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They let Ronon go around the city without his guard after a week, and two days later he was still looking over his shoulder and surprising himself with what he didn’t see.

He’d be looking over his shoulder for a while, probably.

But they trusted him now, not that he’d ever understood quite why they didn’t all along. What was he going to do, kill somebody here? He was on a fucking island; they’d trap him for sure and put him down if he took out one of theirs, and he hadn’t come this far to die now – even if it hadn’t been that long ago that he’d thought his one wish in life might be to die with a full stomach.

Best yet was to live with one, and the Atlantis cafeteria gave out seconds. Thirds, even, although Ronon had stopped asking for thirds a few days back. He just wasn’t that hungry anymore, which was nice.

He took a long drink from a lightweight clear pitcher of some kind of watery-tasting juice, wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, and glanced behind him. Fuck. It was worse than a habit now – more like a tic. He couldn’t seem to stop waiting for something to catch up with him.

But there was no one, nothing. He wasn’t being followed. He wasn’t being chased. He was just sitting here, eating his breakfast, minding his own business, living his life.

That was good. That was what he wanted.

The doctor who’d been playing some board game with Sheppard since before Ronon showed up for supper went back through the line for two servings of jell-o, but instead of going back to his game, he sat down at Ronon’s table and slid one of the dishes across. “This is for you,” he said, then produced a spoon with a small flourish and added, “as is this.”

Ronon looked down at his fingers, slippery with eggs and sausage grease. He wiped them on his sweater and took the spoon, settling it instinctively across his palm, secured under his thumb. Only when he started eating with it did the position feel a little awkward – a stabbing grip, not a scooping one.

“Do you know who I am?” the doctor asked. “We’ve met, but I guess you’ve met a lot of people lately, and if you’re anything like me, all those names at once– “

“McKay,” he said. He couldn’t help smirking a little bit. He didn’t often forget people he came across hanging upside down from a tree.

“Rod,” he corrected. “You can call me Rod. Can I call you Ronon?” Ronon nodded stiffly and put the spoon down. It didn’t fit against the bottom curve of the dish as conveniently as his fingers did. “I want to apologize. I really meant to sit down and have a conversation with you earlier than this but I’ve been a little...possessed. Long story. Anyway, now we have things to catch up on, I suppose. How’s it been, so far? Are you settling in?”

“Is this the psych profile?” Ronon asked flatly. “You want me to take another test, I will. You don’t have to pretend to be my friend.”

Not a psychologist after all, Ronon decided, watching Rod McKay’s eyes go abruptly, impossibly wider. He was too easy to read for that. Ronon couldn’t remember what kind of a doctor McKay was. Something to do with math, he thought, or maybe astronomy. “I’m not – there’s no test,” he said.

Ronon snorted. He was supposed to believe McKay was over here for the company? Even Sheppard....

Even Sheppard hardly talked to Ronon outside of their training sessions, which had been – kind of surprising at first, since they seemed to get along pretty well inside them. But Sheppard was – strange, hard to figure out, easy like an old friend some of the time, then suddenly prim and distant and obviously uncomfortable. Ronon didn’t know if it was something he was doing wrong, or if Sheppard was just kind of fucked up. At first it bothered Ronon, but he was more used to silence than he was to conversation, so in a way it had turned out to be...nothing much.

“I don’t suppose it’s news to you that John’s tapped you to join our recon team – I mean, nothing official just yet, but the three of us have talked it over, and I feel oddly like I’m asking you to rush our frat, but that aside, yes. And our relationship is a little more – well, just a little more than your average working relationship, so it would be a little bit absurd to bring you on and then not treat you like you actually fit in, and that’s all – that’s all it is. John’s my friend, Teyla’s my friend, I’d like for you and I to be friends, too. No test. No strings.”

Friends. Ronon had spent most of his adulthood carefully not thinking much about what it felt like to have even just allies, let alone friends. He couldn’t stop – it didn’t feel –

They all thought it should be so easy now for him to turn the whole course of his life around, but it wasn’t. All the old habits were there, right there, lodged between his ribs, his vertebrae. He could feel them every time he moved. Tension, hyperawareness, staying poised for a threat. Silence, cold, the absence of hands on his skin, of eyes to meet his. Always looking over his shoulder but never turning back. Forward. Run.

“Fine,” he said shortly. “We’ll be friends.”

