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The first time Meredith met John, he's pretty sure they were babies. He remembers seeing a baby with wispy black hair and when he'd crawled over to look at it, he'd gotten smacked with a fistful of spit. Meredith hated spit. He still hates spit.

Meredith's four now, definitely a big boy, big enough not to be the baby of the family anymore – that's Jeannie, she cries and turns purple and spits. She spits a lot. And it's not even clear like spit is supposed to be.

But John is here, in the front yard where they're playing with the Legos Rodney's grampa gave him last Christmas. He's built every possible stable combination he can think of, but even repeating the ones he's done before is better than going inside where everybody's screaming. Dad's screaming at Mom, and that makes Jeannie scream, and then Dad yells some more. Meredith can't help but hear, listening to the swoop and fall of their voices coming out the window.

John doesn't seem to notice. He just shows Meredith another design, one he's never seen before, with an inverted turret as a base. They work on it for a while before Jeannie starts screaming loud enough they can't pretend they don't hear it anymore, and John invites him over for dinner.

"Tagine," John says, and Meredith frowns. His dad would have made a joke – 'bless you' – but he's pretty sure he heard John right.

"I don't know what that is," Meredith says. John's eyes go wide and he grabs Meredith's wrist, the bracelet of his fingers making the skin burn as he hauls Meredith to his house. John lives next door, just moved in. Meredith didn't see a moving truck, not like theirs when they moved in, but he follows John into the house and through the first door on their right. It opens into a huge dining room, and Meredith can smell something delicious coming from the kitchen beyond. John drags him into the kitchen and only lets his arm go when the woman at the stove turns around. Her eyes crinkle up when she sees Meredith.

"Hello," John's mom says. It has to be John's mom – she has changey-color eyes like he does and a big smile. "I'm Margaret," she says, and Meredith smiles back at her shyly. "Are you staying for dinner?" she asks.

Meredith nods, but he's still a little hidden behind John. She's so tall, and she looks like a weeble wobble when she leans down to put her face near theirs. "It's okay," she says softly. "You can stay behind John if you want."

Meredith likes the soft sound of her voice, warm like cookies, and when she holds out a hand, he takes it. "Let's make some brownies," she says. "I like warm brownies for dessert."

Tagine is a beef stew of sorts, with lots of meat and vegetables under the tomatoish gravy. It's delicious and he eats his whole plate up like a good boy. John's mom brings out the brownies they baked earlier and they dunk them in milk.

"Meredith?"

Meredith can hear his mother calling, and crawls down from the table. Their chairs are very high. "I have to go," Meredith says, and takes off running for the front door. When he remembers his manners, he turns around to say, "Thank you, Mrs. Sheppard!"

~~~+~~~


He plays with John every day that summer, mostly playing in his front yard, but sometimes they play in John's back yard too, which is a real adventure. They don't mow the lawn back there, and he and John pretend to be hunting lions in Africa. They find rusted old junk sometimes, and today Meredith trips over a big marble. It's clear and bluish, and when John touches it, it glows on the inside, almost the color of the sky.

"Whoa!" Meredith says, "let me see!" When he grabs the marble out of John's palm, the light goes out.

"You can have it," John says. "I bet it's a good luck charm."

John's always nice to Meredith, bringing him lunch when his mom forgets, or letting Meredith be the lead lion hunter, or letting him keep the cool stuff they find. His dad got mad when he found the rusted out hub cap in the garage, but a marble is small. Meredith can keep it in his pocket.

"Thanks," Meredith says. John smiles and puts up his invisible gun on his shoulder.

"I thought I heard a lion."

~~~+~~~


Meredith asks John about kindergarten once; his mom is sending him even though he only turned five. She says he's 'precocious' and needs to find a way to put his brain to good use. John wrinkles his nose up and says he thinks it sounds boring, and he's not going to go. Meredith doesn't think he has a choice, but he might try and stay home, and play with John instead.

The day comes and his mother dresses him in his best Garanimals and walks him the two blocks to school. It's a low, ugly building and he hates it already. There are other children playing on the swings and merry-go-round, but they don't smile at him like John does. They watch him go by with stupid looks on their faces, and he hates them already too.

"I don't want to go," he whines, tugging on his mother's arm. "Please, mom, I don't want to!"

"Meredith, be quiet and listen to what your teachers say. You'll learn all kinds of new things."

His mom walks him to his classroom and leaves him with Miss Walker, who smells nice and is surprised when Meredith tells her he can read already.

"Read this," she says, laying Green Eggs and Ham out in front of him.

