Chapter 3: Not on M24-559 anymore

The oppressive heat of early autumn had released the land several weeks prior, leaving in its wake a cascading curtain of falling orange-red-brown and a cool breeze. In the dwindling daylight, the Emerald Palace reared high above the lake, its powerful towers immovable and brave as they guarded the nearby Central City. To some, it whispered hope and peace on the winds that trickled through the capital's streets; to Cain, the sight of its sleek, stone walls and watching windows was a source of anxious disquiet.

He hadn't seen the queen in over three annuals, not since…well, it wouldn't do to dwell on it now. He had not disclosed why he was leaving, but had used his son, Jeb, as an excuse. Surely the young commander would need advising in his new role as head of the Tin Men; Wyatt Cain was specifically suited to play the part. And Jeb had needed the help, and Wyatt hadgiven it, and the land was better for it. The police force was now over two hundred strong and run by a knot of reliable, steadfast men and women—an upstanding body of the law. The Tin Men brought justice across the whole of the O.Z., from desert to enchanted desert and ice-covered mountains to the Realm of the Unwanted. He was as proud of Jeb as a father could ever be.

Of course, that same son had traitorously commanded that he pay a visit to the queen, and Cain had not been able to pry a reason out of him. And because he could not tell Jeb about the awkward situation he was sending his father into, there was nothing for it but to suck it up and face the woman.

The uneasy Tin Man ground his teeth in annoyance as a pretentious, brightly-dressed fop steered him through a labyrinth of hallways, blathering on haughtily about how the honored guest should bow low, address the queen always with an honorific, and remain two steps behind Her Majesty should they walk anywhere. Listening with half an ear, and begrudging even that, Cain took the opportunity to scrutinize the men who guarded the halls—some Tin Men and others in the private employ of the crown—nodding grimly to those he recognized.

If the outside of the castle exuded strength and solidarity, the interior radiated a grace and beauty that, had he been one for such finery, would have had him open-mouthed in awe. The finest artists, architects, inventors and masons had been drawn together to build this monument, and though it was inhabited by the royal family, it was a gift to their land, a lasting symbol of the O.Z.'s resilience and colorful diversity. The halls stretched around him in a delicate maze, and he carefully noted the path his guide took so as to not get lost.

Finally, a high double doorway set in silver was the only barrier between him and the woman he'd walked away from those annuals ago. He removed his wide-brimmed hat, holding it to his chest, while his escort consulted quietly with another servant, a dark-haired woman dressed less vibrantly but just as expensively. The doors flew open with a flourish.

"Your Highness, may I present the Tin Man, Wyatt Cain."

And there she was, the Queen Dorothy Gaele, magnificent in an ice-blue gown and wearing her jeweled diadem—the Emerald Garland—upon her rich, carefully coiled hair. The soft, ethereal light of ten chandeliers gathered around her in adoration as she sat upon her intricately embroidered throne, touching upon her skin like a caress and reflecting back off it in wondrous purity. Cain's breath caught painfully where his fedora covered his heart.

She appeared to react not at all to his presence, but as he strode to the center of the impressively large room he caught her eye, and the look they shared was penetrating and deep. Her eyes lingered, deep and blue and anguished, and in a startlingly clear moment, the sparkling chandeliers, her dress, her crown, her milling retinue—none of it mattered. His composure deserted him briefly, and instead of bowing as he should, he knelt on one knee, his head low and his hands clutching his dull, gray hat over his breast; it was an ancient gesture of reverence, something he had only read of in books as a child, but an act that the moment seemed to require.

"Welcome, Mr. Cain." Her voice was soft but sure, and his heart quickened at its lilt.

"Majesty," was all he could say by way of response, his face still bowed.

He heard some rustling and lifted his eyes; she had risen and was calmly gesturing for him to do the same. He stood, their gaze locking once more.

"Johann Sebastian." She addressed her nearest advisor without taking her eyes from the Tin Man, "Mr. Cain is my last appointment for the day, correct?"

The man blinked and looked over his severely pointed nose at the notebook that was stretched out before him. "Actually, Highness…." He stopped as she sent an authoritative eye his way. "Uh, that is correct, Highness. He is your final audience."

"Good." She glanced at Cain again, quickly this time so as not to hazard a scene, and gestured for him to walk with her. "That will be all for the day, then, gentlemen. You may retire." She paused and held up a steady hand to her bodyguard. "You as well, Thomas. I'll be perfectly safe with Mr. Cain for the next few hours."

The burly, uniformed guard gave the queen a bow and then shot Cain a hard, meaningful look. Cain returned it with one of his own and Thomas nodded, turning resolutely to go about whatever business needed doing.

The queen and the Tin Man walked in silence for several minutes, climbing flights of white marble stairs that echoed with the click of her shoes and the faint swish of her silk skirt. It wasn't a tense silence, though it was uncomfortable, and Cain found himself atypically unnerved. Three annuals had passed between them, and she was unbearably quiet—unbearably regal and exquisitely beautiful. He took a deep breath, loosening the tension that had coiled in his gut; he would not let his treacherous heart dictate his thoughts this evening.

