"I bought him the computer," Rodney's mother said icily to his father, her long fingers unconsciously playing scales on the edge of the table. Rodney peered toward the doorway of the restaurant, silently miserable. "If he needs lab fees paid next semester, I think you should be the one to do it."
Daniel, where the hell are you? Rodney anxiously thought, looking between the potted palms for any sign of an ash-blond head coming in their direction.
"I bought him all that software," Rodney's father shot back at his ex-wife. "I think that was more than equivalent to what you paid for the computer. Whatever your lawyer thinks, I'm not rich."
"The new cup size on your girlfriend says otherwise. Or did she suddenly hit a second puberty in the last three months?" his mother replied.
"I'll be right back," Rodney said. His parents took no notice of him as he stepped away from the table.
Where the hell was Daniel? Probably in bed with that guy with all the cheekbones, Rodney thought bitterly to himself, trying to still the overwhelming anxiety twisting his stomach and making his hands shake. He walked to the door, hoping he'd see Daniel coming. If not, at least he'd get away from his parents for thirty seconds. As part of their usual game of one-upsmanship since the divorce, they'd both decided to visit at once, ensuring that Rodney's birthday would be the most miserable day of the year.
Daniel wasn't at the door, either. Cursing himself for being a pathetic ex-boyfriend-obsessed loser, Rodney stepped through it, promising himself he'd only peek down the street to see if Daniel was coming.
The fall chill penetrated the ugly, oversize cable-knit fisherman's sweater his mother had given him, and his tight, tense stomach balled up and twisted even more. Then he saw a sandy-haired figure running down the Cowley Road sidewalk at full tilt, scarf flapping behind him.
"Oh, thank God," Rodney said in relief. As Daniel pushed by the people who were on their way to an evening out, littering "Excuse me"s on the sidewalk behind him, Rodney's stomach did the same little flip it always did when he saw those big blue eyes and the floppy hair, even after a year of mostly not-dating.
"I'm so sorry," Daniel said, brushing his hair out from in front of his glasses. "I was boning up for my radiocarbon dating practical at the lab, and I lost track of the time." He looked through the glass at the restaurant. "Um nice place," he said nervously.
"If they're going to make my life miserable, they're going to pay for the privilege," Rodney responded.
"You okay?" Daniel asked, looking more closely at Rodney. "You're sweating."
"I've been trapped alone with my parents for forty-five minutes," Rodney snapped back, putting his hands in his pockets so Daniel couldn't see how they were shaking.
Daniel cringed apologetically.
"You want to do something nice for my birthday?" Rodney said. "Get them to stop talking to me."
Daniel shrugged. "Try coming out. It worked with Nick."
"I did," Rodney said, reluctantly opening the door to the restaurant. "They asked if I was dating anyone. I said no, and now they think it's a phase."
As they walked in, Daniel casually bumped his shoulder against Rodney's. "We're going to Pandora's later. You could come out with us and drown your sorrows."
Rodney scowled. "With you and Cheekbones? Yeah, right. Because my life isn't enough like a Smiths song."
"You aren't whiny enough to be Morrissey. How about I take you to see Evil Dead II again tomorrow night, after they leave? After, we can go to my place and I'll give you your present," Daniel said.
Rodney started to smile. "Did you get me a copy of Soylent Green?" He still felt shaky, but the knot around his stomach had loosened a bit. He leaned in a little, bumping his shoulder against Daniel's.
"Nope. It's a surprise." Daniel bumped him back with a grin, and removed his rapidly fogging eyeglasses to polish them with his scarf.
"He wouldn't think he was gay if you didn't coddle him all the time," Rodney could hear his father saying from the other side of the giant planters in the middle of the restaurant.
Daniel looked at Rodney, wide-eyed, and slipped his glasses back on. Rodney desperately tried to think of something to say to drown out his parents' argument. "Hey. You're not sniffling," he said.
"He wouldn't think he was gay if you'd come home before he was five!" Rodney's mother fired back.
"Oh, yeah," Daniel said, reaching into his pocket. "I went to health services. They gave me some pills to take Seldane, I think it's called. And I got this," he said pulling a white inhaler out of his pocket. "Now all I need is a slide rule, and I can transfer to the physics department."
"Between the gardener, the pool boy, and your conductor, I'd think he had plenty of men around the house to be role models," Rodney's father said.
"No one uses slide rules anymore," Rodney said, holding out his arm to show off his digital watch as they rounded the plants. "It has twelve functions. And I can store two hundred phone numbers in it."
"Birthday present?" Daniel asked.
"Dad's company makes them," Rodney said, and squared his shoulders as they came to the table. His parents stood up on the opposite side, smiling as if they hadn't been cutting each other to ribbons just moments ago. Rodney had to tense his legs to stay in place instead of running.