But Rod just kept watching him, his oddly shaped mouth drifting downward at one corner. “Good,” he said, although it was obvious that he hadn’t missed the dry sarcasm in Ronon’s voice. “I’m going to hold you to that, you know.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ronon snapped.

That same corner of his mouth took a quick twist upward, and he said, “I can be surprisingly obnoxious when I’m invested in a new project. If you’re thinking you can just avoid me....”

“I avoided the Wraith, didn’t I?” Ronon said.

Surprisingly obnoxious,” Rod said in a cheerful, sing-y sort of voice.

Ronon rolled his eyes, but part of him had already figured out by that point that Rod McKay wasn’t fucking around.

It didn’t take him very many weeks after that to realize that Rod also never, ever made threats he couldn’t carry out.

*

When Rod came by his quarters at the usual time, Ronon hobbled over to the door instead of just letting him come in, because he didn’t want it to look like he couldn’t make it across his own room, after he’d told every doctor in the city that his leg didn’t even really hurt that much.

It hurt like hell, but he didn’t want to spend the night in the infirmary.

“Hey,” he said a little blankly. “I don’t – think I’m gonna be able to spar today. Doc said to rest up,” he added.

“What, from a little thing like a spear through your calf?” Rod said. Ronon tried a faint, apologetic smile – doctors, what are you going to do? – until Rod grinned and punched him in the shoulder saying, “Joke, buddy, that was a joke! Of course you need to take care of it. I can’t believe you’re already walking at all.”

“I can get around a little,” Ronon said. “I’m not supposed to walk far, but...I don’t want it getting weak or anything.”

“Right, right,” Rod said, giving him a look that was just a little more searching than Ronon liked. “Listen, I have a week’s leave that starts this evening, and since you’re sort of benched for a little while, you know, vis a vis your regularly scheduled educational violence, I wondered if you’d just as soon take a break all around. I mean, I’m not going anywhere very thrilling, very, you know, tourist-friendly, I’m just staying with my kid sister, but it’s Earth, and I thought you might be curious. Do you like kids? My sister has kids, but they’re very bright, very mature, I think you’d like them. I mean, I’m their uncle, I’m biased, but I think they’re not like regular kids. Madison has a ballet recital. I think she’s a mouse, or possibly a mole? She’s really very cute, have I showed you the pictures?”

“Yeah, you have,” Ronon said, still repeating the middle part in his head to make sure he’d understood correctly. Rod was acting a little weird, sort of rambling and jumping from topic to topic. “You want me to come to Earth with you?”

It must have come out more – negative than he meant it to, because Rod flinched away just the slightest bit, making Ronon wonder all over again what was up with him. For a second, Ronon thought he was going to retract the offer, but he just said, “I vetted it with Carson; he says as long as you take your crutches and I make you use them if you’re on your feet very long. Sorry about the short notice.”

“It’s okay,” Ronon said. “I...don’t have that much to pack.”

All at once, the reluctance seemed to clear away from Rod’s expression, and he flashed his wide smile and said, “Well, that’s what I figured, too.”

*

He drew a little bit of attention on Atlantis, being taller than most people and one of the very few who didn’t wear one of the standard uniforms, but it was nothing compared to the looks he got on Earth. There were more people in the Vancouver airport alone than Ronon thought he’d ever seen in one place, but still everyone seemed to pick him out of the crowd, turning their heads to watch him as he passed. Ronon felt his shoulders curling inward protectively, and he growled to Rod, “They keep looking at me.”

Rod glanced around, but it was obvious that he couldn’t see the same thing Ronon was seeing. Rod had this way of going through life without really seeming to notice who was watching him. “Nobody’s looking at you,” he said. Ronon gave him a look, and he threw up his hands and said, “Fine, they might be looking at you. It’s probably the crutches. Or maybe it’s the leather, the dreads, the unconscionable hotness – you know, the usual.”

But it wasn’t that – or maybe some of it was, but it was more than that. There was a wariness in almost every face he saw turned toward him, and deep down in his gut, it was like – it was like they knew what he was, that he didn’t belong here. They looked at him like he was an alien, much more so than all those people on Atlantis who had known he was.

