Genre/Rating: Gen (background McKay/Keller); Teen for language
Timeline/Spoilers: Post-series, back in Pegasus.
Warnings: None (except "don't write stories involving hives if you don't want to itch all day")
Disclaimer: Plot mine; Stargate characters and environments not mine. (Transformative work.)
Notes: Okay, so in a locked post, I saw a comment in which kyuuketsukirui asked, "does every damn thing about Rodney have to be woobified?" (QWP) Sadly enough, that sparked this in my head. Just a bit of slightly cracky silliness, not to be taken seriously. Research consultant: Dr. Google. No beta.
Policies: All feedback of any length, including constructive criticism, always welcome. If my warnings for triggers/squick are inadequate, please let me know.
Archives: At Dreamwidth; At AO3
Summary: Rodney has an allergy.
Ronon stopped pacing abruptly. "I'm going in."
John and Teyla both lunged forward to hold him back. "No!" John said firmly. "We wait. They're negotiating. He's okay. We go in now, they kill him, and there's no cover. You know that."
Ronon growled, but it was frustration, not anger. John completely understood that. Ronon finally nodded and pulled free of them, going back to his pacing.
"Colonel?" Woolsey held the radio up to signal that he needed them to be quiet. He looked ridiculous in a flak jacket and helmet, but his grim expression killed any desire to laugh. His expression, and this situation.
Woolsey waited for John's nod before speaking into the radio, sorting out yet another detail of what these backwoods yokels wanted for McKay's release. It was all so damn pointless — the expedition would get everything back, of course. They weren't going to set any kind of precedent that kidnapping expedition members might pay off, and Pegasus didn't have Earth's long line of theft-prevention industries. They would hand something over, get their personnel back in one piece, trace and then seize or take out the opposition before they reached the gate, and reclaim their equipment. They couldn't get a reputation for negotiating in bad faith if no one reported out, while a reputation for somehow never losing a man or woman to kidnapping could only work for them.
But Woolsey couldn't agree to anything that could immediately be turned against them, which meant he had to negotiate exactly what they would — temporarily — hand over. And it was taking hours.
John tuned back in when he heard McKay's voice coming from the radio. "Yes, yes, I'm still alive, for now, and I would really like for you to finish your coffee break and get me out of here."
"We are working on that, Doctor," Woolsey replied smoothly. "Do you require anything?"
"Besides out of here? Some food would be useful. I'm starving."
An indistinct voice muttered something from McKay's end. John made a face at Woolsey. Considering how long it had been since he was positive McKay had eaten, food might actually be legitimate problem by this point.
"I see," Woolsey answered. "May I speak with Skoril now?" He waited a few moments for the head kidnapping honcho to answer and then continued, "Dr. McKay has a medical condition and must eat frequently. There are certain foods he cannot eat; he can tell you what those are. There will be food that is safe for him in his equipment. His health is a non-negotiable requirement of our discussions. We cannot continue until I have assurance you have fed him safely."
Ronon groaned softly and even Teyla slumped.
"Come on, guys," John said, very softly. "He's doing a good job here." Woolsey had always had the right temperament for this sort of thing, just not the common sense — at first. Thanks to the Pegasus crash course, supplemented by some pointed advice from John's team and Lorne, he was starting to get the hang of it in the real world.
"I know," Ronon said irritably.
"He is doing well, but this is very trying," Teyla agreed.
"You want to go do something else for a while?" John suggested. He knew what it was like to need to do something. He knew exactly. Lorne was covering for him here, doing double duty by advising Woolsey what they could disable or modify easily and watching the LSD, because John had no objectivity at the moment and found it a little hard to concentrate. He just kept coming up with elaborate scenarios that all involved storming the hut, which he knew was a really bad idea.
Teyla looked tempted, and Ronon looked really tempted, but they both declined. He got that, too.
McKay was soon back on the radio, confirming that he had been fed something "completely disgusting, you have no idea, seriously, I'd sooner eat gagh than that."
