming over again next month and I really don't want to cramp that reunion."

"I guess." John opened the front door.

"No guess about it." Rodney said absently, looking around him. "Carson's loud."

Not having an answer to that, John started his spiel. "OK, so here's the hallway. Closet here, and you've got more storage in the attic as it's the top floor. Kitchen to your right."

Rodney opened the door and poked his head inside.

"Does the price include all the white goods?"

"It includes everything. There's no laundry room in the apartment, but there is a shared one in the basement."

Rodney's mouth turned down, but he just waved a hand with a flourish. "Continue."

John did as he was told, leading them into the lounge.

"Lounge, nice and big, and the french doors lead to the balcony. It would be great for parties." He said, opening the glass doors to the balcony.

"I'm not really one for parties," Rodney said doubtfully, following John outside. John propped his elbows on the railings and leant back, studying Rodney. For someone who said he wanted to move quickly, Rodney was a hard sell.

"Not even for schmoozing your potential donors?"

"Some of us don't have your devilish charm, Sheppard," Rodney said tightly.

"Devilish?" John cocked an eyebrow and Rodney coloured slightly.

"Bedrooms?" he asked, obviously trying to change the subject.

"Why Rodney I had no idea-" John began.

"Yes, yes, you're twelve," Rodney said, turning and going back inside.

"Master bedroom," John said, opening the door. The room was light, with a big bay window and the door to the bathroom in one corner.

"Fine," was all Rodney said.

"This is the one I thought for the office." The next door lead to a room with one wall completely taken up by bookcases.

"Yes, this is good," Rodney said with a smile.

'Finally, some enthusiasm,' John thought. Before he could say anything, the quiet was split with a high pitched screech of strings.

"What the - " John began. The screeches built up into an inexpertly played scale.

"Great." Rodney winced. "An incompetent violinist, just what I need to help me concentrate."

"They'd hear you playing too." John remarked, as the violin began what might charitably called 'twinkle twinkle little star'.

"Yes, but unlike them I actually have talent," Rodney said loftily.

"You have a very high opinion of yourself McKay."

"Trust me, it's all justified." Rodney waved a hand regally. "Now are we going to stand around talking about my many, many talents, or can we agree that this is not the place for me?"

John laughed. "Let's go."

****

"So who's Kavanagh and why is he a moron?" asked John as they walked back to Rodney's car. Rodney opened the door and slid into the driver's seat.

"An electrophysicist, allegedly. But he wouldn't know the Abraham-Lorentz force if it bit him on the ass. That's the - "

"The recoil force on an accelerating charged particle. I know. It's caused by the electromagnetic radiation emitted by the particle," John finished for him.

Rodney thumped the steering wheel, making a frustrated sound. "OK, that's it. Why the hell are you a realtor? I like puzzles, but you're an unfathomable one. Spill."

"Geez are you like this with everyone you meet?" John asked.

"Not everyone is as interesting as you. Now, what's the story there?" Rodney glared at him and John shifted uncomfortably. He didn't like talking about his past to strangers, and was mildly alarmed that he didn't really think of Rodney as one.

"I'll trade you," he offered, playing for time. "My story, or a bit of it, for yours."

"What do you mean?" Rodney looked confused.

"You tell me why someone who is funny, intelligent and attractive is sleeping on a friend's sofa, and I'll tell you - what you want to know."

"Why did I break up with Katie, you mean? I told you, she finished with me. It was the most decisive thing I've ever known her to do."

"I wouldn't have thought someone that passive would hold that much interest for you?" John said, feeling a tad reckless, letting himself study Rodney's profile, the long eyelashes, the delicate cheekbones, the turned-up nose.

Rodney looked flustered but answered, "Well she was, is, nice. Cute. She liked me. We sort of fell into dating, and our leases were up at the same time so we got a place together. Eventually it became painfully obvious we were too different. I don't give a damn about alkaloids in plants and she couldn't understand my work in either discipline. We fought and I came back from a conference to find the cats in a cattery and two cases on the doorstep. I miss the cats much more than I miss her, which I suppose should have been a clue." Rodney turned to John with a determined look. "Your turn."

