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[personal profile] last01standing
Title: Inventing Atlantis
Rating: PG-13
Fandom: SGA
Words: 11000
Disclaimer: Not for profit
Summary: Rodney McKay skips a grade, finds a body, acquires a team, and invents Atlantis
Warnings: [highlight to read] Death of a minor character (suicide)
Author's note: For [community profile] sgareversebang and the lovely artwork by Chibifukurou which is located [here]. Thanks to [personal profile] starfoozle for the beta.



Inventing Atlantis


The day they find the body is the best day of Meredith McKay's life. It's not a fresh corpse or an ugly one, but it is tangled up in the brush at the bottom of the creek bed without any outward side of injury. Rodney's never seen a corpse before, never had the chance to watch the process of decay. Despite the odor and the buzz of bot flies, he's quaking with anticipation. It's a practical application of science--even if it is just biology.

This is not why it's the best day of his life.

It's the best day of his life because Ronon Dex is sitting on a rock in the creek, huge, dreadlocked and poking the body with a stick.

Meredith shrinks back when the boy looks up, too used to the schoolyard and the lethal combination of being too young, too mouthy and too smart, but Ronon doesn't move to attack. Ronon asks, "How long do you think it's been there?"

He takes a step toward the body, feet squishing in the mud as the trickle of water laps at his shoes. "There are flies," he says, "but not maggots or beetles. Doesn't look like it's started to bloat yet. It's been pretty warm so that should happen fairly quickly except for the fact that the overhang might be skewing the results."

"You talk a lot," the boy says, standing up and swinging the stick over his shoulder.

"Sorry," Meredith apologies. "Mom says I'm gross."

"It's cool," he replies. "Tell me about the maggots."

Meredith grins back and then a gangly dark-haired boy skids to a halt before the overhang shouting, "Ronon! You found it, right?" He's wearing plastic framed sunglasses, a shirt three times too big for him that says AIR FORCE and shorts that aren’t quite long enough to hide the scabs on his knees. He stops when he sees Meredith, tilts head at Ronon and then jumps down into the creek bed. "John Sheppard," he announces.

"Meredith McKay," he says in reply, dreading the response.

John's lip twitches and Meredith curls in on himself, ready for the same old rejection, but then Ronon says, "Why's that funny?"

"It's a girl's name," Meredith explains.

"It's your name," Ronon says. "You're not a girl."

"Still hate it," Meredith replies, watching warily as John crouches down to look at the dead man.

"So change it," John says. "You've got another name, right? Some of David's friends used to call him D.J."

"My middle name is Rodney," he offers.

"Rodney," John drawls and for the first time since the move south, somehow, impossibly, Rodney thinks everything might turn out okay.

***

This is the story that John Sheppard tells about the corpse:

There are aliens in the woods, huge things with long white hair and green skin. They have slits that open on their hands and when they touch you, your life seeps out through their fingers. But they don't have to take it all, they can leach it out, taking the years one by one until you're old and gray. (Ronon stands next to him, his fingers curled into a fist.) They got Ronon's family. Years ago. That's why he had to come stay with his aunt. Sucked the life out of them.

Rodney doesn't know if it's true, but he doesn't think so. He reads through the paper when his parents are done with it, waits for the story, for someone looking, for some sort of explanation, but it doesn't come. The body just sits there, unidentified, rotting, without a story, without a soul.

***

When he wakes up, the sun's already blazing, Jeannie is crying a room over, and John Sheppard is knocking on his window. Rodney blinks, half sure he's still dreaming, but John knocks again and smooshes his face against the glass. Rodney's first paralyzing fear is that some of his old classmates have found out where he lived. It takes John blowing a raspberry against the glass to remember that they left Canada a month ago as his dad followed the work and that John and Ronon may actually want to be his friend.

He shoots out of bed to open the window and only when John scrambles inside does Rodney remember this is a two-story house. "H-how did you get up here?"

"Climbed the tree," John says easily. He's busted open one of the scabs on his knees, but doesn't seem to notices or care about the thin trail of blood snaking down his shin. "C'mon. Me and Ronon got something to show you."

"You know where I live?"

"No," John says. "I just started climbing random trees in the neighborhood until I found the right one."

"Oh my God," Rodney says. "How many did you have to climb? You realize that you can get arrested looking into random people's houses."

John makes a face and Rodney sputters to a halt because of course John could figure out where he lived. There's only one house on this street that's had moving trucks in the past month.

"Oh," Rodney says.

"Figure it out?" John grins at him. "Come on, mystery solved, I got something to I want to show you."

"I don't think my parents are up yet and I'm definitely not supposed to be going out with anyone they don't know." Except, even as he says it, he doubts his parents would care. Besides, when they took him aside to tell them they were leaving, they'd said they wanted to give him a chance to make friends.

At the time Rodney had thought it was false comfort.

"We'll sneak out." John says, moving back to the window. From the awning, it's only a twelve-foot drop to the ground. He grabs for Rodney's hand to drag him over.

"You can't honestly expect me to jump."

"Come on," John says. The breeze throws his hair askew. "It's just like flying."
 
***

John takes him back into the woods, to the remnants of concrete tunnel. It looks like something that used to be part of storm drain, but the nearby lake had dried up in the last two years to leave nothing but dirt and crumbling stone. Ronon's already waiting for them, greeting Rodney with a slap on the back hard enough to buckle his knees.

"Took you long enough," Ronon say. "You get lost again?"

"Had to find Rodney first," John replies. "Got to have a team together if we're going to go through again."

"What is this?" Rodney asks.

And it's John who steps up, who opens his arms wide and says, "This, this is the stargate."

"That tells me nothing," Rodney says.

"Go through the gate, get out somewhere else." Ronon explains. Which also tells Rodney nothing.

"Well, yes, on the other side."

"Not like that," John says, screwing up his face. "You travel. Light years. Different planet. You can see it too, right?"

And here's the thing, Rodney's grown up with science textbooks and music theory. He's never really outgrown the phase where his first question is why? Everything has answers if you look hard enough and he's never really seen the point in making them up when you could just find them. But Sheppard's looking at him like this is some sort of test so Rodney tries. Looks at the ratty old pipe, the mossy concrete casting odd shadows in the mid-morning light. He's not sure what he's supposed to be seeing. Not sure if there is anything to see. So he lets his brain spiral, thinks of transportation devices and a thousand means of instant transportation that don't work because of physics. "Stable wormhole," he says finally. "That's got to be it. That's how it works, right? You step through it and it takes you somewhere else."