He was busy glaring back at strangers when Rod found his sister, and after that he didn’t have much choice but to keep hanging back while everybody hugged and tried to talk over each other in increasingly higher and louder voices, until they sounded like happy dolphins – Rod and the sister and the sister’s husband and two little kids, maybe six and four.

It was the sister who paid attention to him first, a crooked, Rod-like smile playing across her mouth as she set her fists on her hips and said, “Okay, now, look. You’re going to have to start bringing home the same man more than once, or I’m going to tell on you.”

“No! What?” Rod said, looking back and forth between his sister and Ronon with an expression of equal terror and amusement. “Jean! You’re not funny, you know. This is Ronon. He’s one of the, uh, civilian contractors who works on the base with me. Ronon, this is my sister Jeannie, and Caleb Miller, and these critters down here are Madison and Bradley.”

“I’m funny!” said the younger one, the boy.

“Yeah, funny-looking, maybe,” Rod said, swinging him up into his arms.

“Are your legs broken?” the girl said, reaching for one of his crutches.

“Madison!” her mother said, grabbing her shoulder and pulling her back. She put out her own hand and said, “Hi, Ronon. I’m so sorry, I hope I didn’t offend– I tease my brother, you know; it’s kind of my job. I’m always happy to meet one of Rod’s friends.”

“Hi,” he said, shaking her hand carefully. “It’s – fine. Thanks for letting me stay with you.”

“Oh, don’t thank me yet,” she said. “A few days in our chaos, and you might change your mind.”

Bradley leaned forward from Rod’s arms with clear intent to grasp at Ronon’s hair. “Lemme see,” he demanded. Rod rolled his eyes and pushed Bradley’s arm away.

“Maybe later,” Ronon said, bemused.

“How’d you hurt your leg?” Madison asked.

“Ballet dancing,” Ronon said seriously. “I was the mouse.” Her eyes got very wide for a moment, then narrowed suspiciously.

“How’d you get so tall?” Bradley asked. “Mama says it’s vegetables. Was it vegetables? We’re vege– vegetarians, but I’m still shorter than even Taylor Morton at playgroup, and he’s three and a half months younger than me, so I said it can’t be because of vegetables.”

“Your mother’s right,” Ronon said. “Mothers are always right.”

Jeannie put an arm around his back and said to Rod, “We like this one; he can stay.”

*

The first night was a blur of activity, and he didn’t even leave the house. They ate burritos with sweet potatoes and black beans, with coffee-flavored brownies for dessert, and a tv showing a hockey game Caleb had recorded for Rod in the background. Ronon was amazed at the whole family’s ability to switch attention seamlessly between the game and their conversation, especially when they were all talking at once anyway, kids and adults.

Somehow he got babysitting duty after dinner, in the basement playroom where the kids showed him Finding Nemo, Madison painted his fingernails purple and silver, and Bradley taught him how to use radio-controlled cars – all at once – until their mother came down to get them for bed. Ronon went upstairs behind them, and as soon as Rod saw him, he laughed. “You look a little shell-shocked,” he said. “Sorry to throw you to the wolves....”

“They’re not that bad,” Ronon said, sitting down at the kitchen table. “Anyway, you should be able to catch up with your sister.”

“Oh, you just have to interrupt us sometimes,” Rod said, waving his hand. “We’ll go on all week if you don’t. What in the world do you have on your fingers?” He made a grab for Ronon’s hand and Ronon grabbed back on instinct, twisting Rod’s hand at the wrist. “Okay, okay!” he yelped. “It’s lovely – sparkly! I’m sorry!”

Abashed, Ronon loosened his grip and moved Rod’s hand back where it was. “I didn’t mean....” he began.

“Oh, hey, I– “ Jeannie said from the kitchen doorway, then stopped abruptly as they both looked up at her. Ronon realized he was still covering Rod’s hand protectively with his own and disengaged quickly. Jeannie smoothed the blanket she carried over her arm and said, “I’m sorry. I was going to ask you where – I mean, the arrangements. Bradley loves a chance to use his sleeping bag, so I was going to say he could sleep on Madison’s floor and Ronon – but he doesn’t have to – you don’t have to. I mean, if you’d rather share the pull-out in the office. Share it with– “

“No, Jean, it’s fine,” Rod said, looking a little drawn. He rubbed the back of his neck and said, “We’re not – do you think I wouldn’t tell you if we were? Don’t I always tell you? Give him Brad’s room.” Jeannie nodded and gave them each a little smile before going back to the bedtime preparations and leaving Rod and Ronon looking at each other across the table.