John took a breath. He really, really didn't want to go into it. If he didn't talk about it he didn't have to think abut how much of a fool he had been, how much he had lost. He'd survived (mostly) happily for years by not thinking about it. Even so, Rodney had answered him with what John was coming to realise was characteristic honesty, and he felt like he owed him something at least. "My undergrad you know about. I have a masters in aerodynamics. I was a year away from getting my doctorate when my funding was pulled."

"Why?" pressed Rodney.

It was clear that nothing but the whole story would satisfy him, so John braced himself and continued.

"I was a pilot. Air Force. I was dishonourably discharged. When I lost my commission, I lost everything: my funding, my home. Ronon, a buddy of mine, knew Elizabeth and he got me the job. It's mostly talking to people, and I'm good at that, so I took the exam and stayed. End of story."

Rodney shook a finger at him. "Oh no you don't. That is so not the whole story. I mean, Air Force? With that hair? Wait, dishonourable discharge? They kicked you out? What did you do? Kill someone you weren't supposed to? Disobey orders? I just can't see you as a grunt."

"That's Marines." John said, a little taken aback at all the questions.

"Don't change the subject."

"What does it matter?" John snapped, beginning to regret saying anything at all.

"As I said, I like puzzles. And I want to know why someone who is so clearly good at something doesn't still do it." Rodney looked almost concerned, which perversely irritated John. He wanted to shock Rodney, to make him lose that air of 'I know best' that both intrigued and irritated him.

"Fine. I was discharged because my little bit of weekend fun wasn't as discreet as I thought he was. My superiors found out, and it was the excuse they'd been looking for. My service counted for nothing. Putting my life on the line counted for nothing. My research counted for nothing. That enough for you?" At that moment he almost hated Rodney.

"You're gay?" Rodney asked, sounding incredulous. "They kicked you out for that?"

"It was pretty much the last thing in a long line of things," John acknowledged.

"But your transcripts, your research. You couldn't go somewhere else? Why are you still wasting time selling houses? You just gave up?"

"Just leave it, OK? I'm happy, I make good money, I'm good at what I do," John insisted.

"But how can it be enough for you? I saw you with Lotte, you love it. Why-"

John had had enough. "McKay! I lost my rank, my wings, most of my friends. I was days away from living on the street. It's not a time I want to remember, much less talk about. Will you- " He broke off, frustrated. "Will you just let me sell you a goddamned house?" he finished, tired out by it all.

"OK. OK. But you're still wrong." Rodney started the engine and they drove back to the university in silence.

****

 

John's revelation and outburst seemed to have triggered something in Rodney. He seemed to be taking pleasure in testing John's limits. By the time John got back to his desk later that day there were two emails waiting for him. The first said simply: "So maybe I was a bit pushy."

The second: "You know, there are lots of ways you can get funding if you need it," followed by a list of links including the University's grad school pages and an application form for the research funding board. John wasted half an hour clicking through research groups and grant processes, and spent a good ten minutes on the research profile of a funny little guy with fuzzy hair who was doing something really interesting with high tensile aluminium before he reminded himself he was a realtor now, and dragged his mind back to his clients.

Later that evening, John called Rodney's office but got no reply. Telling himself he should really apologise for yelling at Rodney, he dialled the number marked 'home'.

A bright female voice answered, "Hi!"

John wracked his brain

"Laura?" he ventured.

"Yes…" She sounded suspicious.

"Hi, this is John Sheppard from Lantean Properties. I'm sorry to -"

"Rodney!" she bellowed. "It's your hot realtor!"

John felt his ears burn as he heard Rodney swear before taking the phone.

"John? Ignore her. We looked up the Lantean website and she was drooling over the agents' pictures."

"That mean you don't think I'm hot, Rodney? I'm crushed," John teased.

"I'm sure you're well aware of how you look," Rodney said. John felt unaccountably pleased, and smiled at the phone, coiling the cord around his fingers.

"You mean you didn't pick me because of my amazing property-finding skills?"

"Well since I'm sleeping on the couch again tonight and since my last viewing ended with my realtor yelling his head off at me I think we'll just stick to the fact that you're pretty." Rodney said, and John could just imagine the little smirk on his face, the glitter of amusement in his eyes. It shook him a bit that he was apparently familiar enough with Rodney's expressions to hear them from the tone of his voice.

