The fog pressed tight against the windows of the train as it pulled into the station. Shep peered out into the gloomy night, but he could barely see the signs on the platform. If there was a town behind the station wall, it wasn't visible to him.
"Shep Shep Shep," buzzed Four. "You ready for the passengers?"
Shep held up his ticket punch; it was all dark gleaming metal, the utilitarian gears exposed. The end of the punch tapered to a sharp point, and Shep had theorized that in the unlikely event that the train was attacked, he could use it as a weapon.
"Ready as I'll ever be," he said dryly. He moved towards the wheel that would open the doors to the train car. "You fixed the mechanism on this door, right Four?"
Four flitted around Shep's head, his long arms folded up against his body. "All fixed, all fixed," he said.
Four was one of the mechanics on the train, and in Shep's opinion, one of the most reliable. He had long, thin hands that he used to dig down into the gears that operated the doors and lights in each car, as well as the more complicated set of mechanisms that ran the engine at the front of the train. He had translucent wings attached to his back just below his neck, and his head was nearly twice the size of his body. One eye was all black, like the sky between stations. Four said that eye was good at seeing into the mechanics of the train, "but not seeing into, exactly, Shep, kind of like seeing through", and Shep was happy to take his word for it.
Shep liked Four; they'd come to work on the train at the same time, or, at least, Shep couldn't remember being on the train when Four wasn't there. Shep had seen Four move up from coal shoveler to floor scrubber to mechanic. Everyone who worked the train said that Four was likely to be chosen as the next engineer, but they only ever said it under their breath. The current engineer was kind of terrifying, and no one wanted to attract her attention.
Four had a persistently cheerful attitude, and he flew from car to car on the train without worrying that a strong wind might pick him up and carry him away. He also never asked Shep if something was bothering him, for which Shep was immensely grateful.
The train finally rolled to a halt, and Shep turned the wheel to open the doors of the train car. One by one, passengers stepped up from the platform. They handed their tickets to Shep, who fed them through the ticket punch. Passengers with transfers got another ticket in return.
Stacks flew past, his soft feathery wings blending with the night sky. He called out one last 'All aboard!', but there were no other passengers on the platform.
Most of the train employees were like Four and Stacks, with long arms and wings. Some of the smaller coal shovelers used mechanical devices, but almost all of the workers on the train had some way of moving through the air. It made traveling between train cars easier (Shep had to jump across the gap, which was exhilarating but also somewhat terrifying in the dark), but having wings also granted employees a measure of freedom.
Once, Shep had thought that if he worked hard enough, the engineer would create a device strong enough to lift him off the ground. But from the beginning, LW had taken a dislike to Shep.
The train whistle blew, and LW swooped down to land on the station platform in front of Shep's door. Her scales gleamed oily black in the lamplight, and she rustled her wings to keep them chiming together.
"Poor Shep, can't even feel the breeze on your face from inside the car, can you?" She grinned, though it felt more like a lion barring its teeth. Train employee contracts forbade them from stepping foot outside the train, but because there was no clause about floating or flying off the train, most workers didn't have a problem with the rule. And of course, the engineer was exempt from that decree.
"The breeze comes through the windows just fine, LW. But thanks for your concern," said Shep.
LW cackled and beat her wings several times before leaping up and flying back to the engine car.
There were a lot of rumors about LW. One said that she had once been human, but had traded in pieces of herself for machinery, arm to wing, leg to paw. Another said that she had never been alive at all, but was one of the creations of the Glassmakers, brought to life with science and metal and infused with a geared-consciousness. Shep just wished she would get her rumored promotion to central city engineer and leave the train for good.
He stepped back out of the doorway and cranked the wheel to the left to close the train doors. There was no breeze coming through the open windows, and Shep wondered if there really had been any wind outside at all.
At the end of his shift, Shep returned to the room he shared with Four and a few of the other mechanics and ticketmen. Four was already there, curled up on a perch, but otherwise the room was empty. The train was full of sleeping passengers; nearly every car was packed full, a rare occurrence that had kept Shep far busier than usual.
He was happy to be busy, but he wished that sometimes he could take a daylight shift instead of always being awake through the night. Four tended to do half day and half night, in part, Shep suspected, so they could spend some time working together.
This shift had been strange, and Shep briefly wished he could ask Four about it. There was something about a couple of the passengers that had thrown him off—he wasn't sure exactly what the difference was, but they seemed to have a bit more color than the bland, forgettable figures that tended to ride the train. But Four didn't really notice passengers anymore than Shep did usually. And today, the secondary engine had failed for the fourth time in the last two weeks. Four had fixed it, but it had taken the better part of the shift, and he was clearly exhausted.
Shep lay on his bunk and let his mind drift. Four had really found his place on the train. Even if LW never left, Four would always be needed and respected for the way he could see into the heart of the gears. But Shep could never be anything besides a ticketman.
Well, that was fine. Ticketman was a respectable position, far better than coal shoveler. Better than being lost somewhere in the mists that surrounded the train. Still, Shep sometimes thought he had the capacity for more. He couldn't remember a time when he had done anything other than taking tickets on the train, but some days, Shep dreamed of flying on silent wings through of a city of glass and metal spires.
When the bells rang for the shift change the next day, Shep woke disoriented. He'd been dreaming, but instead of glass towers, all he could remember were flashes of orange and blue.
He lay still for a moment, trying to capture an image from the dream, but then Four bounced down onto the foot of his mattress and the dream was lost.
"Shep, Shep, Shep!"
"I'm up, I'm up," Shep groaned. "You're worse than any alarm clock."
"Normally you don't need an alarm clock," said Four. Outside, the sun was just settling down below the horizon and the last few bits of daylight were fading away.
Shep was still rubbing the sleep from his eyes when Four continued. "Late night taking tickets, eh Shep?" Four asked.
Shep gave him a blank stare in return.
"Ok, ok, forget it. I have news!"
Shep raised an eyebrow.
"Stars above, I could be having this conversation with myself," mumbled Four. "Fine fine fine! LW left!"
Shep felt the world drop out from under him for a moment and a warm glow started to suffuse his whole body. But Four wasn't done.
"Just for the next couple of days, she said, but she put A'te in charge, and he said I could be his second-in-command in the engine room!"
Despite Shep's deep disappointment in the temporary nature of LW's departure, he couldn't help but grin at Four's enthusiasm. "That's great, buddy," he said. "Though you should be the one in charge. A'te doesn't know a topel gear from a manerven."
Four shushed him and flew out the door, yelling to Shep that there'd be no more midnight-breakfast if he didn't hurry it up.
By the time Shep had pulled on his uniform and spent a few fruitless minutes trying to polish the silver buttons to a dull gleam, he had forgotten about his dream entirely.
