Rodney McKay did not do relationships, because they were inevitably a boring, heartbreaking waste of time, and some people were simply meant to live alone, devoting their lives to the betterment of mankind. This was simply a fact of life. He hadn’t been on a date in seven years, barring the two dates with Katie Brown – and only because she asked him – and look how that turned out; he should have stuck to his principles – and he hadn’t had sex in slightly over four and a half. Not with another person, anyway. Also, women thought he was an insensitive prick and he was entirely too old and double-chinned to experience gay bars as anything other than an opportunity for masochism and bitterness, and anyway he didn’t know of anyone who had ever been in a happy and lasting romantic relationship. He knew a few people who claimed to be, but he had no data on that. Atlantis was nice, because nobody there was attached, and nobody ever asked him how he was ever going to meet someone if he didn’t get out there and try. Well, Cadman did sometimes, but she was patently insane; anything she said was almost guaranteed to be the opposite of reasonable, which was why he hardly ever listened when she talked. (He didn’t count Carson as being in a happy relationship, because it was with Cadman.)
He would have cheerfully died alone, surrounded by cats and prestigious scientific prizes, with perhaps a fawning protégé or three and maybe a friend to come bother him occasionally (Sheppard, on the off-chance he didn’t die ridiculously young – Carson, more likely), except for the fact that Atlantis had a thirty-hour day, and the mess hall was only open for twenty of them.
Atlantis, to be fair, didn’t precisely have a thirty-hour day. Its daily orbit took exactly 1,823 minutes and 24 seconds, Earth time, which worked out to thirty hours, at an Atlantean Standard Hour of 60.78 minutes, and that was the official working measure, basically because Elizabeth thought it was too mind-bendingly bizarre to have an hour that wasn’t roughly an hour long, and Carson backed her up with a lot of blather about Circadian rhythms, not that Rodney believed for one second that Carson was any kind of an expert on Circadian rhythms in general or the human capacity for adaptation to alien astronomical cycles in particular. Rodney had lobbied for a plain and simple twenty-four hour day, where each hour would be exactly 75.975 minutes long, which would have controverted the inevitable bafflement everyone felt during their first three months on Atlantis, trying to figure out what the hell time 2600 was supposed to be and, more importantly, when meals were being served. He had lost. He had not, however, been without supporters, and there was always a faint rumbling about the possibility of revisiting the situation; life on Atlantis was full of (mainly disastrous) surprises, but it was also defined by a handful of invariable constants, one of which was that at any given time, someone somewhere was arguing about what time it should be. Normally Rodney would have tried to put a stop to that sort of thing, which skirted dangerously near to the realm of philosophy, but he was still secretly hoping his system would be adopted by popular demand. He was so rarely on the winning side of a grassroots movement.
Until that happy day, however, it was still very difficult to remember when dinner was being served. More unfairly still, Colonel Sheppard had a bizarre knack for getting them home in the dead of night (Atlantis time), no matter what time it had been on the planet they were returning from, which meant that every time Rodney stepped through the Stargate, he could pretty much bank on missing dinner, one way or another.
Actually, it was to Rodney’s advantage to miss a meal because of off-world activity, because then he could always check himself into the infirmary, and Carson would have to feed him medical rations. They weren’t wasted; he was hypoglycemic, it was a medical condition. The worst days were when he simply forgot to go to dinner until it was too late; the mess hall closed at 2800 (2800! 13 p.m.!) and wouldn’t open for flood, fire, or nuclear holocaust until 0400. Even if Rodney used his security overrides, angry men would brandish their metal ladles menacingly and refuse to surrender so much as a bagel. They were also unimpressed with Rodney’s rank; Rodney wasn’t terribly clear on where the kitchen staff fell in the chain of command, but they weren’t military and they weren’t scientists, and although he absolutely did not for one second believe that the head of Food Services (a man with the unsettlingly Axis-like name of van Straten) reported directly to Elizabeth, they certainly seemed to think so.
Elizabeth had unfortunately been extremely slow to respond to his memos on the subject.