Ronon shrugs, but John's beaming at him. Rodney feels the knot of anxiety in his chest tug a little looser as he stammers, "Well, you going to tell me what's on the other side?"

John opens his mouth and Rodney's already knows he's going to say something about the surprise making it all better, but Ronon beats him to it. "The most beautiful girl in the world."

***

The most beautiful girl in the world is named Teyla Emmagan. She has copper colored hair and smooth brown skin. She's wearing a worn golden tank top and there's an entire twenty second lag between her jubilant greeting and her drawing a small water gun from the back to squirt a stream into John's face. Ronon laughs and tugs her into a bear hug while Sheppard pulls her hair in retaliation.

Rodney watches it all, mouth agape and falls just a little in love with all of them. John and Ronon both have plastic water pistols stashed in a hole in the fence and the ensuing battle is something Rodney can only watch until he wises up and conscripts the hose to blast the three of them when they come to refill. The air's thick with humidity by the time they're done and Rodney can feel the tightness of skin that's going to turn into a burn tomorrow. Right now he feels like he's wrung dry, every bit of energy sapped from him. He's soaked, bleeding from a scab on his elbow and listening to John Sheppard talk about going through the stargate in the woods. The one that let him find Teyla's family home, an old log cabin that that looks like it was built by hand, but is better than any sort of mansion Rodney has ever seen.


***

When he gets home, the McKays are in a panic. The news is on in the background, droning about a missing teenager named Brendan Gaul and Rodney's been out since sunrise. It had never occurred to him that he wasn't allowed. Back in Canada, there'd been no one to pull him out at odd hours so asking permission seems foreign. They'd never put any restrictions on him before, let him wander down to the city library, read whatever he wanted.

Now his mom is hugging him tight and his dad, fingers white against the phone receiver puts it back down and says, "Don't do that to me again, son."

Rodney has no idea when he did, but eventually his parent's attention wavers and they're screaming again about some trivial aspect of the move and child care and Rodney finds himself curled up with Jeannie on his lap, telling his sister second hand stories about stargates, aliens, and the kind of worlds she might visit one day. Jeannie falls asleep, mumbling, "Mer," into his chest.

"It's Rodney now," he says, stroking her hair.
***

There's two long days after that cooped up inside while Rodney's skin starts to peel from his nose and the cold war his parents have been waging since well before the move starts showing hot spots. It was supposed to be different down here, a respite from the snow belt winters with the four of them crammed into a house, nowhere for tempers to diffuse.

John knocks on his widow after dinner one night, and tugs Rodney out onto the roof where the two of them sit, feet dangling over the edge as they watch the stars. The night is noisier than the ones Rodney remembers back home, the dim roar of cicadas coupled with the crickets buzzing out their chirps, steady as a metronome.

John says, "Do you think the body out in the woods is the kid they're talking about on the news?"

It's not a connection Rodney would have made. He's only seen two dead bodies in his life. The first was Granma McKay, wrinkled and pale in her coffin, looing like she'd forgotten to wake up and the second, the man in the woods, decaying slowly into the stream. The boy in the pictures on the news had been older than both him and John, but far younger than his parents.

Rodney doesn't want to think about Brendan Gaul. How death is something that can come for the young. It's a warm night, even as August is starting to fade into September, enough to push decomposition. Rodney tries to remember what the body looked like to start with, even starts to grab for the pages of field notes, but he stops himself. "No," he says. "It was an old guy. Can't have been the same one."

"Ronon says we should go check," John swings his feat out. "Says you meet a lot of horrible things through the gate."

"So what you want to go fight them?" Rodney asks. "Say there are horrible monsters in the woods--"

"Wraith," John corrects. "Ronon calls them wraith."

"Horrible imaginary monsters," Rodney says narrowing his eyes. "Who suck the life out of people and turn kids into old men. If it was true, what do you think we could do? Scream in terror?"

It's the wrong thing to say, because John's face twists into a scowl and he says, "'Night, McKay."

He doesn't say see you tomorrow, or even so long, just jumps off the roof and rolls with the landing, stomping off through a sea of fireflies.

***

And just like that the summer's over and Rodney's standing at the bus stop wearing his mother's idea of a proper first day outfit, his hair combed to the side. The bus itself is worse than the ones at school last year. The cloying heat against the brown vinyl seats has him yearning for the Canada's brisk snap of fall. No one sits next to him, but an older boy bouncing from seat to seat nudges him in the shoulder and points at a girl's bra straps three rows up. Rodney nods and hugs his backpack to his chest, glancing out the window at each stop with the vague hope that he'd see John, Ronon, or even Teyla, climbing on board. He rubs his elbow, picking at the remnants of a scab as he slides off the bus and into the crowd. He's going to be noticed the second he walks into a classroom full of students two years older than him. He'd prefer to delay it if possible.

"You trying to disappear?" a familiar voice asks. When he turns its Ronon who is already a full head taller than him and stands out unapologetically.

"Yeah, well, I don't really want to start a new school by getting my face kicked in by people so backwards they can't even manage to comprehend multiplication tables."

"Tip," Ronon says, steering him inside. "Don't tell anyone that."

"Right, right," Rodney says. "Thanks."

Ronon's his age which puts him a completely different classroom. He walks with Rodney anyway, gets him to the right classroom even if it's going to make him late. Rodney tries to say something, but Ronon waves him off and lopes off.

The two years between nine and eleven are long ones and judging by his immediate family, Rodney doesn't have a lot to hope for in size. The teacher stands up from her desk, straightens blouse and asks, "I'm Ms. Weir, are you lost?"

"I'm new," Rodney manages to stammer. "We moved here this summer from Canada."

The teacher scans her class roster, eyes flickering to the classroom. "The only younger student I'm missing is a young lady."

"Meredith?" Rodney guesses, a sinking feeling in his gut.

"How did you—" Ms. Weir's face goes from warm to completely neutral. "Of course, you're Meredith."