The train was scheduled to make three stops that night, with many hours between each station. Most of the passengers got off at the first stop, leaving the train fairly empty. Shep amused himself by pacing down the corridor and trying to guess why the remaining passengers were making their trip. Most passengers had an obvious tell. Adventurers tended to have few bags, if any, but always had some kind of ridiculous headgear. Young men and women starting an apprenticeship tended to hunch over and avoid eye contact, and their clothes always looked like they needed mending. The train also carried a few academics, wearing glasses and suits and carrying books.
Of the group of passengers remaining, two people stood out. A man and a woman, traveling together, who seemed to be made entirely of details, all colored in and edges sharply defined. It was so unusual it was distracting.
Both wore glasses, and they spent the first half of Shep's shift reading through a series of books they pulled from their luggage. He wanted to categorize them as academics, but even under his suit jacket, the man was obviously solid muscle, which he proved when he effortlessly helped some of the other passengers with their baggage—lifting multiple suitcases at a time. The woman was beautiful, which didn't disqualify her from being an academic, but she moved like a dancer, or a fighter, constantly aware of her surroundings.
Just before the second stop of the night, he was paused outside of their compartment to make sure his ticket punch was functioning, and the woman opened the compartment door.
"Hello," she said. "Do we need to show you our ticket again, or…" She trailed off.
Shep shook his head. "Nope, we only check tickets when you board the train. Name's Shep," he said and without thinking about it, he'd stuck out his hand to shake.
The woman took a second to give his hand a bemused look (and why wouldn't she, Shep wondered, ticketmen don't associate with the passengers), but then she was grasping his hand in her own.
"Shep," she said slowly. "It is a pleasure to meet you. My name is Teyla. Would you come and sit with my traveling companion and I? We could serve you a cup of tea."
Shep wanted to protest—it's against train policy, I don't like tea, I don't like sitting. There were many excuses, but before he could choose one, Teyla had drawn him into the compartment and was setting up an old-fashioned water heating device. She introduced him to Ronon, and the three of them spent the next part of the night talking together. They talked about the train and the many places Shep had been while riding it. Shep told them some of the funnier stories Four had shared about the engine room, including the time the coal shovelers got distracted by trying to pick grapes from a vine that had grown close to the train tracks and the train slowed to a halt as it ran out of power.
He was trying to figure out if he could ask what they were doing on the train without being rude, but the next thing he knew, the train was slowing down at the next station.
"Crap!" he said. "Sorry, I have to get out there."
Teyla merely inclined her head, and Ronon grinned and told him to come back after he was done taking tickets.
A few passengers got off, and the train car was empty. On the platform, a man in a bright orange jacket was waiting.
"All aboard," said Shep, and raised an eyebrow.
The man took a deep breath (whoa, shoulders, thought Shep) and stepped up onto the train.
"Yes, hello," he said. "My name is Rodney McKay, I believe you are expecting me."
Shep raised both eyebrows in response to this introduction.
"Sure," he said drily. "Ticket?"
"Ummmm," said McKay. "I was told you—"
Just then, the doors of the car slammed shut, and the train took off with a grinding screech.
"Shit," said Shep, catching himself on the ceiling handrail and grabbing McKay around the shoulders with his other hand.
The train barreled on, shaking violently over the tracks, jostling McKay hard against Shep, who was barely keeping the two of them upright.
Shep tried to figure out what might be happening—had Four lost control of the engine?—but he kept getting distracted by the blue of McKay's eyes.
"Here!" Shep shouted over the rumble of the train against the tracks. "Can you hold on to the railing?"
McKay nodded and reached his free arm up to the handrail. Shep twisted himself around, planning to head towards the engine room, but he had only managed to move a few feet forward when the train slowed to a halt.
"What the hell was that?!" McKay exclaimed from behind him.
The door to the private carriages opened, and Teyla and Ronon came through.
"Shep," said Teyla urgently. "Is everyone ok? Tell us how we can help."
"Everybody calm down for a second," said Shep. "One of the mechanics will fly over in a minute and let us know what went wrong."
He was heading to the window to see if he could call one of the mechanics over when he heard McKay exclaim, "Teyla!!"
"Rodney!" Teyla said. "Rodney, it is good to see you."
Shep turned in disbelief. Ronon had taken three long steps and was picking McKay up in a giant bear hug.
"Ok ok ok," huffed Rodney, after he was back on the ground. "I've missed you too. There, I said it, let's move on."
Teyla laughed, and both she and Ronon grabbed on to Rodney's hands. Shep knew it was irrational, but he couldn't help feeling like the odd man out. Instead of witnessing anymore of the joyous reunion, he stuck his head out of the window.
"Somebody want to give me the sitrep!?" he yelled.
As it turned out, Four had left the engine room for ten minutes to deal with the mechanical failure of a door in car 14, and while he was gone, A'te had let the coal shovelers overheat the engine, causing the train to take off at higher speeds just to burn off the excess fuel without exploding.
Four was nervous and apologetic when Shep finally had a chance to talk to him, but as Shep tried to reassure him, LW had given A'te control of the train in the first place and shouldn't blame Four for the trouble.
"Plus, no harm, no foul," said Shep. He was back in Teyla and Ronon's carriage, but now McKay was perched on the seat across from Shep, instead of a pile of books and papers.
"No harm!" McKay exclaimed. "I would argue that there was very much harm!"
"Oh please," Shep said, rolling his eyes. "You're fine."
"Yes, well," McKay said. "But only just! The train doors could have slammed shut when I was boarding, or I could have been thrown all over the carriage, and hit my head and gotten permanent brain damage! I wouldn't expect a ticketman to understand, but my brain is priceless."
Shep was set to be irritated and slightly embarrassed by McKay's comment, but Ronon snorted and said, "But Shep caught you. Just like a fainting princess." And Shep found that Rodney's cheeks shading into a light pink blush and his stammered 'thank you' made it impossible to be angry.
"Did Four manage to fix the mechanical problem, Shep?" Teyla asked. "Rodney is very skilled at fixing all kinds of complicated machinery and I am sure he would be delighted to repay you for saving him."
Rodney's blush deepened past pink and into red.
Shep leaned back against the seat and grinned.
"Well, if memory serves me correctly, you do still owe us for your passage," he said. "So maybe you can work it out in trade."
Rodney looked like he wasn't sure whether to blush even deeper or start searching his pockets for spare change.
"Ummm, yes," he said. "Well, Teyla wasn't exaggerating. I am extremely good at working with advanced machinery. My first doctorate was in the field of theoretical atramentium energy, but my second, well, I say second, but I finished it about a year after the first. It's a funny story, actually—"
"You have a second degree?" Shep interrupted.
"Oh yes yes, my second degree was in the mechanics of coniliet technology, gears and the like. As it turns out, advances to the theoretical field sometimes depend on the technology available in the more practical field. Though I'd prefer not to stick my hands into any hot stoves—my hands are probably my most valuable body parts, well, second to my brain of course."
Shep laughed and leaned forward towards Rodney. "Alright, Rodney. We'll see if we can find some tasks to keep your hands busy."
