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Traces Through Time

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Object is roughly spherical; well, oblong to be precise, two m. in length. Emitting a low hum, barely audible. Return to lab for testing for–

Rodney peered at the Ancient device. He frowned as the pitch and volume of the sound increased, bordering on shrill. He continued tapping away on his PDA, pausing to make a quick note in Zelenka's notebook to save himself the trouble of emailing him later.

--scan for subsonic frequency emissions.

The pitch hit high 'C' and Rodney winced, tapping the device to turn it off. Then all the lights cut out, leaving only a faint greenish glow and he swore under his breath. "Could someone get those?" Rodney yelled.

There was no response from his team.

"The lights?! C'mon, man working here. You people are the help, so help." Exasperated, Rodney rolled his head and turned. . .

To find all of his equipment gone. His six-man science team missing. And a fine layer of dust once again all over the entire Ancient lab. The window that just a minute ago had overlooked the southeast pier and lapping blue waves, was now dimly green. And deep underwater.

Dismay slid across Rodney's face.

"Oh. This is not good."

~*~*~

With a sigh, John thought the door to his quarters open. He was already pulling off his jacket as he rapped the wall panel for some light.

Nothing happened. Annoyed, John pressed it again, and felt it wobble a little. He glanced at it in curiosity. Hmph. The alloy plate rattled under his hand, loose; which it hadn't been this morning.

"That's weird…." John murmured to himself.

He pried the plate off—it came free easily—puzzled as he found a sheaf of paper stuffed inside. That was definitely the culprit. But the Ancients didn't use paper that he knew of. John frowned as he pulled it out. It looked like somebody's manuscript.

Not to mention it was in English. Eyebrows raised, John read the first line:

Hello, John.

Wish you were here, ha, ha. Only here really sucks, so you should probably be grateful that you're not.

It was Rodney's handwriting. Quickly, John radioed Dr. Weir.

"Elizabeth," he asked in a taut, deceptively mild voice. "Where's Rodney?"

"He's leading a team of scientists on the southeast pier. They've discovered a lab where the Ancients were researching--"

John was already filling in the rest of that sentence as she finished. "Time travel."

He shrugged the jacket back onto his shoulders and shoved the manuscript inside as he zipped it and half-jogged back down the hallway. "I think we have a little problem."

~*~*~

Five forlorn science geeks were already assembled in Weir's office. Normally, he'd be annoyed with them; first, for losing Rodney, and second, for not staying where they were to start a proper search. But he had in his hands pretty good proof that they weren't going to find him that way anyhow.

Though they still should've stayed where they were.

The bald-headed guy was waving his hands frantically. "He was there one minute, and then—poof! He was gone."

"All right," John interrupted. "What did he have with him?"

Eyes turned towards him blankly. With utmost patience John prompted, "What else disappeared? Does he have his sidearm?"

"His pack's gone, along with his PDA, we don't know which device he was working on—"

Elizabeth gave them a mournful, tired look at that.

A frustrated scientist chimed in, his chin raised, "I know we're supposed to catalogue them first! But McKay started tinkering—"

"—he told us 'do inventory,' that he was going to get to the important work," another bristled.

"I'm not blaming you," Elizabeth began in a soothing tone, as John started paging through Rodney's manuscript. It might be a while before Elizabeth got all the egos unruffled.

The manuscript looked like a kind of diary, the handwriting getting smaller and smaller towards the end where it seemed like he'd started running out of paper. John wondered why he didn't use the PDA. One entry read:

Major, well, we can scratch my last farewell. I found water, lovely fresh drinkable water, there's no sweeter wine….

"—it was completely against the procedures he set up," another complained.

"It's all right," Elizabeth said, taking a deep breath. "Can you tell me something about the objects he was working on? Anything at all?"

John flipped absently through the sheaf of papers, about fifteen pages in, and pursed his lips. "Well, it was oblong. About 2 meters long…."

The scientists stared at him.