John couldn't help snorting. Seeing confusion aimed his way from Teyla and Ronon, as well as an amused eyebrow from Woolsey, John glanced to make sure the radio wasn't transmitting and then clarified, "If he's making Klingon references, he's okay." It figured that these guys would balk at being told what to do, even if that meant avoiding the easy solution of feeding McKay one of his own energy bars, but McKay would have had something more specific to say if there was a problem. Beckett, visiting Atlantis just in time to get pulled into a slightly different kind of fieldwork, shook his head with a smile.
"Perhaps it is a code?" Teyla suggested. John doubted that, but what the hell. She and Ronon had seen enough Star Trek by now to have a general idea of what "Klingon" meant, so the three of them spent some time speculating on possible similarities between Klingons and the kidnappers. It gave them something to do besides go completely insane from frustration.
"Sir!" Suarez said sharply, about twenty minutes later, during a brief lull in the negotiation. John looked over, immediately alert, and the marine handed him the field glasses. The hut was in the middle of an open field just beyond their wooded hill, so John could plainly see the three figures moving away in hasty retreat.
"Do we open fire, sir?" Suarez prompted.
"No." They had the hut surrounded, and they might need these guys alive for questioning. "Lorne!"
"No idea, sir. One life sign still inside. Three departing. None of those look like McKay." Lorne paused for a moment. "Looks like they're bugging out, sir. No clue why."
Woolsey tried to raise someone on the radio but got no response. He nodded to John, and John grabbed Beckett as they headed in, because that last dot was not moving.
They went for speed over stealth, so the first sound John heard from the hut was McKay's voice as he approached the door. "— out of here!" The knot in John's stomach loosened. They had tied McKay to a chair, pretty damn thoroughly, and that was why the LSD hadn't shown any movement, though McKay was thrashing around enough that he looked in danger of tipping himself over.
The lead marine, Washington, signaled that he saw no evidence of explosives or trip wires. "Working on it, sir," a second marine said, moving past John to start dealing with the ropes. Washington got on the radio system — their own encrypted one, not the local channel — to call a report back to Lorne and Woolsey.
McKay looked up at John, eyes wide, panting. He had really gotten himself worked up. "Sheppard! Pen!"
John paused, confused. "What? And what happened here?"
"They thought … space plague … something," McKay gasped. "Tell me … you've got … Ep— Carson!"
Beckett moved forward swiftly, taking the pulse at McKay's neck with one hand as he lifted his chin with the other, angling it better in the dim light of the hut. Washington caught on swiftly and brought up a flashlight. McKay's face was covered in red blotches. Oh, crap.
John started checking his own pockets, trying to find that just-in-case EpiPen, but Beckett put out one hand briefly. "Not just yet, Colonel. How long, Rodney?"
"Let me … check my … watch." John was actually impressed McKay could snarl like that while panting. The second he had a hand free, McKay reached up to try to pull his collar away from his throat.
"It's been about twenty, twenty-five minutes since you told us they'd fed you," Carson said, unruffled. "So, given that —"
"About … half?"
"So was gagh supposed to be some kind of code for citrus?" John asked, because seriously, he was pretty sure McKay was smarter than that. McKay just gave him a disgusted glare, though, and shook his head sharply.
"Doesn't taste like citrus," Ronon said. John looked over to see Ronon holding a bowl that still had dregs of something clinging to the inside. Ronon wiped his finger off on his coat, making a disgusted face, which … wow. That might actually be a record.
Beckett took a second to give Ronon an "are you actually insane?" look before turning back to Rodney, who now had only one leg still attached to the chair. "Can you breathe?" Beckett asked.
It was McKay's turn for the "are you insane?" look. "What do … you think?"
"I think you're hyperventilating. I need to know if you still can breathe." His hands were busy as he talked, doing that fingernail-check thing and then using a stethoscope against McKay's chest and back.
"Why aren't … you treating me?" McKay demanded.
"Because I need to know how to treat you first, Rodney. It certainly seems to be an allergic reaction, but it doesn't look like anaphylaxis yet, and I'm not prepared to risk giving you a heart attack or a stroke by giving you something you don't need. Now breathe."
The risks of the wrong medication got through to McKay, who nodded and dropped his head into his hands. Which were also blotchy and swollen. After a few seconds, Teyla went over to help rub his wrists and ankles, getting blood flow back and easing aches after hours of bound inactivity, while John checked with Lorne by radio. He let them know what was going on and left the decision of what to do with the three idiots to Woolsey. A failed kidnapping probably couldn't be rated a summary execution offense, and a simple release was not an option. Figuring out the middle ground was what they paid Woolsey the big bucks for.
