Disclaimer: Stargate: Atlantis is not owned by me, nor do I make any material profit from this story.
Beta by the incomparable NebbyJen. Thanks to the talented PurpleYin for helpwith the original version.
Set mid Season 1
Author's Note at the end of the story.
It started with a tickle in the back of his throat.
For once, Rodney had actually woken up before the others. He couldn't ignore his full bladder anymore, and the quiet morning was pleasantly cool after the oppressive heat of the previous day. He'd watched the sunrise, enjoying the novelty of seeing it through eyes that didn't burn and itch from having been awake half the night. The alien sky glowed with blues and yellows and greens, the early morning hush a peaceful backdrop for the unusual play of colors.
The PowerBar that comprised his usual breakfast had tasted especially good, washed down with the clear, cold, almost sweet water from the well in the middle of the little village. It was the peanut butter flavor, his favorite – one of the few left that he'd hoarded for himself. Despite the many boxes of PowerBars the Expedition had brought to Atlantis with them, it seemed like they'd run out of the peanut butter flavored bars first.
That phenomenon hadn't quite made sense to Rodney, since it seemed that everyone apart from himself professed a strong dislike for the chewy but nourishing bars.
But the tickle had rapidly progressed into a flurry of sneezes that made him feel like the top of his head was about to come off. He hadn't noticed at first that he was getting short of breath as well, since the sneezing made it difficult to catch his breath in the first place. By the time he got the explosive outbursts under control by pinching the bridge of his nose, he was more than a little lightheaded. His tongue felt large and heavy and alien in his mouth.
He flopped down on one of the stone benches around the well, thinking he ought to sit down before he fell down.
The symptoms were horribly familiar, but he couldn't think of anything that could have triggered an allergic reaction. He'd had peanut butter PowerBars before, so unless they'd changed the recipe…Rodney dug the empty foil wrapper out of his pocket. Trying to read the list of ingredients was almost impossible between the tiny type and the way his vision was blurring as his right eye itched and watered continuously.
He'd drunk the water from the well the day before, after testing it with a handy Ancient device. Not only was the water perfectly safe, it was full of healthy natural minerals, as well. There were people on Earth who'd pay through the nose for water like this, and often did.
The stomach cramps hit him without warning, stealing even more of his breath. Oh yeah, definitely an allergic reaction to something, he thought dazedly, and not a mild one. Not quite as bad as full anaphylactic shock – which he'd never actually experienced, despite his vociferous complaints – but bad enough. If he couldn't manage to get himself moving soon, back to the hut where he and the rest of the team had spent the night, it could get quite a bit worse.
And if his oxygen intake was too limited for too long…well, the only thing he really had to offer was his brain, and the brain didn't do too well without oxygen.
He'd read somewhere that lack of oxygen produced a brief euphoria, which didn't quite explain why some people were so eager to kill off their brain cells through ingesting various substances. He certainly wouldn't describe the way he felt now as euphoric. Lightheaded and dizzy, maybe even a little giddy, but euphoric? Really, no.
Rodney realized, somewhat belatedly, that his mind was wandering and he hadn't made any effort to move away from the bench. Lurching to his feet, a wave of vertigo washed through him and sent him to his knees. He managed to turn slightly as he fell and clutched at the bench, pressing his hot, swollen face to the cold stone.
The stupid part of his situation was that help lay just a few yards away. The Epi-pen tucked into a pocket on his tactical vest would fix the problem almost instantly. But the vest was with the rest of his gear, back in the little hut in which they'd spent the night. Burning heat flushed through him, the wheezing becoming a strange little whistle as he pulled miniscule amounts of air through the decreasing opening of his throat.
His eyes were still watering, blurring his vision, and his eyelids were too heavy to hold open now, so he let them shut, plunging him into a swirling darkness that stole his awareness of gravity and left him floating, weightless and dizzy.