“I guess you bring a lot of people here,” Ronon said a little flatly. He hadn’t known Rod all that long, but it still came as kind of a surprise that he didn’t...know as much about his talkative friend as he thought he did.

Rod shrugged helplessly. “Not as many as she’s making it sound like,” he said. “Carson once, and John once. And neither of them were – well, not seriously, anyway. Honestly, she’s – she’s – it’s mainly in her head. She’s always been more of a nester than I am; she doesn’t understand that.... Well, she’s my sister, you know? She thinks she knows what’s best for me. I’m sorry. I’ll talk to her, make it clear that– “

“You don’t have to,” Ronon said. “I don’t care what she thinks.” And that sounded a little...cold, but he didn’t mean it that way, really. “I just didn’t know,” he said. “That you liked....”

Rod smiled, without much humor. “It’s not always politic to be indiscriminately honest in a closed society,” he said. “Does it – I don’t know that much about Sateda – does it bother you?”

Ronon thought about that for a minute. He didn’t want to lie, but he didn’t want to be...impolitic, either. Not with a whole week left ahead of them, and a whole lot of room to screw up their friendship. “Not unless you’re sleeping with Sheppard,” he finally said. “I don’t think that’s good for the team.”

“Funny,” Rod said dryly, “you’re not the first person to say that to me. Relax, I’m not sleeping with Sheppard. Or Carson, come to that. Or anyone that isn’t attached to me by my wrist, much to my sister’s disappointment.”

Which Ronon could believe; Rod was friendly with everyone, but he was friendly with everyone in the exact same way. Ronon thought he’d be able to see the difference, if there was something happening in Rod’s love life. He was a fairly observant person. And he’d maybe been watching.

*

It felt like they spent the first three days shopping; Ronon had never owned so many shirts in his entire life up to that point, but Madison kept picking out new ones, and she looked so excited about each one that he felt obligated to buy them all.

“You have, uh, interesting tastes,” Rod said in the food court, looking through his Belk’s bag.

“Nothing wrong with having a personal style,” Ronon said with his mouth full of pretzel. He winked surreptitiously at Madison, who beamed at him. “Just because every shirt I own isn’t blue.”

“Hey, blue goes with everything,” Rod said amiably. “Versatility is my watchword.”

“So I hear,” Ronon smirked. Rod’s eyebrows shot straight up and he tilted his head half-challengingly, but Ronon didn’t have anything to add to that.

Madison picked the outfit he wore to her ballet recital, too, of course. She went kind of conservative, as far as Ronon could tell, avoiding colors and giving him a black polo shirt with big white diamonds in the print and a black jacket with thin white stripes up and down it and a slightly shiny finish, dark jeans, and black sneakers. “What?” he snapped when Rod opened his mouth to say something. “Black goes with everything, too.” His leg hurt and he was cranky and he let it show on his face.

Rod raised his hands in surrender. “We’ll tell people you’re from Europe. It’ll be fine.”

He refused to take his crutches to the recital and then refused to admit it was hard to carry a sleeping Bradley through the parking lot afterwards, so that by the time he got back to the house he was afraid even to breathe noisily, in case the sounds he made gave him away. He shut himself in the bathroom as soon as he got inside and sat on the edge of the tub, opening his painkillers with shaking hands and gulping down three instead of the recommended two.

He didn’t know how long he sat there with his head swimming, until he suddenly clued in and heard the sharp knocking on the door. He stumbled a little as he stood up and lurched for it, his feet tangling in the jacket he’d thrown onto the floor at some point, and he opened the door on Rod, holding Madison’s hand and frowning worriedly.

“Hey,” Ronon said hoarsely, straightening the pink and gray ears Madison still wore. “You give good mouse.”

She threw her arms around his waist and put her head against his hip. “Goodnight, Uncle Ronon,” she said, then skipped off on her bare feet, still almost dancing.

Rod gave him a helpless look and said, “I didn’t know she was going to– Good God, you’re going to have to come with me every time I’m back here from now on, or they’ll all get a complex. Who told you to bond with them, anyway?”

“I didn’t really think it was going to be a problem,” Ronon said. He’d never thought of himself as good with kids before – but then, he’d never had much reason to be around kids in his life.

