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Battle Potato

Summary: The thing was, John had never been good at patient, and Teyla looked like okay was a couple galaxies over from wherever she was now. [SGA, gen.]
Notes: My second Sweet Charity fic, for the fantastic Utterfrivolity.

It took them forty-six days to find Teyla, and in that time John imagined every way it could play out. He rehearsed op after op, some aloud with Lorne or Ronon, some on paper in his office, the rest in his head. Tactical strike against a land base. Full ground assault. Covert rescue from a hive. Space battle with the Daedalus and the Orion, with one but not the other, with their Pegasus allies, with just the puddlejumpers and every drone they could lay their hands on. He worked through each permutation move-by-move until he could find a way to win: to get her out, her and her son with her.

He knew that without intel, it was pointless; just another way to spin his wheels. But it was Teyla, and even coordinating the search and going on missions and poring over reports didn’t feel like enough. And besides, there wasn’t a way to stop himself from imagining the other versions: the ones where they found her but not the baby, or the baby but not her, or where he was too late for both of them. The ones where she was sick or hurt or dead or worse, where Michael had done things to her–

But he never once imagined it happening the way it did, which was this:

They found her, the baby too, and they didn’t get Michael, but John could save that fight for later because he was arrowing toward the gate with Teyla and her son in the back of his ‘jumper. And both of them were alive, unhurt, genetically unaltered — and John had to push his chair back when Keller brought them the test results, brace his palms on the table and drop his head down by his knees, taking deep ragged breaths and thinking, oh thank christ, oh thank god–

–and yet things weren’t anywhere close to okay.

“He had her on a lot of drugs,” Keller told him on the the sixth day, same thing she’d said on the first and the third. “I don’t want to put more chemicals in her system if I don’t have to. Her body’s breaking everything down; we just have to be patient.” John stared across the infirmary at where Teyla lay half-curled on the medical cot, Atio’s sleeping body tucked into the curve of hers, tracking the medical staff with dull eyes as they went about their business. Hands shoved in his pockets, he nodded.

“She’ll be okay, Colonel,” Keller said, again, and this time she gave his arm a short, awkward squeeze before turning to intercept one of the nurses en route to the main workstation.

The thing was, John had never been good at patient, and Teyla looked like okay was a couple galaxies over from wherever she was now. When she spoke, her voice was distant, with strange pauses between the words, and she only talked when someone asked her a question or she needed something for Atio. On the first day, Keller had taken a long look at the way Teyla held him, the tight hunch of her shoulders, and quietly set the staff to rearranging the equipment so that anything having to do with Atio could be handled within ten feet of Teyla’s cot. The times John had seen the nurses take Atio, Teyla let them, but she wrapped her hands in the blankets and took shallow, measured breaths until they brought him back to her.

Starting the second day, John established a rhythm of coming by once before he went on-shift and again in the evenings. Every time he did, she’d pull Atio a little closer and listen as John tried to come up with things to say. At appropriate moments, she added “hmm,” or “yes, a bit better today, thank you,” or “no, just tired, I believe I will sleep some more.” She’d smile sometimes, like it was something she remembered that she used to do. There were dark circles under her eyes.

Ronon had set up a chair near her, with a stack of Sudoku books and an iPod. He spent hours camped out like someone killing time on a long layover, one leg kicked out, pencil scratching away. John saw Rodney there too, sometimes: typing on his laptop while Teyla slept, or with a tray table pulled up by the side of her bed, rattling on in awkward monologue while she nodded and poked dutifully at her food. Although Halling had his hands full resettling his people at the beta site, he had come to the city twice, and there was a brightly patterned blanket folded on the foot of her bed, an intricately-knotted guna charm hanging from the screen next to it.

By the end of the first week, John felt ready to climb out of his skin.

There was nothing he could do, nothing. He couldn’t hang around the infirmary like Ronon or Rodney did: his bedside manner was so bad that back in the 321st, the other guys in his flight had actually placed a ten-minute time limit on his visits to anybody who got injured. (“I mean, seriously, Shep,” Martins had said, gesturing between John and the leg up in traction, “watching you try and make small talk is more painful than the actual pain.”) No matter how many times he asked what he could bring her, Teyla never wanted anything, but she wouldn’t even tell him to stop asking. It was like she was in some other place entirely, too divorced from Atlantis for annoyance to even form, let alone register. The hunt for Michael was going nowhere — he’d fallen off the radar so completely that for all John knew the bastard was just doing hyperspace laps of the Pegasus galaxy — and non-essential off-world travel had been severely restricted while they waited to see if he’d retaliate.

