John came awake when the radio beside his bed crackled.
"Colonel, you're needed in the kitchen."
That wasn't something he'd ever heard before.
Rodney grumbled and swatted at the radio, so John scooped up his earpiece. "Go for Sheppard."
"You need to come to the kitchen immediately, sir," Chuck said.
John eased himself up over Rodney and out of the bed, pulled on his clothes. He kept his voice low. "What's going on in the kitchen?"
"You'd best come see it yourself."
"All right. Be there in a few minutes." John fumbled to pull his boots on, grab his sidearm, and then he ducked out of his quarters. Rodney was a pretty heavy sleeper and hopefully wouldn't notice he'd gone.
When he got to the kitchens, a couple of marines were standing guard at the door. They stepped aside and let him in. Chuck and Major Teldy were just inside the doorway. John gripped his sidearm, ready for anything.
Except for his XO sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor, covered in flour, head in his hands, shoulders wracked with silent sobs.
"The KP marines alerted us when he ordered them out," Teldy said in a low voice. "When he started baking a cake, they didn't think much of it, but then he was like...this."
"Has anyone called for Heightmeyer?" John asked.
"I've dispatched some marines to wake her because she wasn't responding to comms," Teldy said.
"Okay." John surveyed the scene in the kitchen once more, taking in the baking ingredients on the counter and the mixing bowls and wooden spoons. "Why don't you and Chuck give me and Lorne a moment, okay? Let me know when Heightmeyer arrives."
Teldy nodded, lifted her chin at Chuck, and they both slipped out of the kitchen, shut the door behind them.
John approached Lorne slowly, hands raised in a gesture of surrender. "Hey, Major, what's going on?"
"I forgot McKay's birthday was today," Lorne said, his voice muffled.
Everyone had forgotten it was Rodney's birthday. They'd held funerals for those lost in the explosions on their mass Sunday. Usually Rodney was insufferable about the fact that it was his birthday, but today, he'd been mourning his friends alongside everyone else. John had taken him back to his quarters after the funerals, held him and kissed him and reminded him that they were both still alive. He'd given Rodney the present he'd ordered from Earth months ago (a copy of his favorite Star Trek book autographed by Patrick Stewart), and they'd lazed in bed and talked idly. And eventually they'd fallen asleep.
"I don't think Rodney's very offended," John said.
Lorne hiccuped. "I just – I don't always get along with McKay, but he's a good guy, and I consider him a friend, and I always remember birthdays, and –"
Damn, but John was bad at emotional comfort. It was one of the reasons he and Nancy hadn't worked out. Luckily Rodney rarely needed words for comfort; touch was what worked for him. That kind of comfort wasn't an option with the expedition's XO, though.
"Lorne, it's okay. Today was a little rough for everyone. I'm sure you're not the only who forgot it was Rodney's birthday, or other things." John kept his voice calm and steady. Where the hell was Heightmeyer?
"I'm supposed to remember these things," Lorne said. That wasn't true. Remembering birthdays was no part of his duties as XO, but people did expect Lorne to know and remember, well, everything. People joked all the time that nothing happened on Atlantis without him knowing it. He scrubbed at his face with his damp hands. With all that flour, he looked a complete mess, an utter disgrace to the uniform. Human. "I should be a better friend. To Rodney, to everybody. I was an awful friend - I totally blew Carson off, and now –" Lorne buried his face in his hands again.
Double damn. John was not equipped to handle this. He wasn't trained for this. Should he radio for Teyla? No. Where was Heightmeyer?
He tapped his radio. "Teldy, have you got anything for me?"
"Dr. Heightmeyer's on her way," Teldy said.
John stared at the broken wreck of a man in front of him and had no idea what to do. "Look, I'm sure Rodney's not mad."
"How do you know?"
John winced. There was no good explanation for that. "I just do."
"You know how important his birthday is to him."
Everyone knew that. Rodney never let them hear the end of it, celebrating the day when the universe graced Earth with his genius. Except this year. He'd woken up this morning and even he had forgotten it was his birthday.
Lorne actually sniffled. "I can't believe I forgot. I ordered supplies for a cake weeks ago. I was all set to bake it. Citrus free and everything. Made the KP marines clean the kitchen extra carefully."
John took a deep breath, made a decision. He couldn't watch his XO shake apart in front of him any longer.
"Teldy, stall Heightmeyer for a minute. I have a plan."
