"No," Dr. Keller says.
"No," she says.
"How can you be so sure?" Rodney demands. "I've had a terrible headache for weeks and my neck's all stiff."
Jennifer gets a weary look. "Rodney, if you had bacterial meningitis, you'd be dead by now."
"But my neck—"
"Dead," she says.
He deflates. "Fine. I suppose you'd know, but what else could it be?"
Some of her long blonde hair escapes from her ponytail, and she tucks it behind her ear and gives him a sympathetic look. "I know this isn't what you want to hear, but try laying off the coffee and the late nights. Maybe sleep somewhere that isn't in front of your computer. Like a bed." She rolls backwards on her wheely stool and taps at the computer in the corner of the room. "I'll order some blood work just to be safe, but I promise you don't have meningitis, or typhoid, or diphtheria, okay? If you want to feel better, try focusing on the problems you do have."
"Easy for you to say," Rodney mumbles.
"Yep," she says, all smiles now that she's about to be free of him. "I know your job is very important to you, but I'm sure you can take time out to relax a little. Go for a walk. Get some sun."
"Now you're just trying to give me cancer," he says.
"That's what sunscreen is for." She wheels back over to him and taps him on the knee with her folder. "Here's your paperwork. Lab's on the first floor. If you hit the morgue, you've gone too far."
"You won't get rid of me that easily," he tells her.
She wiggles her fingers at him on her way out the door. "Bye, Rodney."
Rodney is actually quite easy to get rid of, as much as he likes to pretend otherwise. He takes the form with its indecipherable abbreviations and leaves the carpeted safety of the doctor's office for the squeaky white floors of the hospital. The elevator lets him off in the lobby, and he tries to follow the signs to the lab, but he gets turned around in the unfamiliar halls and ends up in the dark maze of radiology, wandering past counters with nobody behind them and empty corridors that seem to go on forever.
Dr. Keller's done a decent job of keeping him alive over the years, so it makes no sense that she'd choose now to send him to die in the shadowy bowels of the hospital's basement. A few months earlier, when he received a letter saying she was going to move from the local clinic to the hospital downtown, Rodney figured it would be worth the extra time spent in traffic to keep her as his doctor. He might have made a different decision if he'd known he'd never see the sun again.
By the time he stumbles across the lab, his palms are sweaty, his paperwork's creased, and he's had to talk himself down from two separate panic attacks. The waiting room's suspiciously empty and Rodney starts to worry the hospital's been evacuated and he missed it because he was lost in the basement. Cue panic attack number three.
"Over here," a voice says.
Rodney jumps and turns to find a black woman with her hair in two poofy buns. Her desk is parked in front of a door with an electronic locking system.
"Lab work?" he says.
"You're in the right place. Just let me see your form there."
He extends his arm.
"All right, Mr. McKay," the receptionist says, trying to tug the paperwork out of his hand.
"Dr. McKay," he corrects reflexively, then realizes he has to let go of the papers if he wants her to have them.
"Dr. McKay." She taps away at her computer, prints a few labels, circles something on the form, and then hands it back to him. "Don't worry. John'll take good care of you."
The door pops open with the kind of noise you'd expect from a cryogenics lab and before he can investigate its source Rodney's handed off to a hot phlebotomist with messy brown hair and a slightly crooked nose.
"Hi," the hot phlebotomist says. "Meredith, right?"
"I go by Rodney," Rodney says, feeling his cheeks heat from that stupid blush that pops up every time he gets called by the wrong name.
"Hm," the hot phlebotomist says, frowning at the paperwork in his hands. "We'll have to get that fixed. Come in and have a seat. I'll just be a second."
He leads Rodney to a private room and puts him in a chair that looks like something found in a prison, big and square, with a raised seat and wide padded arms, its vinyl upholstery an atrocious shade of burnt orange last popular in the seventies. All it's missing is the chin strap and the metal cap on top for the electroshock therapy. Ah, maybe he's thinking of hospitals after all. He wiggles around uneasily on the slick, squashy cushion and wonders if it gets wiped down between patients or if he's sitting in thirty years of shed skin cells and wayward bodily fluids. He recognizes that this is not a productive line of thought, but it's too late.
"I'm John," the hot phlebotomist says, wheeling his tray over. "I'll be your phlebotomist today."
"Is this thing clean?" Rodney demands, unable to stop himself.
John the hot phlebotomist actually looks hurt. "You don't like my chair?"
"What's to like?" Rodney says. "It's all padded and institutional. I feel like I'm about to be executed by the state."
