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Secret Ingredient

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Secret Ingredient

"There are chefs like Samantha Carter that go overboard and call quail 'lovebirds,' declaring them 'the ultimate in romantic dishes for that special occasion.' Now, I won't argue that - when properly prepared - quail can be as tender as butter. However, whether they're roasted, broiled, poached, or even braised, there's nothing worse than an overdone quail, although Carter's equally overdone descriptions come close."

Turning away from the bay window, Rodney walked over to the nearby couch, his hands shaping his words as he continued to expound on one of his favorite subjects. "The breast of a perfectly cooked quail must retain that delicate touch of pink. I prefer to serve them roasted with a light sauce of thyme, spring onions, caramelized shallots, and truffles to enhance their taste, and a side of truffle ravioli and wild mushrooms is my favorite accompaniment. In fact, truffles are de rigueur with any quail dish I prepare because they elevate the delicate flavor."

Rodney sat down and relaxed back into a corner of the butter-soft leather, although he refused to bow to the stereotype and recline. "I must admit that although my collection of recipes for quail and other wild game is renowned, that's not really my focus right now. Did I mention that I'm in the middle of my latest book in my 'McKay Makes' series? It's on seafood. My publisher wanted me to tackle desserts, but I told her it made no sense because here I am, in San Francisco, just a brisk walk away from the docks with an ocean of flavors to explore!" He nodded his head in satisfaction at his impromptu turn of phrase. "Huh. I'll need to remember that one."

Before he could pick up the thread of his discourse again, his audience interrupted. "Mr. McKay, if you don't mind, I'd like to change the subject for a few moments."

"No, please do go right ahead, Doctor." Rodney graciously waved a hand at the blonde sitting in the overstuffed chair opposite the couch, recognizing that a conversation generally entailed two people talking.

Her voice soft and even, she asked, "May I call you 'Rodney'?" Waiting for Rodney's nod, she continued. "Then, Rodney, I'm Kate and I'm curious. Why are you here?"

"I don't really have a choice. Elizabeth, the restaurant's owner, gave me a limited set of options - see a shri…psychiatrist or lose my place as head chef. Although, I could find another place without any problem. Restaurants would queue up for the chance to bring me on board, but I've put a lot of time and effort into the kitchen at Atlantis." Rodney frowned as he answered, thinking that a moment of confusion whenever he looked at Dr. Heightmeyer was perfectly understandable. He'd once dated a different Kate, or Katie as she'd preferred, who'd also had a habit of ambushing him with personal questions, but she'd been a redhead. This Kate's blonde hair was throwing him off.

"And the reason that she believes you need therapy?" she prodded, pencil poised over her notepad while she waited for Rodney to provide something other than recipes.

"Huh. It might have something to do with the new codes I insisted on for entrees or the…." Rodney frowned as he considered a number of possibilities then snapped his fingers when he remembered one argument in particular. "Or maybe it was that thing with the knives, but no one was hurt…." On further consideration, he wasn't positive he could pinpoint Elizabeth's issue with him beyond a noticeable increase in her huffy exits from the kitchen. "You know, I'm not really sure."

~*~*~

Rodney McKay is not available to take your call. If this is an emergency, call Atlantis, 555-232-3456, otherwise please leave a message after the beep.

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~*~*~

The kitchen in Atlantis always reminded Rodney of an intricate ballet, the clatter and bang of knives, spoons, and pans providing a complicated accompaniment for apron-clad dancers threading their way between the different stations preparing the evening's offerings. As the master choreographer, he always kept an ear out for the orders and responses called out by the wait and kitchen staff, ready to step in where needed, even as he applied the finishing touches that turned each meal into a delectable culinary composition.

"Ordering two tasting menus."

"Station Two, firing two amuse-bouche."

"Teyla, I need you at Station One for a quail and a Dover sole."

"Station Four, I'm waiting on the beef tenderloins. Where are they?"

"Ford, terrine, carpaccio, pick up!"

His pickup in hand and sporting his usual bright grin, Aiden Ford bounced to a stop in front of Rodney's station. "Hey, Chef! Abe Ellis said to tell you that the lamb has never been so good."

"I'm suppose to consider that a compliment?" Rodney huffed and plated the tenderloins with a flourish and one of his signature sauces. "My lamb is never less than perfect."

Aiden shrugged and backed out into the dining room just as Elizabeth entered through the adjacent door. Straightening the cuffs on her red wool dress, she waited for Rodney to finish the presentation on a foie gras appetizer before saying, "Rodney, the Woolseys would like to tell their favorite brilliant chef personally how much they enjoyed their meal."

Rodney scowled and reached for the next entree. "Brilliant chefs belong in the kitchen, not out in front entertaining the hoi polloi."

"At least come out to say hello, Rodney," Elizabeth's lips thinned and her voice hardened as she insisted, "They're good customers who never hesitate to recommend Atlantis to their friends and business contacts."

"In a minute," Rodney sighed, rolling his eyes at the inconvenient interruption. "Now, don't cook those too long, Teyla, because they get…."

"They will get tough." Teyla's tone remained patient despite the provocation. She straightened up and rubbed her lower back with a quiet groan before resting her hand on the rising curve of her belly. "I believe that I have learned that by now, Rodney."

"No, the word is dry, Teyla." Rodney growled in return, although he softened it with a smile for his heavily pregnant sous chef. "I'm the one that gets tough around here. Quail get dry." After wiping his hands on a towel, he headed into the walk-in cooler, leaned against one of the heavily loaded shelves, and grumbled a bitter, "Merde." After counting to ten in French, he took a deep breath, and reluctantly exited the cooler to follow Elizabeth out to the dining room and one of the prime tables overlooking the bay.

The Woolseys greeted him with smiles, Richard adding an effusive, "And yet another wonderful meal. You're a genius, Chef McKay."

Sandra Woolsey chuckled, her agreement a warm, whiskey rasp. "I must confess; the way my husband constantly sings your praises, I find it difficult not to be jealous."

"What can I say?" Richard reached out and clasped his wife's hand in a smiling apology. "I can't help worshiping anyone who can consistently surprise my palate."

Basking a little in their attention, Rodney summoned a few gracious words, hoping they would be enough to satisfy Elizabeth. "Thank you. It's my pleasure to have had the opportunity to meet that challenge." He bowed and pointed toward the kitchen. "And now I need to make sure my reputation doesn't slip due to my absence."

Slipping between the tables on his way back, he overheard a customer berating Aiden. "I'm telling you that it hasn't been cooked enough."

Catching sight of the foie gras he'd plated a few minutes earlier, Rodney frowned and made a detour to demand an explanation. "Aiden, what's going on here?"

Elizabeth came up behind him, resting a hand on Rodney's arm as she calmly inserted herself into the situation. "I'll handle this, Rodney. Why don't you go on to the kitchen?"

Her attempt at diplomacy failed to prevent the irritated customer from demanding, "You're the chef, right? Great, just the person I wanted to see. My wife's foie gras hasn't been cooked long enough."

"Why don't I bring you a new appetizer with my compliments?" Elizabeth attempted to draw Rodney away from the table, but she was too late. He'd already picked up the plate, glaring at the man who had no idea how large a mistake he'd just made.

"There's nothing wrong with this, Elizabeth," Rodney snapped. "It's precisely comme il faut." He dropped the plate back on the table and crossed his arms with a disdainful sneer.

Unfortunately, the customer didn't know when to quit. "And that means?"

"Comme il faut? It means my foie gras terrine conforms to accepted standards." Rodney leaned forward to make his point, biting off each word of his explanation as he spat it out. "Cooked at precisely 140 degrees in the oven, 80 degrees water temperature, for 25 minutes, then plated with the perfect touch of pink. Comme il faut is exactly what you have in front of you."

"That's it! I came here to eat, not spend my time arguing about the food. Let's go." The customer shoved away from the table with his wife quickly following suit - Aiden prudently standing back out of the way as the furious couple headed for the door – an apologetic Elizabeth trailing behind.

Rodney shrugged and turned toward the kitchen, but not before calling out, "May I suggest the hot dog stand at the corner? I understand the vendor cooks to order." He slammed through the door into the kitchen, ignoring the shocked faces of several nearby patrons, and returned to his station to bang a few pots around until he felt calmer.

Elizabeth arrived a few minutes afterward, her face flushed and her voice tight with anger. "How many times have I told you, Rodney? You can't make a scene every time someone doesn't like your food."

"Please." Rodney rolled his eyes before re-focusing on his reduction. "He was obviously a pretentious foodie who had no idea what he was talking about."

"And a paying customer. If he says the foie gras isn't done, then it's not done." Elizabeth's voice rose over the chatter of the kitchen, causing a few of the busy workers to stop and stare until Rodney's glare chivied them back on task. Elizabeth shook her head and walked out of the kitchen, but not before firing a parting shot. "If you weren't one of the better chefs in this city, you'd be out on the street tonight."

"One of the better chefs? What's that supposed to mean?" Rodney dropped his spoon with a clatter as he protested, "I bet she's just saying that to annoy me." He appealed to Teyla. "She's just saying that to annoy me. Isn't she?"

Shaking her head in apparent disapproval, Teyla didn't have much to offer as encouragement. "I am afraid I cannot speak to that, Rodney. However, it does seem as though Elizabeth is not very happy with you right now."

~*~*~

Rodney McKay is not available to take your call. If this is an emergency, call Atlantis, 555-232-3456, otherwise please leave a message after the beep.

You have no new messages.

~*~*~

Shivering a little in the early morning mist layered over the docks, Rodney left behind the stacked flats of ice holding the latest catch, mentally tallying the order he'd just placed for Atlantis. He trudged homeward with his own carefully wrapped prize, reminding himself that the exercise was good for someone who loved food as much as he did, and that he could easily manage the walk even with an five-pound sablefish under one arm.

Arriving at the tall, narrow brownstone he called home - only mildly out-of-breath despite the increasingly heavy fish - he ignored the claustrophobically small elevator, although he came close to changing his mind as he trudged up the marble staircase zigzagging through the center. Just as he started up the final flight of stairs, his second-floor neighbor opened his door with a lilting, "Good morning then, Rodney. Late night?"

"No, early start at the fish market." Rodney reluctantly summoned a smile and pointed to the package under his arm, which had begun to drip icy, fish-smelling water, hoping Carson would take the hint. The man was new to the building, a medical researcher or something, quiet and polite, but he did have a annoying tendency to pry at times.

It wasn't Rodney's lucky day. Carson scrubbed his hands along his upper arms and shuddered. "Bit brisk still, isn't it?"

"I happen to like the fog and I have a rule about daily exercise." Rodney shrugged and turned to climb the remaining steps with a short wave in Carson's direction. "Sorry, but I need to get this put away."

His attempt to cut the conversation short failed. "Say, are you working tonight?" Carson asked, with a twinkle in his blue eyes. "I know this great little Thai place…."

Rodney sighed and turned around again. "Actually, I am. Just for a couple of hours," he explained, not wanting Carson to think he'd lied if they ran into each other on the stairs during Rodney's normal working hours. "My sister and niece are visiting for a week."