He wondered how the others would react when they found him here. Would they be concerned? Upset? Would they laugh and sneer and say how pathetic he was, to be left helpless and half-dead from something as stupid and mundane as an allergic reaction? After all, they were in another galaxy, surrounded by so many more interesting, memorable, heroic ways to get hurt. Yet here he was, Doctor Rodney McKay, on his knees in the main square of a grubby little village full of primitives who could barely keep themselves clothed and fed. The thought that he'd be found with toothbrush and toothpaste in his hands instead of the Beretta that was strapped to his thigh was humiliating.
And would anyone actually miss him if, god forbid, he had a full anaphylactic reaction and died? Maybe the next time there was a crisis…but Radek was nearly as smart as he himself was, and far less apt to panic; Sheppard only had to enter a room for the Ancient technology to sit up and beg him to use it; most of the scientists and even some of the soldiers were picking up the Ancient language. No, he decided, he was by no means irreplaceable. And personally? Well, he hadn't exactly gone out of his way to make friends, had he? Sheppard would feel guilty for losing a member of his team, of course, and maybe he'd miss the playful banter they engaged in. He thought maybe Elizabeth might actually be sad, but then Elizabeth took it to heart every time they lost someone, even more than Sheppard did.
And back on Earth, there was no one at all. He hadn't seen his sister in years, he'd already left his cat behind with the neighbor who liked the cat but couldn't stand him…so basically the only hole his death would leave in the universe was the lack of his intellect. And that didn't seem like very much at all. It wasn't the sort of thing anyone would shed tears over or reminisce about years from now. No one would leave flowers at Rodney's grave – not that he would have a grave, since Elizabeth was aware of his desire to have his body cleanly obliterated by the shockwave of an opening wormhole.
Something poked his shoulder hard, and he wasted breath he couldn't afford on a grunt of discomfort. Forcing his eyes open, he jerked his head back at the sight of a pair of dark eyes inches from his own. The skinny child, barefoot and dressed only in a slightly grubby shift, giggled and poked his shoulder again with a small, surprisingly strong finger.
"Whatcha doon?" the child – he couldn't tell if it was a boy or a girl – chirped at him. On Earth, the nearly shoulder-length dirty blonde curls would generally indicate a girl, but he'd often seen boys and men with long hair since coming to the Pegasus Galaxy. It wasn't like there was a barber shop on every street corner. Many people hadn't even managed to invent scissors yet, so any hair-cutting went on with a sharp knife and a trusting soul.
"Wha?" Rodney huffed at the kid. He didn't have anywhere near enough breath to speak to the child, let alone tell it to go home and quit bothering him.
"Whatcha doon?" The child stuck its thumb in its mouth and contemplated him gravely, all humor gone as it appraised him as seriously as a cat contemplates its prey. "You sick?"
My god, the child was a genius. Then again, considering its age (not more than 5 at the very most), its upbringing (primitive), and its environment (all-natural, which to Rodney translates as 'filthy'), perhaps the child was, comparatively, a genius itself.
"Yeah," he gasped, "sick. Go get Sheppard."
The child cocked its head to the side in obvious incomprehension.
"Uh…the major…Major Sheppard?" This was useless, utterly useless. A waste of what little air he could drag into his aching lungs.
The tiny face lit up with a grin, revealing a set of astonishingly perfect teeth. "Mayja Shepper?"
"Yeah!" Rodney almost cried with relief. "Go…get Sheppar'…please…" he added for good measure.
The child reached out with one tiny, dirty hand and patted him gently on the top of his head before scampering off, gaily singing, "May-ja Shepp-er, May-ja Shepp-er!"
His eyes slid shut before he could see which direction the child had skipped off in, the effort of speaking taking its toll on him.
Suddenly his abdomen cramped again and the contents of his stomach surged up his esophagus, choking him. He leaned over, trying to expel the vomit as quickly as possible, coughing hard. He kept convulsing and heaving until only sour bile and mucus came out in thick strings. The burning need to breathe finally overtook the nausea and he sucked in as much air as he could, spitting between each gasp.
He was barely getting enough air to hold onto consciousness now, and he was dimly aware that his body had gone limp and still. The thump of his pulse in his ears was fading.