"Mom, Dad, this is my friend Daniel," he said, hoping desperately that they wouldn't say anything embarrassing.
"Oh, Rodney talks about you all the time," his mother said, leaning across to shake Daniel's hand. Rodney winced. She looked Daniel up and down once. "I can see why," she said, smiling a little more widely, letting her hand linger in Daniel's a little too long. "You must call me Anne."
Ohgodohgodohgod, Rodney thought, wishing the floor would swallow him up right then. Daniel, fortunately, seemed oblivious as he reached his hand across the table to clasp Rodney's father's.
Politenesses exchanged, they took their seats. Rodney buried his face in a menu as his mother cooed over the prime rib and his father complained that everyone knew the British couldn't cook beef, anyway. It was taking everything he had to keep from screaming at them both. The menu selections swam in front of his eyes.
"Your hands are shaking," Daniel whispered to him as his parents' sniping continued.
"Thank you, Captain Obvious," Rodney retorted, taking a deep breath and trying to still them. "Are there any other insights you'd like to point out?"
Daniel paused for a second, and Rodney could practically hear him running through options in his head. "Well, I'm starting to see the advantage of being an orphan. What are you going to get?" Daniel asked. Even that question was enough to set Rodney's teeth on edge.
"I have no clue, okay?" Rodney snapped back under his breath.
Daniel raised his eyebrows, took a deep breath and said gently, "You always like salmon."
"What are you, my wife?" Rodney hissed, holding his menu up a little higher to block his arguing parents' view of him. Not that they noticed.
Daniel raised his menu to a similar height. "Well, between the bickering, the in-laws across the table and the sex we're not having, it feels like it," he said in a low voice.
Rodney raised his menu a little higher. "You're dating Cheekbones!" he said.
Daniel gave a little shrug. "Not exclusively," he said.
Rodney gritted his teeth, closed his eyes, and wished that, for his birthday, one of the infinite number of gods he didn't believe in would strike everyone at the table dead.
The waiter oozed over, all black tie and slick hair and supercilious attitude. "Are we ready to order?" he asked.
Daniel kicked Rodney under the table before Rodney could snap out an irate reply.
"It's your birthday, son," Rodney's father said, drawing himself up just a little bit in his seat, his chest puffing out slightly. "You go first."
Rodney closed his menu. "I'll have the salmon," he growled at his plate.
Daniel patted his knee under the table. Rodney was so surprised by it that he tuned out everyone else's order.
"So, Daniel, I hear you study archaeology," Rodney's mother said, taking a sip from her glass of white wine.
"Archaeology and anthropology, actually," Daniel said, picking up his glass. "It kind of runs in the family."
"Well, whoever you marry will be a very lucky woman. You know what they say about archaeologists and their wives the older she gets, the more interested he is in her."
Rodney's parents let out bright, fake laughter. Daniel finished his glass of wine in one gulp.
"Unlike computer scientists, who always want the newest thing off the assembly line," she said, her smile growing more brittle as she glanced at her husband.
Rodney drank deeply from his own wine glass.
"Rodney should have gone into computer science," his father said, leaning back from the table, his glass of red in his hand. "That's where all the money is. This kid's a computer genius. As soon as we got him away from that piano and in front of a keyboard, he was writing the tightest code you'd ever seen."
Daniel looked sharply at Rodney. "You play piano?"
"He did, when he was young," Rodney's mother said. "But he didn't have the artistry to be a professional. So George decided he'd try to make him walk in Daddy's footsteps instead of Mummy's."
Rodney knocked back the rest of his wine and quickly refilled his glass.
"He's got the brain of a programmer. But instead he chose physics. Physics? What are you going to do, teach?" Rodney's father said.
"Well, you're the one who gave him the science kit when he was twelve," his mother said. "And you remember what he did with that. Knocked out the power in all of Corbetton, and a few other towns around us, too. What were you trying to build again a laser?"
"No, I think it was a superconductor," his father said.
"It was a lightsaber," Rodney mumbled.
"A lightsaber?" Daniel said, the corner of his sparkling eyes crinkling as he smiled.
"It worked for a few seconds, too," Rodney said. "But then I fried all the components. And the power station."
"Dinner, lady and gentlemen," the supercilious waiter said behind him. Rodney could have kissed him for interrupting the litany of Rodney's Most Embarassing Moments. As soon as the salmon was put down in front of him, he squeezed the slice of lemon over it. The juice lingering on his fingers suddenly felt like it was burning his skin. "Ow!"
"Are you okay?" Daniel said, giving him a concerned look.
Rodney shook his hand, willing the pain to vanish. "Paper cut," he said.
"Ow," Daniel said.