When he finished with that, McKay was back to talking with Beckett. "Are you sure? I really think my throat feels tight." He sounded winded but a hell of a lot better than he had before.
"I'm sure for now, Rodney," Beckett said firmly. "We'll stay with the prednisone. There's always time later to see just how fast we can make your heart go."
"Oh, very funny." McKay looked up at John plaintively. "Can we please go now?"
John waited for Beckett's nod. "Sure thing, buddy. Think you can stand up yet?"
He did, with Teyla's help and a whole new round of complaints, and they all headed outside. McKay looked terrible in the bright daylight, puffy red welts decorating every inch of visible skin. At least some of the covered skin, too, going by the seriously uncomfortable way he was moving.
But he was alive and whole, and that made him look pretty damn good as far as John was concerned. They'd get the jumper brought closer, they'd take McKay home, McKay would visit the infirmary to deal with what was apparently an epic case of hives, and this whole thing would be over.
The hives didn't go away.
Atlantis had thought they had dealt with Rodney McKay before. That history looked like Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood compared to a Rodney McKay with a systemic and intractable case of severe hives.
Jennifer Keller was the first casualty, handing the case over to Carson Beckett — though "hurling" might have been a more accurate description — for the duration. "We'll talk once you're done being a complete ass," she told McKay savagely, swiping at the tears on her cheeks as she stormed out. John stood there gaping, an accidental and unwilling observer, because even after five years he couldn't have predicted McKay could be that vicious to anyone, much less his girlfriend. Keller had handled a wide variety of difficult patients with a smile, but McKay had ripped that reserve to shreds with some truly low blows. McKay looked a little like he couldn't believe himself , and more like he wished he could find a way to take it back, but mostly like he was profoundly miserable.
Zelenka was the next to go, near tears himself and his grasp on English shakier than anyone in the expedition could remember. They couldn't really keep McKay in the infirmary, since he was mobile and none of the many failed treatments really laid him out, so McKay was working — or at least trying to. He needed something to do, but his concentration was completely shot, and he was taking his frustrations out on the minions far more than they had ever imagined possible.
The day after that two scientists from McKay's lab went so far as to hand in conditional resignations to Woolsey — the condition being that they would only stay if McKay was kept out of any lab they were in. That got McKay loosely confined to his quarters and private lab, with the rest of the team asked to hold him to that. They were pretty much grounded, with McKay obviously not medically fit and no immediate candidate to fill in for him.
John quickly realized he should have demanded an extra level of hazard pay for the assignment. McKay very nearly managed to drive Ronon away, Teyla hung on through sheer determination and with a twist to her smile that promised McKay would be making serious amends later, and John was rapidly going through aspirin bottles because keeping his jaw so tightly clenched was giving him a constant headache. The only way he got through a couple of those days was by imagining the payback later, one built largely around photos of McKay — puffy and reddened, clad in a mismatched variety of loose, baggy clothing that Ronon and Teyla had tracked down from various sources — shared with the entire expedition. And the SGC. And Jeannie.
That, and he knew McKay didn't really mean it. The guy really was in terrible shape, sore and fiercely itching pretty much everywhere all the time. McKay had enough control not to scratch, but they still caught him several times rubbing so hard that he would have broken the skin if they hadn't stopped him, and more than once they had found him huddled in a ball, whimpering, when the hives were at their worst.
It was an awful time for everyone involved.
Don't scratch, don't scratch, don't scratch. Rodney was sick of the silent litany, but scratching really only made things much, much worse. "Aren't you done with that yet?" He squirmed on the stool. Sitting really sucked, but it made for a change from the suck that was standing, considering the hives on the soles of his feet.
He hated his life so, so much.
"I've just barely started, Rodney," Carson murmured. "Give me a moment." He was loading Rodney's logs into the computer. Partly as real research, and partly just to give Rodney something to do besides add to his collection of death threats, Carson had him logging everything he ate, drank, and touched, as well as any time he noticed the hives worsening or being something less than the worst thing he'd ever experienced.