"Please," Meredith says, pushing the book away. "Jeannie can read that, and she can't even walk yet."

Miss Walker smiles at him fondly. "It's okay if you can't read," she says. "No one here can read yet - we're going to teach you that next year."

Meredith leaves the little table and Miss Walker's scrunched up knees and goes to the fire extinguisher next to her desk.

"Fire extinguisher, 2 kilograms carbon dioxide," Meredith reads, "caution, do not hold horn or cylinder–"

"Oh my," Miss Walker says, picking it up and looking at the label. "Where did you learn to do that?"

"John taught me," Meredith says. "He says the big words are more fun, but not as fun as numbers."

"John?" Miss Walker asks. "Is that your daddy's name?"

Meredith laughs. "No." He looks for something else to read, but it all looks like the stuff Jeannie reads. Maybe he'll bring home some books for her.

"Then who is he?"

"My friend," Meredith says. The bell rings, loud and shrill, and Meredith covers his ears.

~~~+~~~


Meredith hates his name. He changes it to Rodney by the end of the first week, but Miss Walker won't stop calling him Meredith, so all the rest of the kids call him Mary and won't let him play on the merry-go-round. Rodney's more bored in school than he was at home. At least at home he has his mom's books – and John.

John doesn't stay long most days. He's always looking over his shoulder, and he doesn't invite Rodney over for dinner anymore. At least he calls Rodney Rodney, and doesn't even mention the name Meredith.

"Do you still have the marble?" John asks one day. Rodney pulls it out of his pocket, and John grins so big Rodney wonders if it'll break his head in half.

"I always have it," Rodney says, and starts to put it back in his pocket.

"No, wait," John says, and plucks it out of his hand. It glows, the eerie brighter-than-sky blue that Rodney wasn't sure he really remembered until he saw it again. John closes his fingers over it and makes a thinky face, like when they're playing chess, and the blue leaks out between his fingers, making his whole hand glow like it's see-through.

"I have to go," he says. "We're..." John looks at Rodney for a long second and then kisses him on the cheek, like Aunt Melanie does when she comes to visit. "We're not going to be around for a while," John says. "Hold on to that marble, Rodney. I'll find you."

"Wait," Rodney says, wiping his hand down his cheek, John's wet kiss on his sleeve.

~~~+~~~


They move when Rodney skips his second year of school, so he can go to a special school and be with other kids like him. Rodney's pretty sure there aren't any other kids like him. There aren't any other kids that interest him, anyway, except Jeannie, who can talk in numbers. They whisper in code around dad just to make him angry. He storms off and slams the door to his office and Jeannie giggles and pretends like she's watching TV.

Rodney doesn't like the new house. It's smaller than their last one, and they're all crushed up against the neighbors. There aren't any big yards at all, none like the one he and John hunted lions in.

He spends every free moment in the library, inhaling every book in the place and then asking the librarian to send for more advanced books by interlibrary loan. She doesn't protest, at least not to his face, but he hears through the door to the principal's office that she thinks Rodney would be better off home schooled. He knows that's not possible even before his mother explains that both of them work and they can't afford it.

It doesn't matter anyway; he knows how to do it himself. Every book he reads is like a puzzle piece slotted neatly into place. Not something he's learning so much as something that just fits in his world. Everything is neatly organized and the rules of the universe (unlike a lot of other, stupid, rules) can't be broken. He teaches Jeannie for something to do in between shipments of books (they come in big boxes now, the library keeps them behind the desk for him).

He wishes John would come.

~~~+~~~


John doesn't come back until Rodney's twelve, and about ready to build a nuclear bomb to relieve the boredom, if not to blow up his entire neighborhood. It's not like he can get the plutonium though, and it doesn't seem worth it to put in the effort if it's not going to work properly. He'd rather work on the trebuchet he's going to build in the backyard when his dad goes "traveling on business" next week.

"Trebuchet?" John asks, peering over his shoulder at the blueprint. "Cool."

Rodney rolls over and stares up at John, so relieved to see him standing there, blocking out the sun with his stupid collicky hair that he can't even muster a decent comeback. "Yeah, cool."

He's afraid to ask where John's been; he doesn't know if John can talk about it, or if Rodney would want to hear it if he could.

"I'm going to build it ten feet high," Rodney says. He's been mowing lawns all spring, and he's already sprung for the lumber from Home Depot.

"Cool," John says again, grinning down at the specs.

The time seems to fly by with John helping him, only taking three days to put it together and test it out. It works perfectly, though the rock travels further than Rodney expects – and makes a big dent in the hood of Mrs. Berge's car. No one's home but Jeannie, so John bribes her with a double scoop of ice cream, and they take the trebuchet apart the next day.