"And I think it looked something like this." John held up the detailed schematic for them. "Rodney left us a little note," he explained in a casual drawl.

The bald guy, 'Fleming' it said on his uniform, reached for the manuscript. "Thank you. That—that will help."

John was just about to hand the whole thing over when he caught a glimpse of a line just under the schematic. …and I always wondered if you felt the same. I caught you looking when we were strip-searched by the Genii…

John abruptly pulled it out of reach. "Maybe I'd better look through it first. Just in case."

Elizabeth and the scientists were looking at him rather funny, so John explained, "He's, uh, said some things that are a little private." They were still staring. So John shrugged, elaborately casual. "We're friends. I wouldn't want to embarrass the guy."

His eyes trailed down the rest of that sentence.

…but I wasn't sure if it was me, or if you're just an ass man in general. I'm told mine is quite attractive and, wow, am I glad they didn't do a cavity search because I've always been very sensitive to fingers inside of me--

He tore the page with the schematic out after a quick speed-read across the back for anything else incriminating. He then very carefully folded and ripped off the bottom of the page and handed the diagram over. He answered the quizzical looks. "That was to me. And I don't feel like sharing."

"Well," Elizabeth said, "If Rodney has in fact traveled back in time, then time is the one thing we have plenty of." She turned to John. "But read through it quickly, Major. That doesn't mean we don't need him here, very badly."

~*~*~

John sprawled on his bed in his quarters, staring up at the ceiling blank-faced and not-thinking. He looked very young at that moment, though fortunately he didn't know it and there was no one else to see. He licked his lower lip and let out a little breath, hooking one ankle over another as he started to read.

The beginning wasn't too bad. Rodney had arrived back in time with a full pack (but no weapon, John cursed silently), his PDA, what was apparently Zelenka's notebook and the time machine.

My primary concern is to not utilize too much power. Our time when we first arrived in Atlantis was so limited, and I have no way of knowing if that timeline includes me using power now or not. I just can't afford to take that chance. Oh god, this place is empty….

The first task at hand, of course, is to get the time machine to work. As near as I can tell it appears to be a prototype, which is both good news and bad news. The good news is, it's probably relatively uncomplicated. Well, as super-advanced alien time machines go.

The bad news is there's the distinct possibility that it never worked correctly in the first place, being a prototype, which is something I really don't want to contemplate at the moment. But just in case it's the latter, I've attached my last will and testament as follows:

John was gratified to learn he was slated to get a lot of Rodney's stuff. It was nice to know that someone would think of you. Then it occurred to him that he didn't want Rodney's stuff, and he skipped ahead.

…here I could do all the research I could ever want with no distractions, in the Ancients' own laboratories, and I don't dare touch a thing. The irony alone is killing me.

He skimmed.

I have to admit I miss you in particular, Major. And that surprises me, what with the bad jokes and inexcusable football references and the ridiculous hair—how vain does a man have to be to get his hair to fall just so over eyes every day to achieve that puppy dog look…?

Puppy dog? John frowned. He didn't do anything with his hair. He flipped ahead another page.

I have it. Based on the level of decay of the radioactive isotopes in the gate, I've jumped back roughly 150 years. So my hopes of just waiting to meet myself—and all of you—as we come through the stargate to Atlantis seem to be dashed. Too bad, the intelligence I have on the Pegasus Galaxy alone could have proved invaluable, though of course the paradox of meeting myself might have warped spacetime.

John quickly radioed the science team.

~*~*~

There wasn't very much they could do with that information, but everyone was thrilled to know that Rodney hadn't jumped back too far. It made Rodney seem closer somehow, though the scientists had other reasons, having to do with the way time machines worked. In the labs they rattled on at John in gibberish until he finally said, "So. Rodney being pretty close time-wise is a good thing."

Zelenka nodded vigorously. "It mean the less advanced equipment maybe will work to find Rodney."