"How nice for you." Carson shook his head with a smile. "You know, one of these days, I'm going to convince you to have dinner with me, or we could go out for coffee some morning, if that's easier with your schedule."

"Look, Carson," Rodney didn't want to end up feuding with another neighbor, but the other man seemed to need a whack with the blunt edge of Rodney's personality. "I think you should know that, as a rule, I don't socialize with people in my building."

"I see." Carson's smile seemed a little sad as he waved goodbye and stepped back inside his apartment. His door was almost closed when he popped his head back out with a final offer. "Well then, I do hope you'll keep me in mind if you decide to make an exception to that rule. Breakfast or dinner."

Shaking his head at the man's persistence, Rodney resumed trudging up the stairs, only to break into a run when he heard his phone begin to ring, accompanied by Escoffier's meows. Afraid he'd miss Jeannie's call, Rodney juggled the fish to reach his keys, muttering,"Just a minute. Don't hang up. Damn fish. I'm almost there." Bursting through the door, he tripped over Escoffier, dropped the fish, and lunged for the phone, interrupting Jeannie just as she was starting to leave a message.

"Jeannie, I'm here!" he shouted into the phone, grimacing at the fishy water leaking onto his wood floor. "I just need to...." Tucking the phone under his chin, he bent to scoop up the package and headed for his galley kitchen and a towel to wipe up the mess before the inquisitive Russian Blue could take care of it.

"Mer? Why don't you carry a cell phone like the rest of the civilized world? It would make things a lot easier."

Rodney smiled at the sound of his sister's voice, even as he grimaced internally at the hated nickname. "Easier for everyone but me." The dripping package dropped into the sink with a fleshy thud. "I think it's the height of rudeness carrying a cell phone everywhere. I detest overhearing a stranger's conversation about the ridiculous and mundane on a street or a bus or at the restaurant where they either neglect their meal or shovel it in willy-nilly while chatting about nothing important." Grabbing a clean dishtowel from a drawer, Rodney ran it under the tap long enough to dampen it before returning to the spreading puddle, nudging a protesting Escoffier away. "If I had my way, cell phone use would be banned in restaurants, stores, and especially public transportation, not just when driving."

"Right, right, like I haven't heard it all before. Luddite." Rodney could almost hear his sister's eyes rolling as she dismissed his very reasonable complaint. "Anyway, we got a late start because Louie went missing. Now, based on the traffic, which is almost standing still, we should be there about 9:00 tonight."

Rodney paused to make a note on the pad he kept by the phone. "Great, so I'll make sure I'm back by then. Wait, you're in the car? You're on hands-free, right?"

"Of course, Mer. I'm not stupid. So, let me guess. You're up early reading or writing recipes, right?"

Still a little breathless from the exertion of the steep stairs and rush into the apartment, Rodney protested her assumption. "Don't be ridiculous, Jeannie. I do have other interests, you know."

"Sure you do. Name one."

Rodney had learned not to worry about subtlety when it came to changing the subject with his nosy sister. "How's Madison?"

"Adorable. She's changed so much since you visited two years ago." Jeannie raised her voice to prompt her daughter to agree. "Haven't you, sweetie?"

Madison's voice sounded a little distant, so Rodney assumed she was sitting in the back seat. "I don't know, Mom. I guess so."

"So, dinner. What would you two like? I have a new recipe for…."

"Don't go to any trouble, Mer. We'll just grab some Chinese or something."

"Like that's going to happen," Rodney huffed as he bent over to swipe at the floor. "Just give me an idea what Madison likes."

"Pretty much anything these days. She's a ten-year-old vegetarian vacuum cleaner."

Madison protested the label with a whined, "Mom," and Rodney didn't blame her, although more for the vegetarian than household appliance.

Jeannie just laughed and said, "Hey, I'll call you again when we get closer. Say goodbye to your Uncle Mer, sweetie."

A bored-sounding, "Bye, Uncle Mer," and they were gone with a click. Rodney replaced the receiver with a sigh and resumed his cleaning, frowning at the dark stain left behind by the errant fish. "Not helpful, you menace," he grumbled at Escoffier, who merely licked his chops and pretended innocence with his sky-blue eyes.

~*~*~

Rodney McKay is not available to take your call. If this is an emergency, call Atlantis, 555-232-3456, otherwise please leave a message after the beep.

You have no new messages.

~*~*~

"I don't see the problem with having rules." Rodney was ignoring the couch, preferring to pace in front of the bay window. "I expect things to be done correctly the first time, which is why I prefer doing most of the important parts myself." Pausing, he folded his arms and raised his chin, feeling torn between defending his choices and justifiable pride in his accomplishments. "Have you ever considered how complicated it can be to coordinate ten people and forty dishes at once…and do it better than anyone else?"

Kate hummed before quietly agreeing, "I imagine it can be quite a challenge." She nudged the china plate in front of her then rearranged the cutlery next to it.

"Posting the day's recipes on a cork board and requiring they be followed to the letter only makes sense." Rodney sketched an imaginary board in the air, his index finger tapping across it in emphasis. "I test the servers on their knowledge of the day's recipes and insist they come back to the kitchen and double check for any allergens before placing the order. Firing Kavanaugh after he blithely ignored the board and placed an order while I was watching was completely justified, even though the fool insisted he already knew the recipe." Rodney flung his arms up in frustration. "Hah! It was a new recipe I'd just posted that day!"

"So I have rules." Rodney began pacing again, his flailing arms menacing an innocent ficus and a floor lamp. "It doesn't mean I have control issues or an obsessive compulsive personality. I've made concessions, like when I agreed with Elizabeth that we couldn't manage an all-organic menu and settled for using the freshest ingredients available. Elizabeth is the one who won't agree to make the simplest changes, like adding icons to the menus for common allergens. She says I'm being paranoid."

Rodney approached the couch and considered it, but he was too irritated to sit still. "Paranoid! Try too many emergency room visits watching your sister struggling to breathe because someone added sliced lemons to a water pitcher or lemon rind to an otherwise innocuous oatmeal raisin cookie or any number of other citrus booby traps. Believe me, that's something you don't forget. It made me very conscious of the dangers of cross-contamination, so I prepare all special orders myself using sterilized pots, utensils, and a stainless steel counter that I also clean myself, although I've trained Teyla as my backup. It's not paranoia or obsession. Having a customer go into anaphylactic shock is simply bad business!"

"That does seem to make sense." Kate nodded, fiddling with the linen napkin on her lap.

The plate centered on her blotter captured Rodney's attention, short-circuiting his rant. "So? What do you think?" Rodney's posture relaxed as he approached the desk, reaching out to re-position the beet rose garnish atop the scallops. "You should try it before it reaches room temperature."

"I thought we agreed you weren't going to cook for me anymore," she patiently pointed out, even as she picked up her fork to poke at the thinly sliced scallops.

Rodney frowned in disagreement and ladled on another spoonful of the delicately tinted sauce. "Oh, I didn't cook it specifically for you. It's one of the recipes I happen to be working on for the new book." Finally satisfied with his presentation, he settled on the couch as he waited for her opinion.

Unfortunately, she set the fork down without taking a bite, leaving him in suspense. "Rodney, we're going to try something new this week. I'm going to ask you some questions, and you're going to answer them. Okay?" When he reluctantly nodded, she immediately fired the first salvo. "How long has in been since you were in a relationship?"

Rodney squirmed in place before objecting. "That's a pretty personal question."

"This is therapy, Rodney, not a cooking class. Now, how long?"

Pinned by her patient eyes, Rodney finally admitted, "Three, almost four years ago. She was a botanist, actually named this weird cactus thing after me." He mimed the embarrassing dimensions of the foot-tall, phallic-looking plant that had ended up with an equally awkward-sounding name, Rodneyana Villosa. "I met her at the Strybing Arboretum a few months after breaking up with my last boyfriend."

"I see. How long did it last and who ended it?"

"We'd been seeing each other a little over a year when she started demanding too much from me."

"How so?"

"She wanted us to move in together." Wishing he could read the notes she was jotting down, Rodney tried to change the subject again. "You should at least try the saffron sauce. It's one of my specialties."

Picking up the fork, Kate stabbed it into a scallop before asking, "Can you explain the problem you had with moving in together?"

"She asked me to give up my apartment and move into her house because she didn't want to give up her garden." Rodney jumped up and resumed his pacing, his hands waving as he tried to articulate his failings. "I knew that after I moved in, she'd eventually figure out that I can be negative, demanding, and a tad arrogant - not to mention how little we actually had in common - and then she'd kick me out." He turned to the doctor with a shrug and a halfhearted smile. "It made more sense to quit while I was ahead. So I got a cat instead."

It turned out she hadn't been watching Rodney pace, all of her attention focused on the plate in front of her instead of her patient. "Oh, my God. This sauce is incredible."

Feeling as though he'd somehow dodged a bullet, Rodney just said, "Thank you."

~*~*~

Rodney McKay is not available to take your call. If this is an emergency, call Atlantis, 555-232-3456, otherwise please leave a message after the beep.

You have no new messages.

~*~*~

Feeling more than a little stressed due to the impending visit, Rodney checked his orders then barked across the kitchen, "Where's my lobster for table 12?"

"Plating them now, Chef," Teyla sang out from her station, her gloved hands dancing over the entrees as she added the garnishes. She handed them off to Aiden, who'd just walked through the door from the dining room.

He nodded his thanks and then turned back to Miko, who was waiting for her own order. Miko smiled and asked, "How was the audition?"

"A total bust. I told them that I'm a serious actor and I walked out." Aiden frowned and shook his head. "I refuse to do naked bondage movies." A moment later, he was juggling his plates as one of the line cooks backed into him. Although he was able to prevent the plates from falling, the lobsters weren't as fortunate.

"Watch where you're going, Simpson!" Rodney snapped as he directed one of the dishwashers to clean up the mess. "Pay attention, people! We don't need any more stupid accidents tonight." Pointing to Station Three, he quickly rearranged the orders to cover the loss. "Okay, you'll need to hold nine and fire two more lobsters right away."

Her face as red as the discarded lobster, Simpson apologized before returning to her station. "I'm really sorry about that, Chef."

Knowing he was rapidly running out of time, Rodney opted to skip his usual berating and settle for a grumbled, "Just don't let it happen again." He finished closing down his station and moved over to Teyla's to see if he could help with the replacement lobsters in the few minutes remaining before he needed to leave to meet Jeannie. "Of course, you're going to run out of lobster the minute I walk out the door and you'll have to offer a substitute."

Teyla's sighed as she finished plating the entrees and handed them to Aiden, her tone patient as usual. "Rodney, we are not going to run out of anything. We will be fine." She took a sip from one of the water bottles she always kept handy then offered another to him. "Here, you need to calm down and hydrate."

"Thanks." Rodney accepted the bottle and cracked the seal, taking a long drink before waving toward Teyla's mid-section, smiling as he teased her. "You know, you're acting just like a mom already."

"I do like to practice whenever I have an opportunity." Teyla headed for the cooler to replenish her garnishes, picking up the phone that rang just as she walked by. "Kitchen." She listened for a moment then held out the receiver, an odd look on her face. "It is for you, Rodney."