"Then work faster," Rodney snapped. "The real Carson would have —" He cut himself off far too late as Carson stiffened.
After a couple of very tense minutes, Carson just said, "I'm doing what I can."
The calm response just made Rodney feel worse. "I know." He tried to find a way to shift on the stool without using his hands or his feet. It didn't really work. "Why don't you … why aren't you mad at me?"
"Oh, I'm angry," Carson answered with a humorless chuckle. "But I know you don't really mean it. You're hurting. Besides, I've had much worse from you," he added.
Oh, just what Rodney needed, a reminder of coming down off the enzyme. Technically, that had probably been worse, but at least he'd been out of his head for a lot of that. He was all too aware of himself this time, every single second. "Fine, I'm a rotten friend. Happy?"
"Not particularly. How is it right now?"
Rodney wanted to say he was at ten out of ten, or twenty out of ten really, but that wouldn't help anyone. "Eight," he said, trying for accuracy. "Seven and a half." Ridiculous, imprecise, subjective system.
"Hmm." Before Rodney could yell at him for such a useless response, Carson added, "Have a look at this."
Rodney pushed himself off the stool, transferring the worst discomfort from his posterior back to his feet, and awkwardly shuffled over. "What?"
Carson pointed to a line graph on which he'd popped two particular lines. One peaked at somewhat regular intervals, and the second's peaks roughly followed the first at a lag, though it didn't copy all the same peaks.
"These are your meals," Carson said, pointing to the first line, "and these are your scale responses. It looks like you've got a fifteen-to-thirty-minute window after you eat and then the reaction spikes."
Rodney felt his stomach dropping, because he could see where this was going. "It's not one-to-one, though. Why are these diminished?"
Carson double-checked the raw logs. "For all but a couple of those, Teyla brought your meals." Oh, yes, Rodney remembered that much. He'd pissed her off enough that she wouldn't bring him anything besides what she was eating herself, so he got a lot of Athosian tea and salads from her turns. Carson added softly, "He called it."
"Who called what?" Rodney was pretty sure he had a right to be cranky, between Carson being all vague and dietary games in his future.
"You know immunology isn't my field. I sent your records to a diagnostician Earthside — at least the version cleared for civilian eyes — and I just got the response back in the last databurst."
"And?" Rodney had better things to do than sit here prompting Carson. Okay, he didn't, but the whole coy thing was still really annoying.
"And I think you'd like him," Carson said drily. "That, or you'd be mortal enemies. You sound a lot alike. But in with the insults and random Sherlock Holmes quotes, he said it had to be something prolonging the reaction, probably dietary, probably one of the less common allergens, and that we'd have to sort through all your intake."
"So an elimination diet. Fantastic. I thought I was already on that." He was pretty sure, because he didn't even have real food to comfort him in his time of need, which meant ….
"You are, which means we have to back it up even more. We have to get your body out of reaction mode. You're on replacement drinks only, starting now."
"Please don't do this to me. Please. That's not food! Put me in a coma if you have to, but don't make me live like that!"
"Nonsense, Rodney, you'll be fine. You want the hives gone, don't you?"
"Of course I do, you complete —"
"Yes, of course, so you'll put up with this. Which one's worse, hmm? Now tell me about the water here in the city."
"What about it?" He was not pouting. He just really desperately hated his life.
"What's in it? What kind of byproducts?"
"Nothing. Seriously, nothing. It's desalinated, of course, but the filters catch all the byproducts from that, along with everything else already in the seawater. If the Ancients did nothing else right — which is a proposition I'm more than willing to entertain — they at least built decent filtration systems. The water here is the closest to pure you'll ever find outside a chemistry lab. Not counting what it picks up from exposure to air, of course."
"Right. Then you can also have water, but only if it's directly from the system. We'll try this for a week to see where we get."
"I hate you. I hate you so much."
"It's not working."
Carson sighed. "It's only been four days. We have to give it time —"
"No, we don't, because it's not working." There was a note of true desperation in Rodney's voice. "It's gotten worse! And don't give me that 'worse before better' inanity, because that makes no sense. Whatever this stuff you're giving me is, it's actively not helping. It's anti-helping. I'd rather go back to what I was eating before, because at least then I didn't feel like complete crap every single second!"