Despite the innuendo, Shep hadn't really intended to have McKay messing around with the functioning of the train. As Four had often pointed out, it was a delicate piece of machinery and also a bit moody.
But as Shep was telling Four about McKay and Teyla and Ronon during their next shift break, Four piped up and said "Actually, we never did fix that door in car 14. Do you think he would mind? LW sent a message saying she wouldn't be back for another week, and we could use an extra hand."
So Rodney went the next night, and, despite many many comments about the primitive mechanism of the door and the impossibility of working with such a limited set of tools, and why was he doing this in the middle of the night again, he fixed the door faster than Shep had ever seen anything repaired on the train.
After that, there was a decided run on McKay's time, and Shep was required to accompany him along "slow" paths that lead from one train car to another.
"I swear to you, Shep," Rodney yelled. "If I'd known I was going to be required to jump from car to car, I would have found another way to pay my bill."
But Shep caught him as he landed on the other side of the gap, and Rodney's pink cheeks and slanted smile told Shep that Rodney didn't mind so much.
Shep still had a job to do besides Rodney-duty, but this stretch of the train's route had fewer and fewer stops. They were headed into the outlands, where the population grew sparse, and vague rumors about potential dangers to the train began to spread through passengers and train employees alike.
So in between the occasional ticket-taking duty, Shep ended up spending a lot of his free time drinking tea with Teyla and Ronon, while they shared stories about Rodney from when they had known each other before the train.
None of them mentioned where the stories took place, but because Shep himself avoided all talk of his past, he never pressed for more information.
With all of the distractions, a week passed before Shep had realized it.
He had been starting his shift earlier and earlier—getting up while the sun with still high in the sky and going to bed when it was dark. Just like a real boy, he thought to himself, half awake one night.
And so it was still daytime when Shep settled into what he had begun to think of as their train carriage, and he heard the mechanical flapping of LW's wings. He was enormously surprised when, instead of passing the train car by, LW crashed through the open window to land in the middle of carriage, startling Ronon and Teyla to their feet.
"Well well well," she said, contemptuous. "What have we here?"
She turned in a circle, head bobbing as she pointed her beak in turn at Teyla, Ronon, and Rodney.
"I should fire you for sitting down on the job, little Shep. But instead, I think I'll kick you and your friends off my train for breaking the cardinal rule!"
She flapped her wings and cackled while Rodney paled and looked around in alarm.
"Kick us off?! You can't kick us off, we haven't reached our destination yet."
LW's demeanor changed suddenly, and she leaned her whole body against Rodney's, pushing him back into his seat.
"DESTINATION?!" she squawked. "NO ONE WITHOUT A TICKET CAN DEMAND THAT THEY REACH THEIR DESTINATION!"
With that, Shep's heart sank. He had heard that LW knew when passengers rode the train without tickets, but he'd seen enough people slip by to assume it was just a rumor, and not reality. He took a deep breath.
"LW," he said. "There's no need to kick anyone off. Rodney got on without a ticket, but only because the train went out of control before I could make him disembark. He's been working off his fare by making repairs since then."
LW turned away from Rodney when Shep began speaking, and she puffed herself up so she took up most of the free space in the center of the carriage. It seemed suddenly darker outside, though it was too early for nightfall.
"Oh?" she asked. "And did the train just happen to go crazy after this Rodney was on board? That must have been convenient."
Shep shook his head. "No, it really was an accident. Four said that A'te let the coal shovelers get out of control." He looked over at Teyla and Ronon. "Tell her, there's no way Rodney could have done anything."
But LW just laughed. "Oh my dear dear Shep! Of course Rodney didn't do anything. It was these two here who created the distraction that got him on the train."
"That's ridiculous," Shep scoffed, but then he glanced over and saw Teyla and Ronon's faces.
"But," he said, stunned. "Why? We could have been killed."
"No, Shep, I promise," said Teyla earnestly. "We were never in any real danger. And it was only way we could think to get Rodney onto the train with us."
"ENOUGH," shouted LW. "Excuses or no, you are welcome on this train no longer!"
She flapped her wings, and a wind began to pick up, blowing out papers, and luggage, and the tea set that had been steaming in the middle of the room.
"Teyla, we have to jump before the wind gets too strong!" Ronon yelled from the window. He was hanging on to the window frame, which was already starting to rattle.
"I'm sorry, Shep," said Teyla. "Truly, I had not thought it would come to this."
And then she and Ronon jumped.
But LW was still flapping her wings and the wind was gaining force. Rodney was crowded back into his corner, clutching a small bag to his chest and staring at Shep.
"Rodney, you have to get out of here!" Shep yelled.
Rodney nodded but he made no move to jump.
Rodney shook his head, as if waking up.
"Yes. Yes, I'm going," he said. "Just…come with us!"
"What?" Shep started to say, but his reply was lost in LW's growing laughter.
"OH YES," she howled. "The little Shep-herd will be traveling with you, have no fear!"
It was only then that Shep noticed that LW's wingwind was also pushing him towards the window. He panicked, grabbing hold of seat cushions, the overhead luggage racks, but each one was ripped out from under his hands.
"What are you doing?!" he yelled. "I'm under a contract, you can't kick me off."
LW just laughed and flapped her wings even faster, and then Rodney grabbed hold of him and they were falling out of the window, rolling through the mist, down the slope, and into a field of tall, sweet-smelling grass.
Shep struggled out of Rodney's arms and ran after the train, which was quickly disappearing into the mist surrounding them. The engine let off a picturesque puff of smoke just before the train vanished from sight. Shep stood still, staring after it and imagining what Four would think when he got to their bunk that night. Shep would never show. LW might not even mention what had happened. It would be just like her to pretend she knew nothing about Shep's disappearance. That, or she would make up a story, make it a warning to everyone else working the train and use it as an excuse to be extra hard on Four and the others for a while.
"Fuck!" he shouted, kicking uselessly at the ground. He could hear Rodney standing up and dusting himself off behind him, gathering his luggage and some of the other supplies that had flown out of the train with them. Somewhere, there was a bag with Shep's few possessions.
When the engineer kicked someone off the train, it was a permanent banishment. Everything that belonged to that person flew off the train with them, which Shep distractedly admitted to himself was somewhat helpful. Much more problematic was the fact that the train itself would repel him if he ever tried to sneak on board, and no ticket agent would ever sell him a ticket. He could never get back on the train.
"Fuck," he said, again.
Shep was still staring into the mist where the train had disappeared, when Rodney cleared his throat.
Shep wheeled around, and Rodney was standing there with Teyla and Ronon. Rodney looked sad and nervous.
Good, thought Shep, viciously.
Teyla and Ronon were more impassive, but Shep couldn't stand to talk to any of them right now.
"Nearest town was another 5 hours away by train." He tried to look for the sun to figure out the time of day, but the sky was covered in a thick layer of dark clouds.
"We should be able to make it in four days, maybe three if we limit our stops and keep up a quick pace. Anyone see my pack?"