Rod put a steadying hand on his arm, which was the first clue Ronon had that he was starting to tilt. “Are you okay? Can you get up the stairs?”

“It’s just the medication,” he said. “I’ll be – I just need to lie down.”

“Trade rooms with me,” Rod said. “I’ll sleep upstairs.”

“No, this one’s better for your back,” he said. “I can do it. I’m not going to fall down the stairs.”

“Because that would scar my niece and nephew for life. That’s my only point.” Before he could so much as roll his eyes, Ronon had the disconcerting experience of being lunged at by a member of the McKay family, with Rod’s arm around his neck and his ribs, Rod’s chin in the joint of his shoulder with his breath hot on his neck. Ronon went tense and still. It wasn’t – wasn’t awful or anything, but.... As much progress as he’d made in a short time, this was still an awful lot of human contact, awfully fast. He sucked in a deep breath and shut his eyes. “You make me feel very powerless,” Rod said into his shoulder. “I don’t think I like it.”

“Powerless?”

Rod pulled away enough to look up into his eyes and said, “I really, really want to fix you.”

“I’m not broken,” Ronon said, and he inflected it like it was a joke, but honestly he didn’t know whether it was or not.

“Nothing bad happens to you if you admit you’re not all right. You know that, don’t you? I don’t – mean just your leg....”

He put his hand up and moved Rod away, not too roughly. “I’m fine, I’m just groggy – from the pills. I’m gonna sit on the couch for a minute, then go up to bed. That’s all.”

And that plan almost went off without a hitch, except that he lost consciousness almost as soon as he hit the couch and woke up hours later in the dark with a blanket thrown over the top half of his body. He laid there for a while looking at the streetlights outside through the sheer curtains before he focused in on the voices coming from the kitchen.

“...how to deal with him anymore,” Rod was saying, his voice weary and hard, worlds away from his usual manic optimism. “Ever since we lost Ford, he’s so much more...what? Self-protective? God, it was hard enough before to get anything real out of him, and now he’s trying not to let anything slip.”

“He still has his friends,” Jeannie said gently. “He needs you, even if he doesn’t admit it.”

“I know he does. And he’s got me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to just – smack him sometimes. Especially with the Ronon thing, which would be the perfect chance for him to get his head out of his own ass and do something for someone who needs even more help than he does. But of course, he got attached to Aiden and it went badly, so now he’ll be damned if he lets himself like anyone new ever again, and have I mentioned he makes me want to smack him sometimes?”

“Look at you,” Jeannie said teasingly. “Ronon really brings out the older brother in you, doesn’t he?”

“Oh...well...maybe,” he allowed awkwardly. “I don’t want to say too much, but Jean, if you knew everything he’s been through.... He was sort of a, a – prisoner of war. For seven years.”

“My God,” Jeannie said, almost a breath. “That makes everything...a lot clearer. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why you were so fussy around him if you weren’t– “

“Well, now you know. He’s such a sweet person, Jean. I mean, you know that, you’ve seen him with the kids. He just needs to feel safe. And he is getting there. I just think he’d be getting there faster if I had a little help.”

“I think you’re doing fine,” she said indulgently. “He came here where he doesn’t know anybody. That must mean he has a lot of trust in you. And I know you think I’m crazy, but– “

“Oh, would you stop? This is the hormones talking, this is your crazy-pregnant-lady fantasy world where everyone has to be paired up in blissful suburban domestic– ow!”

“You deserve it. This is me talking, Mer, and I love you so much, and you don’t even see how you’re as bad as John in your own way.” Rod made an indignant sound, which she talked right over. “You have to just worm your way into everyone’s life and make everyone love you and need you, but who do you ever let yourself feel that way about?”

“You,” he said, in the stubborn, don’t-fuck-with-me-on-this voice he only used in the field.

“I don’t count. Someone who’s near you, someone who could actually be there when you need something. If you could see your face when you talk about him, Mer, honestly. What would be wrong with having something that made you feel like that?”

There was a long moment of silence, and Rod said, “I have so much on my plate right now. I can’t – relationships are not my natural habitat. Someday when I’m old and gray and fucking up my life might not actually entail exploding planets, maybe I’ll...give it a shot. Hey, at least I’ll know that anyone who wants a fat, bald, cranky physicist of his very own at that point is clearly not in it for superficial reasons.”

