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Friendly Fire

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The year after John’s mother dies, his grandfather forces Patrick Sheppard to work out of the S.I. outpost in Toronto for a year. The objective, besides the change of scenery, is to make him spend more time with his sons. The old man may have gone so far as to state, “You do this, Pat, and when you come back to Phoenix we’ll set the course for my retirement” – a deal neither John nor Dave hear about at the time. Well, maybe Dave does, but he is older and has always been a lot more interested in all things Sheppard Industries.

Patrick is not happy at all. His sons see far less of him than Malcolm Sheppard intended. Dave is sullen most of the time, sickeningly attentive toward their father – in John’s eyes, at least – and too wrapped up in his own grief to spend much time with John.

Something good comes out of their Canadian exile, however. Theirs is the most expensive house in the street, but in a moderate yet not at all shabby house across said street lives a family with an elder son called Rodney McKay.

 

I.

Rodney sits in his advanced calculus class and has long since given up finding words that adequately describe his ordeal. His capabilities are miles above everyone else’s here, but the adults are making him wait to go to university until after his sixteenth birthday. He could refute their so-called concept of ‘maturity’ in a heartbeat if only they’d let him, but they are all of them idiots who couldn’t hope to hold a candle to Rodney’s intellect even if their combined IQs were to suddenly increase threefold, so they don’t.

At least he estimates Ms. Tawly is only four lessons away from agreeing to put him in charge of the somewhat – and Rodney cringes at granting the descriptive – more ‘capable’ students so that she herself can spend more time helping what Rodney, whenever he can bring himself to choke out a measure of politeness, calls ‘the hopeless cases’.

His hand has been up since the woman finished writing today’s motivational problem set – easy extra credit – on the blackboard. Since she is a woman with neither imagination nor sense of supporting genius beyond exploitation for her benefit, all Ms. Tawly does is glance at him and say, “Someone other than Rodney.”

She’s never called him ‘Meredith’. It’s the one thing that might one day make him remember her.

Rodney huffs in irritation and returns to his extracurricular reading, which currently is a volume recommended to him by a Professor at the University of Guelphs’s College for Physics and Engineering. He’s well into scrawling questions in the textbook margins – half of them asking if the Professor was drunk while peer reviewing – when a wad of paper hits him from behind.

M. Rodney McKay has been a genius forced to suffer through the public school system for nearly ten years. It’s not quite as bad as it could have been in some cow town or certain places in the States, or so he tells himself, but it hasn’t been pleasant and he's been bored ninety-nine per cent of the time. He may have one or two sycophants but he has no real friends. It’s hard to ‘connect’ with your ‘age-mates’ when the only one who could possibly hope to keep up with you is your ten-year-old sister. He has always known the teasing would only get worse if he showed a reaction, that the teachers would only steal more of his valuable time with detention if he retaliated. All in all, he has found that it’s just plain easier to ignore lower-level of abuse.

The only thing that surprises him about this recent missile is the angle. Ms. Tawly makes her students sit in the same order at all times because she can’t be bothered to learn the faces coming with their names, and Rodney has never cared to get to know the jocks that harass him less and less with every passing year but he’s always made sure he knows where they sit in direct relation to his desk.

It must have come from the guy who was half asleep during English lit earlier today, not that Rodney could blame him. Who gives a shit about Chaucer in this day and age? The new guy whose posture marks as a jock no matter how scrawny he is. The new rich kid. The recognition makes Rodney resolve all the more to ignore the assault because really, what more can you expect from an American?

Even as he thinks it, another paper bullet hits his arm. And another. And another.

Rodney grows steadily more frustrated and angry, yet what is strange is that so far there has been no sniggering from anywhere else in the room. Which means that his assailant must time each throw not only so that Ms. Tawly doesn’t see it, but so that their classmates don’t either?