It wasn’t like there was a shortage of things to do; between the search for Teyla and John’s own accidental disappearance, the backlog in his inbox had reached really excessive levels, but he couldn’t concentrate on paperwork. It was all bureaucratic minutiae — none of it was going to help. But he had no idea what would, and it was driving him crazy. Lately, when he went to visit her, he kept having to fight off this urge to reach out and just — touch her. Put his hand on her arm, or something, to prove that she was there and he was too, but there was no way he was going to do it. The last time anyone other than the medical staff had touched her was when Ronon had carried her out of the ‘jumper; since they got her to the city, she hadn’t touched anyone but Atio, and John wasn’t going to be the one to cross that line.

Back before, in those months of relative calm between when she’d told them she was pregnant and when Michael had taken her, John had spent an embarrassing amount of time worrying that the first time she handed him the baby he was going to drop it. It had never occurred to him that Teyla’s son would get to be four weeks old without John getting the chance to so much as brush his hand over the curve of Atio’s small, soft-looking head.

Mid-afternoon on day eleven, John was rattling around in his office, on the verge of tracking down Lorne and volunteering himself for the munitions inventory just to have something to do, when his radio crackled and Rodney came on the open channel. “Sheppard, if you’re not busy, I need a hand down in lab 12-J.”

The relief that went through him was completely out of proportion with anything, but John’s eyes closed of their own volition as he thought, Jesus, finally. He slid the open drawers of the filing cabinet shut and tapped his earpiece as he headed for the door. “Is this the ‘two squads and a decontam unit’ kind of a hand, Rodney, or …”

“No, the ‘reasonably well-trained chimp with the ability to follow basic instructions and not drop pointy objects’ kind,” Rodney replied over the clunk of a box full of stuff being set down. “You feeling up for that today, Colonel?”

The Marine getting out of the transporter raised an eyebrow at him, and John rolled his eyes for her benefit as he stepped inside. “Is it a problem if I drop the pointy objects on you?” he asked, but didn’t wait for an answer. “Yeah, I’m on my way.”

12-J was one of about fifty small labs located a few levels up from the main ones, which the scientists used for side projects that were neither dangerous nor high-priority enough to warrant space in one of the big labs. Rodney, naturally, had three permanently reserved for his own use, but as far as John knew he hadn’t been doing much with this one lately. In John’s experience, that meant something mechanical or electronic, which could be left unfinished and maintain a stable state, so the hand Rodney was asking for was likely to be exactly as menial as he’d made it sound: handing Rodney soldering irons and keeping the control crystals in order, that kind of thing.

They didn’t do this together that often when they weren’t in the field or it wasn’t a crisis. The Atlantis expedition didn’t lack for skilled labor, no matter how much Rodney bitched, and there was only so much shirking John could get away with before he started feeling guilty about letting things stack up for the people under him. But John’s conscience was pretty much at capacity with the four guys they’d lost getting Teyla out, with Teyla hunkered down in the upper third of her hospital bed like a part of her was still in prison. Letting Rodney boss him around and ramble about the technicalities of his current project might be enough to drown it out for a couple hours, and John was starting to think that was the best he could hope for out of this week.

He palmed the door open and stepped through only to have surprise stop him dead just over the threshold, so provisionally inside that when the door shut he felt the breeze of its passage against the back of his neck. “McKay?” he said, uncertainly.

Rodney didn’t glance up from where he was attaching the — jeez, was that a camping stove? — to one of the heating elements on the main work surface. “Ah, good, you’re here,” he said, screwing a connection together. He freed up a hand long enough to wave to the counter behind him. “Start in on those tubers, would you? Small cubes, and put them in a bowl to soak when you’re done; I don’t want them to discolor.”