"Look, I'm sorry I yelled," John said, remembering why he made the call.

"No, it has been pointed out I can be too nosy. I just can't believe you were in the Air Force."

"They paid me to do two things that I loved. I learnt to fly, and it's the best feeling in the world. And then, I got to make the aircraft better. How could I say no to that?" He rubbed the back of his neck, still feeling a bit sheepish about his outburst. "You know, most people fixate on the gay thing."

"Well I knew that already." Rodney's voice was indulgent. "The flirting kind of gave it away."

John relaxed back onto the sofa and kicked off his shoes.

"Maybe I'm just a charming kinda guy."

Rodney snorted. "See? That's what I mean. Let's just forget it and concentrate on you finding me a house."

"Now that I can do." John promised. "Hey, Rodney? The flirting, it doesn't bother you?"

"You never asked me how I know how loud Carson is." And with that enigmatic statement, Rodney hung up.

****

Despite his promise to forget it, Rodney clearly took John's curtailed academic background as a challenge. He took to sending emails with abstracts, math problems, and even more information on grants and finance, ringing John up to rant about his students and quiz John on his masters, challenging him and pushing him, making John realise what he missed ever more sharply. Rodney would stay on the line long after he'd finished slandering his student, sometimes for hours, as they watched whatever was on Sci Fi together and made fun of the monsters. More than once John found himself dropping off to the sound of Rodney's mocking voice in his ear.

****

"You know," John said the day after finding 3 more abstracts for aerodynamics papers in his inbox, "if you actually want to move any time soon, distracting me with sexy equations and airfoil design is not the way to go about it."

"Oh god," Rodney said softly, so softly John barely heard him. "I mean, I thought they might interest you. It's some of what our engineering department has been producing."

It had been interesting; John had drunk his coffee while reading the final one, eventually grabbing a pencil and making notes, the numbers sparking behind his eyes. He wanted to see if the airfoil would work the way the authors said it would, but he had his doubts.

"Does is work?" he asked.

"No. You know a mathematician with flying experience would be really useful for them..."

"I'm beginning to think you don't want to move. Or do you just want to keep me in your clutches?" He was only half joking; Rodney was fun, cute in a quirky way, but most importantly his equations had woken up the old love of math, of the beauty of flight described in numbers, and it had been far too long since anyone had challenged him like that.

"You wish," Rodney teased. John could hear the smile in his voice, and he knew he was grinning goofily at the phone.

Pulling himself together he said, "I think I've found the perfect place. It needs some work, but we can arrange that."

"What's it like?" Rodney asked.

"Victorian. Big yard, two floors and an attic. There's a deck out back. The kitchen and most of the downstairs have been completely renovated, but the bedrooms and bathrooms need updating, and the roof could use some patching up. There's- I guess you could call it a sun room, which I thought you could use for the piano, and it comes with some land so you don't have any close neighbours."

"And why didn't you tell me about it before? You been holding out on me, Sheppard?"

"It's only just come onto the market, McKay. Do you want to see it today?"

"My schedule - Lorne where is it? My schedule is completely full. Tomorrow? I'm free after twelve."

"Sounds good."

"Um, how far away is it? The car's in the shop." Rodney sounded rueful

"Remember where we had lunch that time? About 30 minutes away from there. I can pick you up if you like," John offered.

"Oh. Would you like to have lunch with me? We could go after and see the house." Rodney sounded oddly hesitant.

John squashed down the voice that was crowing 'he asked you out!' and jumping up and down like a teenage girl and said

"Sure thing Rodney. How 'bout I meet you there at twelve thirty?"

"OK,, well, I'll see you tomorrow."

"Yep. Tomorrow."

John hung up and spent five minutes looking at the phone, alternatively telling himself he was reading things wrong (god knows it wouldn't be the first time) and ordering himself not to get involved and invested, especially with a guy coming out of a break up, for all it seemed relatively painless. As if in response to his stare the phone rang again and he snatched it up.

"Rodney?"

Teyla's laugh greeted him.