“No, you don’t get to do that,” Jeannie said. “You know how boring you are when you start in with the self-pity.”

“Right, right, right,” Rod said. “Momentary lapse, sorry. It’s late.”

He went to bed not long after that, and Ronon didn’t pretend he was asleep, but Rod didn’t look down at him as he passed by, so it didn’t really matter.

*

Rod and his family took Ronon fishing and to the movies, to the top of a 500-foot tower in a glass elevator, to a brewery on an island and a play in the park, and even to a planetarium, where he found himself smiling fondly as Madison and Bradley got breathless with excitement at being allowed to hold a “real rock from the actual moon.” Rod grinned over at him, too, and caught his arm a few minutes later to read to him from a brochure, his voice artificially deep and sober. “‘The most intriguing and engaging question in the universe and beyond: Is there life out there? This multi-media production explores the mystery of life on other planets and seeks to find answers in this ongoing debate. Join us as we search for the truth!’ Should we go see it, you think?”

It was supposed to be funny, and Ronon guessed it sort of was, but he felt his smile starting to crack in spite of himself, and he shrugged his coat closer around himself and looked down at the floor as Rod’s fingers slid off his arm. “If you want,” he said.

“Hm,” Rod said, staring as intently at him as his blue-eyed nephew had stared at the moon rock. “Yeah, maybe not. Homesick?”

“I guess,” Ronon said, although that sounded too – simple to describe the sudden flashes of disorientation he sometimes felt here, carrying the secret of his whole life with nothing to moderate the silence. He’d been to a lot of different planets, but never to one that had no Ring – or might as well have had none, for all its people knew. There was no such thing as a planetarium in Ronon’s galaxy, no need to build models of the stars to entertain the curious.

They ate an early supper in the café, and Ronon dutifully listened to Madison tell him about docking the model space shuttle just as if he hadn’t been standing there at the time she did it. Finally Jeannie groaned and put her hand over her daughter’s mouth. “It’s a curse,” she said. “One of our ancestors dug up a mummy or something. We’ll be annoying blabbermouths unto the seventh generation....”

“I don’t mind,” Ronon said.

“Here’s a crazy thought,” Rod said. “Since it’s our last full night here, why don’t I show you something on– ah, in Vancouver that they card you for? How does that sound? The two of us could go out for a drink, maybe interact with someone over four feet tall?”

“Drink’s good,” Ronon said, looking down at his wilting ham sandwich and pretending he didn’t notice the slightly smug look Jeannie was giving both of them.

Rod took him to a place called the Sky-Hi, which he said he used to go a lot, but it was obvious from his face once they got inside that it wasn’t quite what he remembered. They made their way inch by inch through a crowd of bodies toward the bar, and Ronon found himself wondering if he should’ve brought the crutches along, if only as a potential weapon. Half the people here had that look, that seething energy with nowhere to go – not until someone gave them an excuse. Ronon made eye contact with as many of them as possible, the clear and silent message this is not your chance. Move on.

“Rum and Coke,” Rod said when they finally got to the bar. “And, uh...a screwdriver,” he said when Ronon just shrugged at him.

The drink they gave him was orange, and Ronon eyed it dubiously. “This is good?” he said.

Rod shrugged, trying to take in the bar from every angle at once by craning his neck around. “It’s popular. Never had one myself, I’m allergic to oranges. All citrus, actually.”

It wasn’t bad, just enough burn to make itself noticed and no real taste other than the juice. He drank half of it at once and then said, “So...what do we do here?”

“I’m going to teach you how to play pool,” Rod said with finality.

They had to wait a few minutes for a chance at the table, which gave Rod time to explain the basic concept to him – twice, and a third time as he set up the balls and then broke, passing the cue to Ronon. “Do you think you’ve got it?” he said, and Ronon didn’t dignify that with an answer.

He leaned over, arching his hand in the same way Rod had. “Okay, the blue one would be your best bet,” Rod said. “I wouldn’t try to sink it, though, I’d use it to move the orange– “

“Stop talking,” Ronon said shortly. “I’m concentrating.”

He sank the orange, the blue, and two others before his turn was over, and he smirked at the wide-eyed shock on Rod’s face. “What?” he said lazily. “I can aim, you know.”

“Yes,” Rod said. “Silly me, of course you can.”