Ronon threw over a dark green knapsack that seemed familiar. "Great," Shep said shortly. "Let's head out."
By the morning of the third day, Shep had not lost his sense of self-righteous anger, but he had gained what felt like feet full of calluses. By turn, Teyla, Ronon, and Rodney had all approached him and had offered up their own apologies. Teyla spoke quietly for a long time about her former home—a small village of animal herders and traders. She had gone on a two week long trading mission, and when she returned the village had disappeared, leaving only a burnt clearing where the tents and buildings of her people had been.
Ronon had simply said, "I would do it again." After that, he walked along side Shep for hours, keeping pace as his eyes took in the changing landscape around them.
Rodney saved his own excuses for last.
"Shep." Rodney cleared his throat. "This may not make any sense to you, to be honest it doesn't make a lot of 'sense' to me either but I'm told sometimes these things just happen."
Shep stifled the impulse to roll his eyes. Rodney continued.
"I've only known you for a short time, and while I may have proved my genius to you—"
Shep did roll his eyes at that.
"—I have not been very much of a friend. I don't want to lose a chance at your friendship, and believe me, I'll try to do everything I can to help you find whatever it is that you have lost."
Shep kept walking. He didn't want to look at Rodney, didn't want to risk losing the anger that was keeping him going.
Sadly, short of walking out into the mist and being eaten by some strange outlands beast, there wasn't really any way for Shep to avoid Rodney. And after he'd made his apology (for some value of apology, anyways, thought Shep), Rodney seemed to think it was ok to just talk at Shep. The path they were on was wide enough for the four of them to easily walk abreast, and though Shep tried to keep slightly ahead of the rest of them, they had no trouble keeping up. The mist that had been so thick around the train had thinned, but the sky was still covered in dark clouds, with no glints of sunlight or blue sky peaking through.
As they walked, Rodney told Shep about his childhood ("it's always hard for childhood geniuses, but at least my sister and I ended up as allies for each other"), about his allergies ("lemons were the biggest surprise, but of course most of the usual apply. Achoo!"), and about his plan for getting onto the train.
"I'm not sure if you remember, but I'd started to tell a story about being expected? That bluff was a kind of back up plan if Teyla and Ronon hadn't managed to create a distraction. We also sent a message asking the engineer to attend a conference of train engineers that was at least a week away. Of course, there was no conference, and she must have found out somehow, because she got back to the train way too early."
Rodney also told him about a place called Atlantis.
"I was only there once, seems like millions of years ago. It's a city, but it sat on this island that was only connected to land by this narrow bridge. It should feel dangerous, like you're about to fall into the water, but you're too busy looking up at the spires of the city in front of you to worry about looking down."
Rodney paused, and when Shep glanced over to look at him, he could tell that Rodney was lost in memories. The mention of a city of spires stirred something in Shep's memory, but he shut it down. He didn't want to care about anything Rodney had to say.
"It is a beautiful place," said Teyla, making Shep jump slightly. He'd gotten used to Rodney's monologues, but hardly anyone else had spoken for the last two days. Teyla was walking on Shep's right, and she sent a small smile in his direction before facing forward and continuing.
"I was there when I was still practically a child. It was a tradition that my people had—that after our coming of age ceremony, we could visit one of our trading partners. I remember coming up to the bridge and thinking the city was part of a tapestry, with the blue ocean below and sky above."
"My people used to go to Atlantis to do scientific research," said Ronon, surprising Shep again. "The Glassmakers built the city to pursue answers to questions about the universe, and they helped the Satedans in their pursuit of untempered amaranthine power in the early days, before the backlash from that power source had been discovered."
Untempered amaranthine power? thought Shep. Didn't attempts to harness that spectrum result in whole civilizations being wiped out?
Ronon continued. "But today, Atlantis is probably the only place that has any detailed records about my people left. That's one of the reasons I've been trying to get there."
Shep felt his heart drop into his stomach.
Teyla nodded. "Ronon also thinks that the Glassmakers may have information about my people. I have been searching for them for many years, and Ronon and Rodney both believe Atlantis may hold answers for me."
"Fuck," said Shep. "I. You all." He stopped walking and turned to face the others.
"You were trying to get to Atlantis on the train?" he asked. "All of you?"
"It's not listed as a station, but there's a rumor that the train's last stop is Atlantis," said Teyla.
"Atlantis….went dark years ago," said Rodney. "Everyone just figured it had been destroyed or wiped out. There were always people who feared the kind of research that went on there, true of all great science of course. But we went to where it used to be, where Teyla and I had been as children, and it wasn't there anymore. No destruction, no rubble. Just a bridge across the water that connected to nothing."
"And then we began to hear a story that said the city hadn't been destroyed. It just flew away," said Teyla.
"Which sounds crazy," Rodney broke in excitedly. "But it makes sense! The way it was positioned, at the end of a long bridge, not connected to land, open sea and sky! Even if the flying part isn't true, it could be portable in some way. The kinds of research they were doing on power generation—they could have discovered a safe way of creating the necessary force to move an object of that size, and when the criticism was getting too hot—they just left."
"That the train goes to Atlantis was a slim hope," said Teyla. "But the train's name suggested to us that it was a lead worth following."
"Wait," Shep interrupted. "The train's name? I've never heard it called anything but 'the train'."
"The lost train," said Ronon. "Everyone who rides it has lost something."
Shep shook his head. "Everyone? Really?" He laughed. "What has McKay lost, his ability to buy a ticket ahead of time?"
Shep was joking, finally ready to get back to the give and take he and Rodney had established on the train, but this was clearly the wrong thing to say.
Rodney looked down and shuffled his feet. "Well, ah. Tickets are really hard to come by, and there just wasn't time, and uh..."
"Rodney," said Shep, stepping close to him and putting a hand on his shoulder. "Whatever it is, I'll help." He looked around at the group. "I'll help all of you find this city."
Teyla was smiling, but she shook her head. "Shep, we would gladly welcome you, but you have already sacrificed so much for us. If you do not want to return to Atlantis, you are under no obligation."
Shep just shook his head. "Return? No, I've never been there. And I know I don't have to help you, but. I guess I need something to do with myself, and, well." He looked away, staring up into the clouds. "I like feeling useful."
"Cool, said Ronon. "Let's get moving." He began walking forward on the road and in passing Shep, clapped him so hard on the back that he stumbled into Rodney.
Teyla still looked slightly confused. "Ah, we all thought you had been to the city before; you have the look of someone who has been there. More…noticeable."
Shep shook his head again, and Teyla said lightly. "My mistake. And thank you Shep. We will help you as well, whatever it is you are seeking."
Rodney was looking straight at Shep now, with a funny half-sad smile on his face.
"Seriously, Rodney. Whatever it is. You don't have to tell me now, but we'll do it, we'll save the day."
"Is that the kind of guy you are? The kind that saves the day?" Rodney asked.