John stared. There was a box of pots and pans sitting on the floor next to him, and the counter had food, no, ingredients laid out all over it. There were bunches of herbs and an assortment of Earth and Pegasus vegetables ringing a cutting board, little plastic specimen bags of what he guessed were seasoning, a couple bottles of oil and several small jars of dried grains. Through the glass door of the cooling unit at the far end of the room, he could see a vacuum-packed hunk of raw meat. There were a few tools scattered around, too, obviously left there during Rodney’s efforts to MacGyver the lab into a functional kitchen.

“What the hell are you doing?” It came out sharper than John’d meant it to, but this was so far out in left field that he couldn’t begin to wrap his head around it, and the fact that it was so utterly fucking mundane … After nuclear bombs and nanotech and a gazillion dangerous Ancient devices, seeing Rodney jury-rigging a griddle out of some copper tubing and a Bunsen burner was so surreal it was disorienting. It felt like a practical joke, and even knowing Rodney well enough to know that his humor didn’t run to situational pranks didn’t keep John from starting an unexpected sideways slide into anger, because god, hadn’t the universe fucked with him enough lately? Hadn’t there been enough fucking weirdness, enough things that looked normal and then turned out to be anything but, enough–

Rodney gave the lug nut one last twist. “Making dinner,” he answered, and John opened his mouth to snap thanks, jackass, I’m not an idiot before it hit him that there hadn’t been even a hint of sarcasm in Rodney’s response. Setting the wrench back into its slot in his toolkit, Rodney paused and looked up at John for the first time since he’d come in. The expression on his face wasn’t one John was used to seeing from him, at once assessing and unguarded. He cleared his throat and added, “For Teyla.”

At her name, all the unexpected anger drained out of John. Rodney had already turned away to grab a folded cloth off the corner of the table and run it under the tap. “The logic isn’t particularly linear, I recognize that,” he said, “but she hasn’t been eating that much lately, and Carson …” Rodney spent a few seconds sweeping a handful of stray hardware off the counter, sorting the pieces back into his kit and wiping the spot where they’d been. “After we got him out of Michael’s compound, when he was in the observation room, he said something. The infirmary food, he said that he’d never noticed it before, but that eating in a space that had been treated for quarantine gave the food this medicinal aftertaste. I guess for a while at the beginning, he’d thought Michael might be drugging his meals, and the taste made him think of that.”

He moved down the work area, gathering up the rest of the tools and cleaning the brushed metal of the countertop as he went. “And last year, Elizabeth.” His shoulders twitched, but he didn’t let more than the briefest pause elapse before continuing, “A couple of weeks after she was infected with Liam’s nanites, we were having a lunch meeting, and she told me that the cafeteria food in her hallucination had tasted a lot like some of the cafeteria food in Atlantis. She said that every now and then she’d take a bite and for a second she’d feel like she was back in that hospital.”

Rodney had his back turned. Behind him, John closed his eyes, just for a second, suddenly much closer to the end of his rope than he’d thought he was. He blinked them rapidly open as he heard the faucet start up again. Head bowed slightly, Rodney rinsed the cloth, then wrung it out and draped it over the knob on one of the cupboards. “So yesterday, in the infirmary, I was talking about,” he circles his fingers in the air in an aimless gesture, mouth tilting upward in momentary amusement before flattening out again, “something, mostly watching Teyla chase peas around her plate, and it reminded me of those conversations. And I thought, you know, maybe if she had a chance to eat something different, obviously prepared by hand, that it might make her feel — better.” He dropped one hand to the counter and ran his palm over the metal, then tapped his finger against it. “Like she was actually here.”

Hearing him say it out loud made the whole thing feel more real somehow, and John scrubbed a hand over his mouth. “I.” He shook his head and then nodded, licked his lips. “I know what you mean,” he said, eyes fixed on the hanging cloth, not looking at Rodney as Rodney looked at him. He cleared his throat. “I think it’s a good idea.”

Rodney bobbed his chin once and bent to start pulling pots out of the box. “Yes, I think so, too,” he said, and then smirked. “Granted, I’m usually pretty bad at this kind of thing, but at least this seems unlikely to make things worse. So, if you’ll do the vegetables — ah, leave the onions until I tell you, they always make my eyes–”

“Rodney,” John interrupted. Rodney tipped his face up, eyebrows raised, and John rocked back on the balls of his heels. He felt a low flush climb up his neck — prickly, uncomfortable, but not embarrassment (Jesus, what was with him today?) and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I don’t actually know how to cook.” His voice cracked on the last vowel, and he let out a bark of laughter, then wished he hadn’t.