Rodney cut apart his salmon with intensity, wishing he could use the same utensils on his parents and desperately trying not to listen to their next story. As usual, the first bite made the roof of his mouth and his tongue itch a little bit. He swallowed and immediately took another forkful.
"So there he was, running down the street, in nothing but his father's shoes!" his mother said, laughing.
Daniel glanced at Rodney, raising an eyebrow. "Exhibitionist much?"
Rodney's lips tingled as he looked back at Daniel.
"And who was supposed to be keeping an eye on him that day?" Rodney's father said to his mother.
Rodney swallowed another forkful of salmon, his fingers feeling stiff, swollen and itchy around the fork. His throat was tight, and the salmon hurt going down. His breathing suddenly got louder, with a wheeze like Daniel often had during the fall, and his lips felt like they were full of radio static.
Daniel looked at him sharply. "Rodney, what's wrong?"
"I was preparing to go on tour," his mother said. "Besides, we had a nanny."
"I don't know," Rodney croaked. He tried to take another sip of wine; he could barely choke the mouthful past his swollen throat, and it was getting even harder to breathe. His heart was pounding. By reflex, one of his hands flew to his neck, and he looked at Daniel in cold panic as things suddenly started to go black around the edges.
Air. He needed to get outside. He stood up and started walking toward the door, but it was like walking through knee-deep snow, and his heart echoed loudly in his ears. The next thing he knew, he was on the floor, feeling as if someone had placed a block of plutonium on his chest.
"Call an ambulance!" he could hear Daniel shout dimly. In the background, his mother said inanely, "Is something wrong?"
Daniel's face swam into view, and something hard and plastic fitted between Rodney's teeth. "Breathe in, Rodney," Daniel said, and Rodney did, a bitter, chemical taste filling his mouth. The weight on his chest transformed from plutonium to lead. Daniel said, "Again," and Rodney inhaled again. Sucking in air was still like trying to breathe through a too-small straw, and the darkness around the edges of his vision was growing larger and larger.
The only time I can get all of his attention is when I'm dying, Rodney thought. No wonder he likes Cheekbones so much; the guy's a Goth.
"It'll be okay, Rodney," Daniel said, taking his hand. "Just hang on. The ambulance is coming."
Rodney tried to focus on Daniel's hand, but everything was getting darker by the second. This is the worst birthday ever, he thought before he lost consciousness.
A sharp stinging sensation in his butt brought Rodney back to consciousness. "Daniel!" he shouted or tried to, but his voice was trembly.
"I'm here." Daniel's breathless voice was next to him. He slowly opened his eyes to see his friend, all big eyes and pale skin, sitting by the edge of the bed, a blue curtain hanging behind him.
"Hospital?" Rodney croaked.
Daniel nodded, squeezing his hand.
"He gets a pain in the ass and thinks of you. Tells me everything I need to know about your relationship," a nasal, American-accented male voice said from behind him.
American?" Rodney asked. His lips were tingling, and felt swollen and cracked
as he spoke, and his tongue was thick. His heart was pounding; he felt like
he could leap out of bed and run back to campus, or maybe all the
way across the ocean to Canada.
"I thought I'd get something cultural from doing my clinical studies abroad," the doctor replied from behind him. "Instead, I'm trapped in a country that considers fried fish wrapped in day-old newspaper an example of ethnic cuisine. You should thank your boyfriend here he saved your life with that inhaler."
"Boyfriend?" Rodney said.
"You know, I'm starting to revise my previous diagnosis of no brain damage," the doctor said. "Does he always have this penchant for stating the obvious?"
Daniel gave one scowling glare toward the doctor, then widened his eyes and shrugged. "I didn't want to leave you alone."
Rodney felt another sharp, burning prick on his buttock. "Ow!" he shouted.
"Is he always this much of a whiner?" the doctor asked Daniel.
"Why don't I try shoving something in your ass and see how you like it?" Rodney said testily.
"In front of your boyfriend? Shame on you," the unseen doctor said, pulling the sheet up so it covered Rodney to the middle of his back. "Now, roll over."
"Why don't you tell me where else you're going to inject things first?" Rodney said, a cold sheen of sweat covering him and a panicky feeling twisting like a snake in his gut.
"And ruin the surprise?" the doctor said. Rodney reluctantly rolled over. He saw a skinny man with high cheekbones in a white lab coat standing over him, and felt lucky that Daniel was too busy being protective on Rodney's behalf to notice that this guy was just Daniel's type.
"Here," the doctor said, handing him a little paper cup. "Drink this."
Rodney knocked it back like a tequila shot, expecting something foul and medicinal-tasting. Instead, it was foul and syrupy-tasting. "That's disgusting!" he said.