"Rodney," he corrects. "I want to go by Rodney."

"Of course," she says, scribbling the correction on her notes. "Well, welcome, Rodney. We're happy to have you for the year. We're not going to start the year with assigned seating so take your pick."

Rodney loves assigned seating. It breaks up the bullies into more manageable pieces. It makes for fewer distractions in actual class, and means he doesn't face the humiliation of taking the last seat available. He sighs and counts his blessings. At least no one seems to have noticed the conversation about his name.

He moves back through the desks, having learned his lesson about the front row two broken bones ago, but falls short of the back because he wants to be ready on the off chance there is something he can learn in this town. He drifts toward the window and spies and empty seat next to a familiar messy head of hair. "John," he says.

John's wearing slacks and a button down, his family obviously putting more effort than Rodney's into first day attire--or at very least more money. His face is pinched and miserable. Rodney knows he's a year younger than John, which should still put him a year ahead in school. "You never said they skipped you."

"Yeah, well, you never asked."

"This is great! I knew you were smart. You had to be smart."

"Rodney," John drawls, staring back out the window. "Shut up."

He learns later that John's been sliding under his parent's eye in more things than just excursions to the woods. He's always done well in school, but never excelled, his teachers mostly saying bland but pleasant things about him until one who caught him working through his brother's trigonometry books when he was supposed to be doing long division.

It's a school system that prides itself on keeping students from falling through the cracks. That's part of the reason why Rodney's family chose this spot.

Weir doesn't acknowledge the two younger students as anything out of the norm, just calls the roll and says Rodney McKay instead of Meredith. No one gives the two of them an odd look and when they make it to lunch, Ronon's there even if Teyla's graduated to the middle school. The material is still too dull, but it's early. It's going to get better.

***

John and Ronon had both gotten rides into school, but they both hop on the bus for the way back home, tossing their backpacks in Rodney's living room as they scramble back through the woods to find Teyla waiting for them at the gate.

They follow John because that's what they do, weaving their way down the creek bed until they find the body. It's been a month since Rodney first found Ronon poking at it and the smell of is mostly gone. There are beetles crawling through the papery skin, and the pieces of ankle set in the water are stripped to bone.

"I am unsure of why you wanted us to come here, John."

"For god's sake, Sheppard," Rodney groans. "For the last time, it's an old man! It's not Brendan Gaul."

"And if it is," Teyla cuts in smoothly, "do you not think it would be best to alert the authorities? Or at very least your father."

"Not my father," John says, and Rodney can't help but feel a little bit glad that it's not just him who reads John wrong sometimes. "Not after Dave."

Teyla takes a step toward him, puts a hand on his shoulder, but John shakes her off. Rodney feels like he's missing something huge.

Ronon shrugs and jumps down to the creek bed. "Gaul or not, it doesn't hurt to check."

The clothes on the dead man are sun bleached and wasting away with the slow trickle of the creek, but the jeans are still intact and Ronon turns his head away as he fishes through the guy's pockets, through the tatters of clothes that used to be writhing with maggots.

"Really?" Rodney hears himself. "Groping a corpse?

"This is the only way to check and you know it," John snaps.

"No wallet," Ronon says after a moment.

"Does he look older than he used to?" John asks, crouching down close to the corpse. They didn't get this close a month ago when the body was still fresh.

"Yes," Rodney responds, "Of course he looks older because he's halfway to a skeleton. Dead's about as old as you can get. This is not about some mystical creature sucking the life out of people. This is an old man who went out on a run, fell down and died. No one's looking for him. Of course he's not Brendan Gaul! Brendan Gaul was barely older than us!"

"Rodney is likely correct," Teyla says. "But it is still possible that this man has a family. You should have called the police when you first discovered him."

"Don't," John says. He's sitting in the mud of the creek bed, the bottoms of his good slacks stained brown. "You can't."

"Why not?" Rodney asks. The interesting parts of decomposition have melted away with the summer and he doesn't think bones would be welcome in the house. Not where Jeannie might get to them.

"Because we'll lose this," John says. "They'll take it away."

Rodney opens his mouth to argue but… he can see that John's not wrong. Just the suggestion of a body in the woods and Rodney's back inside with his books and the ghost of a piano they had to sell in the move. No more John Sheppard scaling a tree to knock on his window. Before he moved he would have never guessed he'd be a kid who spent the summers outside.

He's not quite sure what he'd do without it anymore.

They walk back to the gate to see Teyla off, John etching a signal in the dirt with the back of a stick, an upside down V with a dot overhead. Rodney, looks over and asks, "Does that mean anything?"

It looks almost like mathematically notation, but John straightens his spine, drops the stick and says, "It's a point of origin."

Ronon's the one who claps him on his back and says, "Means home."

***

The school's better than the last one and only part of the reason is that he's not the only one in the class who's skipped a grade. John's next to him and even if he seems determined to call as little attention to himself as possible, he's less likely to get the shit kicked out of him like he did in Canada. His parents are still yelling but he's not riding the bus by himself anymore. A boy named Carson has started to sit next to him, clutching a lunch box shaped like a turtle.

Ms. Weir's smart, a lot smarter than Rodney gives most teachers credit for. He can still run circles around her in math and science, but she understands people. He's pretty sure he hasn't taken a standard test so far this year, but she never mentions it, just smiles and takes it all in the same pile as everything else.

It takes almost a month before he's cornered before school Ronon's bus late and John's car not yet to pull up last second. "Meredith McKay," the boy greets. He's in school's the other section of sixth grade, easily twice Rodney's size. His name is Steve, or Bob or Kenny, something utterly dull and American.

Rodney stops where he is, turns slowly. "So?"

"So Meredith's a girl's name."

"And Steve's apparently an idiot's name," Rodney bites back before he realizes the mistake.

That's the thing. He always realizes his mistakes a second after he makes them. He's smarter than everyone he's ever met, but his brain moves too fast for his mouth. He's never wanted to slow it down, but he's lamented the fact that his body can't make up the difference. Because he can see the fist before it gets to his face, the power behind the blow. Long summers evenings chasing John and Ronon through the woods means he's even able to dodge the worst of it.

But it's not enough.