Rodney stared up at him. “Well, no,” he said slowly. “I never imagined that you could. But you’ve split logs without cutting your fingers off and rewired flight consoles based on verbal instructions, so I assumed you could manage to chop and stir with one-on-one supervision, hmm?” He poured the full measure of his customary disdain into the question, and the normalcy of that settled over John and grounded him, a comfortable weight.

“Fine,” John said, rolling his eyes; he tugged his hands out of his pockets and stepped forward to take the big skillet from Rodney and set it on the counter. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“I’ll make a note of your incompetence on the record,” Rodney replied, handing him the lid.

They got the rest of the stuff laid out on the work surfaces, John relying on logic and wholly uneducated guesses to guide his placement and then washing his hands while Rodney rearranged a bit. Rodney’s shoulder bumped John’s as he turned and reached for one of the tubers. “Okay, watch,” he said, setting it in the middle of the cutting board and picking up a big chef’s knife. “This is the best way to do it.” He bisected the tuber along its longer axis, then laid the two halves out next to each other, cut sides down. He sliced each half length-wise at regular intervals and then neatly pivoted the slices so he could make a series of width-wise cuts. “One-inch cubes are ideal, but it’s most important that all the pieces be about the same size, or some of them will overcook.” He plucked a big metal bowl off the table, held it so its rim was level with the counter’s edge, and swept the cubes into it with the knife. Turning, he flipped the sink on and half-filled the bowl with water, then set it down next to the cutting board.

Rodney flipped the knife in his hand, a more casual motion than John had ever seen him manage with a service weapon, and offered it to John hilt first. “Is that clear enough for you?” The question was matter-of-fact in the way Rodney sometimes spoke when he wasn’t under time constraints, but still felt his primary goal of getting something accomplished took precedence over more minor considerations like demonstrating that you were an idiot.

“Yeah,” John said, and took the knife from him. It was heavy and solid, balancing comfortably against his palm. He picked up the first of the tubers, which were a little narrower than baking potatoes but about the same length, and sliced it in half. It’d been a hell of a long time since he’d had KP duty and the edge on this knife was much better than the ones they’d used back then, but this part at least was familiar. He copied Rodney’s motions from memory as accurately as he could, getting used to the bite of the blade through the tuber’s waxy ocher skin into its golden flesh. It seemed a little easier to control the cuts when he rocked the edge backward from the knife’s tip instead of pressing straight down. He nudged the cubes into the bowl, tipping it up a little to minimize the splash.

Rodney set a couple of pots on different heating elements and started measuring grains out into a metal bowl. Their dry rattle was weirdly soothing, as was the clean slice of the knife in John’s hand. The sequence of cuts was efficient and let him keep the pieces in place as he went, and pretty soon he got into enough of a rhythm that he could stop thinking about it. “I didn’t know you did this,” he said. “Cooked, I mean.”

Behind him, Rodney huffed in amusement. “It’s fairly low on my priority list these days,” he said, plastic crackling as he shuffled through the specimen bags. “We have a cafeteria, we have MREs, it’s not like I have to rely on my own initiative to feed myself. And given that around here it’s less ‘crisis of the week’ and more ‘crisis of the half-hour,’ I can hardly take the afternoon off to play Iron Chef.”

John, who’d spent a lot of nights in different hotel rooms watching subtitled foreign TV at two in the morning, found it far too easy to picture Rodney poised behind a table of ingredients like a sprinter at the starting line while a guy in a sequined jacket intoned, Battle — POTATO! He laid a couple of smaller tubers end to end and sliced through the both with one stroke. “Did you learn this in Home Ec or something?”

“God, no.” The rustling of plastic ceased momentarily, as though Rodney had been derailed by the full horror of that suggestion. “Seriously, Sheppard — at no point in world history has anyone learned any remotely useful life skill in that Social Darwinist cul-de-sac of the standard educational system. Besides, my parents made my school waive all of those requirements when they arranged the co-matriculation plan with the University of Toronto.” Something behind John had begun to boil audibly, and there was a splash and a loud hiss as Rodney poured in the mixture of grains.

John swept the last chunks of potato into the bowl. “I’m done with these,” he announced, turning to face Rodney.