Carson knew Rodney was prone to exaggeration, but he wasn't sure Rodney was entirely wrong in this case. Rodney was consistently reporting worse scores and the marker hives certainly hadn't diminished.
Carson was stumped for anything else to try, though. Rodney tended to keep to specific routines when he was in the city, limiting his exposure to various potential allergens, and the patterns really had matched a dietary cause. The meal replacements were the most hypoallergenic substance Carson could track down in the city, though. There really wasn't anything in them that Rodney should be reacting to — they were just ….
He read the ingredient list again and frowned.
"What? You're thinking something. What? What?"
Carson smiled at Rodney and activated his own radio. "Colonel Sheppard? I'm taking Rodney camping. Would you like to come along?"
Rodney stared. "You call this camping?"
"No." Ronon was scowling almost as much as Rodney was. He probably felt all deprived or something, wishing they were days away from civilization. Rodney didn't share that wish, at all, and he didn't want to be out camping in the first place, but he usually thought of "camping" as something that involved being more than fifty meters from the gate. At the unpopulated, unequipped, unstocked, and unbearable Gamma Site.
"Oh, come on, McKay. You'll have fun," Sheppard smirked, his tone surprisingly vicious. And, okay, maybe Rodney had been lashing out a little much lately, but he had an excuse, dammit. Sheppard dumped his load of whatever-the-hell and headed back to the gate. He claimed he couldn't be away from the city for however long this would take, which was a pathetic lie if Rodney had ever heard one, because the city could do without its metaphorically fair-haired flyboy far better than it could without Rodney himself. Sheppard just wanted to sulk.
Or, okay, maybe keep Rodney from completely fucking up what was left of their friendship by avoiding the situation entirely. Possibly.
Rodney rubbed at his itching arm with his itching hand and marched, painfully, over to where Beckett and Teyla were whispering together. "Right. What the hell is this really about?" he demanded.
"You know I can't tell you that," Beckett said.
"No, I don't. I don't know anything of the kind. All I know is you've dragged me out here for who-knows-how-long, for some secret plan of yours, and I'm not interested in playing. So, again: What's going on?"
Beckett sat back to look at Rodney directly. "Honestly, I can't. I want to try something, but I can't risk any interference from the placebo effect."
"Oh, come on, Carson! I am not some credulous idiot —"
"No, you're not, and that's the problem. The placebo effect is very real, and it's about much more than sugar pills. You're especially susceptible to it, possibly because you are quite bright. Now, I want these hives of yours gone about as much as you do, to ensure no one in the expedition turns to murder if nothing else. We're here to try a few things out, while making absolutely sure we know everything you eat or even touch."
"So that's why you had me strip-searched just before I came through?" Rodney split his glare between Beckett for giving that order and Ronon for executing it.
"Yes. I know that you — I know it's habit for you to pocket a few of those cursed energy bars, just in case. You'll be having none of that. Ronon here will be doing some hunting, if he'll be so kind —" Ronon's glower lightened considerably at that news "— and Teyla has kindly been tracking down a few other things to get us by." Teyla smiled tightly. "Now we're close to the gate in case there are any emergencies back in the city or in case we need to get you back quickly, but we'll also be able to tell if you try to go back through the gate yourself. I'm serious about holding you to this. You've never shown any signs of being allergic to anything here, so it should be just as safe as being in the city. I'd suggest you try to relax and enjoy the vacation, but I know you better than that, so we've made other plans. Radek has provided several computers for you to work on, and we'll be dialing in several times a day, so you can send or download anything you need for that." He sighed wearily. "Now will you please trust that I'm trying to help you?"
The first several days were hell, because when Beckett said he was eliminating almost everything from Rodney's diet, he turned out to be including the prednisone that had utterly failed to eliminate the hives but that apparently had been helping keep them in check. He tapered the dosage down to nothing over those days, watching Rodney like a voodoo-practicing, ridiculously accented hawk for a rebound reaction.
Rodney ended up spending hours at a time lying in the nearby creek, probably risking hypothermia, because the chilly water helped at least a little. Ronon and Teyla spent most of those days well out of earshot. Beckett looked steadily more murderous until Rodney finally ran out of creativity and resorted to muttering "I hate you" in a steady monotone.