Suddenly a thin sliver of pain pulled him out of the darkness, and his throat opened just enough to let a breath in. His heart seemed to explode in his chest, banging against his breastbone with painful eagerness as his revived lungs automatically sucked in as much of the cool air as they could hold. A pair of hands, wonderfully warm against skin gone clammy and cold, held him against a solid chest behind him, supporting him.
A shoulder supported his heavy head as it fell back on a neck too weak to hold it up. All he had to do was let his body keep breathing, more oxygen becoming available to him as the swollen tissues shrank.
He could hear the lingering whistle of his wheezing breath, and a soft voice murmuring reassuringly in his ear. He struggled to open his eyes, blinking back tears as the light stung them. As sweet as every breath felt, he was so tired that he couldn't stay awake any longer, and let go willingly.
He came back to the world slowly, to the familiar heavy pressure in his chest and a vise-like headache that sent stabbing pains into his temples. Despite closed eyes, the lights were too bright, the insistent beep of a nearby machine echoing loudly in his ears. He reached blindly towards it with an arm that felt like it had lead weights hung from it, heard a muttered curse, and the beeping stopped. He dropped the arm gratefully.
The voice was gentle and familiar, the initial 'r' given a trill that could only have come from one person. He drew in another wonderfully deep breath, though still not as deep as it should have been, and coaxed a name from his sore throat.
"Open your eyes for me, Rodney. That's it. Do you know where you are?"
A shadow moved across his face, shielding his eyes from the lights, so he pried the lids apart to see a smiling face decorated with beard stubble and topped with a shock of black hair. He allowed his gaze to roam over his surroundings before making the effort to speak again.
"'lantis…" he sighed. "'firm'ry."
"Good, Rodney, that's very good. D'you want a drink of water?"
He pondered that for a while, but fell asleep again before deciding on an answer.
When he woke again, he didn't feel quite so completely exhausted. He opened his eyes to find Sheppard sitting beside his bed, a thick book propped open on his lap.
"Hey," Rodney croaked.
Sheppard looked up and smiled. "Hi there. I'd say you're a sight for sore eyes, but you really do look terrible."
Rodney tried to smile back, but his face was stiff and puffy from the allergic reaction. He knew from past experience that his skin was blotchy in uneven patches of swollen red and pasty white, and his eyes must be horribly bloodshot.
"You found me," he said hoarsely, his throat tender and his mouth full of the sourness of vomit.
"Lucky for you, yeah." Sheppard put his book on the table beside the bed and helped Rodney sit up and take a few sips from a cup of cool water. He had to hold the cup because Rodney's hands shook too much to keep it steady. "I wasn't sure you were going to make it. I had to use both of those Epi-pens on you before we got you back to Atlantis. But Beckett says you're doing pretty good now. No sign of a secondary reaction. And you're never going to guess what set you off."
Rodney shook his head to indicate his ignorance.
"Toothpaste," Sheppard proclaimed.
"Toothpaste?" Rodney echoed. "But it was a brand-new tube."
"Yeah, of military issue toothpaste. Which, if you check the ingredients, has lemon extract in it."
Of all the stupid things to nearly kill him. Toothpaste! He'd brought his own, store-bought brand name selection from Earth originally. Someone had had the foresight to include a box of military issue tubes of toothpaste with the manifest, and he'd appropriated a tube of it when he'd used the last of his own. That morning had been the first time he'd used it.
"Beckett's fuming that no one caught that, but when you think about things that might have lemon in them, toothpaste isn't exactly the first thing that comes to mind." Sheppard paused. "Look, you gave us all a bad scare, Rodney. You were hardly breathing at all when I found you. And what the hell were you doing up that early? You never get up before I do."
"Had to pee. Decided to stay up and watch the sunrise," he answered briefly. His eyelids drooped as he came to the end of what little energy he had.
"The sunrise, Rodney? You got up to watch the sunrise?" John sighed heavily. "Can't keep your eyes open, huh? That's okay. Beckett said you'd be really tired. Go back to sleep." He felt a hand pat his shoulder. "I'll ask him to call me when you're feeling better."