John tried not to look too clueless, but Zelenka clearly cottoned on and continued, "Think of it this way. It could be we need just AA battery to find Rodney, and not, oh, a ZPM."

Now that John could understand.

~*~*~

Unfortunately for Rodney, even though he had water, the rations in his pack had run out.

It's quite amazing how little, ah, photosynthetic light reaches one at the bottom of the ocean. I've found Elizabeth—the back-in-time Elizabeth I mean—and if nothing else perhaps I could use the stasis chamber to preserve myself in the same manner as a last resort….

It was ten hours after Rodney had disappeared. John led the team of marines and scientists to the room where they'd found Elizabeth just a month before.

Golden lights came on as John entered. But the room was empty, with no one in any of the chambers. No Rodney, frozen and still, with maybe some gray hair on his temples. John had mentally prepared himself for that, for Rodney looking different.

His men fanned out to look for other possible rooms with other undiscovered chambers, while the scientists theorized and murmured what Rodney might have done—customized his own chamber? But wouldn't he have told them where he was?

Finally, they had to admit it was a dead end.

Back in his quarters, John was embarrassed to read, a few pages down the line, that Rodney had determined the extra power drain would have proven to be too much. He decided then he'd read the whole damned manuscript before he got anyone's hopes up again. Including his own. Somehow it had just felt urgent when he read that thing about the food, like he was living through it with Rodney, even when he knew that time made no difference. It was all in the past.

John tried reading backwards from the end, see how this story turned out, but the entries made no sense out of context. The trouble was, Rodney rambled. A lot. So John was forced to go back to reading them in order.

Overall, the picture wasn't looking very good.

I'm starting to credit the stories you hear of cannibalism in crashed planes. I could feast on Kavanagh right now. Though Zelenka would be a little stringy for my tastes….

John decided not to share that little detail. Nor did he tell anyone about the pirate thing.

From time to time I think fondly of the old pirate practice of abandoning one with a pistol and one bullet. I used to think that was barbaric but now I realize that it was intended as a kindness. Naturally, I forgot my sidearm in my quarters—something that is never going to happen again….

Oh. Right. Of course it's never going to happen again.

Then there were other details he was better off not sharing. Because this was the point where Rodney started to get a little personal.

I'm not sure if I've simply been too busy to notice it, or if this is the product of loneliness and desperation coupled with my admittedly overactive imagination, but regardless of how or why, as a scientist I have to face facts: I think of you, Major. John. Often. A lot more than I think of everyone else. And in much more, ah, intimate detail.

After that came a long catalogue of John's physical 'attributes,' as Rodney termed it in the double-underlined heading. It was both flattering and really very embarrassing. Especially when John got to the extremely accurate description of his cock.

Who was Rodney kidding? He had to have been looking. A lot.

Shaken, John tore that page out and crumpled it up, tossing it in the trash. He regretted it almost immediately, because obviously this had meant a lot to Rodney. He felt like he'd thrown away something important to the man, and cringed.

Minutes later, John looked at the balled-up piece of paper hovering at the top of his trashcan. Then, guilt-ridden, he fished it out, smoothing the wrinkles carefully as he slid it under his pillow. He was going to kill Rodney for doing this, for putting it in writing. If he got him back.

He continued to read, squirming inwardly, though he couldn't quite skim as the words burned their way into his brain.

And I really, really, really wish I could have had sex with you, because there's no doubt in my mind that it would be infinitely better than my fantasies….

~*~*~

Wavering between going through the gate to bum food off some early Althosians (Rodney worried about the fact that the Wraith would be in an active cycle, which ratcheted up John's anxiety quite a bit too), Rodney had risked hunting through the Ancient database for alternate dietary resources.

He'd found some seaweed that was edible, if not exactly tasty. His description of it as being like something you'd scrape off the inside of your fish tank combined with the ever-so-enticing aroma of wet socks left John snickering in weak-kneed relief. There was something just extra-wrong about the idea of Rodney, of all people, starving to death. Especially when John had to read about it, helpless.