"I am afraid not, John. I called to speak with Aidan about the house on Mermaid Boulevard, but his phone is not being answered."

John looked over and sure enough, Aidan's desk was empty.

"I think he's with a client. Is there a problem with the property?"

Teyla's voice was grave. "I have completed the survey, but I don't believe the house is sound. Whoever built it cut corners, and there will be a great deal of subsidence there in a few years."

"Could it be fixed?" John asked. A couple of newly-weds had fallen in love with the place, but it sounded like an extensive job. If Teyla was worried, there was no doubt that there was a problem.

"The foundations could be made sound. Ronon's company can do it if your buyers wish, but it will not be cheap."

"Thanks, Teyla. I guess they'll be looking elsewhere. I'll let Aidan know."

" We have not seen you much these past weeks," Teyla cut in before John could hang up. He sighed. "Is Ronon right about your Rodney?"

Her tone was teasing, but she had the right, John guessed. Teyla had given him a bed, and Ronon had found him a job, and between them they'd put him back together, almost.

"He's not my anything, Ronon's just bullshitting you."

"Well, then, come to dinner tonight and you can tell us the real story."

"Teyla -" he began, not really feeling up to being grilled.

"No, John. Dinner. Tonight. We will talk then."

****

In the end, it wasn't until after the tiramisu that Teyla pounced.

"Tell us of this Rodney, then," she ordered, glaring at Ronon as he tried to steal her bowl.

"Nothing to tell. He's a client. Funny, a bit of a pain in the ass, but just a client. That's all," John said, a touch defensively. He didn't want to analyse it any further than that.

"No it's not," said Ronon, pointing his spoon. "You're happy. Happier."

"You don't say it, but I believe you are sometimes lonely. We just wish for that not to be the case," said Teyla, touching his arm briefly.

"We had lunch. Once. I show him houses. He's my client." John didn't want to get into the math problems, the emails throughout the day, all the times Rodney rang at night, ostensibly with a real estate question, but stayed on to talk about anything and everything.

"If you say so," Ronon said doubtfully.

"I do." John nodded.

"Good. Then you won't miss him when you find him his perfect property?" Teyla said.

"I'll just be glad to finish another job well done," John agreed, pushing down the panicky feeling that was suddenly bubbling up as Ronon cleared the plates.

****

John pulled the compact Toyota up to the curb, and wound down the window. Rodney stood on the sidewalk, shoulders hunched in orange fleece, looking thoroughly wet and miserable. John, God help him, found it cute

"Get in. Why aren't you in the cafe like we agreed?"

Rodney slid into the passenger seat.

"It was overrun with shrieking children smearing lemon frosting over everything. Not my idea of a dignified death."

He wiped water out of his eyes and stared around the car.

"I figured you for something that goes over 200 miles an hour. Did you suddenly develop a sense of environmental responsibility?"

John turned the heater on as he pulled out into the traffic.

"Hey, its economical, fuel-efficient, easy to maintain -"

"Company car then?" Rodney asked, smiling.

"Elizabeth picked them. They're part of her - thing. Now my bike, that goes over 200 miles an hour."

Rodney looked at him in shock. "Oh my God, you probably have one of those huge Suzukis. Do you know how dangerous they are?"

"Didn't know you cared, Rodney. And I'm careful," John said, eyes on the road as the rain fell faster.

"Oh please, I know the accident statistics. You're driving a Death Bike!"

"Don't knock it till you've tried it." John turned onto the street and pulled up outside the property they were viewing.

"No thank you." Rodney's fleece steamed in the heat, and his skin was flushed pink. John wanted, suddenly, to brush the wet hair off his forehead and taste the rain on his skin. This was getting ridiculous.

"You change your mind and I'll give you a ride anytime," he said, dropping his voice slightly for the hell of it.

"Yes, well, are you going to show me this house or not?" Rodney asked as they got out of the car.

"Sure, you'll love it. It has a dining room big enough to seat twelve, so it'll be perfect for dinner parties," John said over his shoulder as he led Rodney up the tasteful drive.

"Do I seem like the kind of person that has dinner parties?" Rodney said scathingly.