"No need," Rodney waved a limp hand. "You have better things to do than sit with the brain trust. I'll be back to work soon."
Sheppard frowned. "Rodney, there's no hurry. We can manage without you for a while. Get better, get some rest. Take your time."
'No hurry.' 'Manage without you.' Rodney had never been good at it, but in this case he was pretty sure he could read between the lines. He pushed Sheppard's earlier comment about giving everyone a bad scare out of his mind. That remark had lit a little flame of pleasure in his heart, but he quickly squashed it. Of course he had scared them, they'd found him nearly dead. That would be enough to bother anyone; it didn't mean they were concerned about him, not personally. Sheppard was obviously upset that he'd gotten up early and unexpectedly, and he was clearly a liability in the field if a simple tube of toothpaste could almost kill him.
"Replace me…with Radek," he mumbled before fatigue rose up and engulfed him again. He didn't see Sheppard's startled frown.
By the next day, Rodney was back in his own quarters with strict instructions to rest. For once, he had every intention of doing just that. Every muscle in his body ached, his skin felt hot and twitchy, and breathing was still an effort. The antihistamines Carson had given him made him feel lightheaded and a little nauseous, and did nothing for his lingering headache. They also made his sinuses feel hollow and sore, like someone had stuck a wire brush up each nostril to clean them out. He dimmed the lights, crawled into bed, and now he lay there, too tired to move but still slightly wired by the drugs.
He wished his cat were with him. He'd missed the affectionate feline since the first night in Atlantis, and now, more than ever, desperately wanted to feel the comforting sensation of that small, warm, furry body curled up beside him, the rumbling purr vibrating softly.
Jane was the only living being Rodney truly trusted – she would never betray him, trick him, think he was fat or obnoxious or disgusting. He could tell her anything, and she wouldn't judge him or laugh at him or reveal his secrets. Jane never thought he was inadequate or unreliable.
But no matter how much he missed his cat, he could never have passed up the chance to go to Atlantis, and he couldn't bring the creature with him. Jane was better off – safer – with his neighbor, who truly cared for the cat, even if she couldn't stand Rodney.
This wallowing in self-pity was pointless, he told himself. He pushed people away deliberately, unwilling to expend the time and energy that politeness and friendliness required. He found most people irritating. They so often found it necessary to ask the most obvious and inane questions. They hid their true feelings behind platitudes and so-called white lies, and Rodney had been burned before by taking people at their word when they so often seemed to expect him to be able to tell what they were really thinking and feeling. If he pushed people into honesty by being blunt and unpleasant, at least he knew they disliked him and why.
Which brought him to Major Sheppard, who seemed to understand what he was saying most of the time, but still made him repeat and rephrase himself, apparently for the benefit of others. And Sheppard didn't get upset or offended when Rodney unleashed his acid tongue on the man – he just smiled and launched the insults right back.
Rodney had kind of thought they might almost, sort of, possibly, be friends.
Until he'd screwed that up by having an allergic reaction to a tube of toothpaste. While they were on a mission, for heaven's sake. He couldn't possibly have shown himself to be more unfit to be on a Gate team if he'd starved himself into a hypoglycemic collapse. And what use was he to Sheppard if he couldn't pull his weight on the team? Radek was just as smart as Rodney – not that he'd ever admit that out loud – had no health issues, and was better liked, too.
So he was pretty surprised when there was a knock on the door and it opened to admit Major Sheppard.
"Jeez, Rodney, you still look awful," Sheppard told him without so much as a 'hello'.
He wearily pushed himself back in the bed until he was more or less sitting, propped up by the extra pillows he'd appropriated from the infirmary.
"To what do I owe the dubious pleasure of your presence, Major?" Rodney asked, wincing as he heard his own voice, hoarse and unsteady. "Shouldn't you be out on a mission? I told you to replace me with Zelenka."