"That's glucose syrup," the doctor said. "And you'd better get used to it, because you'll be getting several more doses until your blood sugar comes back up. On top of your lemon allergy, you're hypoglycemic."
"Hypoglycemic?" Daniel asked.
"Lemon allergy?" Rodney asked.
"Pretty-boy here described how you were acting in the restaurant before your collapse. Sweats, shaking, crankiness, confusion all signs of hypoglycemia. Or prolonged exposure to your doting parents, but I'm betting on the hypoglycemia. When he gets cranky, make him eat something," the doctor said to Daniel.
"If I feed him whenever he's cranky, it could start a famine in Britain," Daniel said.
"Shut up, Daniel," Rodney said, wishing he could wrap his hands around his friend's boyfriend's? - throat.
"See?" Daniel said.
Rodney turned to the doctor. "Where are my parents?" he asked, noticing that his hands were shaking less and losing their urge to choke the breath out of his friend. Boyfriend. Whatever.
"Arguing with each other and the NHS. Should keep them busy for a while," the doctor said, pulling out a piece of rubber. "Now comes the fun part the IV. Wanna watch?"
"Sure," Rodney casually lied, pissed off at the doctor's constant mocking.
"I don't have to, do I?" Daniel asked.
"Close your eyes, pretty boy," said the doctor, tying the length of rubber around Rodney's arm. "You'll know it's done when he starts screaming."
Daniel took Rodney's left hand in both of his and stared at a spot just above Rodney's left ear, grimly.
"Why do I need an IV?" Rodney said. "I feel fine. In fact, I feel great." The panicky feeling had worn off, but he still felt like he could run across the surface of the Atlantic at least to Newfoundland.
"That's the epinephrine," the doctor said. "We used it to keep you from dying from anaphylaxis. It'll keep you up for a few hours, and when it wears off you'll really feel like crap."
Rodney turned to the doctor, glancing idly at the tube that was about to enter his arm. "I'm allergic to lemon?"
"Let me guess. You've been eating lemon chicken, putting lemon on your fish and chips, and every time you do it, your mouth itches," the doctor said, flicking his finger against the needle once before placing it against Rodney's arm.
"Yeah," Rodney said. "Isn't that normal?" He hissed as the doctor stuck the IV in.
"What?" Daniel said, looking at Rodney. His eyes drifted to the IV that was sliding into Rodney's vein and he blanched, turning his head back to study the white sheets next to Rodney's head.
"No. That's in no way 'normal'. It's also not normal for your fingers to swell up to three times their size after you squeeze a lemon, in case you were wondering." The doctor thumbed a clamp on the IV tube, and, creepily, Rodney could feel something cool enter his vein. "We'll need to bring you back in to test you on orange juice, see if it's the whole citrus family. Or you could try it at home. If you've got a death wish."
"I'll pass, thanks," Rodney said.
"Is it done?" Daniel asked.
Rodney squeezed his hand. "You can look."
"I'm supposed to kick the visitors out of here, but I can tell he's gonna annoy the hell out of me if he's alone, so you can stay," the doctor said to Daniel, standing up. "Call me if something interesting happens," he said over his shoulder as he walked out the door.
Daniel wound his fingers between Rodney's, and then lifted their joined hands
so he could prop his chin on them. "Radcliffe Hospital casualty again," Daniel
is becoming a tradition for us."
Rodney shrugged. "You can go if you want. Go clubbing with Cheekbones. I'll be fine." He steeled himself not to react, no matter how disappointing Daniel's answer was.
"Nope," Daniel said. "I'll stick around. He's not that cute." He lowered his head and kissed Rodney's fingers. "Don't do that again, okay?" he said, looking at Rodney through his eyelashes.
"Next time, it's your turn in the emergency room," Rodney said.
Daniel smiled. "Happy birthday." He gently brushed Rodney's hair back from his forehead, and leaned over to place a gentle kiss on his brow. Rodney closed his eyes, letting his friend's boyfriend's whatever, it didn't matter tenderness wash through him.
A gasp came from the doorway. Rodney's eyes flew open, and he and Daniel turned their heads in unison to look at the door. Rodney's mother stood there, eyes wide and one hand over her mouth. She stared at them for a moment, mingled disgust and was it jealousy? on her face. "I'll just…I'll see you tomorrow, maybe," she said. She turned on her heel and left the room; they could see his father's silhouette in the doorway. Her voice drifted in from outside as she said to him, "It's not a phase."
Daniel's eyes went wide behind his glasses. Rodney smiled; he could feel his swollen lips cracking under the strain, but he didn't care. If it weren't for the damn IV in his arm, he would have gotten up and danced for joy. "That," he said, pulling Daniel down to kiss his tingling lips, "was the best birthday present ever."
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