Undeterred, John continued, "The kitchen is fully fitted with the latest in professional-level appliances and includes a specially built-in wok burner." It had become a game, seeing how far he could get with his spiel before Rodney exploded. This time Rodney levelled a flat, blue gaze at him, even as the corner of his mouth quirked up the tiniest bit.

"I only cook one thing well, and that's pancakes."

"Guess I'll just have to stay for breakfast then," drawled John, as he put the key in the lock, and ushered Rodney into the hallway.

****

Rodney loved the house, despite his whining. John locked the front door behind them and Rodney turned to him and beamed.

"Yes," he said simply.

"Even with all the work that needs to be done?" John asked as they walked back down the path.

"Well, you offer a full service, right? By the end of the month?"

"We have contractors we use, I'll give Ronon a call. Do you want to give me some pointers on interior design?" John asked.

"Um, no. Just have them ring me or whatever when they're done. I'm going to be pretty much living in the lab and the office."

"Oh. You're not going to be keeping an eye on things?" John felt a sharp pang of disappointment-he wasn't ready dammit.

"My publishing deadline, remember? And my experiments are almost complete. I can't waste any more time out of the lab."

"OK," John said, pulling himself together. "Do you," he began hesitantly, "do you still want to get lunch? Somewhere without screaming kids and killer frosting?"

He wanted Rodney to say yes. He wanted one more rambling conversation filled with math and Sci Fi, wanted to imprint Rodney's quicksilver mind and lightning hands on his memory.

Rodney looked at his watch. "I can't," he said regretfully. "My editor called a deadline meeting just before I left the office. I've got to get back and, you know-"

"Yeah. I'll take you back."

"You know I'd cancel if I could." Rodney sounded upset, and John was selfishly pleased at that.

The drive back to the university was quick, and quiet. John had thought that Rodney would be overjoyed by finding a house, but he was unusually subdued. John killed the engine and they sat there in silence.

"Well, I guess you'll call me with the legalities, contracts and so forth. I'll give you my lawyer's number too," Rodney said.

"Good, thanks. We'll get the work done as soon as the contracts are exchanged. All you have to do is move in."

"Good. Well then."

"Yeah." John looked straight ahead, not willing to meet Rodney's eyes.

"Sheppard, I. I just wanted to say thank you."

"I'm only doing my job, McKay," John said, which was something he'd reminded himself of often this past month, trying to keep himself detached. It hadn't worked.

"The house, yes. But the lunches, the math, Lorne. That wasn't."

John couldn't look at him. He was afraid that if he did, if he saw the intelligence and unexpected warmth there he'd do something really dumb, like fist his hand in Rodney's hideous orange fleece and kiss him hard, just once, just to see what it was like.

"Well, I'm just doing my bit for the advancement of science," he said, but the words sounded fake and hollow.

"Well, I guess I'll see you then," Rodney said.

"Yeah. See you."

He watched as Rodney got out of the car and climbed the steps to the building, silently cursing.

****

John busied himself over the arrangements for Rodney's house. Teyla pronounced the building sound, and Rodney's lawyer, Miko, dealt with the contracts with a speed and efficiency that John envied. He turned the house over to Ronon's company for the major work, and called Chuck to take care of the interior design.

Rodney, true to his word, proved almost impossible to get hold of. He came to sign the contracts when John was out on another viewing, and the only contact he had was an email from Rodney telling him to use his own judgment on the house and a list of furniture (mostly electronics) that Rodney had in storage.

"I leave it up to you," Rodney wrote. "I'm paying for full service and I don't have time to pick out curtains." Then: "This project would go much faster with another mathematician."

John was torn between annoyance and fondness. The abstracts and puzzles had dried up now Rodney's deadline approached, but the spark was back now. John dug out his own research and went back over it. His thoughts wandered to air flows as he showed houses, and he drew airfoils in the margins of his property notes. He let himself remember how much he had loved it, the purity of the math, the thrill of flight. He thought about it constantly - when he wasn't thinking about Rodney. It was Rodney and math and research, and for the first time in a long time, selling houses and living quietly wasn't enough. He needed more.