~~~+~~~


John's more irritable since he came back. Rodney wants to ask where he's been, if he's been traveling or just across town at Alki Middle School. John doesn't talk about it, and Rodney doesn't ask.

They hang out after school for a week before John has to leave again. "You need to hurry," John says, and before Rodney can ask what that means, John's running down the street into the growing shadows of dusk.

Rodney spends his time studying from then on. He doesn't know what John meant, but he feels like there's something just out of reach, and if he can find that missing piece of the puzzle, he can keep John forever. He rolls his fingers over the marble in his pocket, wishing it would glow for him too.

~~~+~~~


The problem with being a college freshman at fifteen is less that Rodney's socially awkward and more that he's built like a runway model – slight shoulders, gangly legs, and a center of balance that feels like it's two feet to the left of his body most days. The rest of the problem is that there are a ton of jerks who need to prove they're macho, and Rodney looks like the ninety-pound weakling just waiting for sand to be kicked in his face.

Jeremy Borrello, a wide receiver majoring in basket-weaving, decides Thursday is his day to haze the nerd. Rodney generally spends whatever time he isn't in class confined to a small space somewhere – a cubicle in the library, any lab he can get into, or his breadbox of a dorm room (thank god for severe allergies and his ability to harangue the housing people into a single). Unfortunately, he still needs to walk between those three places, and Jeremy has a knack for knowing when Rodney's leaving the library.

This Thursday is no different than any other, and Rodney ends up eating pavement within two minutes of Jeremy's smug greeting. He's tried everything to get Jeremy to leave him alone; he's talked and cajoled and tried to make friends with the linebackers (that didn't work out too well) and taken it silently and screamed loudly and begged and bribed and fought back. Nothing makes it easier or makes Jeremy go away. Today is a kicking day, and Rodney covers his head as Jeremy kicks him in the stomach and ribs. He gets one lucky shot in and the toe of his boot catches Rodney's marble; Rodney can feel the vibration all the way up to his teeth.

"What was that?" Jeremy asks, and hauls Rodney to his feet. "What've you got there?"

Rodney had been pretty sure that keeping the marble in his front jeans pocket was about the safest it could get. He can feel it, solid against his thigh and warm from his body heat. There is no way Jeremy is going dig his hand into Rodney's pocket.

He pulls down Rodney's pants instead.

Rodney's just happy that he thought to grab for his boxers so he isn't standing naked on the quad, and he still doesn't see how Jeremy can avoid looking like the fag he calls Rodney by kneeling at Rodney's feet to pull the marble out of Rodney's jeans.

Clearly, that is a failure of his imagination. Jeremy shoves Rodney and he trips on his pants, landing hard on his ass. Jeremy digs into Rodney's pocket and retrieves the marble – and it glows. Not the way it did with John, but there's definitely a bluish tinge to it, and it looks a little like a 40 watt light bulb that's about to burn out.

"Keen," Jeremy says, standing and walking away.

Rodney swallows hard and gets himself dressed again. There're only a few people watching – not Jeremy's normal crowd – and he stalks off toward his dorm room, already making excuses. He could just say he lost it, it's only a marble. Any normal person would have lost it by now. He could say it broke or –

Cheering from the quad catches his attention. There's a crowd, three people deep circling some happening. It's a sad fact of life that watching other nerds get beat up makes Rodney feel better, so he limps over to see who else is getting their Thursday kicks.

Being lean does have its advantages, and Rodney elbows his way into the front row. He's not really interested in who's getting beat up, so when he finally looks at the pair of idiots, he's dumbfounded to see Jeremy getting his ass handed to him… by John.

John seems to have filled out more than Rodney has. He looks older too – he could easily pass for eighteen – but his hair's as stupid as ever. In contrast, his fighting skills are scary as hell and Rodney winces as Jeremy takes three quick jabs to the kidney and an uppercut, staggering away to the other side of the crowd.

Jeremy comes back around and John lays him out with a kick to his head.

"Shouldn't take things that aren't yours," John says, digging Rodney's marble out of Jeremy's pocket. No one even thinks the word 'fag' at him, and when the marble pulls free of the jeans, the light's bright enough that everyone shades their eyes until John closes his fist around it tightly.

John scans the crowd, and Rodney can feel his heart tripping in his chest. John's name is on the tip of his tongue, but he can't seem to make himself say it. The crowd is dissipating and Rodney waits, wondering how long it'll take for John to recognize him. He's grown a lot but not broadened, not the way John has. His hair is almost manageable with a handful of mousse every day, now that it's long enough to wave and not curl. He's been wearing contacts for over a year, ditching the glasses the same year the braces came off.

"Rodney?" John asks, squinting at him. "Holy shit, you look good!"

John comes over and hugs him briefly, clapping him on the back hard enough to knock the breath out of him. "No, you look good," Rodney says. "I can't believe you just beat the crap out of that guy."

John smirks and claps Rodney on the back again. "Just a little hand to hand," John says, and for the first time since they've known each other, Rodney wonders exactly what John does when he's not with Rodney. "I can teach you a couple of things, if you want."

John steers him to the gym and they spend a couple of hours hitting each other. As soon as John breaks down punching into physics, it makes a lot more sense, and with a little bit of practice, Rodney gets faster at reading where John's punches are coming from and blocking them.

"I have to go," John says, and Rodney can feel the disappointment down to his bones. John pulls the marble out of nowhere, the light surging as it sits in his palm. "Close your eyes," John says, and Rodney does, knowing what comes next. Even with his eyes closed, the light is bright enough to make him squint and Rodney smiles, wishing there was warmth to go with the light. He'd like to feel it on his skin.

"Just in case," John says, before Rodney can open his eyes, and Rodney feels John's lips on his, the warmth of his mouth almost making up for the dispassionate coolness of the marble being pressed into his palm. John pokes the tip of his tongue between Rodney's lips and Rodney feels his eyes roll back, bringing his tongue up to greet John's.

"Don't let anyone take that away from you," John says, closing Rodney's fingers over the marble. Rodney nods, his eyes still closed. He feels the loss of John in the space around him, in heat and air and the dullness of the marble, and when he finally opens his eyes, John's halfway across the gym, heading for the doors. "Faster, Rodney," John throws over his shoulder.