"If it's my sister, tell her that I'm on my way." Rodney backed toward the rear exit and the locker holding his coat, trying to make a quick getaway.

Teyla shook her head and began to rub her belly, her voice low and a little choked as she said, "You need to take this call, Rodney."

~*~*~

Rodney McKay is not available to take your call. If this is an emergency, call Atlantis, 555-232-3456, otherwise please leave a message after the beep.

You have one new message.

08:46 PM. "Hi, it's me, Mer."

"And me!"

"I don't want to bother you at work, just leaving a message to let you know we're still running a little late. Traffic's insane. We'll get there eventually. Bye!"

End of message.

Message saved.

~*~*~

Rodney walked through the restaurant's back door just in time to hear Teyla's good-natured complaint. "If Rodney does not find a replacement soon, I will be delivering this baby in that space next to the second oven."

Standing in front of her station, Aiden grinned and picked up the order Teyla had just finished. "I'm pretty sure that would be a health code violation." His eyes widened when he glanced in Rodney's direction. "Did you know he was coming in?"

After motioning Aiden toward the dining room, Teyla left her station and met Rodney halfway to his. "Rodney, I do not understand. Why are you here?"

"Isn't it obvious? I'm working." Rodney tied off the strings to his apron and began to organize his station the way he preferred it before running through the open orders.

"But I thought you were going to take a few days off?"

Teyla's hand was gentle against his arm, warm against the chill that felt bone-deep and closed off his throat so that all he could choke out was, "No."

Everyday tasks were easier to handle than his emotions, so he limited himself to those while his gloved hands went through the comforting, familiar motions.

"Give me one duck, two beef rare, and a rack of lamb."

"Aiden, pick up."

"Station One, I need a quail and a Dover sole for table nine. Okay, let's go, guys."

"Carlos, I need more pans, pronto. Miko, you're up."

"Station Four, fire one rare steak on the fly."

"Station Three, I need two racks of lamb and a lobster."

"Why is there no food on the counter? Come on, what is the holdup, people? We have tables waiting!"

"All right, where's my souffle for table fourteen?"

During a rare lull, Rodney walked into the cooler to check the stock of venison he preferred for carpaccio. He pulled out a bowl holding thin slices of lemon and thought, 'Jeannie would panic if she saw me touching these,' then placed it back on the shelf because he'd suddenly decided to leave the citrus to Teyla for the night. Fumbling his wallet out of his back pocket, he extracted a well-creased piece of paper, carefully unfolded it, and then sat down on a crate of melons to read it.

Dearest Mer,

The baby is gorgeous - ten perfect little fingers and the same number of perfect toes.

I changed my mind about a dozen times, but I finally decided she's Madison Rose McKay. Now she's here, I'm beginning to get what a huge thing it is that I'm doing on my own. That's why I want you to know that if anything should ever happen to me, you're the person I trust to take care of her, just like you took care of me. I know you'll love Madison the same way I would.

That sounds pretty grim considering how happy I am. It must be semi-post-partum blues.

Anyway, what I'm really trying to say is I love you and thanks for being there all those years.

Jeannie

Rodney didn't know how long Elizabeth had been calling his name, but he suspected it had been too long because her voice was as chilly as the air in the cooler when he finally looked up. "Rodney, I wasn't expecting you to come in. After all, you have quite a few arrangements to make, don't you?"

"Well, it just so happens that the people who handle those type of arrangements work nine-to-five and I don't."

"Rodney, I don't want to see you here for at least two weeks. That's not a suggestion. It's an order."

~*~*~

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~*~*~

"Madison, dinner's almost ready!"

Waiting until he heard her come out of the room that had been his office, Rodney carefully arranged the red snapper atop its bed of risotto with four stalks of asparagus and three curls of carrot to the side. He carried the plate to the table and set it in front of Madison with a smile he hoped didn't look too forced. Brushing her blonde hair back so that it wouldn't trail in the food, he said, "Bon appetit," wincing a little at the bruise darkening the right side of her face.

Resting her pink cast on the table, Madison picked up her fork in her other hand and poked at the fish before covering its staring eye with risotto. Rodney frowned as he watched her rearrange the food, becoming increasingly concerned when none of it reached her mouth. "Aren't you hungry?"

She shook her head. "I had a big lunch at the hospital." Carefully setting her fork down next to the plate, she asked in a quiet, polite voice, "Can I go back to my room now?"

"Sure." Rodney watched Madison slowly push away from the table, wishing he had a clue what to do next, hoping it would get easier when the movers arrived from Vancouver with the contents of Jeannie's apartment. Just before she disappeared through the door, he remembered he'd left his latest notes for his book in his locker. "Wait. I need to go by the restaurant to pick up a few things. Will you be okay here on your own for half an hour or so?" Picking up Madison's plate, he emptied it into the trash with a frown, ignoring Escoffier's demand for his share.

"I'm not a baby, Uncle Mer," huffed Madison, "Mom leaves me...." Madison's protest wound down to a quiet, "...left me alone to go to the store all the time."

Hoping to forestall a meltdown, Rodney pointed to the phone in the living room. "Right then. If you think you need me or want something, just press one - that's my new cell phone. If I don't answer, try two. That's the restaurant and it's only a few blocks away so, if you need me, I can be back here in a flash. If anyone calls, let the machine get it, unless it's me calling. All right?" Even though Rodney had conceded a cell phone was necessary with a child, he still wasn't ready to give up on his answering machine at home. After all, it had Jeannie's last message to him saved on it, just in case he or Madison needed to listen to her voice.

"Okay."

Madison's response was so quiet that Rodney wondered if he was making a mistake, but she looked so tired and sad that he didn't think it was a good idea to drag her along with him. Still, he needed those notes if he wanted to stay sane until Elizabeth let him back into his kitchen. "Okay, then. If you're sure."

Madison shrugged and looked down at the cat winding around her feet and asked, "Can I have Esky in my room?"

Deciding to ignore Madison's cutesy nickname for his cat for the sake of peace, Rodney smiled and said, "I don't think you could keep him out. He likes you. Okay, I won't be long." Grabbing his coat, keys, and his new cellular tether, he headed for the door, making sure to lock it behind him. He hurried down the stairs and along the sidewalks, arriving in the kitchen out of breath and instantly out of sorts when he caught sight of an unfamiliar man standing at his station and air-strumming a long-handled spatula along with the music filling the air. His black t-shirt and colorful pants were jarring amidst the white and black uniforms Rodney had always required in his kitchen.

Still unaware of Rodney's arrival, the messy-haired usurper pointed to the iPod sitting on the shelf above Station Three and called out, "I'm telling you, Johnny Cash is the man. This one's great, from his 1959 album." He began to sing alongside t he gravel-voiced icon, his voice sounding slightly nasal but thankfully on key. "The troubadour, the troubadour sings from his heart, the song that's the hit of the show. Watch him sing and play the strings of his guitar alone in the bright spotlight's glow."

Before Rodney could explode, Teyla left her station and hurried to his side, her voice warm and soothing. "Rodney, we have missed you. How are you feeling?"

Everyone's attention shifted to Rodney, including the stranger's. Swinging around, he flung his arms wide and begged with a saucy grin, "It's you! Please, please reveal the secret of your saffron sauce, oh mighty chef of the sublime and divine?"

Feeling his blood pressure rising to dizzying heights, Rodney shouted, "Excuse me? Who the hell are you and why are you generating chaos in my kitchen?"

"I'm John Sheppard, your new sous chef, and you're the Rodney McKay. Cool." Sheppard wiped his hand off on the towel slung over his shoulder before offering it to Rodney. "I just have to say the world would be a much darker and depressing place without your quail in truffle sauce."

The drawl and lopsided smile made it difficult for Rodney to determine whether the man was in earnest or sarcastic. Not caring to find out which, Rodney stalked past the chili-pepper-pants-and-orange-crocs-wearing buffoon and out into the dining room, wincing as the Johnny Cash tutorial resumed in his wake. Spotting Elizabeth by the front door, he interrupted her in the middle of greeting several customers. "We need to talk."

Elizabeth tilted her head toward her office, never losing her polite smile as she waved Peter Grodin over to show the customers to their table. Rodney led the way and barely waited until she closed the door before snapping, "You could've at least asked me, Elizabeth."

"I'm sorry, but I couldn't wait any longer for you to find a replacement for Teyla." Despite her words, she didn't sound very apologetic to Rodney. "You were busy with all the…arrangements you needed to make for Madison and you weren't due back for another three days. I found out John was available and I had to act quickly."

"The last thing I need to deal with right now is some lunatic surfer dude singing country-western and prancing around in my kitchen!" Feeling as though he might vibrate his way through the floor, Rodney folded his arms and tried to calm down, but Elizabeth's casual dismissal of his concerns was no help.

"Lunatic? I see him as exuberant, full of…joie de vivre, something we could use more of around here."

"Exuberant? Are you kidding me? The guy wears ridiculous clothes and thinks he's Johnny Cash!" Rodney paced between door and desk, his voice low and furious. "Elizabeth, the only demand I had when I took this position was that I get to choose my staff. Teyla has worked out wonderfully as my sous chef."

"Teyla is going to be out for three months on maternity leave and then she'll only be working part-time!" Elizabeth spat back before she took a deep breath and said more calmly, "Listen, just give John a chance, he's excellent."

"I've never heard of him," Rodney objected on principle, not willing to give in without a fight. "I have no idea what he can…."

"Please, give me some credit, Rodney." Elizabeth rolled her eyes and there was a sour curve to her lips. "He was the sous chef at Il Travertino."

"Italian?" Rodney paused to stare at her, huffing in disbelief. "You bring in a sous chef from an Italian restaurant, and I'm< the one in therapy?"

"He's worked in restaurants all over Europe, and I happen to know that Ronon Dex offered him executive chef at Sateda." Elizabeth walked over to the mirror hanging by the door and checked her makeup, signaling that the discussion was over.

Despite knowing that he'd lost for the moment, Rodney made one final protest. "If he's so wonderful, then why didn't he take Dex's offer? I hear LA's a great place for surfers to hang out."

Elizabeth shook her head and opened the door to leave, firing a sarcastic parting shot over her shoulder. "I can't imagine why, but he wanted to work with you."

~*~*~

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~*~*~

"Uncle Mer, wake up."

Rodney blinked bleary eyes at the small blonde person standing next to his bed. "Wha...?" He sat up slowly, careful not to crumple the notes were scattered across his bed, frowning at the ink splotch next to the drool on his pillow. With a wince, he removed the offending pen from under his leg, tossing it onto the nightstand atop his recharging tablet. "I really have to stop writing in bed," he grumbled to himself, startling when his unexpected alarm clock spoke again.

"Uncle Mer, school starts at 9:00. It's 8:20."

As the words penetrated his foggy brain, memory flooded back in, replacing dreams of precise measurements and exotic ingredients with cold, harsh, reality. "Oh, no. Oh, jeez." Papers went flying as he flung back the covers and clambered out of bed, thankful he'd fallen asleep in socks and sweats and just needed his sneakers. "Okay, come on, come on, let's get you dressed."