It's not like he hasn't been in fights before. Since he started school, he's always been the youngest in the class and also the smartest. He'd held his tongue the first few years, enthralled with everything, but that hadn't helped. There was always someone to take offense to his very existence, so why not say what he thinks? Why not stand out? Let everyone else know why he deserves that right. His last school, he'd been cornered bi-weekly and while the one time he'd passed out, the nurse blamed it on hypoglycemia, the mild concussion hadn't helped.

The first punch breaks his nose. He can feel the gush of it cascading down his face.
He brings his arms up before the second one comes back. Because he learned this, too. A long time ago. The quicker someone takes him down, the less the damage there is overall. Being in fights doesn't mean he knows how to fight. He's never been able to bully the theoretical vectors of a boxer into his body.

The second hit comes to his gut and steals the air out from him in a whoosh, leaves him choking on something that isn't there.

And that's when something changes.

John isn't much bigger than Rodney is. He's taller, sure, but it's that first growth spurt kind of height, the sort that leaves a boy gangly and off balance. He's also is as likely to forget to eat as Rodney is to go back to seconds. He shouldn't stand a chance.

But John fights without rules. He fights with elbows and teeth and nails. He kicks shins and pulls hair and knocks Steve down with sheer willpower.

Two of Steve's friends pry him off, thrashing and Rodney, who's never in his life had a friend stand up from him, forgets the blood on his face and lunges for the boy holding John.

That's when Ms. Weir snaps, "Enough!"

***

Rodney hasn't been to this principal's office before. And he doesn't think he wants to see it again. John's next to him, holding an ice pack to a rapidly swelling eye. Rodney has gauze shoved up his nostrils and he's pretty sure he's hemorrhaged brain cells but he can feel the press of John's arm against his and it doesn't hurt. "Thought you were mad at me."

"Rodney," John says. "That doesn't mean we're not friends."

"Really?" Rodney sits a little straighter. "We're good."

"Yeah. Of course. It's Ronon we need to worry about. He's been looking for a fight all year, but Steve and them learned better."

It hurts to laugh but Rodney does it anyway.

***

He's doodling the same point of origin that John had sketched outside the gate when there's a knock on his window. He's grinning when he looks up and the fact that it's Ronon and not John doesn't make the thrill any less. "Heard about your fight," Ronon says.

Two days suspension for both him and John. A week each for the other boys involved. His father had been proud of him for finally fighting back. His mother, who had always preached the path of non-violence, had disagreed violently. The screaming match had eventually been drowned out by Tchaikovsky.

"You grounded?" Ronon asks.

"I don't think so," Rodney answers.

"You land a single punch?"

That's a bigger question, Rodney doesn't have a clear memory of most of the altercation, but the bruises on his knuckles seem to say yes.

"Didn't think so," Ronon says. "Come on, we're going to go to Teyla's."

"What? Why?"

"Because she's going to teach you how to fight."

"Teyla? Why not you or John? Teyla's a girl."

Ronon reaches back and cuffs him in the back of the head. "She might kick your ass first, but you want to learn from her. You don't want to fight like Sheppard."

It takes Rodney most of the trek through the woods to figure out why. John fights like an animal, like there's nothing to lose, like he doesn't care if he's coming back. He's half jogging to keep up with Ronon when he huffs, "Where is John anyway?"

"Grounded," Ronon returns. "Swears it was worth it."

***

Teyla teaches him how to fight. She does it slowly, with the same infinite patients she displays with the world. She shows him the correct way to throw a punch, stops him clenching his own thumb. Tells him the weak spots in a person, the eyes, the throat, the shin, the solar plexus. She tells him about how some people see the need to fight with honor and that he should never ever be one of them.

She tells him, do not fight unless you have to, but when you do fight, fight to win, fight quickly and fight dirty.

And after she shows him what she knows, she has him stand up and orders, "Knock me over, Rodney."

"But you're a girl!" he says.

She ducks, spins and takes his legs out from under him in one smooth motion. "Though I am aware of chivalrous tendencies, I find them most outdated."

"Warned you," Ronon calls, grinning. "It's funny when it's not me."

Fighting's so completely different than anything he's ever tried that it deserves his whole focus. For the first time in his life, maybe he gets it, the idea that his body isn't something to impede him, that's it’s a compliment, a tool just as much as his mind. And this is different from every fight he's ever had. Ronon's egging them on from the side and Teyla refuses to pull a single punch, but that just makes it better when he finally gets a lucky hit and pulls them both to the ground, dirt scraping at his knees. They're both laughing and Ronon decides it's time to join them jumping onto the pile and looping an arm over either shoulder and they lay their, the three of them, staring up through the trees.

They're team. More than that, they're family, and Rodney thinks of what he had back North and wondered why he hadn't wanted to leave. When he walks back home to ice swollen knuckles, Jeannie looks at him like he's a different person.

***

There is a keyboard at home when he gets there and it's not the baby grand that they had before they moved, but it's better than nothing and Rodney scrambles for the on switch. The sound has an odd synthetic undertone to it and his knuckles are bruised enough to tangled his fingers on the first few runs, but after a while it all slots back into place. He's out of practice, but it fills the house with something other than his parent's screaming match. He plays until his hands start to cramp, far longer than he is normally allowed and when he finally looks up, his parents are standing arm in arm in the doorway, his mom with tears in her eyes, his dad with his face tight. "I know it's not the real thing," his father says, "but it's the best we can do right now."

"Thank you," he says.

The other piano, the one in the old house, in the old country, hadn't been as high quality as the teacher they could no longer afford, but it had character to it, depth. He'd shouted for three days when they sold it, until Jeannie tugged his sleeve and asked him to stop sounding like mom and dad. A week of eavesdropping taught him more about finances than he cared and he can see the echoes of that argument in everything that has happened in the past year, in his parent's shattering marriage. He's part of the problem, he knows. He's tried not to think about that, the extra expense of a genius child, of a prodigy. How much of this is his fault.

They've abandoned him now to public school, let him leapfrog instead of sending him to a place made for people like him. He wonders if the keyboard is a consolation prize, if this is their way of apologizing, if coming home after a fight at school after another incident made them remember him again.

If they think he's missing home.