It was a good game; Ronon liked it. He won the first one, but lost the second two, which made him all the more determined to keep playing, and he drank two beers and barely even noticed that a number of other patrons seemed to have developed strong feelings about their continued monopoly of the pool table until it was damn near too late. He was obsessing over his last striped ball when he realized he’d all but tuned out Rod’s voice, and that he was now talking to someone else – talking in that certain way that Ronon recognized from off-world missions, quicker and quicker, self-consciously reasonable, placating.

Ronon was not, personally, a placater. “McKay, what’s going on here?” he said gruffly, coming around the table toward him and his three unfriendly new friends.

“Just having a conversation,” said one of the men, gray-haired but solidly built – no real threat, Ronon gauged, but not to be dismissed entirely, either.

“Well, have one with someone else,” Ronon advised. He moved between the stranger and Rod, just passing between to make his presence known, to maybe break the stalemate that was starting to develop. Not a threatening gesture, but something to put out there.

“Hey, buddy,” the gray-haired man said shortly, stepping sideways so that Ronon was walking into him, not past him, and putting his hand flat on Ronon’s chest to stop him.

He didn’t really remember what happened after that. It might have begun with an instinctive shudder of fear, but then there was nothing but anger. Who asked anyone to put their fucking hands on him, anyway? Who asked anyone to be his buddy, or to come near him, or trust him, or fix him or save him or look at him, when all he wanted was to be let go, to pass on by? It was no one’s right, and he wouldn’t, he wouldn’t let–

“Ronon! Ronon!” Rod was yelling almost in his ear, and Ronon’s brain switched places abruptly with his instincts. He was backed up against the wall, Rod almost plastered to him to pin him there with all his weight. Ronon grabbed hold of his arms and saw him flinch, but not break eye contact. “It’s okay,” Rod said, low and a little desperate. “You don’t need to do this, it’s okay.”

There was blood on Ronon’s hands and on his shirt – not his own. The bartender was yelling at them, too, waving his cell phone in their direction, but Ronon couldn’t really make out any voice except Rod’s. Rod let him go, and he slumped harder against the wall, feeling his leg twinge.

“Listen to me, listen,” he heard Rod tell the bartender, still in his off-world voice, as he opened his wallet and began to lay money on the bar between them. “My friend is a soldier, he’s just come home on leave. I’m sorry, I’m really sorry, this is for the damages, but everyone’s all right, right?”

“He doesn’t look like a soldier,” the bartender said, fixing his stare on Ronon. Ronon turned his face away and tried to control his breathing.

“He’s Special Ops,” Rod insisted. “He’s been, he’s been undercover with a terrorist cell, I swear to you, he’s military, he works with me.”

“Oh, you’re a soldier, now, too?”

“I’m a military contractor, research and development. I build bombs. We’re leaving, we’re going right now. Just – don’t call anyone, all right? It happens, these things happen, you know, and everyone’s – we’re leaving. We just want to leave.”

He held onto Ronon’s arm and steered him out the door. Ronon saw the gray-haired man with blood all over his face, but he was sitting up and glaring evilly at Ronon, so he was probably fine.

“You shouldn’t have lied to them,” Ronon said when they were in the parking lot.

Rod rolled his eyes as he unlocked the car door. “Oh, I shouldn’t have– ? Look, never mind, just get in the car.” Ronon did, and Rod drove them in silence ten or twelve blocks away and pulled into the parking lot of a McDonald’s, where he turned off the car and took off his seatbelt, turning toward Ronon. “Are you okay?” he said in the tone Ronon knew from him best, kind and curious. Ronon didn’t know how he was supposed to answer that, so instead he got out of the car and slammed the door.

He leaned against the trunk of the car, breathing in the cool air, while Rod went inside and then came back out with two milkshakes. “Come on,” he said, sitting on a raised wedge of concrete beside the car. “Come on, sit down.” Because his leg hurt, Ronon did.

He took one of the milkshakes from Rod, but he just held it between his own hands, rotating it idly. Rod sipped from his for a minute, then lifted his hand, but stopped just short of putting it on Ronon’s back. “Can I?” he said quietly. “I just....” Ronon nodded once, stiffly, and Rod pushed his hair aside and laid his warm palm just between Ronon’s shoulderblades, petting up and down softly. “I’m really sorry,” he said. “When I realized what kind of crowd it was, I should’ve taken you somewhere else. This is your vacation; you weren’t supposed to have to fight anyone.”