When Madison didn't immediately head to her room, Rodney took a second look at her, grimacing as he realized she was already wearing a coat and hat. "Oh, ah, you're dressed." Hoping there was a chance he had time to brew coffee, he asked, "Okay, then did you eat breakfast?"

Madison shrugged. "I had some cereal."

Rodney sighed. Coffee would have to wait until after Madison was safely to school. "Okay, good. Now where is my other sneaker?" Rodney puffed as he knelt to search under the bed for errant footwear. "There it is." Regaining his feet with a heartfelt groan and a mental note to resume his daily back exercises, Rodney carried his sneakers out of the room, heading for the kitchen, trailed by a demanding Escoffier. "Yes, yes, I'm getting your food, you greedy beast, just like every other morning, even though I'm not getting any coffee." As he poured some kibble into the cat's bowl, he called out, "I forgot to ask yesterday. - do you need supplies or anything? Like pens or paper?"

"I have the stuff from my old school," Madison shook her head as she poked he head into the kitchen. "But, I can't find my scarf."

Bent over to slip on his sneakers and smooth the velcro shut, Rodney grunted, "You can just use one of mine."

"No! I want my scarf!"

The stomp of a small foot and flash of temper reminded Rodney of a young Jeannie, angry at a brother who was trying but failing to fill in for a mother who had died too soon. He straightened up with a lump in his throat, his renewed failure a bitter pill to swallow. "We'll find it later, Madison. I promise."

"But, Mom knitted it for me specially for school! It's like Harry Potter's and he had to go to a new school too and...."

The tear and the forlorn sniffle broke Rodney's heart. "Okay, we'll find it now. Where did you see it last?" Madison's shrug was less than helpful. "Okay, let's check your room, shall we? I'll bet it's hiding under that pile of stuffed animals covering your bed."

Fortunately for Rodney, his first guess was right, and the scarf appeared at the bottom of the untidy pile. "You do realize that if you'd made your bed, you would have found it yourself?" Rodney's attempt at subtle parenting went right over Madison's head as she squeaked with delight and skipped out of the room with her prize. Rodney sighed and made sure the purple beanie baby elephant named Louie was visible atop the heap of blankets, discarded clothing, and other fuzzy creatures. "Or we can just leave it a mess."

On his way to the kitchen, he heard a knock at the door. Trying to get them both out of the apartment as quickly as possible, he called out, "Madison, can you get that, please?" Opening the refrigerator, he pulled out the thermal lunch bag he'd packed before going to bed, then paused at the counter to wrap the cooled sourdough loaves he'd stress-baked the night before but had managed not to sample despite the tempting aroma. He'd worked too hard to lose the weight he'd gained while writing his two best-selling cookbooks and he wasn't going to let insomnia and late-night binges pack it back on. Lunch bag in hand, he headed for the door, stopping in puzzlement when he saw Madison standing next to it, ignoring the repeated knocking. "Why didn't you get the door?"

Madison rolled her eyes, just like her mother would whenever Rodney said something she considered stupid. "I'm not supposed to answer the door for strangers."

In this case, Rodney thought, the rolling eyes were warranted. "Oh, right, right. That's…good." Shaking his head as he opened the door, he wondered if he was going to be able to figure out this parenting thing before Madison's eyes were ruined. "Oh, Carson."

"Any chance for some coffee?" Carson waggled a mug emblazoned with 'World's Greatest Dad,' the smile on his face much too bright for Rodney to deal with before his own coffee infusion. "I've just run out."

Realizing Madison was watching, Rodney suppressed an irritated explosion and summoned up a smile. "Sure, but you'll have to brew it yourself. We're running a little late, so just give me a couple of seconds."

As he returned to the kitchen, Rodney overheard Carson attempting conversation with a stubbornly mute Madison. "Good morning, young lady. I'm Carson. I 'm your downstairs neighbor and you must be Rodney's niece. Madison, right? My two boys are about your age. They'll be staying with me this weekend. Maybe you could come down and play with them, if you're not too busy?"

"Sorry, I forgot that Madison isn't supposed to talk to strangers." Back from the kitchen with a small bag of his favorite Kenya Karinga beans, along with one of the loaves of bread, Rodney chuckled as he handed both items over. "Madison, this is Carson and he's not a stranger. I, uh, baked too much last night."

Carson opened the bag and took a sniff. "Ah, the good stuff. Thanks!"

"You're welcome and those Thai noodles you left last night, Carson." Rodney faked a smile as he recalled the container he'd found on the doorstep and discarded without opening. "It was very…thoughtful of you."

"It was my pleasure. I'm sure you're rushed off your feet these days." Still smiling, Carson backed out of the apartment as Rodney put on his coat and waved Madison toward the door. "Anytime you need help...."

"Yes, yes, thanks. Here's your lunch. I made it last night. I hope you like egg salad on baby kale." Ignoring Madison's grimace, Rodney locked the door behind them and herded Madison down the stairs. "Okay, come on. You don't want to be late for your first day of school. Let's go."

All Rodney could do was cross her fingers and hope it would get better.

~*~*~

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~*~*~

"I'm failing at this." Rodney plopped down on the couch and rested his head against the back, rubbing his tired eyes with the heels of his hands. "I never wanted kids. I have no idea what to do with a kid, especially one who's lost her mother. How do their minds work?" Letting his hands flop to his sides, Rodney rolled his head to peer blearily at Kate. "Madison is going to end up in therapy too. What was Jeannie thinking leaving her kid with me?"

"I believe she thought that her brother would do the best he could." Folding her hands in front of her, she smiled at Rodney. "That's all anyone could ask."

"My best isn't good enough. It's been a week and I can't get Madison to eat anything I make. What am I supposed to do, let her eat the tooth-rotting, an invitation-to-diabetes cereal to eat every meal simply because that's what her mother packed for their visit?"

Shaking her head at Rodney's hyperbole, she suggested, "Remember, you're both going through major life changes. Maybe Madison simply misses her mother's cooking."

"My sister never cooked." Rodney sat forward with a choked laugh. "She reheated, just like my mother. My father wasn't around enough to boil water."

"That could be it. Maybe Madison needs something more familiar, less sophisticated than egg salad on kale or poached snapper on risotto," she gently suggested. "What did you eat when you were her age?"

"It's not the same. By that time, I'd learned to cook in self-defense, which was a good thing for Jeannie since my mother couldn't be counted on to check for citrus. Her allergy was also one of the reasons I ended up getting my doctorate in Food Science at Cornell."

Kate looked puzzled as she pointed toward her bookcase. "So you're actually Doctor Rodney McKay? The recipe book you gave me doesn't mention that in the biography on the back."

"Yes, well, I learned the hard way with my first book that when the world thinks you're an MD, not a PhD, you get people asking for diagnoses at book signings. It's easier to leave it off. It's not as though I'm a professor who needs to publish or perish or hopes win a Nobel someday. People just call me 'Chef' when I'm working."

"I see." Kate's tone was non-committal. "That makes sense. Is everything else okay with Madison, other than the eating?"

Rodney shrugged. "I guess so. There's not a lot of crying now that she has her toys. It was tough waiting for the movers to get here with them, not to mention the whole sorting and donating and storing for later. Most of it is in storage and probably will be..." He waved off that prospect and ventured a half-sad smile. "At least she's not afraid of the dark like Jeannie was. After my mom died, she used to leave the lights on all over the house, every room. It drove my father nuts. She blamed me and, of course, my father believed her. I wasn't surprised. He never sided with me."

"You mentioned before that you took care of her alone after your father died. How did that go?"

Rodney swiped a hand over his face and choked out, "Can we, uh, can we not get into this right now?"

"Okay." Dr, Heightmeyer nodded, her voice sympathetic. "How are you handling not being at work?"

"Work?" Rodney faltered for a moment with the switch between topics, wondering how he'd managed not to bring that up first. "Well, other than Elizabeth turning into a dictator and forcing a new sous chef on me in order to undermine my position? The explosion Rodney was working up to dispersed with a discouraged huff. "Well, it'll have to wait until next week since she's banned me from the restaurant until then."

Kate considered him for a moment, her eyebrows slightly elevated. "Okay. Back to your problem with Madison. I know you said she's vegetarian...."

"A philosophy her mom forced on her, and one I have to contend with daily putting together menus at the restaurant," Rodney grumbled. "At least Jeannie fed her dairy, eggs, and fish so I don't have to get too creative making sure she gets enough protein. If and when she decides she's going to eat, that is. "

"Have you asked her what she'd like?"

Rodney frowned and shook his head. "That just gets me a shrug and her another bowl of cereal."

"What about trying peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or fish sticks?" Kate asked. "Most kids love them."

"Fish sticks?" Rodney's eyes widened and his jaw dropped in surprise.

Kate looked puzzled as she started to explain, "Yes, they're frozen and breaded…."

"I know what fish sticks are." Rodney exploded to his feet, his arms flung wide. "I just can't believe I'm paying for these suggestions."

~*~*~

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~*~*~

"Fish sticks and peas, ranch dressing on the side, as requested." After dropping the offensive plate of food in front of Madison, Rodney sat down opposite her with his omelet au fines herbes, hoping she might at least ask to try it. Trying to start a conversation after their silent trip back after school, Rodney flailed for a subject, finally settling on a simple, "So, did you learn anything interesting today?"

Madison picked up a fish stick and dipped it into the ranch dressing, holding it up for inspection as she replied, "No." She set the fish stick back down and poked at the peas.

"How about anything uninteresting?" Rodney tried to keep a smile on his face as Madison mushed the peas, fish sticks, and dressing together before scooping it up with her fork. He was thankful she chewed and swallowed before answering with yet another monosyllable.

"No."

Rodney took a few bites of his omelet before he tried again. "How was your teacher?"

"Bald." Madison shrugged as she drew a frowning face in her remaining fish stick mush.

Rodney resisted touching his own receding hairline. "Well, that's interesting." Setting his fork down, he took a sip of the single glass of wine he allowed himself each day. "You know, I was thinking the other day, I know so little about you. I mean, we're family, but I don't even know what your favorite color is."

Looking pointedly at the cast on her arm, Madison sighed a quiet, "Pink."

"Pink? See, I didn't know that. Personally, I like blue." Reaching out, he touched her cast and asked, "Does it hurt?" When she shook her head, he breathed a sigh of relief, knowing it was something he should have asked much earlier. Pulling his hand back, he picked up his fork and poked at the congealed omelet, as uninterested in eating as Madison. After a few moments, he tried again. "What's your favorite thing to do on the weekend? I have Sundays off. That's only two days away."

Madison pushed her plate away, most of the food sculpted into a mountain with the fork slanted across the middle. "You know, you don't have to do this, Uncle Mer."

"Do what?" Rodney wasn't sure what Madison was talking about, the fish stick failure or the stilted conversation.

Madison didn't make it much clearer with a mumbled, "Try so hard."

Before Rodney could try again, the doorbell rang. With an irritated huff, Rodney got to his feet and headed for the door, calling out, "Coming!" when the doorbell chimed again.

After looking through the peephole, he opened the door for a svelte, honey-haired woman carrying an armload of books. Her smile was charming as she introduced herself in a low, breathy voice. "Hello, I'm Chaya Sar."