It was exactly this state of affairs, unreturned memos and all, that Rodney was complaining about on the day he and his three teammates stumbled, bloodied but unbowed (although, actually the reverse, since nobody had been wounded this time, but they’d had to escape by crawling through very tall grass – sometimes a good day was when the people trying to kill you were stupid enough to be confused by tall grass) from a planet whose coconut-like harvest had recently been attacked by parasites and were simply thrilled to have strangers pop up just in time to take the blame. “Like you don’t have forty powerbars and a bag of Doritos in your apartment,” Colonel Sheppard scoffed before stalking off in the middle of Rodney’s sentence.
“That’s junk food,” Rodney protested, even though Sheppard was fast exiting earshot. “That’s snacks! I’m a senior member of this expedition, I should get supper!”
Ronon thumped him on the shoulder and said, “So shut up and get some supper.”
“I can’t, because it’s midnight, and if you’d even been listening, that’s exactly what I was saying– “
“It is only four hours until breakfast,” Teyla said. “Perhaps you could use four hours of sleep.”
“A nap? That’s your solution? How is a nap going to make me not hungry anymore? And I can’t even go to the infirmary, because Carson’s girlfriend won’t let him get out of bed at this hour for anything she thinks the nursing staff can handle – where she got her medical degree, I would very much like to know – and the nursing staff won’t unlock the MREs for me anymore, they just give me powerbars, which, snack food! And I have to stay there until breakfast if I want breakfast, by which time I could just go to breakfast.”
Ronon rolled his eyes and seized Rodney by the arm. “I’m going to dinner,” he announced. “You can come with me, or you can starve quietly.”
“I think you know I can really only do one of those two things,” Rodney muttered, but he went along quietly, mostly because he thought it would be funny to watch the kitchen staff wave their little ladles at Ronon.
But a bizarre (and ultimately life-changing) thing happened instead. The night staff opened the door. Oh, they glared at Rodney, but they took one look at Ronon and smiled and allowed the two of them to stroll right up to the swinging doors that separated the dining and kitchen areas and take a look around.
“What’d we miss?” Ronon asked the cook, who was sixty years old if she was a day, but the smile he gave her as he asked it clearly said you sexy culinary genius, you, and Rodney thought, oh, and then oh, and suddenly it seemed less strange that Ronon had never been made fully aware of the cafeteria’s hours of operation.
“We have quite a bit left,” she said. “How does roast elpis au jus sound?”
“Cool,” Ronon said, and helped himself to a giant plate full of red meat and vegetables (Rodney still couldn’t tell native Pegasus vegetables apart by sight, at least not in their mashed form, but if you had enough meat-grease to drizzle over it, what did it really matter?) He even strolled up to Ted the Heartless and Perhaps Sociopathic Baker and said, “Muffins?” and Ted shuffled his feet like a little girl at her locker and said, “There’s bran from yesterday, but I just finished the first batch for breakfast, would you rather have one of those? Banana nut. They’re hot.”
Ronon smiled at him and took three. He dropped one on Rodney’s tray on his way past; Rodney could feel the moist heat radiating from it, and it was totally worth getting the evil eye from Ted the not only Heartless but now potentially Homicidal Baker, totally worth it, because banana nut.
“I can’t believe you,” he said, sitting across from Ronon at the table furthest away from the kitchen. “You do this whole – you act like you just got in from being raised by wolves, and yet you’ve figured out how to get the entire run of the kitchen, twenty-four– excuse me, thirty hours a day. They don’t open early for anyone! Do you even realize what a legendary feat of social engineering you’ve accomplished?”
Ronon shrugged. “The thing about the kitchen staff,” he said, lowering his voice so far that Rodney had to squint in concentration to pick actual words out of his mumbling, “is that everybody ignores them. I noticed one time that Sheppard is always nice to them, and whenever we’re having chili, they slice up some hawwah in the back and fry it, just for him.”
“Oh, my God!” Rodney said, entirely forgetting that they were trying to be sneaky. “Colonel Sheppard gets chili fries?”