It’s not as if his physics text stands a chance to teach him anything. After some deliberation, Rodney picks up the next paper ball that bounces from his shoulder to his desk. There appears to be ink on it. Bracing himself, he smoothes it out.

It’s an equation.

Its variables look familiar. When Rodney looks up, it’s the same one that’s still up on the blackboard. But where the space behind Ms. Tawly’s equals sign remains empty, there is a figure that had been on the tip of Rodney’s own tongue before being so rudely shut down.

Puzzled, he opens another lump.

It’s the answer to the same equation, this time complete with a short-cut version of the proof necessary to support the solution.

He’s so used to not really having to think during school hours that he could swear he feels it when the wheels of his brain switch on.

When he turns his head ever so slightly, the guy winks at him.

 

II.

Radek would have thought that now that he’d managed to make it all the way to the USA and one of the country’s most prominent universities, he would never again have to deal with idiocy combined with stubborn arrogance. He must have forgotten whose espied work many writers of technical literature at home had been copying.

He’d hoped that joining a sophisticated math club might reduce the chance of socializing with ignorants. In one way, this has proved to be true – the group is led by Rodney McKay, whose arrogance Radek has come to admit is warranted.

In other ways – not. The only good thing to be said about some of the others is that nine months into the arrangement, they’ve begun to develop a somewhat thicker skin.

Rodney is taking words out of Radek’s mouth berating one of the more ‘irredeemable idiots’, who cannot seem to grasp even the tiniest bit of admittedly incredibly advanced math - which is what they’re all here for – when someone throws a paper ball at him.

Rodney freezes.

Everybody else freezes, too.

You try to challenge Rodney if you think you’re smart enough – a mistake you’ll make once and never again, and one that Radek has found wise not to risk, yet. Everyone here was bullied at previous schools in one way or another. You all know it was worse the smarter you were and in here in this place you have fought tooth and nail to get into you don’t, you just don’t.

Also, mocking others with means that have no basis in scientific reasoning comes with the price of Rodney making sure you never merit even a B- in any of your remaining exams. The scale goes all the way to straight Es if you push him. If this holds true for hiding the pencils of a senior Rodney calls ‘idiot’ and worse at least twice a meeting – as was proven to the culprit and everyone back in December – Radek can’t even imagine what is going to happen to the unsuspecting soul that just tried to bully him.

The math club attendees look at Rodney as if he’s a bomb set to explode.

Rodney stares at the little clump at his feet as if it’s about to attack him. Radek is starting to wonder if he is having a flashback to some ill forgotten class room, but then, without turning to see who dared throw the offending object, Rodney reaches out. He proceeds to smooth out the paper – why on Earth would he want to read what can only be insults, provided anything’s written on it at all?! His fingers are trembling slightly, Radek sees. What is he –

Then Rodney leans back in his seat – he still hasn’t spared the back of the room a glance – holds up the scrap of paper and loudly addresses the room at large: “There, see, if even he can do it, why hasn’t any of you gotten it yet?”

Their last club meeting, Radek had solved all but one of his equations faultlessly in record time and had almost rated a compliment. He reminds himself of this as he stands to take the note from Rodney’s hand and copies the proof – proof? – What the hell? onto the blackboard. The approach is almost identical to the one on Radek’s own note pad.

What follows is the strangest math club meeting Radek has ever experienced. For the remaining hour, Rodney doesn’t seem to pay the long-time members all that much attention at all; for all that he still shuts down erroneous thoughts before Radek can, he appears much more focused on berating the new guy who has slouched down in a chair next to him, and for the first time since Radek met him, he looks happy.

 

III.

No one is waiting at the airport when John arrives. He hasn’t expected anyone. No one who isn’t back in Afghanistan even knows he’ll be back in the States today, and anyway – he deserves a lack of welcoming committee, if not for the reason his superiors gave for sending him away – he failed Holland, and for failing as miserably as he did he deserves to be alone, and…

A ball of paper hits him in the back of the head.


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