"From the agency?" Rodney asked, wondering if the beautiful, poised woman had come to the wrong door.

A perfectly-shaped eyebrow rose in response. "Are you expecting another Chaya?"

"Uh, no?" Rodney stammered.

"Then, may I come in?"

"Oh, oh sure. Come on in." Rodney opened the door further, allowing Chaya to walk inside. Before he could ask to take her coat, Madison's door slammed hard enough to register as at least a 2 on the Richter scale. Leaving Chaya standing by the couch, Rodney excused himself to deal with the fallout. "I'll be right back. Please, make yourself comfortable."

After knocking on Madison's door, Rodney opened it and poked his head in. Madison was sitting on her bed surrounded by her stuffed menagerie, cradling Escoffier in her arms. "I told you, I don't need a babysitter," she informed Rodney with a pout. "I'm not a baby anymore."

"So, what am I supposed to do? You're ten-years-old." Rodney asked, sliding inside and closing the door behind him. "I can't leave you here alone for over five hours."

"Why not?" Madison shot back, letting the cat wriggle free so she could cross her arms with a huff. "I'm perfectly fine by myself."

Rodney mimicked her pose, his heart aching as he was once again reminded of her mother. "Madison, the last time I left you alone, you barricaded the door with a chair under the handle and made me prove who I was by singing 'O, Canada.'"

Before the argument could continue, there was a polite knock at the door and Chaya called out, "Excuse me, I do charge from when I arrive."

Rodney and Madison exchanged a look, Rodney's pleading and Madison's obdurate until she sighed and dropped her hands to her lap. Reaching out, Rodney helped Madison off her bed and nudged her out of the room ahead of him.

"Right, right. Chaya, this is Madison. We've finished her homework and she's had her dinner, so you'll just have to handle bath and bed by 9:00."

Chaya extended a gracious hand to Madison. "Hello, Madison. I'm pleased to meet you."

"That's all right then," Rodney said, rubbing his hands together. He headed for the closet to get his coat, calling back over his shoulder, "Oh, and I see you've brought something to read to Madison."

"Not really," Chaya replied. "Although we might discuss some of it. It's for my thesis on idolatry, authority, and Taoism. I'm a philosophy major."

In the middle of shrugging on his coat, Rodney paused for a moment, not sure how to reply to that information. He settled for a simple, "Madison, you know the phone drill. Call me if there are any problems." Wrapping a scarf around his neck, he made a quick exit - hoping to make it down the stairs before Carson could poke his head out - Madison's faint, "Have a good time at work," cut off by the door closing behind him.

His steps slowed as he walked out on the street, despite the feeling of freedom after his two week timeout. When he paused to look back and up three stories to his window, he saw a pale face looking down at him. He raised a hand to wave and smiled when Madison waved back. A few moments later, his head resolutely turned toward work, he picked speed, blaming a lack of exercise when he found it unexpectedly difficult to breathe.

~*~*~

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~*~*~

Rodney paused by his locker to grab fresh whites to change into, grateful the restaurant's uniforms were handled by the same laundry that spotlessly cleaned their towels, tablecloths, and napkins. Ducking into the unisex bathroom, he made a quick change, placing his street clothes back into the locker, where they'd accumulate fewer kitchen odors. Wrapping the ties of his apron firmly around his waist, he walked into the bustling kitchen, the staff already well into prepping for the night's rush, country-western music twanging in the background.

As he approached his station, he heard Teyla ask, "How are we preparing the sea bass tonight?"

Before he could answer, a nasally voice intruded, obviously unaware that Rodney had arrived and was back in charge. "Tell them they're going to be served to some very important people."

Rodney whipped his head around to see the new sous chef busy at one of the stoves. He was pleased to see Sheppard had changed into the whites Rodney required in his kitchen, the memory of wild, unruly hair confined by a proper toque - then he glanced down Sheppard's lean form to see the expected black uniform pants actually sported lobsters above the orange clogs. His temper flared and he marched over to the offending iPod and turned it off.

Startled, Sheppard looked up from his saute pan, frowning when he recognized Rodney and realized what had happened. "What's wrong? You don't like music?"

"It's distracting my staff." Rodney crossed his arms, daring a newcomer to challenge his authority.

The rest of the staff hushed, waiting for the fallout, until Aiden piped up. "I like the music. It's...inspiring."

Rodney scowled, expecting more loyalty from the aspiring actor. After all, he'd forgone firing the aspiring actor numerous times after finding out he'd given up his dreams in LA to take care of his grandparents in Portola. "Aiden, you don't get to have opinions in my kitchen. Add that to the rule that says you can never name anything."

Aiden nodded and retreated to the safety of the cooler.

"Your kitchen. Your rules." With a shrug, Sheppard turned back to his sauteing and everyone else got back to work minus their entertainment, not needing instructions for the daily routines, the murmur of conversation slowly returning.

The expected confrontation defused, Rodney relaxed his arms and returned to his station, checking to see that everything was in its proper place. He looked up when Teyla approached, her hand rubbing the belly bump that seemed to have doubled in the two weeks Rodney had been gone. "Wow, I'm surprised you haven't popped," he said with a grin. "You sure you should be here and on your feet?"

"We are both fine, Rodney," Teyla assured him before asking a question of her own. "And how are you and Madison getting along? Is she eating better?"

Rodney shook his head. "I've tried everything. No matter what I make, I'm lucky if she takes two bites."

"Perhaps you should try simpler foods," Teyla suggested with a smile. "Something a child would enjoy."

Rodney scowled at her. "Have you been talking to my therapist?" He waved his hands, his voice rising in frustration. "You can let her know fish sticks were a fail and the simplesandwich I tried tonight wasn't crunchy peanut butter and I only had jam, not jelly." His entire body drooped in despair. "She quit after the first bite."

Teyla patted his arm. "It will get better. These things take time."

"I know," Rodney said. "I've never liked the old imprecise recipes that said 'use a little of this and that and it's done when it's done'." He scrubbed a hand over his face. "I need to know just how long it's going to take and what ingredients I need."

With a nod of sympathy, Teyla returned to her station while Rodney walked over to the recipe board to make sure nothing had changed in his absence. He couldn't find anything to complain about and was about to return to his station, when Sheppard spoke next to him, "Anything new, Chef?"

Rodney's head snapped around, his temper igniting again as he adjusted his slipping toque. "Are you a trained ninja or something? Make some noise next time and save me a heart attack."

Sheppard quirked an eyebrow and looked around the noisy kitchen. "I guess I could carry a pot to bang on...."

"Right." Irritated by the sarcasm, Rodney turned back to the board, quickly rearranging the cards into two lines. "You take care of that half of the dishes." Rodney pointed to the bottom line. "I'll take care of the top line. Then we won't get in each other's way."

"Wait, your half is bigger than mine." Sheppard protested before backing away with his arms raised to ward off Rodney's glare."Right, right, right. I have some very big items. I got beef, I got fish, I got rabbit."

Elizabeth walked through, sending the doors swinging just as everyone settled back into place. "Showtime, folks! Let's go." She nodded toward Rodney, still wearing the frown he'd left her with that afternoon after they'd quarreled about the menu. Without another word, she left, and Rodney hoped he wouldn't see her again until the kitchen closed.

Rodney tried to sink into the familiar routines as the waiters popped in and out of the kitchen with orders, but Sheppard was a unknown and therefore a constant distraction. He could feel his beautifully choreographed ballet disintegrating into a country line dance, where someone is always two steps behind and throwing off the other dancers.

"Fifteen, two terrines, one Dover sole, two lamb."

Seven, carpaccio."

Running his usual sweep through the kitchen, checking for errors or delays, Rodney halted next to Sheppard, who was stirring a diablo sauce. "Have you seasoned that right?"

Sheppard's response baffled him. Where Rodney would have flayed anyone who'd questioned his competence with the sharp side of his tongue. Sheppard merely smiled and nodded, continuing to stir as he answered, "Yes, chef."

"I'll be the judge of that." Rodney picked up a tasting spoon and dipped it into the sauce. After blowing on it, he tasted the red sauce then shrugged. "It's okay." He deposited the spoon at the dish-washing station then clapped his hands, calling out, "Okay, where are we, people? Where's my lamb?"

"Slicing it now, Chef."

A hot plate of sliced lamb reached Rodney's station in seconds and he immediately split between two clean plates, after pulling on a fresh pair of gloves. Arranging the slices to his satisfaction, ensuring the pink juices didn't spread more than an inch, he began to garnish the entrees. Snapping his fingers, which wasn't nearly as satisfying in latex gloves, he turned around and grabbed the nearest pair of clean scissors - from Sheppard's hand. "Oh, pardon me."

Sheppard propped his hands on his hips and scowled. "Uh, I need those."

"And you'll get them right back. I merely need to trim this rosemary." Rodney took his time fussing with the sprigs, pleased he'd finally broken through Sheppard's cool facade.

With a sigh, Sheppard dropped his arms to walk over and lean against Rodney's station. "Can I ask you something?"

"Do I have a choice?" Rodney shrugged, pretending not to care, although the rosemary was rapidly approaching oblivion.

"Where did you learn to cook so well?"

Rodney paused and looked up, surprised to find Sheppard's expression interested instead of irritated. "I taught myself."

"Seriously?" Sheppard's eyes widened in surprise. "I thought you were going to say you studied under Alain Passard at L'Arpege or something."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "I did, after I completed my PhD in Food Science from Cornell." Dropping a nearly invisible sprig atop the rest of the shreds, he pointed to his head. "But 'genius' here. I already had it all. He only provided a little polish." When Sheppard grinned at him, Rodney almost smiled back, but then he remembered that Elizabeth had hired the irritatingly attractive man without Rodney's input. The renewed outrage had Rodney dropping the scissors on the station and flinging his arms wide, forcing Sheppard to take a few steps back. "Merde! Can't you see I need more space?" Glancing down at his station, Rodney frowned at the mess he'd managed to make. "And this rosemary is...." With a sweep of his hand, he relegated the herbal remains to the closest trash bin, then he marched over to the cooler to retrieve more rosemary.

Aiden was inside, his eyes closed as he recited, "My lord, that would dishonor him." When he opened his eyes, he flinched and shoved a paper into his back pocket, edging past Rodney as he explained, "I'm up for Reynaldo in 'Hamlet' and my break is over now. Later, Chef!" He nearly knocked over Sheppard, who'd followed Rodney inside.

Rodney rummaged through the herbs, ignoring Sheppard until he asked, "Why are you so angry with me?"

Rosemary in hand, Rodney turned around to deny the accusation. "I'm not...angry. I'm a very busy man."

He tried to leave, but Sheppard stripped off his gloves before holding Rodney back with a shockingly firm grip on his bicep. "Oh, no. You're very angry."

"This is my kitchen." Rodney tugged his arm free and stripped off his own gloves before folding his arms, prepared to bull his way past if necessary. "I have it set up to run smoothly and efficiently, and I'm not going to let you take it away from me."

"What makes you think I want to take it away?"

Rodney thought Sheppard was a much better actor than Aiden could ever be – he'd actually looked puzzled. "Why else are you here? A mere sous chef instead of Dex's new discovery?"