Ronon nodded seriously. “I figured if flirting works for Sheppard, it would definitely work for me. Pretty much you’ve got two kinds of people in Atlantis,” he added after a pause, in what probably passed for a philosophical moment from Ronon. “People who are scared of me, and people who want to...give me stuff.”
“Oh, euphemisms,” Rodney said. “Good of you to spare my delicate sensibilities.” After a moment he added, “And the team. I mean...we’re not scared of you.”
For a second, Ronon stopped eating completely, giving Rodney the cool, suspicious look that he usually reserved for overly jolly alien governors who were assuring him they were a prosperous and peaceful people. “No,” he said, starting in on his food again. “Not anymore. Did you just forget how many hours are in a day?”
“Hey, it’s complicated!” Rodney protested, and then proceeded to explain the entire debate, with heavy emphasis on how very, very superior his system was. Apparently Ronon’s opinions carried a lot more weight around Atlantis than one might have previously thought.
He didn’t say anything until Rodney was winding down his closing arguments. “You know what’s interesting about your way?” he said around a mouthful of meat. “If that’s how the Ancestors figured their days, then a Stargate can stay open for exactly half an hour. So maybe – even if we can’t just assume that they counted a minute the same way your people do, maybe what’s thirty-eight minutes by your count was some kind of basic unit of measurement. Forty-eight of them in a day. I mean, they depended on the Gates so much, maybe it just seemed natural to them.”
Rodney stared at him. Eventually, Ronon started to stare back. “What?” Rodney protested.
Ronon shrugged and said, “I’m just wondering what’s more insulting, that you think I don’t know how to use a Stargate, or that you think I can’t multiply by two.”
“No insult intended!” Rodney said quickly, holding up his knife and fork in surrender.
There was no way Rodney was about to lose his all-access pass to the kitchens. If he had to learn to apologize, well, this was essentially the finest reason he’d ever discovered to do so.
At first it was just convenient, not to have stupidly arbitrary things like mess hall hours to worry about; Rodney could finally schedule his eating around the demands of his scientific breakthroughs rather than the other way around, which was as it should be. Then it got to be really convenient, when he realized that if he held out long enough, Ronon would actually bring food up to his lab for him, cheap cling-wrap insulating double-stacked ham sandwiches and entire plastic cups filled with purple jell-o (Ronon refused to be his spokesman on the blue jell-o situation, for the decidedly petty reason that he did not himself enjoy blue jell-o and was happier to see it replaced, particularly by the green kind, as if Rodney didn’t have reason enough to begrudge the existence of limes already).
Before long, Rodney started to realize that the food was just better after-hours. He didn’t know if they saved out the best stuff for Ronon or if there was just something particularly nourishing about beating the system, but he found himself inventing little delays that kept him occupied until the mess hall was closed. He didn’t know what Ronon did with his dinner hours, but every time Rodney pinged him to ask, oh-so-casually, if he was up for a bite to eat, the answer was yes. Off-world travel still sent everything a bit off-kilter, but Rodney’s body had time to acclimate, by and large, to a steady schedule of late breakfast, late lunch, powerbars to keep his resolve from fading while he waited out dinner, and then a late supper with Ronon.
Most of the time he brought along something to read; another advantage of not eating with the hoi polloi was that nobody expected any pointless chitchat or distracted him with some kind of rowdiness in the much-abused name of “morale-building.” But if he’d been working on something that was genuinely taxing and not just stretched out to fit his eating schedule (which he vaguely remembered he wasn’t planning on doing anymore, shifting around his work to accommodate food, but on the other hand, you didn’t quit the habits of a lifetime overnight), he started to find it equally relaxing to put everything aside.