Beckett apparently found that downright meditative in comparison, the bastard.
The Beckett Diet Plan apparently consisted of fresh-killed game, unseasoned, and cookfire-roasted, hand-mashed tubers, also unseasoned. Teyla supplied the tubers, as well as occasional other supplements like Athosian tea and some kind of yak milk, along with a fruit vaguely similar to a pear. Rodney was allowed as much water as he wanted, so long as it came from the supply they'd taken from the city tap. It was the strangest diet he had ever been held to.
After a week, Rodney was startled to realize that the hives weren't quite as intolerable as they had been. They might even be down to a three. Beckett looked delighted when Rodney reported that.
"So when do we pack up and head back?" Rodney asked, thrilled at the chance to escape this rustic limbo.
"If we're lucky, just a few more weeks," Beckett answered.
Rodney sputtered. "Weeks?"
"Aye." Beckett sagged a bit at that news, like he had any room to talk whatsoever. He and Teyla and Ronon got to take little trips away from this stupid camp whenever they wanted, but either Teyla or Ronon was there at all times to make sure Rodney didn't make a break for it. Or suddenly bloat up like a blowfish and die, maybe, but the last couple of days had definitely had more of a jail quality to them.
Rodney railed at Beckett until Ronon dragged him out to help hunt some hapless creature. "I will get you for this!" he called back. Beckett just waved.
Another three days and the hives were all but gone. "I could almost kiss you," Rodney blurted.
"So can we please go back now?"
"Aaaaand I hate you again."
A few days after that, his minions had apparently taken a vote and decided to take pity on him. The work they sent was still stupid, misguided, and utterly wrong, but at least it was less deliberately so. He barely had to threaten anyone.
Rodney looked away as Beckett prepared to draw yet more blood, but after a few seconds he looked back in surprise. Then he swiftly looked away again, because ugh. He shouldn't have to see anything impaling his arm or his own blood being drawn out. "Is that some new kind of needle?"
"What? No, of course not. Why?"
"It just … feels different. Usually it stings like crazy. This — well, it hurts, of course, but it's not nearly so annoying. Have you suddenly gotten much better at this? Does the more archaic approach make you more comfortable or something?" Beckett hadn't used the usual alcohol wipes first, instead using a piece of dry gauze moistened from an actual bottle of rubbing alcohol.
"You flatter me. Truly." Beckett sounded more distracted than annoyed, and he looked thoughtful as he finished up and shooed Rodney away.
"Carson? I think something's wrong."
Carson set his notebook aside, giving Rodney a concerned look that seemed a lot less strained than they had been lately. "How do you mean wrong, lad?" He came over and started checking Rodney's vitals. He still preferred to do that by hand, rather than using automated equipment, which was almost adorable.
"I feel kind of … I don't know. Sluggish?"
Carson did all the various usual checks and wrote something down. "Everything looks fine," he said, but Rodney got the feeling he was smug about something. Or … amused maybe. "You can have a bit more of Teyla's tea if you like, but just a bit. Don't go wild."
"Are you sure?" Rodney definitely felt off somehow, but he couldn't pin down how. It kind of worried him.
"I'm sure. Just let me know if you notice anything else, all right?"
"Um. Sure. How long until we can go back?" It had been almost three weeks now. On top of all the inconvenience and discomfort of what amounted to camping out in the back yard, Rodney was actually kind of homesick. He missed the ocean.
"Perhaps a few days yet. You're doing quite well, but I'd like to be certain."
"Oh." Rodney sighed. "Fine." He went back to his laptop, not really feeling like more tea. He could always have more later.
In the end he didn't, though, because he got really caught up in one of the energy projection models. He isolated a funky little balance loop, and tweaking it took a while but he managed to wring a quarter percent more output than he had projected from the adjustments. It was actually kind of fun.
"McKay? You out here?"
Rodney wasn't sure what Sheppard was doing there, but he raised his hand so that he'd be more visible. The rock he was sitting against wasn't entirely uncomfortable, but it made him hard to see, especially at night. "Over here."
The flicker from a flashlight swept past him and then danced on the grass as Sheppard approached. It finally stopped about a meter away, aimed down at Sheppard's ludicrous boots. Sheppard stood there for about a minute before finally saying, "Oookay. Look, Beckett says he's springing you tomorrow."