"You're right, I don't need this job. I can work wherever I want." Sheppard looked around the cooler and shrugged. "The thing is - I'd like to work here because it's an honor to cook with you, but I'd rather work where I'm wanted." Dropping his gloves in a trash bin, he snagged a lemon and watched as he rolled it between his palms, avoiding Rodney's eyes. "You want me to go, you just say the word."

Before Rodney could say anything, Elizabeth opened the cooler door and stuck her head inside to ask, "What's going on in here?" When neither man answered, she joined them in the cooler, allowing the door to close behind her. "Well? I need an answer." When Sheppard shook his head and started to leave, she blocked the door, demanding, "Where do you think you're going?"

Sheppard pulled off his toque and shoved it into his apron's pocket, running a hand through his hair before rubbing the back of his neck. "I'm sorry, Elizabeth, but this just isn't working out."

"Rodney." Elizabeth switched her focus, her eyes narrowed, her stare cold as the surrounding food. "What have you done now?"

"Me?" Rodney sputtered at the unjust accusation. "I didn't do anything."

Resting a hand on Sheppard's arm, Elizabeth's tone softened as she pleaded, "John, please reconsider. I think it should be apparent how much we need you here."

"That's your opinion," Sheppard shook his head and pulled his arm away. "Doctor McKay seems to disagree."

"Chef McKay," Rodney muttered, trying not to be pleased that Sheppard had brought his doctorate into the argument.

Elizabeth countered with, "Be that as it may, my opinion is the one that counts because Atlantis is my restaurant."

"But it's his kitchen." Sheppard frowned at Elizabeth, then surprised Rodney by stating quite firmly, "Without him here, it's only miscellaneous ingredients and a lot of dirty dishes, so I think he should be the one who decides who stays or goes."

"Rodney, you need to fix this!" Elizabeth hissed in Rodney's direction, the venom dripping from her voice. "Now!"

Rodney headed for the cooler door, stopping next to Sheppard to mutter, "Seems she's left me no choice."

"You want me to stay?" asked Sheppard calmly, only the lemon deforming in his hand betraying his doubt.

Rodney scowled at Sheppard, angered by his obtuseness. "Are you deaf or merely stupid? I just said that."

One corner of Sheppard's mouth quirked up. "Neither. You didn't actually say those words."

"I. Want. You. To. Stay." Rodney gritted out, forcing a smile that actually hurt because Elizabeth was still standing there, waiting for him to surrender and symbolically offer his best Victorinox rosewood forged knife to the victor.

"I'd love to stay." Sheppard grinned, tossing the lemon in the air and catching it. "Thought you'd never ask."

"Great." Rodney swung the cooler door wide and walked out, calling back over his shoulder, "Now get rid of that damn lemon and wash your hands so you don't contaminate everything."

Rodney stalked back to his station thinking that he may have conceded that battle, but he'd walked away with his knife.

~*~*~

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The apartment was dark when Rodney unlocked the door and walked inside. It was so quiet that he wondered whether the sitter had fallen asleep. Just as he was about to flip on the lights and find out, a soft glow in dining area caught his eye. He paused, curious, walking closer until he could hear Madison's whispering through the sheets and blankets draped over the dining table.

"Did you hear that? I know you guys are scared, but it's okay, because Esky and are here and we're safe as long as we stay inside the fort."

Glancing around the dark room, it was apparent to Rodney that Chastity - or whatever her name was – had left the building. Rodney frowned, wondering why the sitter hadn't called before leaving Madison alone. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his cell phone, sighing when he realized it needed to be recharged. He made a mental note to call the idiotic agency in the morning about their unreliable employees, cancel his payment, and then - obviously - find a better agency.

As he came to a quiet stop next to the piece of furniture formerly known as a table, he heard, "But if you get really scared, you can wake me up and I'll hold your paw. Especially you, Louie, because you're the littlest."

Raising the corner of a blanket that started the day on his bed, Rodney bent over and peeked inside the makeshift fort. "Madison?"

Madison looked up from the photo album she was looking through, nearly blinding him with a flashlight. Rodney recognized the vicious light source as the one he kept plugged in next to the door, handy for late night trips to the trash bins. "Sorry," she apologized, lowering the light. Her thin face was passive, the fading bruise a dark shadow in the dim light. "Hi."

"So uh, when did Chandra leave?"

"Chaya," Madison corrected him with a shrug, looking down at the photos, tracing one of her mother's with her index finger. "I don't know. A while ago."

"She was supposed to stay until I got home from work." Reminding himself that Madison wasn't the one who deserved his flash of anger, Rodney forced himself to stay calm as he asked, What happened?"

"When I wanted to say a prayer for Mom, she told me she wasn't in Heaven, that she couldn't hear me because she wasn't anywhere, so I threw her books outside and then locked that stupidhead out," Madison spat, tossing her own book aside.

Rodney almost dropped the blanket to applaud. "Good choice. Stupidheads don't belong in our apartment. Smart people know your mom is watching over you from Heaven. And thank you for not putting a chair under the door handle this time." Exhaustion suddenly washing over him, Rodney eyed the soft pile of pillows, couch cushions, and toys before asking, "You know, it looks pretty cozy under there. Do you think maybe I could fit?"

Madison cocked her head to one side, considering the possibility. Rodney could only hope he measured up. After a moment, she nodded. "Okay, Lionel can stand guard outside." Madison picked up the stuffed lion that was almost as big as herself and shoved it outside the safety of her fort. "Come on in."

"Thanks. Just a minute." Rodney straightened up, wincing when his back cracked. Taking off his coat, he walked over to put it away in the closet before settling his cell phone into the charger he'd set up next to his reliable old phone/answering machine. Stretching up into the air, he took a deep breath, expelling the air slowly as he bent over, pretending he could still touch his toes. He repeated his stretches five times before kicking off his sneakers and returning to the fort. Down on his knees again, he crawled inside, careful not to dislodge the precarious construction. It took a little wriggling and rearranging, but he was finally semi-comfortable on the stolen couch cushions, propped up by carefully selected companions filled with fluff, Esky sprawled across his stomach. "Hunh. I haven't done this in years. You did a good job."

"Thanks. Mom showed me how to build one, just like you showed her. It's the best for bad days."

Madison snuggled in next to him, her sharp bones a harsh reminder of her continued lack of appetite. Rodney wished her choice of cereal provided more than sugar and micro-infusions of vitamins. She wiggled around a bit, arranging a knitted blanket over herself, silently offering to share with Rodney after she accidentally clunked him with her cast. He smiled and shook his head, knowing the closeness of the fort would keep him warm enough.

"Uncle Mer, do you think we could visit Mom tomorrow, after school?"

Rodney thought about the simple monument placed over Jeannie's ashes and how Madison had tried to cry as she left a bouquet of daisies against it. "Sure we can. We''ll take the trolley and pick out some flowers to take to her."

"That's good," Madison said with a hitch in her voice. "I really miss her."

Patting her hand gently, Rodney assured her, "I know. I do too. We can visit her every Friday."

"Okay." Quiet descended, both of them breathing softly and almost in sync. Just as he started to drift off in the dim light, Rodney had an idea. Tomorrow was Friday, which meant no school the following day. If Madison agreed, he'd have a little more time to solve the sitter situation. "What say you come with me to the restaurant tomorrow night?"

Madison didn't answer right away and Rodney wondered what she was thinking. Just as he was about to ask again, she said quietly, "Okay, if Louie can come with me."

"I don't know..." Rodney teased, trying to lighten the mood. "You promise to keep him out of my sauces? I don't want to serve him to a customer by accident."

"I promise," Madison giggled. "No customers complaining about fuzzy tongues."

"Or sticky stuffing fluff flying all over the restaurant." Rodney chuckled as he visualized the mess. "I could just see Elizabeth – that's Mrs. Weir to you – handling that one."

They both laughed for a few more moments before settling down again, Rodney surreptitiously trying to adjust the hippo Madison had provided for a pillow so that his neck would stop complaining. Just as he started to drift off, Esky's purrs a soft lullaby, Madison shifted against his side and whispered, "Uncle Mer? You still awake?"

"Yeah, I'm still here," Rodney mumbled, hoping it would be a simple question.

"Mom used to make cinnamon toast on Sundays. She bought the bread at Whole Foods and she let me make the cinnamon sugar. She said you taught her how when she was my age."

Surprised by the unexpected sharing, Rodney was wide awake again. "Yeah, I did. I remember that."

"After we would go looking for birds on the Burnt Bridge Creek Trail or play in Marshall Park. On the best Sundays, we'd go to the zoo in Andergrove."

Rodney could finally see a glimmer of hope, and he quietly sighed in relief before suggesting, "Okay, then what say we take a trip to Whole Foods on Saturday and you show me what you like to eat. Then cinnamon toast on Sunday and then maybe check out Pier 39 or Fisherman's Wharf? I think I remember seeing wild sea lions there. And we'll buy you a cell phone so that you can always call me."

"That sounds good, Uncle Mer." Madison nodded against him, pulling her blanket a little higher. "Goodnight, sleep tight, dream sweet until morning's light."

Rodney's throat closed as he recognized the rhyme he made up for Jeannie after their mother died, the simple routine calming her when a night light wasn't enough. After a deep breath, he tucked the blanket under her chin and managed to whisper back, "Good night, sleep tight, dream sweet until mornings light."

He hoped Madison wouldn't mind getting the hippo back a little damp.

~*~*~

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"All right, two foie gras, one tartare, two bisque and a goat cheese."

"It's another big night for your carpaccio, Chef."

Tucked out of the way in a back corner of the kitchen, Madison perched on an empty crate and watched the bustling staff with wide blue eyes. Louie peeking out of the backpack beside her. Rodney tried to look up every few minutes to check on her, but then plating and staging for a party of eight consumed his attention, the dance whirling unabated around his station.

"Rodney. Rodney, your biggest fans are dying to see you."

"Busy here."

"Teyla, can you finish the duck on table five? I need to take a break."

"Certainly, John."

It was more than a few minutes when Rodney finally had time to check on Madison. He had a moment of panic, when he only saw Louie peeking out of her backpack next to the crate, but then he spied her at the farthest station – the one he reserved for overflow and special orders. Swinging her legs as she sat on the counter, she was smiling as she watched Sheppard pluck a few leaves from a bundle of herbs and stir them into a small sauce pan. Curious, Rodney casually walked over the station next to them, close enough overhear, but far enough away not to disturb.

"It's just a simple marinara." Setting down his spoon, Sheppard turned and offered the herbs to Madison. "Mmmm, just breathe that in."

Madison obeyed with a sniff, then wrinkled her nose. "What is it?'

"It's basilico." Sheppard leaned over and stage-whispered, "That's the secret chef word for basil." A glance in Rodney's direction betrayed Sheppard's awareness of the silent surveillance. "Mum's the word."

Madison giggled.

"All right, I need one terrine, two bisque and a langoustine, please."

"Table 12's getting a little antsy. Will it be up soon?"