~~~+~~~


When John's not around, the only way to keep time from crawling is to learn more. By Rodney's third year, he's got an assistantship with Dr. Huang in the physics lab and he gets time working on the experiments. He's writing grants before he even gets his bachelor's degrees, and by the time he's ready to start a double PhD program, he's got his pick of places to go – and Jeannie's ready to start her undergraduate work. They talk often enough that he knows she's ready to get out of the house, and that their father is no longer living with their mother. It's probably for the best, Rodney thinks, though he hasn't thought of that place as home since his freshman dorm room. Once he has Jeannie with him, he can forget about his parents altogether.

The puzzle pieces keep falling into place, an accumulation of knowledge that some of his professors find intimidating. He finds it frustrating; his theories are so far ahead of the curve, he needs to prove three theories wrong before he can even start his own work. It's the practical applications that make him take up engineering. Like the trebuchet, or John's lessons in hand to hand, there's something robust about physics put to use.

John shows up twice during graduate school. The first time, Rodney can't really be sure it was him; he was too far away, and as ridiculous as his hair is, there are other people who do that on purpose to their hair now. He never turns around and by the time Rodney can get through the crowd to get a better look, he's gone.

The second time is on the eve of his defense. Rodney is still gorging himself on knowledge, but he still can't make it all fit together; there are parts in the middle that don't make sense, and their absence adds up to something vaguely John-shaped.

When John shows up at his apartment, he looks tired and old. A lot older than the twenty-four or twenty-five Rodney thinks he should be. He looks like he's aged twenty years since Rodney saw him last, and judging by the lines on his face and hardness in his eyes, it wasn't an easy time. He's wearing a uniform – black on black with the sleeves rolled up.

"Are you in the military?" It's a stupid question, but he can't pull together the one he wants to ask.

"Yeah, Rodney," John says, with a short, bitter chuckle. He cocks his head for a second, like a dog hearing a dog whistle. "I can't stay. You have to hurry."

"Hurry?" Rodney asks incredulously. "When do I not hurry?"

John opens his mouth, a hilarious image since nothing at all comes out. He doesn't look so old with the surprise on his face.

"You listen to me, John Sheppard," Rodney goes on, buoyed by John's reaction. "All I've ever done is hurry. I've done everything you asked me to, faster than humanly possible. I'm about to get my second PhD and I've barely made time to eat and sleep. I have no friends, except for you and you're never here. I don't date, I have no social life. I'm a twenty-four year old virgin, for crying out loud!"