Shep shrugged. "I dunno. It just sounds like the right thing to do."
"Come on," Ronon shouted back at them. "We've got a long way to go."
They still had at least a full day of walking before they would reach the next major town, but now that Shep wasn't ignoring the three of them, now that he was part of their team instead of a random passerby caught up in something with no meaning to him, it felt like the road was much shorter.
Rodney told him how he'd met up with Ronon in a dusty library, both of them searching for information on Atlantis. Ronon added that McKay had practically thrown the book he had in his hands into the air when Ronon asked him about it, and Rodney grumbled that Ronon hadn't been wearing glasses and a sweater vest then.
As it turned out, the Satedans were the people who had destroyed their city and miles of the surrounding countryside when their untempered amaranthine power plant melted down. Ronon was one of the few survivors. He'd spent years wandering the outlands, trying to find other survivors while warning others away from the lure of unstable energy.
"Thought for a while I might bomb other powerplants and labs, warn people off using them entirely," said Ronon. "But the first time I tried, I got a job at the plant and got to know the workers there. And they were smart and careful; not like my people. They said the Glassmakers had helped them set up the technology, but also taught them not to become overly reliant on the tech. So then I thought I could help with that—be a lesson in what goes wrong."
Later, Rodney began complaining about the state of his feet, but Shep could only grin in response to the giddy happiness of his tone.
They were still following the wide path that paralleled the path of the train, but with the mist gone, they could see more of the countryside around them. In the distance, a collection of squat glass buildings seemed to pop out of a lake.
"Is this the village where the train was supposed to stop?" asked Rodney.
"I thought we'd have at least another half day of walking before we got to the town," said Shep. "And it was supposed to be one of the smaller stops along the route, a more rural village. That looks like a larger city."
"Look, the tracks circle away from the buildings," said Teyla. "Ronon, do you remember something about a Glassmaker town in this part of the region?"
Ronon looked thoughtful. "Not exactly. There was a story about a people who used Glassmaker tech to combine glass with natural materials in their buildings. The story said they tried to build a town in a lake modeled after Atlantis, but abandoned it hundreds of years ago."
"Surely these buildings couldn't still be standing after so much time?" asked Teyla.
"I don't suppose it has any connection to Atlantis? Would it be worthwhile to check it out?" asked Rodney.
"Looks like the path goes right through the middle of the lake," said Shep. "We'll be able to check it out whether we want to or not."
Closer to the buildings, it became clear that Ronon's fairytale had been based on some truth. The path became a raised walkway over a large lake, leading to several collections of small, squarish buildings that seemed to grow straight out of the water.
The water of the lake was almost completely still, though frogs must live in the reeds lining the shore. Shep brushed his hands across some cattails as he passed them, covering his hand in pollen. The walkway broke into several different paths, winding around the buildings. The natural materials Ronon's story had mentioned turned out to be living trees, twisted into straight angles and fitted with glass that formed windows and doors between the thick branches.
They followed the central path straight through the buildings and found a large, open plaza in the middle of a pool of water filled with water lilies. Shep took a deep breathe of the fragrant air and felt Rodney, and Teyla and Ronon taking in the scene with him. Not something I could have seen from the train, he thought.
"Funny," said Ronon. "You'd think there'd be a bird or something."
Shep was just thinking that it was unnaturally quiet when Teyla yelled, "Look out!"
But the warning came too late as an aeschula, a giant winged snake, swooped down from the roof of the nearest building and landed in a loose circle around Rodney and Shep. Rodney froze in terror, his eyes huge.
There were still several feet between them and the coils of the aeschula, but it was slowly tightening the radius of its circle around them. Maybe it wasn't sure whether to kill them now or save the meal till later, thought Shep. Whatever. I'm not going to wait for it to decide.
He started to take small, slow steps towards the aeschula's head, trying to keep himself between it and Rodney. Rodney was frantically gesturing, but he was only succeeding in drawing more of the aeschula's attention.
Shep could hear Teyla and Ronon yelling and hoped there wasn't another aeschula attacking them.
Shep slowly reached into his pack, and the aeschula twisted its head around to hiss at him, momentarily distracted from Rodney.
"Rodney, run!" said Shep through clenched teeth.
"How?!" Rodney yelped back. "I can't jump over this thing, it's got to be five feet high!"
The snake twisted again, bringing its coils in closer to Shep and Rodney, but this time Shep was ready. He pulled his ticket punch out his pack and switched it on.
"Rodney," he said. "When I say run in a minute, I need you to take a flying leap and run, ok?"
"You're going to attack that thing with a ticket punch?" Rodney screeched.
Shep grit his teeth. "Yes, Rodney. I am. When I say run, you run, ok?"
His focus was on the aeschula's head, but he saw Rodney nod out of the corner of his eye. Swinging his pack in a circle, Shep hissed at the aeschula to get its attention. It darted forward, attacking the pack and sinking its teeth deeply into it. Shep swung his ticket punch into the side of its head and then tried to hold it still, his pack in one hand and the ticket punch in the other, pressing tightly on either side of the head.
The aeschula screamed, and its body flailed across the floor of the plaza. "Rodney, RUN!" yelled Shep, hoping he would actually do it this time.
The aeschula whipped its head out from under Shep's grip, and Shep fell backward, landing against the body of the snake before its squirming threw him back to the ground. He flung himself back onto his feet. The aeschula dove in for another bite, and Shep jumped to the side and pushed the ticket punch through the aeschula's eye. Greyish liquid squirted out, and the snake's body flailed some more before subsiding into twitches.
"Ugh. That is disgusting," said a voice next to him. Shep turned, and Rodney was standing right there.
Shep looked at him in disbelief. "Didn't I tell you to run?"
Rodney shrugged. "I did run! But then I came back with reinforcements." He pointed behind him, to where Teyla and Ronon were standing, both armed with metal tipped spears.
"Though it appears we are too late," said Teyla.
Ronon shook his head. "Can't believe you got to have all of the fun. Haven't gotten to kill anything in ages."
Rodney turned red. "Fun! That is just like you, Mr.I-used-to-be-a-barbarian-and-live-off-the-land. We could have died! Shep saved our lives! Not fun."
"Well," said Shep. "It was kind-of fun, Rodney."
Ronon laughed, and he and Shep grinned at each other.
"But seriously, where did you find the spears?" said Shep. "Those would have come in handy. My whole arm is covered in aeschula brains."
"Shep," said Teyla. "It is a miracle! Come and see."
Teyla led Shep and Rodney around the thankfully-no-longer-twitching aeschula to a group of people dressed in loose, dark clothing.
"Shep, Rodney," she said, taking them in front of a tall, middle-aged man. "I would like you to meet my little brother, Halling."
Thus it was, when Shep met Teyla's long lost people, he was covered in brains and blood.
"I could have used a shower," he said, half drunkenly after the celebration feast much later that night.