Ronon wasn’t much of a conversationalist, but on the other hand, Rodney had always sort of hated conversationalists. They had a tendency to interrupt him, a failing of which Ronon was blessedly free. Ronon was mostly quiet, although occasionally he had some suggestion to add, and of course his suggestions were inevitably ill-informed and unhelpful, but they were always pragmatic. It must be nice, Rodney found himself thinking, always being so...clear-headed. Ignorant, obviously, but then most people were ignorant about everything that Rodney found fascinating, and most of them got all muddled up when they tried to think; even Rodney, due to the enormously high level of complexity he dealt with on a daily basis, often found himself chasing his brain in circles, frustrated by his own slowness to organize all the things he knew that he hadn’t known yesterday. Ronon thought in straight lines, if then then then, and his premises were generally as wrong as they could be, but his logic was flawless and that was worth something, as far as Rodney was concerned. Correcting Ronon was a pleasure, and not for the reasons that Rodney usually found correcting people a pleasure; he had the distinct sensation that Ronon was actually hearing what he said and storing it up for possible future use. Rodney had taught enough undergraduate classes to know how rare that was.
And if he wasn’t actually listening and was just better at faking it than most undergraduates, well, he was at least as much of a pleasure to look at. Sometimes something Rodney said would make him smile, and Rodney would forget himself for a second and find himself passing his own muffin across the table to him. It was like a compulsion.
Then, after about three months of this, he pinged Ronon just after 2800 and asked if he was hungry, and Ronon said no. “Oh,” Rodney said blankly. He hadn’t prepared for that.
“I ate earlier,” Ronon said over the headset. Which was great and dandy, but Rodney had been hungry for two hours and there was no way they were going to let him into the mess hall alone. “There’s that party. I was thinking it’d be good to go to that.”
“What party?” Rodney said. He could feel his blood sugar dropping already, and it was making him irritable. Since when were there parties? Had Atlantis suddenly turned into a fraternity?
“Sheppard’s been teaching me how to play blackjack.”
Oh, God, that ridiculous Casino Night thing; Rodney remembered seeing it on the announcement boards. “Fine, great,” Rodney said. “Have fun.”
There was a silence on the line, but the open kind of silence that meant no one had cut the connection yet. “You don’t want to go,” Ronon said.
“Me? Of course I don’t want to go. I don’t enjoy actual Vegas; why would you think I’d enjoy the amateur talent hour version? There won’t even be showgirls, or a buffet.”
“You want to just go to dinner?” Ronon said, sounding resigned.
Rodney got the distinct feeling they weren’t having the same conversation. “You’re not going to the...?”
“I don’t care,” he said. “I just thought it would be...I don’t know. Fun to do something different. I bet you’re good at blackjack.”
“Of course I’m good at blackjack; it’s the only skill-based casino game. It’s just going to be noisy and the alcohol will be crappy and give me headaches and they will no doubt be playing Sinatra and I hate Sinatra. I’d rather stay here and get something accomplished.”
“So...you want me to go? Or....”
“Go, go, go, go,” Rodney said. “What do I care? Someone has to drink the crappy martinis. Go, have fun.”
The whole thing was vaguely annoying in ways Rodney couldn’t quite define, but then he often found being invited places annoying. You had to think up a plausible excuse, or else you just knew the people who did show up were talking about you unflatteringly. It just created so much pressure all the way around.
Ronon showed up a couple of hours later, bearing unidentified seafood in cocktail sauce. “Figured you’d still be here,” he said, handing off the bowl to Rodney and perching on the edge of his desk. It was odd, how someone of his size could perch.
“How was the casino thing?” Rodney asked, examining the seafood for something to peel off it.
“There was a buffet,” he said.
“And you didn’t call me?”
Ronon frowned and rubbed the heel of his hand over his kneecap. “I don’t really get you,” he said. “I mean...I know I’m kind of rusty at this, but I don’t.... I thought maybe you wanted time alone, or that maybe you didn’t want people to.... I haven’t told anybody. In case you’re worried. I mean, I think Teyla knows, but I didn’t tell her anything.”
“Can I have some kind of context for this conversation? Or a thesis statement, or something?”
“Look, I’m not complaining. I know there’s not a lot of places to go around here, and you work really hard and don’t have that much free time, and we get some privacy this way, which is great. And I can be discreet.”
“Are you joking? You can be positively cryptic. Like, oh, for example, now.”
Ronon huffed impatiently and said, “I don’t know. This works better when we’re not talking about it, maybe.”