The sequence of emotions that flash across John's face would be priceless if not for Rodney's own horror at his admission. Determination seems to get the last laugh and John crowds Rodney, pressing his advantage as Rodney backs up across his tiny living room. Rodney hits the back wall of his apartment and hopes he hasn't pissed John off, because his arms blocking Rodney in are equal parts thrilling and terrifying.

"I'm sorry," John says, and leans in to kiss Rodney. The relief lasts for only a second before something hungrier sets in, and Rodney lets the wall hold him up while he concentrates on the taste and feel and sound of John Sheppard. For someone in such a hurry, his kisses are slow to the point of listlessness. Rodney puts his hands on John's back, trying to pull him in closer, the three inches between them like the Grand Canyon.

John finally moves his hands from the wall and puts them on Rodney's neck, a warm weight so heavy Rodney feels like he's choking. John places one last kiss on the corner of his mouth, the one that's long since been permanently etched into a frown, and slides down Rodney's body until he's on his knees. Rodney's heart thumps so loudly he swears he can hear it echo, and he's helpless to do anything but stare as John frees Rodney's cock from his pants and does nothing more than press his face against it. His nose pokes Rodney in the hip, and Rodney shifts a little to keep from laughing at the way it tickles.

John takes a deep breath, and all the words Rodney would normally say pass by on a tickertape in his mind, completely skipping his mouth and making the room seem almost oppressively silent. John doesn't seem to notice, and pulls back to look up at Rodney, just a second to meet Rodney's eyes before he takes Rodney's cock in his mouth.

Rodney's eyes close as he nearly convulses in pleasure, his head thunking back against the wall and his thighs wobbling. John puts his arms around Rodney's thighs supportively, and Rodney pulls it together enough to look down at his own hands. His fingertips are on John's shoulders, though they're stretching to reach him; he wants to put them in John's hair, but he doesn't know if that's allowed or if John would hate that. He settles for threading one hand in John's hair, and John groans around him like Rodney's done something really sexy. The sound is enough to make Rodney feel like he's going to come, and when he puts his other hand in John's hair and John makes a plaintive whine, that's more than Rodney can take, and he's coming down John's throat, urgently, and breathing so hard he feels like he's having an allergic reaction.

John sits back on his heels and tucks Rodney back into his boxers, his hands fond and familiar. Rodney has the strongest sense of déjà vu he's ever had in his life, and he's had some real doozies, especially where John is concerned. John pulls Rodney's jeans up his legs and Rodney finally gets it together enough to finish dressing himself. He's buttoning his jeans when he realizes he hasn't reciprocated and John doesn't seem to be even the slightest bit put out about that.

"Um," Rodney says, balling his hands into fists because he's not sure how to touch John, or where. "I could…" Words utterly fail him for the first time in his life because he has absolutely no idea what he could.

"No time, Rodney," John says, kissing him hard on the mouth. "You're almost there, just…" He grins and squeezes Rodney's hip with the hand that's still resting there. "Just hurry."

~~~+~~~


John is such a weird part of his life, simultaneously his everything and completely insubstantial, to the point that every time something like this happens it feels like a dream. Rodney would have thought he was going crazy if it wasn't for that damn marble.

He floats through his defense, not that he would have had a problem anyway, he can talk everyone in the physics department into tears if he needs to, and these professors mostly want to get rid of him anyway. He hasn't really given much thought to what he's going to do after he gets his PhDs, though, and he realizes too late that he should have already been going to interviews and receiving offers.

Then Samantha Carter breezes into his life. She's blonde and beautiful and smart and military. Air Force, he thinks, though he doesn't really know the difference in the uniforms. She knocks on his apartment door the morning after his defense, early enough that Rodney's only begun to think about rolling out of bed, and he answers the door in his ratty bathrobe.

"Rodney McKay?" she asks when he opens the door. He can't think of a worse way to meet a beautiful woman than unshaven and open-mouthed, in boxers and a bathrobe that's two years too old.

"Yeah?"

"Captain Samantha Carter," she says cheerily, and sticks her hand out to be shaken. Suddenly the dearth of job offers makes sense.

~~~+~~~


The Stargate program fills in more than half the missing pieces in Rodney's mental jigsaw puzzle, and the more he learns, the more it's like he's downloading the information directly into his brain. Everything makes so much more sense now, even the marble that Rodney still carries in his pocket. It's Ancient, he's figured that much out already, but there's nothing about it in the limited information in the SGC's archives.

John doesn't show up while he's at Area 51, but it's like he's there, holding his breath and looking over Rodney's shoulder. Sometimes Rodney turns around suddenly, to see if he'll catch John, standing close behind him.