The Athosians had established their village (which proudly hosted a small train station) about a half day's walk from the ancient glass-city that the aeschula had made its home. A group of traders had been returning from a mission when they heard Teyla and Ronon's cries and had come running, knowing that the aeschula was a formidable foe for unprepared travelers.
When they got to the plaza, they were shocked to see Teyla; Teyla was shocked to see them, and especially to see how much they had aged.
Apparently, when Teyla was on her last trading mission away from Athosia, she had crossed the Perilliam Plains. Shep had heard of the Plains, but he'd thought they were a myth. They were supposed to have pockets of time that were out of synch with the rest of the world, and Teyla had spent more than 10 years there, though to her it had seemed as if it took only a couple of days to cross them.
The Athosians had spent those ten years and the years since wondering where she had gone. When her baby brother, now a grown man, found her, they both had been amazed and their thanks had devolved into an all-night celebration.
"A shower," hummed Rodney. "Yes, good. Hot water, soap! Mmm." He rolled over and fell asleep.
Shep laughed softly, feeling his heart warm to see Rodney's profile lit by the fading moonlight. Shep looked out of window above his head for the moon, but it was hidden behind the branches of a huge tree. Shep felt his limbs weighing him down, sleep gathering him close, but just before it pulled him away he thought to himself that he couldn't really remember what a full moon looked like.
The next morning, they got the whole story. During Teyla's extended journey, the pastures where the Athosians had kept their flocks had been damaged by a huge fire. The Athosians had moved to find greener pastures for their animals, eventually traveling to the outlands and settling near the aeschula's home. (Apparently it was well-known to the Athosians that a nest of aeschula had made that ancient place their home, and Shep shivered a bit at the thought of running into more than one of those creatures at the same time.)
The Athosians were herders, raising sheep and goats and rabbits for their soft fur, which they spun into all kinds of glimmering balls of wool. After a breakfast of strong tea and thick slices of bread with plenty of goat milk butter, Teyla's nephew, Jinto, showed Shep and Rodney into a room with two large tubs full of steaming water.
"Bless you," said Rodney seriously, making the young man laugh.
"You returned our Teyla to us, after we thought she was gone forever!" Jinto replied. "The least we can do is help you to a bath." He bowed his head slightly and left the room, telling them to call out if they needed anything.
Shep quickly stripped and sank into one of the tubs. He closed his eyes and couldn't stop himself from groaning aloud as the hot water sank into his sore muscles. Rodney made a squeaking noise and Shep heard a splash, but he couldn't bring himself to open his eyes.
"You ok, buddy?" he asked, half asleep despite the strong tea.
"Yep!" said Rodney, brightly. "A-ok over here, no need to get up, or—. Nope. Everything is good."
"Good," Shep slurred and leaned his head back against the edge of the tub.
Finally, the water started to cool off, and Shep felt his fingers pruning. He opened his eyes and pulled himself upright, holding on to the sides of the tub. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Rodney start to do the same. For a moment he watched the curve of Rodney's back rise out of the water before he hurriedly turned his back and put on the soft, clean clothes that Jinto had provided for them.
Dressed and feeling more like himself than he had for days, Shep walked out of the bath room to see Teyla winding shimmering blue and purple yarn around Ronon's outstretched hands. The glasses, suits, and sweater vests from the train were gone, replaced by the same softly worn clothing that Shep and Rodney were now wearing. Teyla's hair was loose around her shoulders, and Ronon was slouched back in his chair, legs sprawling across the floor.
Rodney had followed Shep out of the bath room and let out a small sigh when he caught sight of the Teyla and Ronon. Shep glanced over to see a complicated series of emotions flit across Rodney's face.
"I think that's the happiest I've ever seen either of them," said Rodney. He was frowning slightly, and Shep leaned an elbow into his side.
They walked across the large common room, and Shep squinted slightly against the bright light shining through the windows.
"Clouds seems to finally be going," said Rodney. "Thank god, I couldn't stand another grey, damp day."
He and Shep sat next to Teyla and Ronon, and soon enough they were roped into the project Teyla was organizing. Shep wound the yarn from Ronon's hands into balls, while Rodney helped Teyla twist the raw bits of wool onto a spinning wheel. Several times, too busy watching Rodney's fingers pluck and twist the raw fibers, Shep found himself with severely lopsided balls of yarn. Ronon just raised an eyebrow and grinned at him.
Finally, the wool had all been spun into yarn and wound into balls, and Teyla stood up and stretched. She smiled down at the three of them so brightly that Shep couldn't help but smile back.
"Now you are all honorary Athosians," she said, grinning.
Even Ronon looked surprised at this pronouncement.
"Someday you will return and help sheer the sheep and comb the rabbits, but participating in the spinning and winding of yarn is enough for now."
Rodney's mouth was working, but no sound was coming out, and Shep took it on himself to put the pieces together.
"You aren't coming with us to Atlantis, I take it?" he asked, with a slightly forced grin.
Teyla shook her head.
"My place must be here, at least for now," she said. "But I believe you are very close! Halling tells me that a group of scientists and artisans have recently been traveling through the abandoned train station a day's walk from here. They do not say where they are from, but there are many rumors that a star-shaped city of glass recently flew above the settlements to the south."
"Atlantis!" said Rodney excitedly. "It can't be anything else! I can't believe we're so close after all. Shep, Ronon, let's go! We can be there and back before the week is out!"
"And you must return, whether you find Atlantis or not," Teyla insisted. "You should both consider this to be a home that will always be welcome to you."
Shep smiled back at her, a feeling of warmth spreading through his middle.
"Wait, both?" asked Rodney. "What about Ronon?"
Teyla paused and looked to where Ronon was sitting.
"I'm staying with the Athosians for now," said Ronon.
Rodney's jaw dropped. "But, but!" he stuttered. "You were the one who kept us going, who said we had to find them. What are you going to do here?!"
Ronon shrugged. "Help with the animals, use my hands." He stood up and put his hands on Rodney's shoulders. "Shep'll go with you, Rodney, you'll be fine."
Rodney slumped down slightly, and Shep felt a pang of anxiety. "I know, I just. I thought it was our shared dream, to get there."
Ronon nodded. "It is. And I'll go there eventually. But I need a rest. And this way, I know you'll come back and visit us here."
Rodney nodded and reached his hands up to Ronon's shoulders, mirroring his embrace. They bowed their heads together, touching foreheads before stepping back and letting each other go.
Rodney glanced quickly at Shep's face and away again. "And you still want to go to Atlantis?" he asked, staring down at the yarn covering the table.
Shep nodded. "I don't really have a reason," he said, deciding on an honesty-is-the-best-policy approach. "But it feels like the right thing to do."
Rodney and Shep didn't end up leaving the Athosian village until the next morning. During the night, they found there was one more reason for celebrating. Knowing that Shep would likely pass through the Athosian village, Four had left him a message. Apparently, LW had been called to the central city for an "early retirement." Shep could hardly believe this news, but Halling assured him that he had spoken with Four himself.