“Okay, then let’s not talk about it,” Rodney said, scooping up a tablespoon of cocktail sauce on the head of the shrimp-like creature. “Oh, thanks for the things,” he called after Ronon as he left the lab, because wow, they were really, really good and had totally replaced shrimp in Rodney’s heart.
It made Ronon pause for just a moment, and half-turn back and half-lean in Rodney’s doorway with the strangest look on his face, softly amused and a little bit grave and unexpectedly...affectionate? “You’re welcome,” he said. “Goodnight.”
The rumor filtered into the labs the next day that Ronon had lost many, many hands of blackjack, so as a friendly gesture, Rodney brought along a deck of cards to supper and did his best to undo the damage Sheppard had done with his half-assed instruction. It seemed to make Ronon happy, and Rodney had a moment of guilt, because he’d been happily sponging off of Ronon’s special cook-magnet mojo for almost three months now and not doing much in the way of contributing to the relationship.
So in a way, Rodney was the first one to bring the word “relationship” into it, and he had no one to blame but himself.
“Oh my God!” he said, cutting himself off mid-sentence. “You invited me to the party because you think we’re dating!”
“Well, yeah. What do you think we’re doing?”
“Not that!” That really seemed like the obvious part of all of this.
Ronon leaned back in his chair, frowning darkly. Rodney had gotten adept somewhere along the line at distinguishing Ronon’s dark frowns, however, and this one was much more perplexed than hostile. “McKay, you spend practically every minute you’re not in the field or in your office with me.”
“One meal a day!”
“That’s practically every minute you’re not in the field or in your office,” Ronon said, which, well, point.
“Okay, fine, but that only covers dinner. We don’t– All we do is have dinner!”
Ronon shrugged. “There’s not all kinds of things to do around here. We found one we liked. It’s private, it’s intimate. We both like dinner.”
“We’ve never even kissed,” Rodney said, which was far and away the most surreal thing he’d ever said or imagined saying to Ronon Dex.
“I thought we were taking it slow,” he said, a hint of frost starting to gild the edges of his voice. “It’s been a long time for me, and given how fucking tense you always are, I figured it’d been a while for you, too.”
Four and a half years – fine, almost five, actually. Which was totally not the point at all. “That’s excessively slow, isn’t it?”
His eyes dropped to the table, the bones of chicken wings on his plate and the cards in front of him adding up to eighteen, and the sudden vulnerability printed all over him.... Rodney found himself almost wishing he could simply be afraid of Ronon. “Heightmeyer said it wasn’t that unusual, for someone who had a lot of defense mechanisms in place to have trouble touching people.”
“Was she talking about you or me?” Rodney said, before oh, my God, totally not the point at all. “You talk about me with your therapist? You’re in therapy?”
“I just go and talk to her sometimes,” he said, a little sulkily. “And yes, we talk about you, because you’re my boyfriend.”
“I am absolutely not! No offense, I – it’s not personal, I just don’t, I don’t do that. I don’t like to.... I don’t date, I don’t do relationships, none of that.”
After a silence long enough for Rodney to lose count of his pounding heartbeats, Ronon said, “Okay. Honest mistake, sorry,” and Rodney scooped the cards off the table and they both went their separate ways.
It took about an hour (Atlantis time) for Rodney to break through the sticky layers of shock and numb guilt and irrational panic long enough to think, There go my cafeteria privileges, and he wasn’t sure what it meant that the thought was bloodless and dispassionate, greyed down to nothing next to whatever the hell else these feelings were that were leaving him achy and storm-tossed like he’d just washed up after a shipwreck.
About an hour after that, Rodney sat bolt upright in bed with the first completely clear thought he’d had since dinner, which was I am the stupidest human being who ever lived.
The next thing he knew, he was standing in Ronon’s apartment in his bathrobe, saying, “Can you just forget absolutely everything that just happened? Because none of that was at all what I meant to say, not at all.”
Ronon put his hands behind his back, an endearingly nervous gesture that also had the side benefit of pushing his bare chest forward slightly, and God, those black USAF-emblazoned sweatpants were too short for him, the elastic digging into his calves like he was wearing someone else’s clothes, like they were an afterthought, like he was meant to be naked instead – stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid. “Do I want to know what you meant to say?”