“Ah, good.” Rodney reached back without looking to take the bowl out of his hands and set it on the counter. “Let me season this and then I’ll show you what to do with the Vardian greens.” Ignoring the measuring spoons laid out about an arms-length away, he shook an assortment of spices — three brown, two yellow, one orange, two green — directly out of the little bags and into the water. He dipped a spoon in, tasted, adjusted the combination, wearing an expression of expert concentration John normally associated with watching him rearrange two dozen identical crystals in two-and-a-half dozen slots. When another tiny sip earned a small noise of satisfaction, he set the spoon down, poured a small mound of salt into his cupped palm, and dumped it into the other pot; the cubed potatoes followed.

“I started cooking back in grad school,” Rodney said, moving to stand in front of John’s cutting board. John stepped back to make room as Rodney snipped off the twine binding a fat bunch of broad-leafed greens together. “Okay, so these are easy — cut away the stems, then slice them into ribbons.” Picking up a small knife and running it around the brownish spire of the central stem, Rodney continued, “I moved off-campus so I could work on my dissertations at home without the constant pitter-patter of inebriated collegiate feet. I lived pretty close to Simmons Dining, actually, but there was an unfortunate personal encounter with the head cook and after that she started putting a lot of citrus in the — anyway.” He slid the cutting board, with knife and greens on top, sideways toward John. “Got that? Good.”

As John started in on the next leaf, copying the dissection he’d watched Rodney perform, Rodney retrieved the meat from the cooling unit. “It seemed like the kind of thing I should know how to do,” he said, stripping off the plastic wrap. “Like building your own computer or writing your own operating system — something where you didn’t want to be dependent on other people to do it for you, even if they could generally do an adequate job. So I bought a couple of cookbooks and started trying things.” Grabbing another cutting board and a huge knife, Rodney settled himself next to John and started cutting the meat into very thin slices. “It wasn’t that hard once I figured out enough of the logic to be able to improvise. Cookbooks are a lot like textbooks that way — they do all right with basic rules but tend to get the specifics painfully wrong. I haven’t cooked regularly since I started working with the SGC, but it’s not something you really forget.”

They worked in silence for a few minutes. “Nancy wasn’t much of a cook,” John glanced over at Rodney involuntarily, surprised at himself, and Rodney’s knife slowed for a second before he raised an eyebrow and kept slicing. John directed his own gaze back down to the cutting board. “She could do some stuff, you know, basics, but it was all kind of bland. I sucked. I couldn’t even do eggs right.” He scooped up the sliced leaves and dropped them into a bowl, pushed the stems off to the side, and cut the tie on the second bunch. “I could sort of grill, but not really. I would just use a lot of barbecue sauce to cover. And she was working long hours, and I never wanted — I mean, I wasn’t one of those–” John gestured awkwardly with the knife, avoiding the word. “It’s not something I’d, you know — it’s nobody else’s job to take care of me. We ate a lot of takeout.”

Next to him, Rodney made a thoughtful noise. He was almost at the end of the chunk of meat and kept repositioning his left hand to keep his fingers clear of the blade’s edge. “You grilled at the cookout on the mainland this year,” he said.

John lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “Only to give Lorne and Ronon a break.”

“I had a Kreyal steak you cooked while you were on,” Rodney told him, teasing a last slice out of the heel of the meat. “It was pretty good.”

“It was?” John said, looking up from the cutting board. “I mean. Thanks. I’m done with these, too.”

“Just put them out of the way; they’ll go in last.” Rodney turned around to set the slices of meat down next to the cooking surface, pushed the tap on with his wrist, and washed his hands and the knife thoroughly. Spearing a tuber-cube with a fork, he held it thoughtfully up to the light, then flipped that burner off. “All right, time for the onions. I can’t believe I didn’t think to bring lab goggles. By the end of the second one, I’m going to be blind.”

“Just two of them?” John thought about it. “Okay, you do one and I’ll follow along on the other. We can at least get them done fast that way.”

“Right, okay.” Rodney bobbed his head in agreement as he drained the potatoes. Setting a wide pan on the heating element, he drizzled oil over it and the griddle before turning the heat on under both. After fingering the selection of knives laid out on the counter, he picked up two of the larger ones and passed one, along with one of the onions, to John. “At least I can trust you not to chop your fingers off when your eyes start watering. I’ve seen you do much riskier things in much stupider conditions.”