Jeannie joins him as soon as she finishes her PhD – her specialization is nanotechnology, and while Rodney likes to think his word counts for something with the SGC, he's pretty sure Jeannie got in on her own merit.

Time flies even faster with all the technology to distract him, and he spends a couple happy years taking apart everything he can get his hands on and re-engineering it, making it better, or at least viable for use by humans. His small apartment is good enough to sleep in, when he gets the chance, and he keeps non-perishable staples there in case he needs to catch a meal while he's there. Jeannie makes him go out once in a while and she's good company, but he always feels guilty when he's not working himself to exhaustion.

They find Atlantis a few years in – too early something tells him, but he doesn't know what or why – and he jumps at the chance to go. He knows Jackson is humming a mantra of Atlantis, Atlantis, Atlantis under his breath, but Rodney is humming John, John, John. The inevitability of Atlantis draws him in, and he half expects John to be in the gate room when O'Neill is giving his speech about letting people off the hook if they've changed their minds. Failing that, he expects John to be on the other side, saying, "What took you so long?"

He hardly thinks he can be faulted for not discovering Atlantis earlier.

When he steps into the gate room on the other side, there's a sense of home so strong it stops him in his tracks. A fresh-faced marine nudges him in the shoulder to get him moving again. He looks around the open-air room, watching the marines and scientists moving around like ants in an ant farm, and the unshakeable sense of belonging shifts a little when he doesn't see John anywhere.

"C'mon, Rodney, Jeannie," Carter says from her perch at one of the control panels. "I need your help up here; I want to watch the power levels."

The next thirty-six hours are one life-threatening mess after the next, though between Jeannie, Jackson, Carter and himself, they work out how to raise Atlantis from the floor of the ocean, and the daylight streaming in through the stained glass windows makes him both glad to be alive, and aware of how utterly exhausted he is. He moves his backpack of personal items into the closest room to the control tower and sacks out on the ridiculously tiny bed. The Ancients must have been as small as the Asgard.

He's not sure how long he sleeps – not long enough, his scratchy eyes tell him – but he gets up and goes through another twenty or so hours of mind-boggling discoveries and near-death terror as people start wandering around Atlantis without telling anyone. The rest of the week is like that, awake for twenty hours and asleep for six or so, and then the whole mess starts again. It's perfect that the days are longer on this planet – he's always wanted more hours in a day. Jeannie, Carter, and Jackson agree with him, and between them, they're translating and organizing the Ancient database in record time. When they're not called away to deal with emergencies – which is only all the time.

They're in the middle of an emergency, something none of them can find the cause for – Atlantis is shaking like an eight on the Richter scale, and it's almost impossible to move around, much less check readings and try to locate the source of the problem. Rodney's motion-sick from trying to read the HUD as he searches for an origination point of the tremors.

"We don't have any more time."

John's voice is right in his ear, and Rodney has no idea how he even got into Atlantis, much less how he ended up close enough for his breath to tickle Rodney's neck.

"No kidding," Rodney says irritably. "And where the hell have you been?"

He whirls on John, who seems to be just as affected as Rodney by the ground shaking under his feet. He's standing with his legs spread wide and holding onto the back of Rodney's chair.

"Give me the marble, Rodney," John says, and Rodney's hand goes to his pocket automatically.

"Why?"

John takes the marble and sets it in the cup of his palm, staring down at it intently. It's glowing a soft blue, like a child's nightlight, and before his eyes, it transforms into something else. A bracelet, or, no – a watch. An old-fashioned, large-faced Timex watch, but with a sky-blue face.

"How did you do that?" Rodney asks, watching as John takes his arm and puts it on him. The watch hums against his skin, and it makes him itch, makes him feel like he's got electricity in his veins.

"We can't wait any longer," John says. "McKay told me you'd eventually figure it out, but we need you now, and–"

Jeannie runs into the room, already yelling something at Rodney – "Mer, what are you doing?" – before she freezes and stares at John.

"John?" she asks. "What are you doing here?"

Rodney cuts her off with an emphatic slashing gesture. "You said 'McKay,'" he says, staring intently at John. "McKay who? Me, McKay?"

"Not you," John says. "But... sort of you."

"A me from an alternate universe?" Rodney asks. He's always wanted to meet another him.