Sheppard turned back to the stove and pulled off a boiling pot, pouring it into a strainer over the sink. A few shakes and he emptied angel-hair pasta into a bowl, ladled sauce from the pan over it, then handed it to Madison with a fork. "Hold this. Don't eat it yet. Just hold it." Retrieving a rotary grater from the counter, he ground a few sprinkles of Parmesan over the bowl. "More?" Madison nodded enthusiastically and Sheppard laughed, obliging her with several more grates. Setting the grater down, he nodded at Madison and said, "Okay, now."

Madison dove into her meal with enthusiasm, marinara dotting her chin as she slurped in the angel-hair.

"Hey, save some for me." Sheppard produced a fork of his own and tried to steal a bite, but Madison shook her head and sheltered the bowl with her body while she continued to eat.

"Fire one duck, one sea bass and a souffle, please."

"You know, in ancient Rome guys used to chew basil before the prom to get rid of bad breath." Sheppard popped a basil leaf into his mouth and chewed it then smiled at Madison, flecks of green on his teeth. "It's true."

"They didn't have proms in ancient Rome, silly."

"Table five's coming up in a few seconds, Chef."

Called back into the fray, Rodney paused for a few moments, waiting for Sheppard to catch his eye before mouthing, "Thank you."

Sheppard smiled and nodded before returning his attention to his delighted audience. "They didn't? Are you sure? I thought they did."

~*~*~

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"Un-Kraft dinner?"

"Mom said there was too much junk in the box with the cheese powder so she invented Un-Kraft dinner. She always let me help make it so I know the recipe by heart."

Rodney glanced around the small galley - set up just the way he'd wanted it for efficiency – and blew out a slow considering breath. "Well, this kitchen is meant for one cook, but I think we can manage one and a half."

"Yay!" Madison bounced and clapped her hands before darting out of the kitchen.

Puzzled by her unexpected departure, Rodney peered around the kitchen doorway to see where she'd gone. "Madison?"

"Just need my stool..." Madison called back from her room in between mysterious bumps and thumps, "...and my...." A tinkling crash and a yowl from Esky almost sent Rodney running, but then Madison crowed, "Found it!" and emerged from her room smiling and carrying a wood stool with Louie holding down a crumpled...something. "I found my apron!" She glanced back at her room, her smile fading, "I'll clean it up later, I promise."

Secretly pleased to see her happy for a change, Rodney rolled his eyes, trying hard not to smile back. "I'll believe that when I see it." Standing back, he allowed Madison to enter the galley with her booty, "Okay, let's get set up then."

After propping Louie next to the herb garden in the window, Madison set her stool in front of the counter next to the stove. Shaking her flowered apron out with a flourish, she pulled it over her head before turning around to let Rodney tie it in the back. "Okay, first we need a pot, a measuring cup, and a spoon for the pasta."

Rodney bowed with a flourish. "As you wish, Chef Madison." After retrieving a measuring cup from the cupboard over the sink, he pulled down a 2-quart pot from the rack on the wall, filling it half-full of water at Madison's direction before placing it on the stove to boil. A wooden spoon was selected from implement drawer and presented to Madison with another bow. Walking to a small whiteboard attached to the cupboard next to the sink for convenience, he noted ingredients, measurements, and instructions - just as he would when he worked on his own recipes. He labeled it 'Jeannie's Un-Karft Dinner' and turned to Madison. "Next?"

"We measure out 1 cup of pasta to put in when the water is ready." Standing on her stool, Madison opened the package of organic whole wheat pasta she picked out at the store, carefully pouring out 1 cup of the wagon-wheel shapes. "We'll also need 2 tablespoons of the butter and ¼ cup of milk for when the pasta is done." Setting the pasta aside, she looked at Rodney with a little frown. "I forgot to ask if you have a cheese grater."

Rodney chuckled. "I think I can probably find one around here." He opened the implement drawer again to pull out a flat grater, placed over a stainless steel bowl on the counter, then added a few lines to the whiteboard.

"Okay, then we need a cup of that cheddar cheese we bought grated, too. I can do that. I'm careful." Madison waved her spoon at the stove. "Are there little bubbles on the bottom yet?"

Glancing into the pot, Rodney nodded. "Looks like it's time to pour in the pasta."

As he reached out for the measuring cup, he was cautioned, "Be careful not to let the water splash on you. It'll hurt."

He smiled back. "I'm always careful with hot things. It's one of my rules."

"Mom says...said you have a lot of rules," Madison replied before glancing up at the clock. "We need to stir the pasta once every minute. It doesn't seem like they let you have very much fun, just like Mom said. Do you have rosemary?"

Rodney's forehead crinkled as he tried to parse Madison's rambling."They?'

"The rules, Uncle Mer." Madison shrugged and stepped down from her stool to open the refrigerator. "I'll get the cheese and the broccoli out...and the butter and the...oops." Madison looked down in dismay at the milk carton she'd dropped, finding juggling a little harder with a cast. "Sorry. Good thing it wasn't opened."

With a huff, Rodney reached down to retrieve the carton. "Good thing." He wiped the carton off with a towel he then tossed in the basket he kept under the window, retrieving a clean one from a drawer. "Making more than one trip might be slower, but it's safer."

"Now that's a good rule." Madison nodded as she placed the items on the counter. "I think you should handle cleaning and cutting the broccoli."

Rodney agreed, not wanting to see blood where it didn't belong. "And the steaming." He maneuvered around Madison to the farther counter and worked on the broccoli while Madison took care of the cheese and measured out the milk and butter.

They worked in companionable silence, interrupted only by Madison's 'Ding!" every minute or so as she turned to stir the boiling pasta. Rodney began steaming the broccoli just as Madison announced the pasta was done. "Now you strain it and put it back in the pot to keep it warm while we stir in the butter and milk. Oh, wait! The rosemary! We need to stir it in before the cheese."

Rodney suddenly realized he would do anything to keep her smiling, even suppressing his need to explain how to make a cheese sauce correctly. "How much do you need?" Rodney turned to the window garden to pick some, only to stop when Madison said, "That's not the right kind."

Rodney frowned down at the plant. "No, I can guarantee this is rosemary. Maybe she used a different herb like basil?"

"No, that's the right one, but it needs to be dried, crushed in a bottle you can shake three times." Madison's voice dropped and her smile disappeared. "Mom said you would think that was terribly lazy not to use fresh rosemary, so it was our secret, but I guess I need to tell you now."

Rodney shook his head and opened another cupboard, pulling out a glass bottle containing dried rosemary leaves. "Fresh rosemary is good, but your mom had it right using the dried for her recipe. It spreads the flavor more evenly." He opened the bottle and shook some of the leaves onto his palm then set the bottle down so he could crush the dried herbs with his index finger and thumb. "There. Dried, crushed rosemary. I don't have the shaker bottle, but a pinch is like a shake, so three pinches should do."

Madison's look was skeptical, but she picked up three pinches to add to the mixture in the pot, stirring thoroughly before adding in the cheese she had carefully grated. The cheese melted quickly on the warm pasta creating a gooey mess that Rodney was hard-pressed to find appetizing. Despite his misgivings, he finished his notations and ladled the Un-Kraft dinner onto two plates along with the broccoli, following Madison out to the dining area. She'd already poured her milk and Rodney's chilled water, so they both sat down to enjoy their food without any further delays.

"Yum! Perfect!" Madison mumbled with her mouth full, her grin slathered with stringy cheese sauce and bits of pasta.

Rodney took a bite and was pleasantly surprised. Somehow, after rejecting his many attempts to teach her, his sister had finally learned how to cook. He grinned back at Madison, thrilled to see her finally eating. He took another bite and mumbled right back, "Perfect."

~*~*~

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Two weeks later – with more than a few missteps - Rodney and Madison had finally fallen into a workable routine. After Rodney walked Madison to school, usually on time and with Rodney properly caffeinated, he visited his favorite markets to order the best they had for the restaurant. The afternoon was spent with Elizabeth and the early staff, reviewing menus and recipes for the upcoming evening. Rodney left the restaurant for a two-hour break in time to walk Madison home to handle her housework and dinner, then they both walked to the restaurant - only three blocks away.

Madison took over Rodney's tiny office next to the lockers, her homework spread across the desk. Although she was out of the traffic, she had people checking in on her all evening, offering tastes of the evening's fare, which she sometimes deigned to eat, as long as dessert was also on the menu. One time, Rodney had interrupted an impromptu line dance in the narrow hallway. Sheppard and Aiden had both looked sheepish as they returned to work, leaving Rodney wondering just how many times he'd missed it happening since Madison had looked pretty good.

When the kitchen began closing down, Rodney usually found Madison asleep on the padded bench he'd added to the office for her comfort, Louie tucked under her neck. He would gather her up and carry her home, not caring that it made his back ache. Having her thin arms wrapped around his neck as she murmured sleepily against his shoulder was worth it.

Elizabeth, Sheppard, and Rodney were in a state of detente, agreeing not to disagree as they sidestepped each other inside and outside the kitchen.

Then, somewhere, a butterfly flapped its wings and chaos descended.

It began with the arrival of a traveler dressed in leather and carrying a briefcase.

Rodney's truffle dealer, Larrin, who liked privacy for their transactions. Rodney always scheduled her visits for when Elizabeth was out on errands and before staff arrived. Teyla, as his right hand person, was the exception. Rodney supposed Sheppard would have to be brought in on it sometime, but he relegated that to the misty future.

"I thought you'd have dropped that by now," Larrin said, running a hand over her own slim belly as Rodney helped settle Teyla in a chair. She set the case on the counter and flipped it open, several brown paper bags labeled in red marker. "I have a new shipment. They're from all over - Modena, Montferrato, even Bologna." Opening one of the bags, she reached inside, pulled out what looked like a black clod of earth, and handed it to Rodney, "Check this one out. It's a black truffle from Parma."

Rodney looked the dark fungi over and held it to his nose for a judicious sniff, before offering it to Teyla for her opinion. She frowned and shook her head and Rodney handed it back to Larrin. "No, not what I'm looking for today." He peered into the case and asked, "What do you have in white?"

Larrin nodded and pulled out another bag. "Voila." She presented Rodney with a much paler, even larger lump. " My best product. Almost impossible to find this time of year."

Rodney cradled the treasure in his palms, taking a deep sniff before smiling and handing it to Teyla. "Who'd you get them from?"

"Ah, ah, ah." Larrin grinned and wagged a finger. "You know I never reveal my sources."

Already listing recipes in head, Rodney asked, "So how much for the white?"

"Twenty-two hundred a pound." Larrin pointed to the kitchen scale on the counter. "And you know that I prefer to sell them whole."

Teyla sucked in a breath, her eyes widening in surprise as she handed the truffle back.

"They are from Alba and very rare." Larrin said with a frown.

Teyla shook her head. "The truffles are not the problem." She looked down at the puddle accumulating under her chair. "I believe that my water just broke."

Rodney took a step back and looked at Teyla in dismay. "What? You've got to be kidding me."

"No, I am quite serious, Rodney." Her eyes twinkled in good humor. "It is finally time."

"Oh, my God. Are you okay?" Rodney fidgeted in place, desperate to do something but not knowing what. "What do we do? Call Kanaan?"