“Hey, I resemble that remark.” Head half-turned, John copied the cut Rodney made through the center of his onion, splitting it. “Did you get this stuff from the kitchen?”

“From Fatima,” Rodney confirmed, peeling the outer layers off. He had his chin tucked up and his eyes squinted, the way he did when he was defusing something he thought had at least a fifty-percent chance of blowing his face off. “Is it SGC policy to hire the scariest civilians they can find to run their food service? Next time someone attacks the city, I think we should just send her out to stare at them until they go away. But once I explained what — who — it was for, she was actually … I feel like nice is far too innocuous a word for that woman, but she helped me load up all this and gave me some tips on Earth/Pegasus ingredient substitutions. The way the kitchen staff usually react when anyone even looks at their door too long, I was expecting I’d have to ‘accidentally’ evacuate the section to get so much as a pot out of there.”

John followed, half a step behind, as Rodney chopped the onion with the same sequence of motions he’d used on the tubers before, only positioning the cuts much closer together. “It’s Teyla,” John said quietly. “There’s no one here who wouldn’t go to bat for her.”

“I know that,” Rodney answered, a little sharply. He flipped the slices around and diced them with a rapid rhythm. After a moment, he made a small, thoughtful noise. “Maybe we should tell her that.”

“Yeah. Maybe.” To John’s horror, he felt a sharp prickle at the corners of his eyes, and he started willing Rodney to turn around so he could blink without getting caught.

Rodney tossed his knife down with a clatter, and John froze — oh god, were they going to hug or something? Then Rodney was scrubbing at his own eyes with the back of one wrist, blurting, “Ow, ow, fuck, ow, goddammit I hate these things,” and John burst into shaky laughter and tossed him a dish towel. Rodney blotted at his face, then dug a hankerchief out of his pocket and noisily blew his nose.

“Would you dump those things on the stove already before my corneas melt off?” Rodney snapped, muffled and nasal through the cloth. John rolled his own eyes, which were admittedly still stinging, and picked up both cutting boards. “One in the pan, one on the griddle,” Rodney instructed, and John complied. The bits of onion twitched and sizzled as they hit the oil. Rodney fumbled his way to the door and laid a hand on the control panel. After a moment, a fan whirled into motion above them.

“Thank god for air filtration systems,” Rodney moaned, blinking several times in quick succession and moving over to the sink to wash his hands. “Okay, can you keep an eye on those for a minute? There’s a wooden spoon — yes, that one. Just stir them until they go transparent, and turn the heat down if you notice the edges starting to brown.”

“Got it,” John said. He turned to watch Rodney peel and slice four thick-skinned fruits that looked vaguely like mangoes, with bright pink flesh and juice that ran in rivulets over Rodney’s fingers and wrists. He slipped the slices into a bowl and ran his hands under the water, then pried the cork off what John thought might be a bottle of the dry flower-liqueur the Klassa distilled and poured it onto the fruit. That was followed by a small spoonful of sugar, sifted carefully over the top. Rodney grabbed a smaller cutting board and a sprig of some fresh herb, which he minced and then crushed with the flat of the blade, releasing a sweet green smell that filled the room for a moment before the filtration system cleared the air. Scraping the herb over the top of the fruit, Rodney gave the whole thing a few quick stirs and joined him at the stove. Instinctively, John offered him the spoon and then stepped back as Rodney accepted it, shaking salt onto the onions and then chasing them around the oil thoughtfully.

“Okay,” Rodney pronounced, and turned the heat off under the grains. “I’d better do the rest of this myself.” With a deft hand, he tapped a couple of reddish-brown spices into the pan, stirred for a few seconds, then dumped the potatoes in and rolled them around until they were well-coated. He grabbed a pyrex dish and scraped the onions off the griddle onto it, leaving a coating of oil behind. Turning up the heat, he picked up a pair of tongs and draped slices of meat side-by-side on the griddle. They went from red to pink in a matter of seconds, and Rodney swept them off onto the plate just as they started to deepen into brown. It took less than three minutes to cook all of the meat. He ground black pepper over the dish, tossed the meat and onions together, and then fitted a plastic lid on top. Turning to the potatoes, he dropped in two handfuls of golden raisins, cracked open a small plastic container of what John thought might be broth, and poured a little into the pan before dumping in the sliced greens and clapping a lid over them. When he pulled it off half a minute later, they were darker, half-wilted, and Rodney made a small sound of satisfaction and stirred them into the potatoes a few times before scraping everything into a large bowl and flipping the burner off.