Rodney had also looked for information on time travel. What he'd found was extremely depressing.

Power. Everything I need to do to experiment with the time machine requires power. And that's the one thing I can't afford to spend.

Rodney then spent several pages developing an equation to estimate his own value to the survival of the Atlantis mission, versus the likelihood too much of a power drain which would doom the mission from the outset. Could he leave notes for himself in the future and therefore prevent the power loss from when they first set foot in the city? Rodney listed from memory (and now John was pretty impressed) every single one of the rooms and systems that were turned on that first day, complete with the amounts and types of energy used.

It's no use. Unless I can determine exactly how much energy the time machine will expend, I can't take the risk.

John radioed the science lab to check in to see if maybe they could find that out and send another time machine back. But he discovered that no one was there. A quick glance at the clock revealed it was two o'clock in the morning. He sent Zelenka an email at least.

John told himself that he should really get some sleep. It was stupid. His staying up all night couldn't change anything that happened a hundred years in the past. But he rubbed his eyes, adjusted the manuscript in his lap, and kept reading anyway.

~*~*~

'Denied my science, I found music.'

I would like that to be my epitaph if you should happen to find a body, which is looking rather unlikely as entropy is the order of the day in Atlantis. If you thought those dead plants were ugly, you should smell them as they die.

I've been composing a piano concerto for you, John. Quite a clever piece of work, I think. I'm no Mozart but I've always had great technical skill, and my mother thought I had talent.

Anyway, at first I was composing it in my mind, but it grew far too complex and of course I wanted to hear it—what's the point of music you can't hear, eh? Of course, Beethoven couldn't hear his last symphony, but that's neither here nor there. The point is, I rigged up my PDA as an electronic keyboard and I have a power conduit looped so that it's constantly recharging. I can play for hours, with negligible power loss. I'll think of a way to download it to the Ancient database so you can hear it once I'm gone. If there's one thing empty corridors are good for, it's acoustics. I think you'd like it.

John let his head fall back to his pillow, overwhelmed with the image of Rodney playing music in the empty halls of Atlantis. He was gonna lose his marbles.

There were only a few more pages left. John swallowed and rolled to his side, paging through the last entries.

I'm almost out of paper, though I'll see if I can start an electronic file. The power looping is quite ingenious. I'm putting this in your quarters, where only you will find it – for obvious reasons. I'm sitting on your bed as I write this--

John sat up, getting something of a chill at the thought.

--though it just isn't the same without all your things. It doesn't smell like you either….

"Major Sheppard!" Rodney's voice made John jump up and drop the manuscript.

Rodney was nowhere to be found, and John started to think that maybe he was losing it. Then he realized he still had his radio on.

He adjusted the ear-piece. "Rodney…?"

~*~*~

Sparks sputtered around Rodney, as the room faded, reappeared, and faded again. For a scary moment he thought he might be lost in some 'between time' and prayed quietly that he would die rather than become some sort of skinny Rodney-ghost. Then his surroundings stabilized.

Frozen in place and afraid to move, Rodney glanced around the room. The lab where the Ancients experimented with time travel was clean and well-swept. It was dark, but not the watery greenish dark of underwater Atlantis. And, wonderfully, the countertops were cluttered with laptops and familiar wires.

Best of all, the fuzzy brown head of Zelenka was pillowed asleep on his arms. Rodney shook him.

"Quick, how long have I been gone?" Rodney asked. "And do you have food?"

Zelenka startled, blinking and bleary-eyed. "You are here…."

"Yes," Rodney snapped impatiently. "Food. Time. Tell me."

Zelenka pointed hesitantly to his pack on the floor. While Rodney scavenged for a delicious powerbar, Zelenka peered at his watch, trying to focus.

"You are missing seventeen hours…." Zelenka eyes seemed to finally adjust as he stared up at Rodney. "You are skinny."

"Seventeen hours? That's it?" Rodney said. "I guess that's the up-side of time travel. You don't miss anything."