Rodney stepped closer to him, and now his stomach was flipping back and forth so quickly it was like it was competing with his heart-rate. “I didn’t know we were dating,” he said plaintively.
“I hardly ever get good surprises,” Rodney said. “That’s the only explanation I can think of. I’ve just been conditioned to receive all startling information as potentially life-threatening, even if it’s...objectively...beneficial information. Good news,” he added.
A hint of a smile flickered over Ronon’s face. “Which of those words is it you didn’t think I would recognize, beneficial or information?”
“Hey, sometimes you ask!”
“You hear me asking?”
Rodney put his hands lightly on Ronon’s hips, over the warm fleece of secondhand sweatpants, and said, “How’s this? I don’t want you to report me to Heightmeyer.”
“Good,” Ronon said, his voice and his long eyelashes both sweeping low and flickering. “I think I’m pretty much more desperate than I am defensive by now, so...you don’t have to take extra time or anything.”
“When you said.... It’s been since – before Atlantis? Before the Wraith?” he added, because it wasn’t like he was going to be a sensitive person in general, so he might as well not establish any false expectations up front.
“Yeah,” Ronon said, putting a hand just above Rodney’s elbow and guiding him gently closer so that their chests brushed together. “But I mentioned you didn’t have to go slow anymore, right?”
The skin of Ronon’s lower back was surprisingly cool to the touch, though faintly damp with sweat. “It’s just strange to think that…you chose me.”
“Actually,” Ronon said, “I kind of thought you chose me.” At Rodney’s look, he said, “What? All of a sudden, you were following me around after missions, inviting me to dinner every other night. What was I supposed to think you were doing?”
“Not that,” Rodney muttered, but then on the other hand, who the hell cared? If Ronon wanted to give him the credit for this potentially fantastically brilliant idea, Rodney wasn’t going to stop him.
He put a hand on the side of Rodney’s face and kissed him, and suddenly potentially fantastically brilliant was pure genius, full stop, and he quit thinking about anything but Ronon’s wide, warm mouth and his hands and his tongue, and looking at Ronon turned out to have nothing on making out with Ronon, and neither of those things, furthermore, turned out to be a patch on getting head from Ronon.
Which only stood to reason, but still.
Afterwards, they repeated the whole process in reverse – oral sex (Ronon didn’t last long, but that was actually a positive, since Rodney could tell it was going to take him some time to get used to stretching his jaw in that particular way again), then slow but intense kissing, then back to looking at Ronon, except this time looking at him naked and lounging on his back, one scarred knee pulled up and his arms sprawled out comfortably. Rodney leaned across and kissed the marks on his knee (origin unknown) and on his calf (hostage-taking alien convict’s spear), then moved up to kiss his tattoo – the visible one. It turned out not to be Ronon’s only tattoo, and Rodney wasn’t much for keeping secrets (if something was important, it was important to know), but he thought this was a particularly nice one to have more or less all to himself.
“So, are we dating again? Or…now?” Ronon asked huskily.
“I don’t know. It turns out my sex life has taken a distinct upswing since I dumped you.”
Startled, Ronon pushed his shoulders off the bed. “How do you figure you dumped me? You said you never even dated me.”
“No, on further reflection, you were absolutely right,” he said, and kissed Ronon’s lips briefly, then again less briefly. “Clearly those were dates.”
Ronon growled and grabbed him by the back of the neck, bearing him back down to the mattress and biting at his lips as they kissed in ways that were altering the regular timeframe of Rodney’s refractory period. After that quick burst of retaliatory roughness, he settled in beside Rodney, soothing the imprints of his teeth from Rodney’s lips with the tip of his tongue. There was still a slight taste of buffalo wings in his mouth, among other tastes. “We’re going back to not talking about it,” Ronon said, and then after a long pause, long enough for Rodney almost to doze off, “Honey-baked ham tomorrow night, though.”
“Mmhm. Sounds good,” Rodney said, his words slurring together and trailing through the air at the same pace as his fingernails trailed over Ronon’s spine. “It’s a date; pick me up at thirteen tomorrow night.”