"That's kind of harsh," John says. "All I need is a little blood. There's only a small chance you'll turn into a zombie."
Rodney gapes, distracted from his downward spiral. "That's not how zombies work!"
"How do you know? Are you some kind of zombie expert?"
"I—what?" Rodney doesn't know which part of that to deal with first. "Everyone knows zombies eat brains. The real question is how do you not know that."
"Really?" John's face scrunches up. "Maybe I was thinking of vampires."
"Are you even qualified for this job?"
"I dunno. This thing lets me in the door." John gestures at the badge clipped to his white lab coat, and Rodney leans forward to peer at it. Sure enough, it says John Sheppard under a picture that seems to have caught him contemplating a sneeze. The real John Sheppard still looks as if he might sneeze at any moment, but in person it's interesting, like a weird sort of attractive. John grins at him and moves over to the counter.
Rodney feels like he's blushing again and leans back into the questionable embrace of the chair, nervously squeezing its padded arms. They squeak.
John consults the lab order, rummages around in the cupboards, then comes back over with a handful of vials with colorful tops and sets them on his rolling tray. "Can you take off your hoodie?"
"Can I?" Rodney says, flustered. "I mean, I can. Yes. Let me...do that."
His head gets caught, of course, but he manages to get his sweatshirt off with a minimum of flailing. He drops it in his lap, then tugs his t-shirt down from where it's crept up his belly and tries to finger comb his hair back into place.
"All right," John says, dropping onto a stool and using his foot to drag his tray closer. "Pick an arm."
"Left arm," Rodney says, holding it straight out so there isn't any confusion. Rodney's read about those poor fools who go into the hospital to get their gallbladder removed and end up with a limb amputated. He's not taking any chances.
"Good choice," John says, and before Rodney can figure out if that's sarcasm or not, John takes Rodney's elbow and gently arranges it on the padded arm of the chair until it's just where he wants it. "Let's just take a look here. Make a fist for me?"
Rodney does, and John the hot phlebotomist leans in and strokes a bare finger over the inside of Rodney's elbow, pressing lightly as if to test the springiness of Rodney's veins. Rodney looks down his own arm, at his veins, prominent and blue under his pale skin, and starts to feel a little woozy.
"So, Rodney, if you're not a zombie expert, what are you?"
It takes Rodney a moment to focus on something other than his mounting panic and the inevitable result of a hot guy sticking him with needles, namely Rodney passing out and sliding to the floor like two hundred pounds of old rope. "What?"
John snaps his gloves on. "I heard you talking to Kim. You said you were a doctor?"
"No!" Rodney says, shocked out of his misery. "I mean, yes, but not your kind of doctor. I've got a double doctorate in physics and mechanical engineering, so—science doctor." Rodney has no idea what's coming out of his mouth. He kills the process and tries another approach. "I'm a project manager at JPL."
"Yeah?" John looks suitably impressed. "Are you working on that warp drive?"
"Please," Rodney says. "First of all, that's Eagleworks, not us. Secondly, it's not a warp drive. It's an RF resonant cavity thruster—"
"Warp drive sounds cooler."
"—and its supposed method of generating thrust completely violates Newton's Third Law, so the chances of it being a viable means of propulsion are laughable."
"But if it works, we could get to Mars in two months," John says. He picks up a purple stretchy thing and carefully ties it around Rodney's upper arm, tucking the end in and making sure it isn't pinching anything. "How's that feel?"
"Fine." Rodney's momentarily distracted from his rant, but rallies. "Uh, I don't know, which sounds more likely, that Roger Shawyer misplaced a crucial decimal point—again—or our understanding of physics is completely wrong?"
John shrugs. "You guys've been wrong before."
Rodney tries to dismiss this with a wave of his hand, but it's his left and John catches it and puts it back on padded arm of the chair. "Not on this scale," Rodney says. "The law of conservation of momentum is one of the fundamental underpinnings of our physical world. We can't just throw it out and say, 'Oops, I guess Roger's shown us the error of our ways.' That paper was a joke. Their data set was so small they could have written it on the back of an envelope and probably did. It's riddled with potential sources of error, and the authors declined—declined!—to describe the model they used to predict how much thrust should be generated for a given set of conditions. Their so-called 'results' are probably just noise they were too scared to filter out because it would expose them as hacks. It's incredibly premature to be talking about its impact on space flight."
"But Mars," John says, like a kid who just found a bike under the Christmas tree and doesn't care there's two feet of snow outside.
Rodney gives up. "Let me guess, you wanted to be an astronaut."