It's not until later that he realizes home is no longer Canada. That it's this town, the woods, Teyla, Ronon and John. Virginia, he almost hates to think the word. Virginia where they don't play hockey and drawl if you get too far outside the city.

(But this is wrong, too. This is also not the place he dreams of. In his dreams there is the sound of water crackling through an open window. There is a city filled with spires, spanning out before them. There are ships that fly through the air, the entire place is pained in shades of blue, and a darkened pier that gives way to an alien sky. He wakes up some night so homesick it hurts to breathe.)

***

When John comes back to school his left eye is still swelled to a slit, the whole side of his face a mess of purple fading to green. His grin is lopsided and so is his nose. Ronon claps him on the back and Rodney fights the urge to do something stupid like hug him. Ms. Weir makes a disapproving noise when he slinks into class and for a minute Rodney is sure that she's going to launch into a lecture about the nature of violence and how all problems can be solved with words and compromise.

Instead, she clenches her jaw, gives a brief nod and says, "It's good to have you back, John."

He slides into his normal seat next to Rodney, still not looking at him. Rodney feels like he needs to say something, but John's already started staring back out the window. "Thank you," he says quietly.

"You already said that," John replies, but the corners of his mouth are twitching up. "Besides, you know you would do the same for me."

Rodney opens his mouth to deny it, but even before Teyla showed him how to throw a punch, Rodney knows that was true.

***

This is the story John tells about a city under the sea:

They buried her under water. Sank her right down because that's the only way they could save her. She's got a shield that keeps back the water and if it's held for ten thousand years, it'll still be holding when we get there. She's beautiful, guys, best thing you've ever seen.

There used to be people there, the Ancients, they built her and then the left her. Ran away, when they should have fought. Don't you see, guys? She's ours if we find her. She's waiting for us to wake her back up.


***

John shows up after Christmas break with two black eyes and his right arm in a sling. He's grinning when he's asked about it, doesn't even wince when Ronon wraps him up in a hug. "You idiot," Rodney says. "You're not supposed to go off getting yourself hurt without the rest of us there to save you."

John looks startled for a brief moment and then fake swoons into Rodney's arms, convincing enough for Ronon to let out a snort of laughter. He pats Rodney on his shoulder with the left hand and says, "Not like we had wraith, Rodney. It wasn't bad. It didn't even hurt. I was flying for a minute."

The rest of the story Rodney gets in drips and drabs. John's family goes skiing every winter holiday and let John take full run of the place. Very little supervision, but John's never really seems to have much supervision, so Rodney's not surprised.

John likes things that go fast, is willing to jump off of anything he can climb. So of course he would combine them. That makes perfect sense. John lets them all sign his cast. Ronon scrawls his name and underscores it with the doodle of a knife. Teyla's get well is written in precise cursive, on the palm of the white cast.

Rodney writes YOU MORON, in bold screaming letters, and when John manages to twist his arm in a way that he can actually read it, he lets out a snort of laughter and says, "Nice, Rodney. Thanks."

But it's still there the next day when he could have easily crossed it out.

***

John's sketching out a series of signals when Rodney makes it to the gate. They're shaky, written in his off hand, but Rodney's seen this set before. "Why do you even bother with that?"

"Got to dial," John explains. "Otherwise we're just going to get spit out in the same place."

"We always do get spit out in the same place."

"Not my fault everything in the gate network looks the same. Then again, why would you bother networking inhospitable planets?"

He says it so innocuously that Rodney accepts it immediately as truth, memorizing the symbols John sketches in winter's thawing ground.

(It will not occur to him until years later to find John's endless supply of answers odd. Rodney knows he must have some imagination—it's what's going to win a Noble, why his nightmares twist until he has to scream himself awake some nights—but the last time Ms. Weir assigned them to write a story for class, John wrote out the plot of Gremlins. He doodles the same three fighter jets on all of his classwork. The idea of Pegasus, Atlantis, wraith and wormholes, it's too big.)

"What's it look like to you?" Rodney blurts out before he can stop himself.

"The gate?" John says surprised. "I thought you could see it."

"Why would I possibly be able to see something that's not there?"

"I think it's a gene thing. Ronon and Teyla, they can't see it either, but they grew up on the other side. They trust me. They know it's there."

"What?"

"The wormhole," John says. "You were the one who told us it was a wormhole. It takes you places. Anywhere you want to go as long as you have the right address."

Rodney looks down. There's a series of eight symbols etched in the thawing ground, the bare trees stretching up above them, cold, but not enough for the threat of snow. "Atlantis."

"Atlantis," John confirms.

He sits down in the dirt next to John, the wind whistling through the trees and looks at the gate. He tries to think about what a stable wormhole would look like. If it would warp the edges of reality like a black hole might or if it would shimmer, tossing the evening light back through the trees or if it would be nothing more than a puddle of standing water, waiting to take them away.

***

The days start stretching again. The winter was a mild one, especially to the McKays who were used to day after day of the subzero temperatures, locked in the house with only each other. Jeannie used to sleep in his room when it was that cold, the two of them curled up in his bed for the added body heat when the space heater didn't seem like enough.

He wonders if things would have been different if they started out here. Wonders if the warmer temperature would have brought warmer temperaments. Wonders if it would be like Teyla's family home where the whole neighborhood smiled every time they saw someone new.

He can't sleep with spring's crawling humidity seeping in through the windows with wafts of the flowers in full bloom. He's had allergies all his life--citrus, bees--but the is the first time he's seen sneezing as a side-effect. He thinks he's dying for the first two weeks of April, doesn't go outside at all if he can help it, clacking away on the keyboard instead of walking through the gate, trying to get it to sound like something real.

He's passed the rest of the class again in school, just like happens every year. The concepts are new when he starts, but after he spots a principle behind an idea, he can anticipate the next step, draw conclusions that surprise even Ms. Weir. She asks him for the reasoning sometimes during class, every eye on him as he tries to slow down his process enough to pass it on. Faces glaze over, and there are a few of them that start to look angry. John kicks him under the desk when he's crossing a line and it's sheer luck he hasn't called anyone a moron.

John can follow him, at least to a point, and that's more than he's ever had. He's plowing through some of the extra physics textbooks Weir loaned him at home, props them up on his music stand while his fingers fly on the keyboard. He wants to think his parents' arguments are getting softer, but he's not sure if that would mean a cold war or that the spring's working its thaw. Then again, its entirely possible he's just drowned them out.