Rodney didn't really need to answer that, as far as he could tell, but the hardness in Sheppard's voice worried him. "Yes. Look, I'm sorry I was such a jerk." He had sent extensive apologies to everyone he could think of already, by email, but he knew he still had plenty of in-person apologizing to do as well.
"Oh. Um. You had a, you know. A thing." Rodney couldn't help smiling at Sheppard's typical eloquence. After about another minute, Sheppard sighed and dropped down to sit on the ground too. "So. What are you doing?"
Rodney gestured up at the sky. "It's just … I'm an astrophysicist, but I never really get a chance to do this, you know? I mean, even when we're up in space, we're usually busy trying not to die. I never have the time to just look at all of it, or think about how vast everything is. It seemed foolish to pass up the chance. At least, the chance somewhere without insects eating me alive."
"Right." Sheppard shifted the flashlight so a little more of the spillover illuminated Rodney's face. "Look, this treatment plan of Beckett's — does it involve Valium or something? Because you're really mellow. Really mellow. It's actually kind of creepy."
Rodney chuckled. "It is, isn't it? He promises he's not dosing me with anything like that. He says he'll explain everything tomorrow."
"So why aren't you back there pestering him to go ahead and explain now?"
Rodney shrugged. "I can wait."
"Riiiight." Sheppard stood. "Okay, look, I'm gonna head back now. Go check your tent for a pod or something."
Rodney snorted. "You do that. Have fun."
John watched the foursome closely as they came through the gate. Ronon and Teyla both nodded to him, looking somewhere between relieved and freaked out. Beckett looked pleased, and McKay looked … relaxed. Really relaxed. More relaxed than John had ever seen him without morphine being involved. He smiled up at John and Woolsey as Beckett explained they were heading to the infirmary.
John went with them, because this was seriously weird.
Beckett asked McKay if he minded the audience, and McKay just shrugged, so John joined Ronon and Teyla just out of the way as McKay sat at one of the exam stations. Keller wandered over to join them as Beckett was doing what looked like standard post-mission checks. She gave John a tight smile and stood well back from Rodney. John carefully looked away from her. He was pretty sure McKay had some serious groveling to do, but Keller was at least willing to let him try, apparently.
"So what do you think? Will I live?" McKay joked to Beckett.
"Unfortunately," Beckett answered, but with a smile. "It looks as if you're completely clear of any reaction. Now I just need to run one more test. This is a skin test for allergies, so you know the risks, yes?"
"Do you have to? I just got over itching. The control always —"
"No control this time. This is just a confirmation, not a proper full test. All right?"
"Oh. Um, okay." McKay looked more bewildered than anything else.
Beckett shot Keller a glance and got a nod back before proceeding. He then drew some kind of clear fluid into a very small needle and inserted it just under the skin of the inside of one of McKay's forearms.
Within a minute, that spot had welled up into an irritated-looking bump.
McKay was gripping his knee with the other hand and biting his lip to keep from scratching at it. "If that's not the control, then what the hell is it? Lemon juice?" The words were typical, but his tone was only about half as annoyed as John would have expected.
"Don't be silly." Beckett handed over a bottle of powder. "It's a weak solution of this."
McKay took the bottle and frowned at the label. "Potassium sorbate? What, seriously?"
"I'm afraid so, lad."
"But that —" Keller started, sounding amazed. She just left it there. "Wow."
John kind of hated scientists sometimes. "What's potassium sorbate?"
"It's a food preservative," McKay supplied.
"Aye. It's in the meal replacement we use here. You'll want to look to that," Beckett added to Keller, who nodded, still looking dazed. "And the prednisone has sorbic acid. Allergies to sorbates are quite rare, but possible."
"So you're telling me I suddenly developed an allergy to something that's in practically everything?"
"Actually, I don't think you did. I think you've always been allergic." He put up a hand when McKay started to interrupt. "Listen. Allergies aren't always dramatic, such as anaphylaxis or hives. It's possible to have a milder reaction, or even a low-grade constant reaction."
"You mean like cats," McKay nodded.
"Wait," John said. "Cats?"