He turned away as he said it, reaching for the laptop on his bedside table, not wanting to seem too interested despite the bitterness he couldn't keep out of his tone. He was surprised to feel a weight added to the bed and a lack of immediate response. Not a word from Sheppard, not even clever quip or snarky reply. Nothing about how one of his team had stupidly nearly suffocated because he'd used the wrong brand of toothpaste.
But Sheppard just sat there on the end of the bed, looking at Rodney with an expression the scientist couldn't decipher. It wasn't unusual not to have a clue what Sheppard was thinking, but this steady, silent stare was unnerving.
For all Rodney knew, Sheppard might explode into a rant about how incompetent he was, what a let down to the team to not have checked up on the ingredients of the toothpaste. He prepared himself for a lecture on keeping track of his own health, for making sure his personal issues didn't interfere with missions or team safety, for screwing up the mission timetable or simply being irresponsible enough to nearly die. It wouldn't be the first time he'd been on the receiving end of a lecture like that, though it would be the first from Sheppard. He was certain it wouldn't be the last.
Sure, Sheppard had mentioned that someone should have picked up on the toothpaste ingredients, but it wasn't anyone else's problem. It was his own health that was at stake, and he should have noticed, should have been able to deal with it, should have his Epi-pen with him at all times. He hadn't been prepared the first time it had happened. Even then his father had been furious with him for disrupting their plans. After that first brutal admonishment of his body's failing, he'd done his utmost to make sure it never happened again.
But a few years later, he was stung by a bee and had to go through the whole painful, terrifying, embarrassing experience again. That time, not only was his father upset, so were his teachers and classmates. He'd ruined the much-anticipated school field trip before they even started.
"Well, is Zelenka keeping you waiting, or did he refuse the position? You should ask Elizabeth to talk to him. There isn't any one better for it."
"How about you?"
Rodney thought at first that he'd misheard the question. "Huh? No, I – I think it would be better coming from Elizabeth. If I ask Zelenka, he'll think I'm up to something."
"No, Rodney." Sheppard rolled his eyes. "I mean, how about you on my team? Zelenka's a smart guy, sure, but he's not you. I'd rather have the smartest guy in two galaxies backing me up than the second smartest guy."
He was totally lost now. "But – you can't – you don't want me. I almost – I mean, I had an allergic reaction to toothpaste! I'm a liability in the field, Major. I should stay in the labs, that's where I've always been."
"Rodney –" Sheppard sounded frustrated. "The toothpaste thing was going to happen sometime, somewhere. I guess it was actually lucky you opened a new tube when you did. If it had happened here on Atlantis, you'd have been in your quarters and no one might have found you until –" he faltered. "Look, here's the thing: if I'm going to go out there into the Pegasus Galaxy and do what needs to be done for us to survive, I want the best friend I have here and the smartest guy I've ever met watching my back. I got lucky, Rodney, 'cause they're the same guy." The look he gave Rodney was the one he'd identified as Sheppard's 'I really mean what I'm saying so you'd better listen, because I won't say it again' face.
"Now," the soldier stood up and changed his tone completely, glaring at Rodney with mock severity, "you rest up, because we have places to go and people to see. And Wraith to kill. And food to trade for. And Ancient technology to find. Basically, we have a very busy schedule, and I'm not going anywhere without my full team."
Rodney watched, open-mouthed, as Sheppard strolled towards the door. He finally scraped his scrambled brains together just before the door opened.
"Hey, Major?" he called hoarsely.
Sheppard turned slowly back. "Yeah?"
"Um…thanks." He grinned shyly. "I should've known you'd be too scared to go off-world on your own. It's a good thing you have me to protect you."
Sheppard rolled his eyes. "Soon as Beckett clears you for full duty, I expect to see you in the GateRoom, ready to go."
"I'll be there," Rodney replied happily.
A/N: Not only is this fic for RankNFiled, to cheer her up after her bad day, but it was actually inspired by her, too. She posted, months and months ago, the intriguing snippet of information that military issue toothpaste has lemon extract in it. I latched onto it and finally wrote a fic for it.
I suspect the lemon extract in the toothpaste does not contain the ingredient that is in citrus fruits that people are allergic to, but we can imagine, can't we?