Weir's been talking with his parents, he knows. Saying things about prestigious boarding schools and scholarships for people like him. She's done better than most, but the public school system just isn't accustomed to geniuses and if Jeannie's annoying questions are any indication, they're going to have the problem in duplicate in a few years.

"He's happy," his mom protests, when he sneaks down to listen one night. "It's been a long time since I've seen him happy. He has friends. If we skip him again, he's going to lose that."

"If we send him off, he'll make friends. It'll give him the chance to meet other people on his level."

He knows this same conversation must be happening at the Sheppard house, the same set of drawbacks and advantages. Weir's been sending the same books home with John.

He spends that night on the roof outside his window, hands folded behind his head as he stares out at the stars. Sky's the limit, Ms. Weir had told him. He can be whatever he wants. He can do anything he wants.

***

John's gone for spring break. Another family venture, just like the one for winter. Rodney goes to Teyla's house instead, pulls out the water pistols and fights off a horde of Teyla's cousins, most of them Jeannie's age, all of them horrible terrors with shrill voices and sticky fingers. Teyla must have told them John's stories about the wraith because one of them presses a crudely drawn paper plate mask into his hands. Rodney looks at the green crown markings coupled with the swirling black tattoo pattern and drops the mask in shock. He's had dreams about this. Nightmares where these things walked through Atlantis.

The game doesn't feel like a game after that. Rodney finds muscle memory in aim, the deadly precision of the water pistol and tries not to flinch when the kids mob Ronon and eventually take him to the ground.

He's soaked to the skin when parents start coming to collect the young ones. Teyla looks impossibly untouched by the melee but her father takes one look at Rodney and Ronon and hoses them down before letting them in his house.

They're toweling dry when the doorbell rings and Ronon's aunt enters. Rodney feels Ronon go tense when he catches sight of the tears in her eyes. Rodney doesn't know much about Ronon's family. Knows Sheppard says monsters got to his parents, knows his parents whisper about the orphan whose aunt tends the Sheppard yards. "What's wrong?" Ronon demands, standing up. "Did something happens to John?"

His aunt leans down to look at him, wipes the tears out of her eyes and says, "It's your father, sweetheart."

"Dad's dead," Ronon says. "Overseas. Been years."

"Ronon, they found him. They're bringing him back home."

***

Ronon's father is a towering man that walks like he's Jeannie's size. He's got a lattice work of scars dotting his arms and a thick one that slices his face in half . There's a puckered bullet wound in the shoulder peaking out from a tank top. He does nothing to hide them, nothing to disguise the limp. The scars are angry, red and fresh. Three years as a prisoner of war, is the story that Rodney hears. He's not sure if he wants to know details. If he wants to know what turned someone so huge into something so small.

Ronon takes one look at him and says, "That's not my dad."
***

John comes back from the spring break trip with sunburn that fades into a deep tan. There's a lash on his leg that makes him grin and say, "Jellyfish." He's less pleased with the trip itself than the injuries, mumbling about how it used to be better when Dave was here.

Ronon's father is staying in the caretakers' quarters with Ronon and his aunt. John's taken to following him around whenever he gets the chance, peppering him with questions about the armed forces. Captain Dex doesn't answer most of the questions, but he also doesn't tell John to leave. Rodney, almost against his will, learns that the Marines basically function as their own armed forces within the actual military. They have ground forces, sea forces and of course, air capacity.

John's ecstatic to hear this, asking Captain Dex with questions about all the planes he's flown in. Captain Dex fills in what he can, but Rodney can tell that the only one he remembers with enough detail to talk about is the chopper that got him the hell out of enemy territory and back to his son.

It's a shockingly different story than the one about wraith sucking the life out of people, but the longer Rodney looks, the more he thinks they both might be true. Captain Dex went down in the desert and fell into the enemy that stole all the fire out of him. Ronon's mother, back home, already sick, let herself waste away instead of fighting herself back. He sits awake at night, fingers clashing on his keyboard, melodies fighting with countermelodies as he tries to get it all straight in his head.

Ronon and John used to have this elaborate plan that boiled down to the two of them becoming fighter pilots together. To them being so good at it, they get chosen to pilot spaceships. Ronon, looking at his dad, seems less enthused at the prospect every day.

For a while, that means John hanging around his room, trying to convince Rodney to build him a killer robot. Rodney gets pissed with him after a week, grabbing some of his books off the shelf, shoving it into Johns hands and saying, "There! You want a robot. Build your own damn robot."

The flash of hurt that stabs across John's face is buried quickly and he leaves the books when he climbs back out the window.

***

That's about the time John decides to start bombing all his classes. Rodney catches sights of abominable grades on everything from English to math and can't figure out why. He can almost get the English marks. God knows Rodney's been tempted not to finish some of the monstrosities assigned, but at the same time, he remembers seeing John with a broken wrist, tongue poking through his teeth as he made his way through Stranger in a Strange Land just a month ago. As for the math, John's got a head made for numbers. The only way he's messing up something as simple as percentages is that he's doing it on purpose.

Ms. Weir seems to have the same thoughts that Rodney does, taking him by the shoulder on the way back to class. Rodney watches the exchange through the window outside the classroom, Weir's crossed to the front side of her desk, half sitting on the edge of it, as casual a pose as she ever strikes. John is a foot and a half back from her, eyes wide under his ridiculous tuft of hair, body tense. He's nodding too hard, jaw clenched to keep from speaking and when Weir signs and gestures to the door, he bolts into the sunshine, breathing hard and fast.

Rodney corners him, "What the hell, John? You're throwing tests."

"Not right now." John says. His voice cracks.

"You know they're going to skip me again. And unless you continue to be an asshole, they're probably going to skip you too. What's so bad about that? We'll wind up in the same class as Teyla. Do you have any idea what you can do if you put forth a little effort? If you just push yourself? I'm going to win a Nobel Prize. And you, forget flying airplanes, you could build your own!"

John rounds on him, two hands outstretched and shoves him into the dirt. "Push yourself," he spits. "You know that's what they told Dave."

"Why do you care what they told your brother?" Rodney shouts. "He's not the one wasting potential."