"I called Kanaan when the contractions started and he is on his way back from Santa Rosa." Teyla tried to get up, giving Rodney a thankful look when he jumped forward to help. "He will not be here for another hour. Since neither of us has a vehicle available, I suggest calling 911."

Larrin began repacking her case, emphatically snapping shut before starting for the door. "Police? I'm out of here."

"Not the police, an ambulance." Rodney said, but Larrin was already gone.

Patting his pockets, Rodney pulled out his cell phone, for once thankful to have it handy. After dialing 911, he paced back and forth, every ring seemingly endless.

Finally, a human answered. "911, what is your emergency?"

"Hello? We need an ambulance at Atlantis, the restaurant on the corner of Pfeiffer and Grant."

"Is the victim breathing?"

"Breathing?" Rodney glanced at Teyla, who was waddling in the opposite direction, her breaths slow and even."She's breathing fine. She took classes with Kanaan, who's conveniently out of the picture right now."

"We have an ambulance on the way. Can you describe the problem, sir?"

"Her water broke and it better get here fast because there is no way I'm delivering a baby on the floor of my kitchen. I'd never be able to cook here again!" Rodney hung up, dropped the cell phone on the counter, then pulled towels out of the cabinet to mop up the puddle. Floor mostly dry, he looked at the soggy cloths and shuddered. "Yeah, no," he declared and bypassed the laundry bin to toss them in the trash, then thoroughly scrubbed his hands at the sink. By the time, he'd dried them off, EMT's were arriving thru the swinging doors, Elizabeth following close behind.

"Rodney? What happened?" Elizabeth asked, a look of worry crinkling her brow as she watched the EMTs guide Teyla onto the gurney. "Is Teyla okay?"

"I am fine, Elizabeth." Teyla waved from the gurney. "It is just time to bring Torren into the world. Rodney will stay with me until Kanaan arrives."

When Teyla held out her hand and looked at Rodney, he couldn't resist, as much as he didn't want to be the one she needed right then. Taking a deep breath, he nodded and said, "Okay, we're going to do this," following Teyla's smile all the way out to the ambulance.

Perched on a narrow, ridiculously slippery bench-seat, Rodney had trouble maintaining his own breathing. Memories of watching Jeannie wheezing under an oxygen mask almost overwhelmed him, Teyla's hand clutching his so like Jeannie's as they raced to the hospital in an ambulance too many times.

Before he could hyperventilate enough to pass out, they were at the hospital. The gurney left Rodney behind at the emergency room door, trundling ahead to the maternity floor while he was accosted by an administrivia demon bearing a clipboard. "I need some information, sir."

"I'm not the father. I'm her boss!"

As Rodney tried to sidestep her, she cut him off with a hand to his chest. "You know the lady's name, right?"

"Yeah, Teyla Emmagan." With a sigh, Rodney resigned himself to spelling her name, followed by her address and the restaurant's health insurance company. That was enough to finally let him pass, repeating the directions to the delivery room under his breath. He only got lost once and arrived in the ward in time to see Teyla walking down the hallway, one hand rubbing her belly, the other supporting her back. Rodney sighed in relief and greeted her with. "You're still pregnant!"

Teyla laughed. "Yes, it will be some time before the baby arrives. Walk with me?"

"I'll do anything that doesn't involve me catching the baby or cutting a cord." Rodney fell into step beside her, and they made three slow circuits of the floor, checking in at the nurse's station whenever they passed by.

The fourth pass yielded a pleasant surprise. "Kanaan!" Teyla's steps quickened as she caught sight of her husband standing by the nurse's station. "I am so happy you are here."

Kanaan reached her in a few long strides and he grasped her arms to bring her close, their foreheads touching as they smiled at each other. "I am happy, too, my beloved."

"Aaaaand that's my cue," Rodney said, relieved to be off the hook. He glanced at his watch, surprised at how much time had passed since they'd bolted from the restaurant. "Wow, it's almost 5:00." He frowned as something niggled at the back of his brain, something he'd forgotten, and then it suddenly hit him. "Oh, no. Madison."

He took off down the hall at a run, calling back, "Good luck with baby and, and, stuff," heading for the elevator. He bounced in place on the ride down, trying to decide the fastest way to the school. Reaching into his pocket for his cell phone sent his heart plummeting as he remembered where he'd seen it last. Fortunately for Rodney's impending heart attack, there was a taxi just outside the emergency room door. He just had to wait for the little old lady to pay the fare and emerge from the backseat. Hoping to speed things up, he helped her out - trying hard not to yank her to her feet. Ancient obstacle removed, he launched himself into the back, gasping out, "Francisco Middle School, 2190 Powell! I'll pay double your fare if you get me there in less than 15 minutes."

Rodney ended up paying triple because they reached the side of the school in 9 minutes 37 seconds, Rodney obsessively watching every minute pass on his stainless steel Tag Heuer, the digital output advancing much too fast. Too impatient to wait for the light to change so the taxi could pull up in front, Rodney handed the driver three twenties and hopped out, calling back, "Keep the change." He took off running again, his steps slowing after he turned the corner and spotted Madison. Relief left him feeling weak in the knees, resentment stiffening them again when he recognized who she was with.

Glancing in Rodney's direction, Madison tossed a small foam football to Sheppard and turned away, stomping to the low brick wall for her backpack. Rodney approached Sheppard, glancing as his watch before asking, "If you and I are here, and Teyla is at the hospital, who is handling tonight's setups?"

A lingering smile dropped off Sheppard's face, and he shook his head as he tucked the football into his coat pocket. "You're welcome."

"You...I...Of course...." With a sigh, Rodney stopped sputtering and swiped a hand across his sweaty forehead, closing his eyes for a few moments before saying quietly, "I'm sorry. Thank you for making sure she was okay."

"I wasn't sure if I should take her to your place or back to the restaurant." Sheppard rubbed the back of his neck as they both watched Madison, who'd taken a seat on the stone steps to rummage through her backpack. "We ended up staying here because she insisted you made her promise to wait for you, and I didn't want you to panic if she wasn't here."

Rodney huffed. "I don't panic, I just get very concerned."

"Right." Sheppard chuckled. "Anyway, take your time coming in. I've got the setups covered." With a wave toward Madison, Sheppard turned and headed for Atlantis, his long strides eating up the sidewalk.

Madison waved back, calling out "Thanks, John." She didn't have anything to say to Rodney as he approached, her thin face closed off as she stood to put on her backpack.

"Madison. I'm sorry." Rodney reached out to help, wincing when Madison shrugged his hand off.

"You forgot me, Uncle Mer." The betrayal in her blue eyes cut Rodney to the quick.

"It's not what you think," Rodney protested. "Teyla had her baby today..."

Madison turned her back in him and began walking toward their apartment. "You forgot me."

"...and I had to take her to the hospital and wait for Kanaan to get there..." Rodney's shoulders drooped and he followed her, still protesting. "And I forgot my cell phone at the restaurant."

"Mostly, you forgot me."

"Okay! Okay!" Rodney stopped and threw his arms wide. "Is that what you want to hear? You're absolutely right. I forgot you!"

Madison just shook her head and kept going. Rodney had to move quickly to catch up with her surprisingly fast little legs. "Madison, I'm sorry. I totally blew it. I know I'm doing everything wrong, but I'm really trying. Just stop for a minute. Okay?" He reached down and grabbed her hand, gently tugging her to a halt. "Tell you what. Why don't you think of something I can do to make it up to you?"

Finally looking up at Rodney, Madison thought for a moment before asking, "You mean like a wish?"

"Exactly. You wish for something and I try to make it happen." Rodney pointed between them. "In return, you forgive me."

Madison searched his face, finally nodding as she agreed. "Okay, but can I save it for later?"

"Sure," Rodney said, wondering what he was letting himself in for and what it was going to cost.

~*~*~

Rodney McKay is not available to take your call. Please leave a message after the beep.

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You have five new messages.

"03:20 PM. Uncle Mer, are you there? You were supposed to pick me up from school and you aren't answering your cell phone. Hello?"

End of message.

Message deleted.

"03:30 PM. Uncle Mer? I called Atlantis and they said you weren't there and took Teyla to the hospital to have her baby. That mean lady, Mrs. Weir, said you forgot your cell phone and she would come to pick me up, but I don't like her so I told her I can't go anywhere with strangers."

End of message.

Message deleted.

"03:55 PM. Uncle Mer, how long does it take to have a baby? I did all my homework. My new cell phone is cool, but I'm tired of playing 'Angry Birds' and 'Candy Crush."

End of message.

Message deleted.

"04:30 PM. Uncle Mer, I'm getting really cold. If you're not here in another ten minutes, I'm going to start walking home by myself."

End of message.

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"04:41 PM. Uncle Mer, your ten minutes are up, but John's here now so we'll wait together."

End of message.

Message deleted.

~*~*~

After Rodney stabbed the answering machine a final time, he scrubbed his face and groaned. "I am the worst uncle ever." Throwing himself down on the couch, he covered his eyes with his right arm, swallowing hard before whispering, "I am so very, very sorry," unable to decide whether he was apologizing to Madison or Jeannie...or both. When he felt a slight weight settle near him, he sighed then lifted his left arm to avoid Madison's poking, slowly bringing bring it back down to rest gently against Madison as she nestled into his side. When she tugged his right arm away from his eyes, he looked down at her, surprised by the concern in her eyes. "What?"

"You're supposed to squeeze me now." She patted Rodney's left arm. "Mom always said this was the best arm to hug with because it was closest to the heart."

Gathering Madison closer, Rodney rested his cheek against her head, murmuring, "Your mom was a very intelligent woman."

Madison nodded in agreement. "Yeah, she always knew what was important." They sat quietly for a few minutes, until Escoffier demanded room to squeeze between them and began to purr under Madison's soft stroking. With a sigh, Madison pulled back enough to look up into Rodney's face with a damp smile. "You're not doing everything wrong, Uncle Mer."

"Thanks." Rodney sniffed a little then swiped a hand across his eyes. "You hungry?"

Madison nodded. "A little."

"Me too." Rodney pulled away and got up from the couch, offering a hand to Madison. "So what would your mom make you for dinner after a day like today?"

Madison used Rodney's hand to tug herself up then led him into the kitchen. "It would be a scrambled eggs, sliced tomatoes, and toast night." Madison

"Well, I think I've got the toast and tomatoes down," Rodney said with a chuckle. "But why don't you show me how your mom scrambled eggs."

"Okay, I'll get Louie." Bouncing out of the kitchen, Madison headed for her room, but then she reappeared in the doorway. "And um...."

"What?"Rodney asked, busy gathering the necessary ingredients.

Madison squinted at him, her nose wrinkled and her lips pursed, just like her mother used to do when she was going to try to convince Rodney to do something he wasn't going to like. "You're not working the day after tomorrow, are you?"

"No. It'll be Sunday and the restaurant is closed."

"So John isn't working the day after tomorrow either, right?"

Rodney answered a little cautiously, beginning to get an idea where the conversation was headed. "Yes, Madison, that would be the logical conclusion."

"Okay," Madison bounced in place, her blue eyes twinkling above a shining grin. "Then I'm going to make my wish."

~*~*~

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~*~*~