"He said that 'management' had decided LW was too erratic, and Four had proven himself to be a fair and competent mechanic, and they were counting on him to be an even better engineer. He seemed very excited," Halling told them.
The clouds had rolled back in while Shep was winding yarn for Teyla, but Shep left the Athosian settlement with a light heart. The sky wasn't visible, but the clouds were such a light white, they were bright enough that it almost didn't feel like there was anything between him and the sun.
Rodney was quiet for the first hour or so of the journey, and Shep tried to suppress his irrational jealousy. Rodney had been traveling with Ronon and Teyla for years. It was natural for him to feel a little abandoned, even if he had Shep now.
Finally, Rodney snapped back to himself and started talking about all of the scientific innovations the Glassmakers on Atlantis had achieved and how Rodney's own ideas and expertise would make him immediately welcome.
"Is that why you're going then," asked Shep. "To be part of a research team?"
"Ah, well," said Rodney. "No, I—. Ok, it's one reason, but not the real reason, I guess." He sighed and then took in a deep breath.
"So, you know how the train is called the lost train, right? Well, the thing I lost was my sister. I spent years studying different forms of energy generation, which got me interested in the Glassmakers to begin with, and...my sister and I, I guess we drifted apart. I thought it was normal and nothing to worry about, but I was in our old hometown one day and went to visit her, and she was gone!
"I thought she was married and had a kid, but when I asked her neighbors, they looked at me like I was crazy. I didn't know what to do, how to even begin a search for her.
"The Glassmakers are supposed to have these amazing search tools—that's part of why Teyla wanted to go there when she was looking for her people—but I think I'd kind of given up on finding Jeannie until I met Ronon."
Shep didn't know what to say. "I don't think I have any siblings." Oh yeah, that's a winner he thought, and winced.
"You don't think?" Rodney asked. He gave Shep a squinty-eyed look.
"Ok, listen," Rodney started. "I know you've been pretty closed mouthed about this whole thing, and that's fine, I can try to respect that, but….what is it that you lost? Because I've been forming a theory and I'd like to know if I got it right."
Shep shook his head. "I still don't get that. The 'lost' train. I didn't lose anything."
"But Shep," said Rodney helplessly. "It's the number one tenant of the lost train. You have to have lost something to be on it."
"Not the people who work on it," Shep shot back. His skin was prickling and he felt kind of sick.
"Yes, of course the people who work on it!" shouted Rodney. "Most of them purposefully "lose" their humanity—trade a human face for wings or change out a human arm for a mechanical one, but you seem to be all human."
Rodney blushed. "Well, as far as I can tell, anyways." He collected himself and continued. "I did the research on the train; I read a thousand contracts of train employees. Everyone has to give up something."
"Well, I lost Four when LW kicked us off the train. Do you think that counts?" Shep picked up the pace so that Rodney was practically jogging to keep up to him.
"I…did you know Four before you worked together on the train?" asked Rodney.
"No, I—. Well, maybe." Shep slowed to a stop. He was staring down at the ground and the smooth stone path flanked by tall grasses. "I don't remember." He looked up at Rodney, whose eyes were wide and blue.
"Shit, Rodney. I don't remember."
Rodney was nodding. "Yes, yes, you've made some comments and it made me wonder. There was a story about the train, and normally I don't put much stock in stories as hard evidence, but the story said the train would lose something for you, or take something important away, if you tried to get on before you'd lost something or given something up."
Shep's head was spinning. "You think the train stole my memories because I forced my way on it for some reason?"
"I don't know," said Rodney, frustrated. "I think the Glassmakers may have some answers. They supposedly helped to create the train—but we'll figure something out. Maybe if we can get you back on the train…"
Rodney trailed off, clearly going through scenarios in his mind.
"Well," said Shep. "Then I guess we better get to Atlantis. Two birds, one stone, all that."
Rodney nodded and they set off.
Rodney was less chatty after the revelation of the hole in Shep's memory, but he continued with a series of under-his-breath comments about the state of the path, his feet, his shoes, the temperature of the air, and more.
It was funny, Shep reflected, because the workers on the train he'd like best, Four included, had been the quick and quiet ones. He would have avoided someone like Rodney entirely. But walking next to him, Rodney's patter was unaccountably comforting to Shep's ears.
Maybe it was the cool air, blowing on his face, or the give in the ground as he walked. The sounds of nature were so different than the clanking and clattering of the train, and after the aeschula attack, Shep was hyperaware of the presence of bird and insect noise, and the small rustling sounds that small mammals made as they searched for food in the tall grasses that lined the path.
Shep and Rodney passed through a field of sunflowers, their golden heads seeking out the sun.
Finally, they climbed a ridge and saw a deep valley sloping down to a creek. The train tracks that had paralleled the path for most of their journey turned to go around the valley instead of through it. Shep could see an old stone building set into the bottom of the hill that led up to the next ridge.
"Huh," said Rodney. "That must be the train station. I guess Teyla did say it was abandoned, but it's funny that the train tracks don't even seem to go near it."
"Maybe it's a short cut?" Shep suggested. "One way to find out, I guess." They walked down the ridge and into the valley, stumbling as they went. Shep felt like he was struggling against a pull from the earth that was stronger than usual, but figured he was just tired from the dramatic events of the past week.
As they walked closer to the building, they could see the uneven stonework and few windows set high up into the walls. The entrance was a narrow doorway, dark against the brightness of the light reflecting off the stone. Inside, the sunlight from the windows lit floating dust motes and rows of dusty benches. One wall had a line of counters, with the windows covered by pull-down shades.
"Looks like an abandoned train station," said Shep.
He could see Rodney roll his eyes a little and grinned to himself. "Yes, thank you Mr. Obvious," Rodney said. "Let's go see what's on the other side."
Instead of a platform, there was another room through the doorway on the far side of the waiting room. The ceiling was high, supported by arched columns that were dripping water and half-covered in moss. Shep and Rodney's footsteps echoed as they walked through the room, and a frisson of cold snuck up Shep's spine.
"This is going to sound crazy," said Rodney. "But this seems familiar to me."
Shep's head felt foggy, and he shook it as he answered. "Feels familiar to me too," he said. "It's kinda freaking me out."
Rodney laughed nervously, and they continued on a few steps. Then, Rodney let out a little "hmm!" and abruptly turned and started to walk towards one of the far walls.
He was maybe three steps away from Shep when the floorboards under his feet cracked. Shep turned abruptly and met his eyes, and then the ground under Rodney's feet crumbled and he fell along with it.
"Rodney!" Shep choked out a yell, and drop to the floor before sliding on his stomach to the edge of the hole in the floor. Once he was closer, he saw that Rodney had managed to throw his arms out and catch himself against the edge.
Shep immediately grabbed his arms and started to pull him back up. "Hang on, Rodney," he said. "I've got you." Together, they somehow managed to pull themselves back into the center of the room and, presumably, safer ground.