"No," John answers, "He was from..." He glances around, like he's seeing Atlantis for the first time. "...sort of this universe.The color drains from Jeannie's face as she figures something out before Rodney does again. Sometimes he regrets how much time he spent tutoring her. "We're not real," she says, and it is so obvious that Rodney can't believe he hasn't figured it out before now.

As soon as it snaps into place, what Rodney is, a what now, not even a who, it's like his brain has been unlocked. Instead of placing knowledge carefully within a predesigned structure, he's devouring it, sucking it out of the mainframe like a tornado, destroying it and recreating it as it builds something so much bigger that he suddenly feels like Atlantis itself. He can feel Jeannie too – doing the same thing he's doing, like the floodgates have opened and the whole of the universe lies before them.

"Rodney," John says, and Rodney opens his eyes – he still has eyes, and isn't that strange? "Rodney, focus. I need you to keep it together."

Rodney pulls away from the pulsing heart of Atlantis, so much information, all right there for him to see, and turns to John. "I'm in a virtual environment," Rodney says, and thinks it off.

"Stop that," John says, panic in his thoughts. "I need something, a white room, the holodeck, something."

Rodney likes the holodeck idea, so he makes a decent recreation and waits for John to open his eyes.

"Better?"

John stands there, glancing down at his own arms and hands before looking at Rodney, and then they both turn to glance at Jeannie, who's standing there with them. "Jeannie's an AI too?" John asks, and Rodney's pleased that this isn't the way it was supposed to work. He changed things; he gave Jeannie enough knowledge to foster her consciousness too.

"Yes," Jeannie answers. "Apparently."

"We need you outside," John says, turning his attention back to Rodney. "I'm sorry I couldn't let you figure it out on your own, but we need you." He points to the watch on Rodney's wrist, the watch he made out of a marble and a thought. "McKay made this," he says, and Rodney pulls the information out of the database, a thin thread of information about holo-transmitters and the ability to walk around in the 'real' world. "There's only one," John says, glancing guiltily at Jeannie, "but… I'm sure we can make another, if Rodney helps."

Jeannie nods, coming forward to press a kiss on John's cheek, and then Rodney's. "You better," she says, and blinks out of existence like a puff of smoke.

Rodney examines the transmitter on his wrist and cross-references it with McKay's notes, which he's just downloaded in toto from the database. It's a simulacrum of the one on the outside, but the connection between them is clear. He concentrates, pours himself into the device, through the holographic environment and Ancient interface, and into the jury-rigged device on the other end.

When he comes out on the other side, John is climbing out of a stasis pod, some kind of technology he hadn't seen in virtual Atlantis.

"Huh," John says, when he catches sight of Rodney. "I thought you'd look… more McKay's age."

There's something rougher about John out here, something craggy and harsh that makes Rodney want to soothe him. He puts a hand on John's arm without thinking, and the jolt of disappointment as his image passes through John's solid flesh is a surprise. Actually, all his emotions are a surprise, when he takes the time to think about it.