"No he's not," John says, very quietly. "Rodney, Dave's been dead for a year."

***

This is the story that John Sheppard never told Rodney:

My brother was not the smartest kid in every room, but he was the one who worked the hardest. Dad had all these plans for him, how he was going to take over the family business, how he was going to do us all proud. But you know what Dave really wanted to do? He just wanted to draw. Had all these sketchbooks, pages after pages of them that he'd get to when his work was done. He worked hard enough that they skipped him a grade, so hard that they told him to keep pushing. And then he had no time left for what he loved. He called home right before he jumped, got me on the phone instead of his father, hesitating for just a second before he said, "Johnny, make the time to fly. Don't let anyone tell you can't."

Dave makes a big splash when he hits the water. I wish I was there to capture it. It must have been a spectacular fall, Dave's one last work of art.

His body sinks like a stone.

***

John stops failing assignments, but he also stops excelling. He ignores the fight and somehow that makes it even worse. He's gone on lockdown again, and this tentative peace between them is something the feels more like the precursor to an explosion. Rodney doesn't have a lot of experience with friendship, but this feels more like his normal, like the hundreds of tentative overtures in Canada that crumbled when he touched them. At home he plays Rachmaninoff on the keyboard, loud and angry and misses the way the old instrument used to resound with enough force to shake the house.

It's Ronon, not John who knocks on the window that night. Rodney flushes red and asks, "How long have you been there?"

"Couple minutes," Ronon replies. "You're good."

"Prodigy. Or at least that's what people said before we moved and my parents didn't have the money for lessons."

Ronon nods back at him. It's the sort of thing that John would never understand, but the kind that Teyla and Ronon have known for a while.

"My dad wants to move," Ronon says abruptly.

For a second, Rodney can only blink about him. "What do you mean move?"

"Like you guys did last summer."

He sits down at on the corner of the bed. Rodney sits down next to him. "I'm sorry?"

"Sucks," Ronon agrees. "Gonna miss you."

"You're going to miss me? Well I mean of course you're going to miss me, I'm—" And then Ronon gathers him up in a hug tight enough to squeeze the air out of him. It's quick and genuine and when it's over Rodney can't do anything but stare.

Ronon snorts. "You gonna play some more?"

"Yeah," Rodney replies. "I think I can do that."

***

The school year careens toward the end, May bleeding into June, the air outside finally free of the pollen, but still sticky and thick enough to swim in. Rodney's parents start whispering instead of shouting, same as they at the end of the last school year.

He asks Jeannie about it because she's home for most of it. She crosses her arms and sticks out her lips and says, "I don't know if I want to tell you."

Rodney sweeps her up in his arms and puts her on his shoulders while she grabs at his hair and screeches, "Mer! Mer! Put me down."

"Never!" Rodney cries and she spreads her arms out like she's flying.

When they finally tumble onto the grass, Jeannie says, "Daddy got a job. Back in Canada. A good one. Mommy says we should want to go back home."

"But this is home," Rodney says.

Then he's up the stairs of the porch and back into the house where his mother's in the kitchen, putting dinner together.

"Meredith? What's wrong?"

"You're moving us? Again?"

"You didn't want us to move here in the first place. Said the American idiots would ruin you intellectual development."

"I was wrong," Rodney says. He tries not to think about Teyla who taught him how to fight and Ronon who showed him acceptance and John who taught him how to dream. There's more to learning than school but even though he knows Ms. Weir was over her head, she'd done just as well as anyone. "The American school system fosters idiots, yes, but there are significantly fewer here than I would have expected. No one's on my level, but—"

He trails off because there's a break in the soft music of the radio his mom likes to play while she's cooking. A crackle that interrupts Frank Sinatra to inform, "Breaking news about the disappearance of Brendan Gaul who disappeared nearly ten months ago…"

His mother is saying, "I wouldn't let him take us away from here, not if I thought it would be better for you here, Mer. I know you have friends and that's been something that's missing from back home. But we can get you in the kind of school that you deserve. We can afford to restart the piano lessons, I know you still play any chance you get. It's not just about your father. It's opportunities. We don't say it enough, Meredith, but you could have so many opportunities, you could be whoever you want."

Rodney barely hears her. The grave-voiced radio announcer intones, "The body, suspected to be Brendan Gaul was found in the woods just outside of—"

"Meredith?" his mother says. "Meredith? Are you even listening to me?"

"My name is Rodney," he says. "And Mom, I've got to go. I—"

He leaves the house at a sprint, past a baffled Jeannie who's scrambling her way up the porch steps. His mother stands on the porch, pulling her daughter up into her arms as she shouts. "Meredith! Meredith!"

He keeps running.

***

The route through the woods, the route to the body, is as familiar as the one to the gate and Rodney takes it at speeds that would have never been possible for him at this time last year. He stumbles once, but does not fall, jumps over a patch of poison ivy and skids to a halt at the overhang of the creek bed.

He sees a familiar head of wild dark hair and he jumps down to stand beside John. The creek is as high as he's ever seen it, water lapping at his sneakers, soaking through to his socks. It's the right place, the place where he'd met John and Ronon months ago. There's no way he could mistake it for anything else.

But the body's gone.

"You heard about Gaul then?" John says. "They found him, out in the woods. Must have been yesterday or the day before for them to clean it up. Should have guessed. Got to be the wraith. It's why Ronon and Captain Dex need to get out of here."

But not why Rodney's going. Not by a long shot. Rodney feels familiar streak of frustration lace through him. "John, this wasn't Gaul. Gaul was a kid."

"It was the wraith. You know that's what they do, they put out a hand and they suck the life of you, right out of your chest. That's what happens when people die! I saw it. That's what happened to Dave and what happened to Captain Dex. And if you can't—"

"We made it up," Rodney interrupts. He's shouting now and he had no idea why.

"Why would we make something like this up?"

"Because we're kids, John! That's what kids do. We make things up. And that's okay, that's what we're supposed to do, but it's not real."

Something Rodney doesn't like is happening to John's face. He sees a flash of anger, some hurt and a lot of sadness, but it's gone, hidden by the same mask he wears in the classroom. Where he pretends to be just like the rest of them. Where he never quite resembles Rodney's friend. "Of course the gate's not here. That would be stupid. We're not really travelling off planet. But that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. You know that."