****

He was struck with the trust Rodney was showing him. It was almost intimate, creating a home for him, arguing with Chuck over colour schemes, picking out furniture. He'd done it for other clients, but he hadn't known them like he knew Rodney. He found himself losing sleep over whether Rodney would prefer sage green or blue for the bedroom (Chuck wanted green, but only because he hadn't seen Rodney's eyes) or whether the office needed more bookcases. He searched warehouses for the perfect furniture and spent hours on the phone with Chuck debating the merits of pendant lights versus standing lamps.

It was only when the movers had unpacked the last of the books, vacuumed, and left a citrus-free welcome basket on the kitchen counter that John realised what he'd been doing. From the lounger in the backyard, just right for catching the sun, to the cosy den with it's dark wine sofa and the airy office (with space for two desks), he'd made a home for himself, too. For him and Rodney.

He shook his head at his own stupid pining, slipped the file folder he'd been working on under the basket, and locked the door behind him.

****

Feeling like a big coward, he had Aidan arrange for Rodney to pick up the keys, and dropped his letter on Elizabeth's desk. He took two days vacation and hid out in his apartment with the curtains closed, drinking, eating fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches, watching every single Harryhausen movie ever made, and moping over every quirk on Rodney's face, every conversation and note and email.

He was totally on-board with pathetic wallowing.

Elizabeth came over half way through The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, took one look at him, and went into the kitchen to put the kettle on.

"Are you sure, John?" she asked, handing him a cup of the ginger tea she always made when someone in the office got sick.

John sipped and made a face.

"Yeah," he said, cupping the warm mug in his hands. "Yeah, I'm sure. Time, you know?"

"And this has nothing to do with - our client?"

John took another sip to give himself time to think. "Not completely," he allowed.

Elizabeth shook her head and got up.

"Well, we've had a good run, John."

"Yeah. Thanks for, well, you know."

Elizabeth just kissed his cheek, elegant as always, and let herself out.

****

John had finished the last of the peanut butter and was debating moving onto marshmallow fluff straight out of the jar, when the phone rang, interrupting Clash of the Titans.

"What the hell, Sheppard?" Rodney asked without preamble.

John groaned and pulled the blanket from the back of the couch over his head.

"Get over here. Now," Rodney ordered, and hung up.

"Time to face the music," he told his reflection in the bathroom mirror, as he brushed away a weekend's worth of sugar deposits.

Rodney, when he opened his front door, was brandishing John's file folder like some kind of weapon. He was wearing snug jeans and an xkcd t-shirt, and he looked just about the best thing in the world.

"What the hell is this?" he asked as soon as John crossed the threshold.

"You don't like your new place McKay?" John drawled.

"It's fine. Answer the question."

John walked through into the den and flopped onto the couch, putting his hands over his eyes.

"Your airfoil problem. I fixed it for you." He peeked out from between his fingers to see Rodney standing over him.

"Not my problem. Radek's."

"I know; he's a cool little guy."

"Don't let him hear you say that," Rodney advised.

John took a breath and went for it: "Nah, Gotta stay on the good side of my supervisor."

Rodney gaped, eyes wide.

"Your - what?"

"Did you read the rest of the folder or did you just see the design and drag me from my very important stuff to yell at me?" John asked.

"Oh please, I recognise Clash of the Titans when I hear it," Rodney said absently, flicking through the folder until he got to the copies of John's transcripts and research proposal, then his letter to Elizabeth. He read in silence and John got more and more worried.

"Is this, you're really resigning?" Rodney sounded stunned.

John shrugged. "Yeah, figured it was about time."

The look Rodney turned on him sent tingles through him - his eyes actually lit up.

"But this is great! We can work together! You can complete your PhD in a year, it looks like you're almost done, then Inarsdottir is retiring to spend more time with her grandchildren so there'll be a faculty position free. You'd have to teach undergrads but -"

John interrupted, "Getting a bit ahead of yourself, there, buddy."

Rodney stopped, flushing. Somewhere along the way he'd begun to find that cute.

"Sorry, it's just, I -"

"Yeah?" John felt the first glimmers of hope.

"I was worried I'd never see you again." Rodney mumbled, dropping down onto the couch beside John.

"Didn't hear that Rodney," John said, shifting closer.