"Close," John says, wiping down Rodney's arm with a cold little pad of alcohol. "Fighter pilot. But the Air Force thought I was too gay to make captain. So I left."
"Huh," Rodney says, not sure how to respond to that. "So now you're a phlebotomist?"
"That's right." John checks his tray one last time. "Tell me, how do you feel about needles?"
Just the word sends all his anxieties swarming up the back of his neck. "Could do without them," he says tightly.
"Yeah," John says, frowning at the needle. "I'm not a big fan either."
Rodney just stares at him.
"Well, my charm's most effective in three minute increments. So it was either this or get a job as a valet."
"Three minutes might be pushing it," Rodney says. "Is it too late for a career change?"
John laughs, and it's an amazing sound, like someone squeezing a woodchuck. It's so horrible Rodney momentarily forgets to panic. "What's happening right now? Are you laughing? Or is this some kind of medical emergency?" He scans the walls for a big red button marked HELP.
"Try to relax," John says. "This'll be easy. You've got great veins."
Rodney doesn't know what that means, but feels himself puff up like one of Radek's ridiculous pigeons.
John pops the cap off the needle, then pauses. "Do you want to watch?"
"No," Rodney says, eyes fixed on the needle. Usually he spends this time staring in the opposite direction like his bus is late and he's mad as hell and absolutely nothing strange is happening to his arm, but today he can't look away. John doesn't comment, just holds Rodney's arm in place. "Ready?"
"Just stop talking about it and do it," Rodney says.
"Okay, little pinch," John warns as he leans over Rodney's arm. Rodney watches the blue-gloved fingers carefully bring the needle to his vein. The angled head presses against his skin, then suddenly sinks forward, piercing through. This is always the worst part. The feel of the needle in his arm, knowing it's there and that he can't pull away. He fights a shudder and imagines crawling out of his body and leaving it behind, the needle caught in his skin like a wasp's stinger.
John snaps a collection tube onto the needle, and his blood, dark and heavy, shoots into the vial. Rodney can hear it hitting the glass, the rush of his heartbeat in his ears, the sound of John's breathing, the tick of his watch.
"Hey," John says, one gloved hand on Rodney's elbow. "Don't hold your breath, buddy."
Rodney inhales in a great, stuttered gasp. "Sorry. I just—sorry."
"You're doing fine," John says. "Just keep breathing."
Rodney instantly starts to feel light-headed, but can't tell if it's the blood loss or the phlebotomist. It's not every day someone that hot compliments his veins and laughs at his jokes. John's not really Rodney's type, in that Rodney generally falls for people who are completely disinterested in him, and John's already shown more concern for him than the last five men he dated combined, but he's also being paid for it, and Rodney's not desperate enough to mistake compassion for interest.
John gently tugs on one end of the tourniquet and it slides loose. Rodney finally looks away.
After the fifth vial, Rodney's actually sure he's going to pass out. "How could you possibly need a quart of my blood? Are you going to sell the extra and buy yourself something..." Rodney looks the phlebotomist up and down, spiky hair, tight black shirt, slouchy jeans, a pair of those brown leather sneakers with the square toes inevitably worn by people much cooler than Rodney. He forgets what he was saying.
"Nope," John says. "All done."
"Oh," Rodney says, looking down at his arm where there's a neat little square of folded gauze being held down by one blue-gloved finger while John gently slides the needle out.
"Hold this for me a sec?"
Rodney puts a finger over John's and for a second they're both there, pressing down, but John moves away, turning the final tube of blood end over end with one hand and digging through a drawer with the other. Rodney puts his whole hand over the gauze and presses down, hard, his fingers turning red, then white.
"C'mon, ease up," John says. "Your blood's not going anywhere."
"The more pressure I apply now, the less bruising I'll sustain later," Rodney insists. "In fact, do you have any of that stretchy tape that sticks to itself?"
"I'm too good to leave bruises," the guy says with a wink. He pries Rodney's fingers off. "Here."
He wraps brown stretchy tape over the gauze and around Rodney's arm, twice, then tears it off and smooths down the loose end.
Rodney looks back up again.
John grins at him. "How you doing? Feel okay?"
Rodney watches him pull his gloves off and toss them in the trash. "No," Rodney decides. "I haven't had breakfast yet and now you've stolen all my blood. Of course I don't feel okay." He pauses hopefully. "Do you have any cookies?"
"All I have is suckers," John says, pulling one out of his lab coat. "They're red flavor."
"Red's not a flavor!"