Her unwavering faith was comforting, because his plan was a crazy one. He radioed for Rodney. It took several tries, but Rodney finally grumbled an answer. John whispered for him to get dressed and come straight to the kitchen.
"Why are you whispering?" Rodney asked.
"Just do it. Please."
Rodney must have sensed something in John's tone, because he whispered back, "Be right there."
John glanced back at Lorne, who had gone frighteningly still on the floor. Was he even breathing?
Teldy spoke in his ear. "Heightmeyer's here, sir. As is McKay."
"Send McKay in," John said.
Rodney, wearing slippers and pajama pants and an old t-shirt, shuffled into the kitchen. "What the hell happened in here? It looks like a bag of flour –" exploded hung on the air, unspoken.
"Rodney," John said, "please explain to Major Lorne that you aren't upset that everyone on the expedition forgot that today was your birthday."
"Major Lorne?" Rodney echoed. He craned his neck and peered around John, and his eyes went wide, panicked. Rodney was even worse with crying than John was, especially since he usually caused someone else to cry and wasn't too upset by that. "Oh. Hey, Major."
"I'm sorry, Rodney," Lorne hiccuped. "I forgot. I was going to make you a cake, and –"
Rodney said, "It's okay. Really. Today was such a crazy day – I didn't even realize it was my birthday till John gave me a present."
Lorne looked up, blinked at him through spiky wet lashes. "Really?"
Rodney nodded. "Yeah." He stepped closer to Lorne and then, after a bit of hesitation, sat down on the floor near him, but not close enough to touch him. "Today wasn't just about me, it was about everyone we lost, and I wanted to celebrate them more than I wanted to celebrate myself."
Lorne peered at John. "How did you remember it was his birthday, sir?"
"You're not supposed to ask, and I'm not supposed to tell," John said quietly.
Lorne blinked rapidly. "Oh. Oh! Um, I'm really happy for you, Rodney."
"Thanks." Rodney grinned briefly. "What bit of birthday celebrating I did was really excellent, thanks to John. So don't worry, okay? You're not a bad person for forgetting my birthday. After all, I didn't remind anyone this year. I appreciate the thought about the cake, though."
"It's citrus free. I promise." Lorne sniffled again, but he smiled, and John was unaccountably relieved.
Rodney rose up, offered Lorne a hand. "Why don't we finish baking the cake, but instead of calling it my birthday cake, why don't we celebrate everyone else, everyone we miss?"
Lorne accepted his hand, let Rodney help him to his feet. He dusted the floor off his hands. "Sorry, sir," he said to John. "I just –"
John rolled up his sleeves. "We can light a candle for everyone we miss," he said. "Did you order frosting?"
Lorne blinked, startled by John's easy acceptance, but then he moved toward the counter where the baking supplies were laid out. "I was going to make it from scratch. I have food coloring and everything."
John smiled and nodded. "Excellent. Rodney, what's your favorite color?"
"Sir?" Teldy asked in John's ear.
"Apologize to Heightmeyer for me and tell her Lorne will see her tomorrow, all right?"
"You, Chuck, and the marines are dismissed," John said.
"Roger that, sir. Teldy out."
John took off his radio and tucked it into his pocket, headed toward the counter where the other two were baking.
Rodney had found a pair of scales and was weighing flour like it was a vital ingredient in a bomb. He chattered to Lorne as he worked, telling him about the best birthday party he'd had when he was a kid. In return, Lorne told him about a Pegasus birthday ritual he was invited to once, where the birthday celebrant, instead of receiving gifts, gave gifts to all those who she felt had contributed to her continued survival in the past year.
Neither man trusted John with anything more significant than stirring the cake batter till it was lump-free, so he listened and watched while Lorne and Rodney engaged in what was probably the longest non-work conversation they'd ever had. When the cake went into the oven, all three men breathed a sigh of relief. The hardest part was over. Lorne wandered over to the sink to wash his hands before he got started on the frosting, and John tugged Rodney in for a brief, chaste kiss.
"Happy birthday," John said.
"My birthday was yesterday at this point," Rodney murmured, "and you helped me celebrate very well."
"You did great with Lorne."
"He's not the only one who regrets not spending more time with friends," Rodney said, "and so I'm taking the chance to make up for that with the friends I have left."
Warmth blossomed in John's chest. "I love you."
John laughed and kissed him again.
Lorne waited politely till they'd pulled back from each other before inviting them to help him come name all the candles.