Rummaging for a lid that looked it would fit, John turned to offer it to Rodney, but his movements slowed as he really registered the dishes laid out around them. Spiced wild grains in a big pot, potatoes and greens cooked in broth, fried meat with onions and fresh fruit in alcohol and sugar to preserve it. “Rodney,” he said. “This looks … Athosian.”

Rodney looked up at him, fingers skating nervously over the edge of the lid. “Really? You think so?” He shifted his weight from foot to foot. “I didn’t have all the right ingredients, and I didn’t have a chance to talk to Halling about it before he left this last time, so it’s just an approximation. But it seemed like the right, I mean — given the whole premise of–”

John cut him off. “Really. It’s …” He nodded. “I think it was the right call.” Rodney bit his lip and dipped his head once, then sealed the lid over the bowl.

They got the food packed up and loaded onto the cart, along with a large jar of cold tea from the fridge and some utensils and plates from the box on the floor. “I radioed Keller for permission earlier,” Rodney said, “so we just have to bring this stuff up there.”

He started to push the cart toward the door, but John dropped a hand down to stop it. “Hang on,” he told Rodney. “I’ve got an idea.”

By the time Rodney got the food out to the balcony, John had collected a bunch of field blankets and started arranging them, two over the floor, a few draped over the railing to block some of the breeze, and the others stacked out of the way, ready for use as pillows or in case anyone got cold. Rodney set the food out in the center, fiddling with the placement, pairing off utensils with the right dishes and plates.

Just as they finished, the door slid open behind them, and there was Teyla, Atio asleep and hugged tightly against her chest, Ronon pressed in reassuringly against her, one big hand curled over her upper arm.

The light wind tossed the ends of her hair around her face, and she shook her head a little to toss them back, blinking at the warm pinkish light of the early evening sun. “John? Rodney?” Her voice was fogged over, like they’d jostled her out of a deep sleep. “What did you do?”

“Ah. Right. Yes.” Rodney brushed his palms down the front of his jacket and climbed awkwardly to his feet. “I — that is, we — um, so, after giving it some thought, it occurred to me that, well, possibly it might–”

“Rodney made you dinner,” John said. She looked down at him, eyes widening slightly, and then back up at Rodney.

Rodney’s index fingers drew circles around each other in the air in front of him for a moment, then he jerked a thumb in John’s direction. “Sheppard helped,” he said.

Atio shifted against her chest, and she glanced down and ran a hand under the edge of his blanket, loosening it slightly. When she looked back up, there was a spark of something in her eyes, maybe the reflection of the low sun, and she lifted a hand to tuck her bangs back behind her ear. “The two of you did this?”

Ronon tilted his head down to look at her, then smirked. “Yup,” he said, and rubbed his palm over her shoulder before stepping past her through the door. “Think it’s edible?”

“What?” Rodney squawked, scowling. “Of course it’s edible! I’ll have you know I even ran the ingredients by Keller, just to make sure everything was completely safe and wouldn’t interact with any medications. Just because I don’t do this often doesn’t mean that I lack the skills, and–”

Ronon rolled his eyes and thumped Rodney on the back. “Relax, McKay. I can smell it through the lids. Smells great.” He stooped to lift the top off the pot, and Rodney smacked at his hand with the serving spoon.

“No way, I know you, you were going to stick your fingers in that,” he snapped. “Go. Sit. I’ll serve dinner.”

Ronon shrugged. “Hey, if you think I’m going to argue with that …” He dropped down next to the railing and settled himself against one of the supports, then reached out a long arm and pulled a couple of blankets off the bench. “Here,” he told Teyla, dipping his head toward the spot next to him. “You can use me as a backrest.”

Teyla’s gaze circled slowly over the three of them, and they all looked back at her — Ronon slouched against the railing, Rodney half-kneeling with lid and serving spoon in hand, John crouched with his arms on his knees, hands hanging open and empty. She took a long, slow breath through her nose, her shoulders lifting with it, and blinked hard. The surface of her dark eyes went suddenly liquid, gleaming in the rich light, and she pressed her lips together for a moment before stepping over the threshold and walking carefully to where Ronon was sitting.