John shrugs and unwraps it. "Tell you what," he says, "there's a great coffee shop on the corner, and I've got a break coming up. How about I buy you breakfast?"
"Really?" Rodney says, instantly suspicious. Social interactions with strangers rarely go in his favor. "Isn't there some sort of ethical code that prevents you from hitting on patients while they're sitting in your chair with the arm straps on it?"
"I'm not too good with rules." John pops the sucker into his mouth. "Also, I don't really work here."
"Ah ha, I knew it! You're some kind of pervert that gets off on stealing people's blood! And, and that woman out there is your accomplice! Is this room even connected to the hospital or am I in a trailer being carted off to my death as we speak? No wonder there wasn't anyone in the waiting room."
"I'm filling in for someone on leave, and this is my last day," John says, slowly, apparently deciding to ignore all that. "So unless you come down with a mysterious bleeding disease before lunch, I probably won't see you again."
Rodney hugs his sweatshirt to his chest, his initial relief swiftly overwhelmed by the fear of contracting a horrible new strain of Ebola. "Oh god, why would you say something like that?"
John tilts his head and raises his eyebrows. "I told you. Three minute increments. You've been in here at least five. This is what happens."
"And you want me to have breakfast with you, knowing that it's all downhill from here?"
Rodney looks away and fiddles with the drawstrings on his hoodie. "Okay, so, uh, full disclosure: I overthink everything. It's an occupational hazard, but also, like, faulty neurotransmitters and a lifetime of disappointment, so I'm not the easiest person to—to have breakfast with," he says, changing direction at the last moment in an attempt to preserve his dignity. What little of it he has left. He pulls his sweatshirt back on.
"I like the thinking," John says, as soon as Rodney's head pops free of his sweatshirt. He looks over to see John leaning against the counter, hips canted, sucker tucked into his cheek. "I wanna hear more about the resonant cavity thruster and how it can only work in a deterministic system."
Rodney narrows his eyes. "I never said anything about de Broglie."
John points at him with his sucker. "I told you. Fighter pilot. Superficial charm. Gay. Likes space. Now you know everything about me. How about breakfast? If it makes you feel better, you can buy."
"How would that make me feel better?"
"Just giving you options," John says with a grin.
"Listen," Rodney says, struggling out of the squashy orange chair. "I'll go to breakfast with you, but if you think I'm going to act like pilot wave theory is anything but a desperate attempt to avoid the pitfalls of quantum uncertainty, you're dreaming."
Somehow John's still grinning, not put off by Rodney in the slightest. "You want to meet there in about twelve minutes? It's got a flying horse on the window, can't miss it."
"Yes?" Rodney says, suddenly the type of person who has a date with a hot phlebotomist who may or may not have some understanding of theoretical physics. It's a lot to take in. "I mean, yes. Twelve minutes. Quantum uncertainty. Flying horse."
"Cool," John says. "See you there, Rodney."
"Okay," Rodney says, giving John a smile and an awkward little wave while he fumbles with the door behind him. "See you there."
He practically falls out the door backwards and finds himself in yet another hallway that looks the same in either direction. He opens his mouth to complain then closes it with a huff. He only has ten minutes to get to the coffee shop. He can't afford to get sidetracked. A glance down the hall confirms the complete lack of signage in both directions, so he just picks one and sets off. He can do this.
His first choice dead-ends in an empty conference room. He slams the door, retraces his steps, and somehow ends up in a completely different part of the hospital. He's still above ground, he can tell that much, and after a number of wrong turns and an embarrassing encounter with a janitor, he finally catches a glimpse of daylight—a door with a push bar and a long, narrow window. He's been fooled before by landscaped courtyards with no access to the outside world, and he approaches the door cautiously, convinced this is another dead end, but he can see a row of shops through its greasy window and abandons caution, hitting the push bar with both hands and bursting out onto the sidewalk with a triumphant cry.
On the other side of the door, a pedestrian clutching a travel mug and a smartphone takes one look at him and crosses the street, which is insulting but fair.
For the benefit of anyone else who saw him fleeing the hospital and might think he needed to go back, Rodney makes a show of being as normal as possible, going so far as to check his watch: Is he late for a meeting? This might explain his erratic behavior.
Actually, now that he thinks about it, he might be late.
He looks up to take stock of his surroundings and slowly starts to smile because after all that, he's right where he needs to be. He recognizes the florist shop and the pub, and there, like the piece of cheese at the end of a maze, the coffee shop with its flying horse painted on the window, and John, coming around the corner to meet him.