"OK, fine! I may have a, a thing. Um. For you. It's just a bit of a thing and I don't expect you to, I mean , even though you flirt all the time and maybe you do that with everyone -"

John couldn't help himself. He had to lean across and press his lips to Rodney's. Had to shiver as Rodney's nails scratched across his scalp. Had to cup Rodney's jaw and welcome Rodney's tongue as they kissed lazily, almost drunkenly, time slowing and stretching out. Rodney pushed him back gently onto the couch cushions and John went willingly, blanketed in Rodney's heat and weight, his bulk comforting and reassuring. John kissed Rodney's chin, the underside of his jaw, bit gently at the tendons of his neck.

Rodney moaned softly at that, then sat back in his heels.

"I can't believe you weren't going to say anything. And they say I'm bad with people. What was next, a note with ' do you like me, tick yes or no?'"

"Hey, I just kissed you, didn't I?" John pointed out. He slid a hand up Rodney's thigh, squeezing the muscle, then found his hand being gently trapped, Rodney's fingers making small shivery circles on the palm.

"Oh, please. Only after I poured my heart out."

John snorted at Rodney's idea of a heart-to-heart, but he could still taste him on his lips, could feel Rodney's heat and hardness, so he tugged him back down for another kiss, stretching underneath him, threading his fingers through Rodney's curls and going for the throat again just to hear Rodney gasp, feel him shudder and grind down.

"OK. We can do this here and stain what is a very comfortable sofa."

"Or?" John asked. He pressed up against Rodney and rubbed his foot down the back of Rodney's calf encouragingly. Rodney bucked against him and gasped out.

"Or, we can go to my obscenely large bedroom with its obscenely large bed and - christen it."

John grinned. "Well, I was raised religious," he deadpanned.

Rodney just kissed him again and stood up. He gave John a hand up. John didn't let go, the strength in Rodney's slightly sweaty clasp proof that this was real and not some peanut butter-induced hallucination.

"Come on, come on," Rodney muttered, tugging him up the stairs with one hand while trying to pull his t-shirt off with the other. He got hopelessly tangled just inside the bedroom until John took pity on him.

"Let me," he said, stripping Rodney's shirt up, and off, tugging his own over his head.

"God, come here," Rodney whined, his big hands deft and quick on John's belt, pushing his pants down, ghosting over John's cock. John toed off his shoes as Rodney kicked off his own jeans, then tumbled them both onto the bed.

They didn't really talk much after that. John leaned up to kiss Rodney again, and Rodney made small noises of encouragement, kissing him back as though he never wanted to stop, which was just fine by John. John palmed the gorgeous curve of Rodney's ass, squeezing the muscle, feeling Rodney shiver. They began to move against each other, slick and easy. Rodney peppered John's face, neck and chest with small, biting kisses, and his hands were everywhere smoothing down John's side, scratching through his hair, thumbing a nipple.

John threw back his head and moaned as Rodney replaced his thumb with his mouth, slight edge of teeth sending shocks through him. It had been a long time for John, longer still since he'd been with someone he really cared for, and he knew it was going to be over quicker than he'd like.

He managed to get out, "Wait, Rodney, too soon -" but Rodney just lifted his head and said in a husky voice, "Don't worry, first of many, I promise," before working his hand between them to stroke their cocks together.

It only took a few twisting strokes, with Rodney pressing John down into the mattress, before John was coming, quaking and shuddering, the set of his teeth into Rodney's neck enough to push Rodney over as well.

****

"Tell me," John asked after he'd got his breath back, absently tugging on one of Rodney's curls, "do all new grad students get this treatment?"

Rodney snorted into his neck and pushed himself up on his elbows. His eyes were wide and amazingly blue, he had the beginnings of a huge hickey on his neck, and come matting his chest hair. He looked incredible.

"No. You get the special treatment," he said, dipping down to kiss John again.

"Hmmm, glad to hear that," John hummed happily, tugging Rodney to lie on top of him regardless of the sticky mess. They could have fun getting clean later - he knew for a fact the shower had room for two.

"So," he asked again, "you like your new house?"

"I liked it before," Rodney answered, lipping at John's ear. "Now? It's perfect".