He took a huge bite out of the powerbar and said with his mouth full, "I assume you're the one to thank for sending me the power consumption rates in which case, thank you. It was much less than I feared it would be. With the power recycling trick it only took a couple tries to get it right. By the way, there's another big storm in about six years so we'll have to plan for that."

"We need to… we need to tell Dr. Weir," Zelenka mumbled.

"Oh I have something much more important to take care of," Rodney answered, patting Zelenka on the shoulder and then suddenly squeezing his arm, his eyes brightening. "God, it's good to see you." He skipped backward, waving. "We'll catch up later. Only seventeen hours… maybe I'm not too late."

Zelenka squeezed his eyes shut and then opened them again. "Late? It is three o'clock in the middle of the night."

Rodney slid his ear-piece in place and said, "Major Sheppard!"

At first there was silence. Then it was gratifying to hear a shocked and very quiet, "Rodney…?"

Ah, human contact. No more radio silence. He'd wake everyone up if he thought he could get away with it.

~*~*~

Rodney launched himself from the transporter nearest John's quarters, scanning his memory for exactly where he'd put his final 'missive' several months ago. Chances were no one had discovered his electronic files yet, not without finding the paper documentation first, so those could be easily erased.

John met him at the door, his eyes wide and pained, filled with open relief.

Rodney held up a finger. "Don't say anything yet, I have to do something."

He pulled off the light panel. The Major would be curious, but seventeen hours wasn't nearly enough time to—

There wasn't anything behind the panel.

Rodney's eyes fell to the Major's hands. And then slid to the bed behind him. Where the incriminating, oh-so-very-incriminating and foolish missive was folded open. To the last page.

"Oh."

Rodney couldn't look at John, so he stared at his bare feet instead. John had hair on his knuckles, he noticed. That hadn't been on his list.

"I, uh, trust my things are still in the same place," Rodney said in a small voice, struggling for a trace of dignity.

"You've been gone a really long time," John said, sounding stunned.

Rodney looked up to find John staring at him, his mouth slack, a variety of expressions crossing that mobile face.

"A really long time."

He'd read it. He knew. All of it.

Rodney couldn't tell what his reaction was to all those… fantasies. It had seemed like such a good, grand gesture at the time, when he was going to be dead anyway.

"Only seventeen hours," Rodney said, but without conviction. It had been a long time alone.

John took one hesitant step forward. Then two. Then he reached one arm around Rodney and very gently pulled him close, his hand fisting on Rodney's shoulder. "It's good that you're back," he murmured.

Rodney breathed in the human touch, completely unsure what this meant except that it wasn't as bad as he feared.

He sighed at last. "Then we're okay?"

John lifted Rodney's face with a tentative gesture, an amazed smile playing at the lopsided corner of his mouth. "Have you any idea how stupid…? You came that close," John pinched his fingers together to show him, "to having the entire thing blindly handed over to your geeks." They snickered together nervously.

"That," Rodney said, still laughing with his forehead on John's shoulder, "would have been bad."

John drew back an inch or two and fixed Rodney with a funny look that rumpled his eyebrows. "So, I understand you composed a symphony for me?"

"Ah. Concerto actually," Rodney corrected him, trying not to wince.

"That's sweet. In a scary and kinda obsessive sort of way." He toyed distractedly with the paper tag on the back of Rodney's shirt.

"Oh yeah? Let's see how you do after months alone in an abandoned city." Rodney scowled.

John tipped his head doubtfully. "Well, I don't know if I'd be composing concertos."

"You don't have the talent."

"I'm just saying."

Rodney looked up at John with liquid hopeful eyes and suddenly blurted out, "Can I stay here tonight? It's not that—I don't mean—it's…" Rodney ran out of breath. "I can't be alone right now," he explained desperately.

John was silent a long moment, his expression closed and turned inward, considering carefully. Then he nodded. "I can't see why not."