“I didn’t have to,” Ronon allowed. “He just....” Scared me. Anything more or less than that was bullshit. “I wasn’t ready for that,” he said instead.

“Are you sorry you came?” Rod asked, almost timidly. “I thought it would be a nice break, but you seem...possibly more stressed than you were back home.”

“It’s not that.... No. Just, there’s a lot of people, and no Wraith. It’s kind of like everything is – backwards here. From what I’m used to.”

“Bizarro Pegasus,” Rod said with a rueful little laugh. “Right, right, I see that. I’m sorry. This was too much, it’s no wonder you’re stressed when everything keeps changing around you.”

“It’s okay,” Ronon said. “It’s – nice here. I like your family.”

Rod’s fingers grazed the knot of scar tissue on his back; the shape of it had to be pretty distinct through his shirt. His hand paused, and then he smoothed his fingers over it again, more deliberately. “ Does this hurt?” he asked. Ronon shook his head. “Do they do their surgery with a meat fork or what?” he said, and he sounded so huffy that Ronon had to grin down at the pavement.

“Actually,” he said, his smile fading, “it wasn’t that bad at first. The scarring is...mostly from the times I tried to get it out.”

“Huh,” Rod said. “Isn’t that always the way.” Ronon didn’t really know what that meant, so he didn’t respond. “Listen,” Rod said in a very soft voice. Ronon turned his head to look at him, his light eyes and his light skin sharp and clear under the streetlight. “You’re doing good.”

Ronon snorted. “I can’t – I don’t – fit. Anywhere. There’s nobody who’s like me now.” And he hadn’t thought that until he said it, but now it was everywhere, pressing in around him. There was nobody who was like him now, nobody who was from where he’d come from.

Rod smiled at him, a little sadly, but with real amusement in his eyes. “Terrifying, isn’t it?” he said.

“You don’t – you wouldn’t understand,” Ronon said, knowing he sounded like a sulky kid, but unable to stop. “You left your world, you went away and you didn’t even know if you could ever go back. How the hell could you do that and then tell me you know what it feels like to be....”

“What, an alien freak?” Rod said, and now he was smiling more widely, laughter lurking in his voice. “Oh, God, if you only.... Listen to me. I don’t tell many people this, but I spent entirely too much of my life being – being scared of everything. Letting it keep me...alone, because I thought there was no one like me. That I didn’t have any choice but to be alone.”

That was hard to imagine. Rod was always surrounded by people, always in the middle of something. “What happened?” he said.

Rod shrugged. “Well, I...I quit, I suppose. I started to realize that nothing had ever happened to me that was as bad as being afraid of my own life, and just decided that if something awful was going to happen, it should at least be something...new. Maybe even a little bit exciting, for once. And I was always a little bit of a drama geek, so I just thought, how hard could it be to act like someone who could handle things? Now it’s a habit. And I’m lucky it is, because it got me to Atlantis, which is where it finally sank in on me that...the universe is pretty much full of alien freaks, just desperately hoping to pass for normal. We’re all sort of – alone in it together.”

“Sheppard,” Ronon said, smiling wanly.

“A lot of people,” Rod said, but then he relented and admitted, “Sheppard more than most, maybe. But he’s been a good friend to me, and he’ll – he’ll get there with you. I know he wants to. John can be...a mess, but he’s got great instincts. He could tell right away – long before I ever would have noticed – how, how...amazing you are.”

The milkshake was starting to make his fingers numb. He turned his head, and the motion shifted Rod’s hand up toward the back of his neck. After a second to search for the right phrase in this new language, Ronon said in a low voice, “Are you making a pass at me?”

Rod’s eyes widened for a second, then he leaned away and looked out across the parking lot with an odd half-smile. “No,” he said. “I’d probably never have the balls for that.” He closed his eyes when Ronon leaned in and kissed his cheek gently, then left them closed when Ronon pulled away. “This is not the low-stress, non-threatening mid-life liaison I was picturing for myself,” he said.

“No strings,” Ronon said. “I just want us to be....” What? Not friends. Something else.

“Yeah,” Rod said, shifting to lean just a little against Ronon’s shoulder. “Yeah. Me, too.”