“Great,” Rodney said, bobbing his chin, “I’ll make you a plate — Sheppard, pour her some tea, will you?” John screwed the lid off the jar and filled a glass three-quarters full while Ronon helped steady her as she settled herself on the ground. When he held the tea out, she took it from him with a nod and drank, first a small sip, then a long one, eyelids fluttering closed for a moment.

“Mmm. Yes,” she said, and brushed the side of her hand across her mouth before setting the glass down. “Thank you, that is very good.”

“Here,” Rodney said, and John turned to take the plate from him. He started to offer it to Teyla, but she clearly didn’t have a way to hold it and Atio at the same time, and so he just crouched there awkwardly, feeling like a moron for suggesting a location with no table.

“I can hold it for her,” Ronon offered, sticking a hand out, but Teyla shook her head.

“If you could take it for a moment,” she said, and then she took a deep breath. “John? Would you hold Atio for me, while I eat?”

John stared at her. “Yeah,” he said, and swallowed. “Yeah, of course.” He passed the plate to Ronon and scooted forward. Teyla rose onto her knees and curled a hand carefully behind Atio’s head before shifting him into John’s arms.

Atio stirred a little, but didn’t open his eyes. He was startlingly warm, even through the blanket, and his small body was trustingly limp in a way that made him feel a little heavier than John thought he’d be. Teyla ran her hands lightly over John’s, which felt absurdly large relative to both her and the baby, repositioning his arms into a more stable position, one where he could maybe get a hand free if he needed to without having to worry about losing his grip on the kid. When he glanced back up, she smiled at him — small, tired, real — and before he could get his breath back from that, she reached up to cup his face. She ran her thumb over his cheek, then settled herself back down against Ronon and accepted the plate from him.

John found another support post and leaned back against it, staring down at Atio’s scrunched-up little face. Without thinking about it, he dipped his head down and breathed in the sweet, skin-and-soap smell of Atio’s scalp, thinly dusted with dark hair. “Hey,” Rodney said, and John shifted Atio around so he could reach out with his right hand and take the plate from him.

“Thanks,” John said, inarticulately.

The corner of Rodney’s mouth tipped up as he let go of the plate. “Chopping vegetables, holding babies — have you ever considered a second career as an au pair?” He set a glass down in front of John and turned away before John could say anything in response. John didn’t mind all that much.

It took a little bit of maneuvering, but he got the plate settled on one knee and jockeyed the fork into position, spearing a tuber and lifted it to his mouth. Under the light crust from the oil it was soft and buttery, seasoned with what John thought might be nutmeg. “Seriously,” Ronon said, a response to something John hadn’t caught, “what did you put in this?”

“Well, I couldn’t use citrus, obviously, but I remembered the sweetgrass mint we had on M7K-922,” Rodney started, dropping a mound of grains onto his own plate and sitting down to dig in, still talking as he lifted the first forkful to his mouth.

“On Athos there is a summer dish much like this,” Teyla said, lifting a small piece of fruit to her lips as she leaned into the crook of Ronon’s arm. “Charin used to make it for me.”

“Really?” Rodney looked half-surprised, half-proud, and he covered by jamming a slice of meat into his mouth. “This is actually pretty easy — if you want, I could teach you how to make it.”

Teyla made a slightly chagrined face and took another sip of tea. “I doubt you would be successful.”

Rodney waved his fork expansively. “No, really, it’s very simple. I mean, if Sheppard can learn to chop things properly–”

John rolled his eyes as Ronon snickered. Teyla smiled again. “I will make you a trade, when I have my energy back,” she said, her voice slightly shaky. “Stick fighting lessons for cooking lessons. That way we may each get our revenge with something the other is not good at.”

“You told me I was getting better!” Rodney said, looking wounded.

“Be hard for you to get worse,” Ronon rumbled. Teyla made a quiet sound, exasperation colored with a thin thread of amusement. John grinned and dropped his eyes back to Atio.

It was slow going, eating with one arm pinned down and without dropping food on himself. John’s dinner was cold by the time he finished it.

He didn’t mind.

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