They were side by side, lying with their backs on the ground, panting. Shep could hear Rodney's breathing slowly start to even out, and he said "It's ok, I got you. We're ok."
Rodney was silent for another minute more, but then he spoke. "Shep, I think I remember something about this place. Or, maybe it wasn't this place exactly, but it was really similar."
Shep rolled over to look at him. Rodney was looking up at the ceiling. "I was on a school visit. I must have been, oh, really young, three or four. We were going to visit Atlantis, and we had to take a train to get there.
"I remember walking through a train station, and I wasn't looking at where I was going because I was so excited to finally see the floating city. And so I tripped over a shoelace or something, I don't even remember. But I was standing at the top of a set of stairs, and so I had a long ways to fall. I remember thinking I was going to crush my head or at best, break a leg, when someone caught my hands."
Rodney turned to his side to meet Shep's eyes. "It was another boy. He caught my hands, and we were just hanging there, in midair, floating or maybe flying, and he told me everything was going to be ok."
Rodney paused and Shep felt a swooping sensation in his stomach.
"His name was John," Rodney said softly. "John Sheppard."
"John Sheppard," repeated Shep. And then he laughed as a bright light surrounded him and his memories began to flow back.
He remembered: training as a soldier with Ford (and of course, of course, his name was Ford, not Four); listening to the announcement of the complete decommission of the armed forces; wandering the streets of towns now crowded with out of work soldiers, just trying to put a little food on the table.
He remembered: listening to Ford when he said "let's seek our fortunes in the outlands"; hearing about the troubles facing Atlantis and remembering a childhood visit to a magical city; telling Ford "we could help them and find a place for ourselves there."
He remembered: negotiating for passage on the train by claiming that he and Ford had lost their profession; coming back to camp to find that Ford had eaten a sacred bird and as a punishment had been turned into half bird-half human creature who was put to work on the train; forcing his way onto the train because he wouldn't leave a man behind and losing his name, his memories, his very being, to the train in return.
He remembered everything. He remembered being a small boy and flying with his parents between the glass towers of Atlantis. He remembered seeing another boy fall in the train station outside of the city, a boy with bright blue eyes and an orange sweater. And he remembered breaking away from his parents' hands and jumping after the boy to catch him and lift him back up to safety.
The light around John began to fade, and he could hear Rodney's voice as a faint echo in his ears. "Shep?! Or, John, or, shit, are you there, are you ok?"
John had another pang of regret for leaving Ford behind. The conditions of his punishment were temporary, and the message Ford had left made it sound like he was doing ok without John. Probably, John thought ruefully, he was happier working on the train than he had been wandering the outlands pointlessly with John.
The light faded entirely, and John opened his eyes to see Rodney clutching his shoulders, pale and wide-eyed. They were sitting on the ground, legs folded beneath them.
"Are you ok?" Rodney asked, and John couldn't help but laugh again.
"I'm me!" he said. "All thanks to you Rodney. Yeah, I'm ok."
Rodney smiled back, tentatively. "Well, good. You were all glowy and non-responsive, what was I supposed to think?"
John stood up and stretched, and he saw Rodney's eyes widen as his wings stretched out behind him.
"You," Rodney started. "You have—."
"They're called wings, Rodney," John teased, settling them together against his back.
Rodney started to circle around John, presumably to stare and poke at his back, but John stopped him with a hand to his arm.
"Rotting floorboards, remember?"
Rodney jumped and looked around at the floor suspiciously. "Right, right, good point. Let's get out of here." He looked up at John, bright-eyed. "You first! You can just flap your way out if the floor ahead gives way."
John rolled his eyes. "Thanks, buddy," he said, and started walking towards the other end of the room.
The next door led into a long tunnel. There was a light shining through the other end, but in the tunnel it was dark and it felt to John as if they were pushing their way through some kind of invisible barrier.
"So," said Rodney, conversationally. "You have wings and you remember who you are now?"
"I'm still me, Rodney," John said. "My memories were gone, but it didn't change who I was."
"And 'me' is in fact the John Sheppard who, as a five-year-old, leapt off a second floor landing and caught me from falling while we were in midair?"
"Yup!" said John happily.
Rodney rolled his eyes. "What I don't understand is why everything came back so suddenly. I assume the train somehow took your memories and your wings?"
John thought for a moment. "I remember that I had to sign something to get on the train. Ford had been transformed from a human into what he is now, and I couldn't just let him disappear into the sunset. But LW kept telling me I couldn't stay, unless I agreed to sign a contract. So I signed it, and the next thing I knew, I was Shep—just a normal human, no wings, no real memory of any other life."
"The contract, of course!" exclaimed Rodney. "The train requires documentation—a ticket for passengers or a contract for employees. And because you weren't searching for something you'd lost like a normal passenger, and you hadn't given something up like a normal employee, the contract automatically included both stipulations: you lost your memories AND gave up your wings. And both were connected to the name you signed on the contract."
"Okkk," said John. "But then why didn't I get everything back when LW banished me from the train? Shouldn't that have broken the contract?"
"Oh, the contract's been broken for ages," said Rodney. "But you had to remember your name in order to claim the bits of yourself you'd given up. I guess that's why everything came back all at once when I reminded you of it." Rodney trailed off.
John glanced over to see Rodney's face set in anxious lines. "Everything good now?"
Rodney nodded. "Of course, of course. I just. I mean. You probably have people you'll want to get back to, and—"
John stopped him there. "No. I." He took a deep breath.
"I left Ford behind on the train," he said. Rodney started to speak, but John just raised his voice. "No, it's ok Rodney. It worked out! I think he's happier there than he was before. It's…it's a long story. But, I was looking for Atlantis too, ok? So, I'm still on board. That's still the plan."
John paused as Rodney nodded and looked marginally happier. "But Rodney," he continued. "If your sister isn't there, I'll keep traveling with you. I mean, if you want."
They were nearly at the tunnel's exit, and the light was strong enough to for John to see Rodney's mouth crook up into a smile.
He grabbed John's hand. "I want. Atlantis first, and then who knows!"
John smiled back and held Rodney's hand tightly.
When they finally came out of the tunnel, the sun blinded John for a minute, and he was giddy with the warmth of the light on his face. When his vision cleared, the city was there, shining in front of them, clear blue sky above and deep blue sea below. A tapestry of light, just like Teyla had said.
He turned to Rodney, who was looking out across the bay that the city was floating in.
"There's no bridge!" he said, outraged. "How are we supposed to get to the city, if there's no bridge?!"
John spread his wings, stretching them out as far as he could and flapping them enough to raise a bit of a dust storm around them.
"Ok ok, I get it!" said Rodney. "This "having wings" thing is going to take some getting used to, excuse me."
John just laughed and grabbed Rodney around the middle. "Ready to go flying?" he asked.
And Rodney blushed and said, "Well, yes, but first just let me—." And then he was kissing John in the sunlight, Atlantis sparkling and just within reach.