Rodney wants to believe him. He really does. Because the body is gone and the found the boy who'd went missing and there's no reason it's not the same. No reason Rodney can't go and swipe the mask from Teyla's cousins and they can't have a day of chasing wraith through the forest. He's going to have to grow up eventually, but there's no reason it has to be now.

Except it's never gong to be the same. Ronon's moving off with his dad and the McKays are headed back to Canada and even if they'd stayed, Rodney would keep skipping through the grades, pushing himself in all the ways that John refuses. "How can I know that?"

"I dream about it," John says. "Atlantis and Pegasus. It's out there. It's real. You believe me, don’t you?"

Rodney's quiet for a long moment, but he can't answer that. Doesn't want to, so he says, "My dad got a new job. A good one. Like the one he had before. Doing very important work. Life changing stuff. Of course it's not the same kind of thing that I'm going to be doing in a few years, but it's important. Mom says it's important. They're going to put me in a special school. Get me piano lessons again. It's—"

"You're leaving too?" John says.

"It's not like I want to."

John sits down in the mud, right where the body of the man who could not possibly be Brendan Gaul sat for months. There are a thousand things that could have happened to the body. Dragged off by an animal, found by the police, swept down from the creek into the river when the winter runoff from the mountains swelled the creek bed. "I'm not sure I want to find Atlantis without you guys." John says.

"You really think it's real?" Rodney says. "You think it's out there?"

John smiles and it's all teeth. "It's got to be, Rodney. I know it is."

Rodney sits down next to him, hesitates before slinging an arm over his shoulder. "You should find it. If anyone could manage it, it's you."

***

This is the dream that makes John believe:

He is in a ship. Not a jet thing like he sees at the airshows when they take the family holiday, it's cylindrical and compact and looks more like ziti than the Enterprise, but it flies like a dream, responds to his touch like its responding to his mind. There's nothing but blue, not for miles, but can hear the city as he gets closer, the siren's call twisting out from glass spires, a voice in his ears that whispers, homehomehome.

***
Epilogue
Fifteen Years Later

There's a man waiting in his office when Rodney gets back. Older than his usual students, though the Air Force uniform may suggest someone who's come back for more education. He's sitting at Rodney's desk, an offensive that's caused him to fire two graduate students so far (this year). He barely glances up as Rodney makes a point of slamming the door. "Would have thought your encryption key would be better," he comments wryly, fingers clacking against the keyboard. "What with the being a genius and all."

Rodney draws himself up, "Look I don't know who you think you are but—"

Then he has to stop, because he knows that voice. It's dropped an octave or so since the last time he heard it, but there's still that whine, that carefully neutral accent. And now that the voice settles back in his mind, he recognizes the hair, the smirk, even the slouch as John Sheppard leans back in his ergonomic desk chair.

"John," he says.

"Captain Sheppard these days," he says, gesturing to the uniform. "Air Force."

"If you were going to sign your life away to those idiots, at least you picked the right branch. Are you still playing stupid?"

"Aw, Rodney, almost sounds like you care."

"It's Dr. McKay these days," Rodney retorts. "Dr. Dr. McKay if you want to get technical, astrophysics and engineering. I knew you were going to go and do something and join up given the chance. The world's first fifth grade dropout."

"I'm not calling you Dr. Dr. McKay."

"Call me whatever the hell you want. I just want to know what you're doing here."

"I can't look up an old friend?"

"We still count as friends? It's not like we kept in touch." There are old hurts bubbling to the surface. In a lot of ways, that year spent tromping through the dense woods in Virginia was the best one of his life. The next school hadn't been so kind. His parents had refused to skip him, citing the need for socialization. It didn't help. There was no Ronon to kick him when he did something stupid. No Teyla to show him how he was supposed to fight. No John who could almost keep up with him. The nuclear bomb in the garage may have been him acting out. Just a little.

"We were kids," John says, standing up. "And I was kind of messed up about a lot of things. I think we all were. Teyla says hey, by the way."

Rodney rolls his eyes because he still e-mails Teyla twice a week. It feels less personal than it did when they scrawled each other letters, but it's something. It's a hell of a lot more than he ever got from John.

"I guess she's how you found me, huh?"

"It's not like you were hiding. Campus has a half dozen urban legends about you."

He waves a hand. "Yes, yes, I think some of the undergraduates ritually slaughter cats before my finals. Which is probably the worst way to curry my favor. Clearly if I can be bought, it's with chocolate and coffee."

At that, John smiles and shoves a cup into his hands. Rodney stares at it for a second and the jerks his head back up to John. "You brought a bribe."

"I read your dissertation," John says. "The one on wormholes, not the ME one."

Rodney sets the coffee back down. "Then you've come to make fun of me for cannibalizing a game we played when we were kids for my research. Well I'll have you know that it's all based on incredibly sound theory and—"

"Jesus, McKay, no one's looking to knock you down and steal you lunch money. Least of all me. I know you used to dream about it too."

"Dream about what?"

"Atlantis," John says. "Pegasus. The wraith. The gate."

Rodney's not going to admit it, but he still dreams about it sometimes. A city floating in an alien sea. "We were kids. We made it up."

"We didn't though. I had Atlantis in my head before I even knew what an ocean was. It wasn't a coping mechanism and it wasn't a fluke. I've had a gate address in my head for years, I just didn't know it."

"What are you saying?"

"We didn't make it up, Rodney. It's out there. All of it. You wrote your thesis about it. Teyla's sold three paintings of the central tower. Ronon's halfway through a book about space vampires. It all means something. There are a half dozen others out there, people dreaming of the same place." He fidgets in the seat, head tilted like he's listening to something. "The SGC wants to send an expedition. Maybe a hundred people in total. It's probably going to be a one way trip. "

"Let me get this straight, you're showing up, here, after almost fifteen years of non-contact in order to offer me a one way ticket to another galaxy based on my research about wormhole theory?"

"Teyla and Ronon are coming too." John shrugs. "What do you say, McKay? Chance of a lifetime."

"Gee," Rodney says, trying for sarcasm and missing it by a mile. "Where do I sign up?"

(end)

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