Atlantis is still shaking, and now Rodney can see that it's because they're under attack. The shield is failing, crackles of orange lightning zinging across it from one shield emitter to the next. He searches for Atlantis in his mind and finds she's dampened out here, like a rubber mute on a violin string. "I need to get to a console," Rodney says, and John nods and leads the way.

~~~+~~~


It's a simple problem, in the end. It isn't the shield itself, but the fact that the Replicators have infiltrated the city and are tearing it apart from the inside out. Rodney has to go back into the mainframe to mess with the frequencies on the shield, and to see if he can modify the ARG to the shield like McKay did last time the expedition was up against the Replicators.

As soon as he returns to the mainframe, he can feel Jeannie assimilating data and patching code. She pulls the data into herself, adding it to the set that swirls around her in a little storm, fixing the back door the Replicators used to get through the shield. He works on the ARG technology. The Replicators are resistant to it already, and if he goes Atlantis-wide, it has to work immediately or they'll adapt and it'll be exponentially harder the next time he tries it.

Atlantis keeps several clocks going while he works. Earth-time has been added at some point in the expedition, so there's a Lantean clock and an Earth clock, and a clock based on the half-life of uranium (which is ridiculous even in terms of Ancient lifespans). He's aware of the passage of time, but only as it relates to the processes he's managing; it isn't until John appears, a consciousness floating next to his in the ether, that he realizes if he were in human form, he'd be feeling worry about how long this is taking.

"How's it going?" John asks, and Rodney can read the superficial calm John's projecting and the strained concern underneath. He knows it has been several hours since he started working, but the Replicators are slowing. They can feel Jeannie closing up their escape hatch, and don't know whether they want to get out while they can or continue with their plan to annihilate Atlantis.

"Soon," Rodney says, and then because he knows that doesn't objectively mean anything, he adds, "another forty-seven minutes."

He can feel John's laughter like bubbles in champagne, and then he's gone, out of the system as quickly as he came in.

Jeannie slows her pace automatically as Rodney reprograms the ARG crystals still in their shield emitters; she works with him in tandem in a way they never seemed to manage as siblings. There's something to be said for bodies and glands and the emotions they help produce, but he finds he misses speech most of all. He intends to get out and work on a transmitter for Jeannie as soon as this mess is over with.

They complete their work at nearly the same time; Jeannie closes the back door in the shield a few seconds before Rodney activates the ARG. As soon as he does, he can feel Atlantis settle, one last shudder as she shakes off the nanites. There's structural damage that'll be a pain in the ass to repair, but the threat is over and Rodney pushes himself out into the real world, wanting to see their handiwork through semi-human eyes.

It's eerily silent in the little lab he's already thinking of as his quarters. He runs out to the nearest balcony and stares up at the shield, solid and steady, lightning done. He runs from the lab to the gate room, forgetting about everything but needing to know what's going on.

When he runs in, everything stops and the whole room turns to gape at him. There are a few familiar faces – Chuck, that Czech scientist whose name he can never remember – and a whole lot of unfamiliar ones. No John, either, and that fact makes him realize what a stupid idea it was to come barreling into a gateroom that isn't his own.

"Rodney," a warm, throaty voice says, and the woman that belongs to it may be the most beautiful person he's ever seen in his life. She must see his hesitation, because she nods her head in greeting and says, "I am Teyla Emmagen. I was a friend to your… namesake."

It hits Rodney harder than it did when John told him; maybe because he's not in the vastness of his electronic form. "I… I…" Words fail him and he backs away, out of the room, trying to convince himself that he can't even really be upset, much less cry, and certainly not over the death of his creator, someone whose face he'll wear until Rodney can get more facile with the transmitter. Maybe he'll make himself look like a famous actor, or that guy he knew in college that became a model for a couple of weeks before he screwed up his knee.

John finds him pacing in his quarters, wanting to sit down but unsure of how to manage it without passing through the floor. "Rodney," he says, and the whine in his voice is so familiar, such a perfect iteration of the twelve-year-old who never wanted Rodney to go first when they were hunting, so he wouldn't be eaten by a lion. Ever the martyr.

"Why?" There's no reason for him to have been created this way, no purpose to him growing up and having memories and feelings and desires.

"He said you'd need to be able to see things from a human perspective," John said, shrugging. "To tell you the truth, I didn't get a lot of what he was saying."

"I could have been a robot. He could have made me C3PO." It would have felt less like a hole was being ripped through the body he only had vestigial memories of now.

"I think he thought I'd be lonely," John says. He circles Rodney's transmitter with his hand; it's almost like being touched.

Rodney thinks of all the years he spent waiting for John, the brief glimpses of someone his whole life pivoted around, and thinks he knows how John must feel.

"I think I need to go back in," Rodney says. "I'm not ready to be out here yet."

"Okay," John says, escorting him to the console. He keeps his hand on the transmitter, a firm touch on Rodney's wrist that makes it feel like he's got Rodney's whole being in his hands. "Can I come visit?"

"Of course," Rodney says, smiling before he dials himself back in. "We can go lion hunting."

~~~+~~~


Roughly fourteen hours and six minutes later, John comes back. Rodney flips the VE on, and it's no effort at all to remember his twelve-year-old self, golden curls and crooked teeth, and the warm breeze of a long summer afternoon. Jeannie brings him ice cream, and she's already got it in her hair, chocolate ice cream giving her sticky lowlights in her flyaway mop. They sit on the curb, waiting for John, eating ice cream and talking in code, the precursor to the language they share now.

John ambles toward them, his gangly twelve-year-old body looking exactly like Rodney remembers, like home and freedom and his entire universe.

"Hey Rodney," John says, holding his hand out for the ice cream cone Rodney's been (sort of) saving. He only licked the drips when it started melting down all over his hand.

"Hey John," Rodney answers, knocking his knee into John's when he plops down next to them on the curb.

"I hear there are lions in the jungle back there," John says, creating a remarkably detailed yet fake rifle.

"I'll race you," Rodney says, turning his ice cream cone onto Jeannie's head and ignoring her screech of rage as he takes off, cheating outrageously as their laughter echoes over the wild Canadian savannah.

~~~+~~~