"Some people are hideously allergic to cats, so they actually keep cats deliberately," McKay said. "That way they build up a sort of tolerance, so they don't immediately go into a severe asthma attack or something the moment they encounter a cat the one time a year they visit family." He shrugged. "A woman at Area 51 told me about that. I was lucky. Cats were never one of my allergies."
"You're right," Beckett said, "but it's not exactly a tolerance. It is a diminished reaction, but that's in exchange for a constant strain on the immune system. The body's not really meant to endure that kind of constant strain, so various secondary symptoms can crop up. Diminished resistance to viruses and bacteria, tachycardia —"
McKay immediately went to check his own pulse, twisting his hands to use his watch for the task. "80? I've never been down to 80!" He beamed.
"Yes, your childhood doctor wrote that up as idiopathic. There's also the possibility of symptoms such as muscle spasms, poor nutritional absorption — meaning increased food consumption to compensate, hormonal imbalances including insulin, headaches, disturbed sleep, rapid fatigue …." He cleared his throat before continuing, "Lowered pain threshold, poor concentration and attention span, mood swings, hypersensitivity, irritability —"
"Wait a second," John said. "Wait just a second here. Are you trying to tell us McKay's entire personality has been an allergic reaction?"
"Hey," McKay protested. Mildly.
"No, no, don't be daft." Beckett was definitely smirking. "Behaviors and personality are developed over a lifetime. I expect he'll still be a rude, condescending ass at times, but he might be a good bit easier to take overall."
"So we just get Rod without the social skills, then?"
"I'm right here, you know," McKay sulked, still far too tamely. "Besides, if this is a lifelong allergy, you haven't explained why it's suddenly a problem now."
"Ah, yes, that's interesting. Your records have always been marked for a citrus allergy because you developed severe hives from drinking lemonade when you were small, yes?" At McKay's cautious assent, Beckett continued, "That was likely a sort of cross-reaction. Not a true cross-reaction, precisely, but it's possible you wouldn't have reacted so strongly if you were only exposed to one or the other. You may well have been reacting to a preservative since the days you were on formula, and the lemonade likely had a preservative in it, particularly back then. Regardless, you did react strongly to the lemonade, so you've avoided citrus in general and lemons specifically since then, because second-exposure allergies can be far more severe, even life-threatening.
"Unfortunately, that food you were given when you were held included a compound that is structurally very similar to one found in lemons. It triggered the hives again, but this time just clearing that compound out of your system didn't clear the acute response. Your immune system couldn't maintain that low-grade chronic reaction any longer. Each time you ingested more of the preservative or preservatives you're allergic to, you renewed that full reaction. That's why several of the meals Teyla brought you provoked less of a response — she preferred more local foods that didn't happen to have any Earth preservatives."
"Hold on." McKay frowned. "'Preservative or preservatives?' You mean the sorbates aren't enough?"
"We don't know. Which means we'll have to be very careful of each and every food we reintroduce to your diet."
McKay sagged. "Are you kidding? Do you know how much work it already is just checking for citrus products in every single thing? Now you're telling me that I have to avoid practically every food shipped here from Earth? I'd probably have to order from one of those hand-crafted places just to get chocolate. Is there even a way to test prepared foods, or will I be risking a return to Itch City if I drink a cup of coffee? Am I sentenced to an eternity of fresh-killed near-deer and yak milk? Because seriously, I'm starting to think it might be worth building up that low-grade reaction again."
It sounded like a typical McKay rant, but he was so much less agitated than usual that it was just wrong. John glanced over to see that both Ronon and Teyla looked just as uneasy.
"To clarify," Teyla said to Beckett, "if he does not build up that reaction, his behavior will be like that of the past several days?"
"Most likely. In general, at any rate." Beckett looked pleased and Keller intrigued.
McKay, on the other hand, looked truly depressed at the prospect of his dietary future, while Ronon and Teyla looked just as freaked out as John was about having the pod-person version of McKay, a pale imitation of Rod, as a teammate.
He couldn't say anything aloud, not when both doctors were entirely too interested in this plan. Instead the four of them shared one of those looks the team had developed in the field — the one that covertly agreed they'd be discussing the current subject later, away from the potentially hostile locals.
They always had worked well together in a crisis.