Finally, as they passed from the stairs and turned down a hallway whose stunning arches were adorned with bright and elaborate tile mosaics, she spoke, softly, not turning to look at him. "It's good to be free of my guards and in the presence of a friend."

Cain swallowed and nodded, not saying a word, cold relief washing away an anxiety that had festered in secret at the root of his disquiet. They were friends.

Rodney yelled as the gale rammed him into something solid, rough and resolute. A moment of pained wheezing followed, and then a horrifying realization had him scrambling at the tree with both hands, hoping for and failing to find traction. The wind had died down with a rapid betrayal, and Sheppard's weight on his leg was pulling him to the forest floor far below.

Both men bellowed anew, eventually landing with winded grunts on the uneven piles of pebbles and leaves that lay strewn across the dirt. They lay there, wheezing and wincing, peering through the branches above to catch a shy patch of weakly blue sky, clear and calm and cloudless as though there had never been a storm.

John was the first one up, groaning and shaking out his arms, numb from hanging on so desperately to Rodney. He turned in a circle, eyes sharp; his hands took stock of his uniform, registering a radio and the Beretta that had miraculously remained snapped into its holster. His P-90 was unfortunately lost in the storm, as was his IDC and most of the other provisions that had been stuffed in his pockets. "I wonder where it dropped us…."

Rodney was dragging himself to his feet, leaning over and propping his arms on his hands to wheeze. Before he caught his breath, however, he threw John a pained look and started bellowing.

"Katie!" His voice died quickly in the fallen brush, though he did startle a flock of unprepared sparrows into chaotic flight.

John took another look around, still breathing hard, and put the radio to his mouth. "Teyla? Ronon?"

Only static. Rodney was starting to stumble through the long shadows of the forest, bellowing for Dr. Brown. John tried again.

"Teyla? Ronon?" Pause. "Dr. Brown? Keller? This is Sheppard, come in."

Nothing—just the disappointing crackle of white noise in an otherwise silent expanse of trees. He sighed in frustration and called to his teammate. "McKay! Hey!"

"No…no, she's got to be…. Katie!"

John jogged up to him and caught him by the arm just as the scientist was fitting to let loose another shout. He looked at McKay intensely, simultaneously checking his friend for injury and communicating that he understood Rodney's fear.

A deep horror grew in the pit of Rodney's stomach at Sheppard's stare; the team was lost. The storm…they had no idea where any of them were. He fought an impending panic, breathing deep and taking a more careful look around. They had to be a terrifying distance from the 'gate; the landscape was nothing like what they had left behind. The trees were thick and crowding, and a familiar claustrophobia was kicking in on top of everything else. John seemed to understand his situation and started to walk away, hoping to distract him.

"C'mon. Let's keep looking."

An old man with white, scraggly mustaches and a distinctively sharp nose sat in a padded chair behind a comfortable—though not by any means large—desk, and when the queen slowed at the adjacent doors instead of passing, Cain assumed that this must be their destination. She smiled as she reached the gentleman, and he rose to greet her, bowing as low as his aged body would allow.

"Good evening, Anicius."

"Your Grace." His voice was gravely and hoarse, and he gave her a kind smile.

"Have Master Igor send up the usual—for two, please. And some applesauce. Remind him that he's not serving twenty, or he'll try to send a feast again."

"Of course, Your Grace." Anicius moved to open the doors to where, apparently, her living quarters were kept.

"Oh," she added as she glided through the archway, "you can have the rest of the evening to yourself. I'll have Mr. Cain grab Thomas for me when he leaves."

Anicius bowed again, slowly. "Yes, thank you, Majesty."

And with that, Cain found himself closed within a large white sitting room that faced a balcony, its windows overlooking a dense copse of forest and its walls dotted with portraits and murmuring timepieces. In the distance the speckled yellow of the Old Road was barely discernable in the fading light.

The queen sighed loudly and fairly ripped the Emerald Garland from her hair—though she used both hands and tremendous care in doing so. "Oh, am I so glad this day is over. And before you go lecturing me on wasting manpower on things I could do like that," she snapped her fingers, "all by myself, I'll have you know I've tried. I've tried and tried. But the last time I took a sneak down to the kitchens to fix a bite to eat, poor Igor nearly lost his head in hysterics; he thought I hated his cooking! He served me headcheese and oysters with every meal for a month."

Cain looked at her blankly. He wasn't quite sure how to respond to the suddenly unfettered chatter of…the queen. "Headcheese, Your Highness?"

She huffed dramatically, holding the crown in one hand and pulling off her jeweled heels with the other, barely keeping herself from an unsightly stumble in her haste. "Yes. It's this awful pate…brains and feet and tongue and all sorts of gross…stuff. I was so afraid of offending him again that I actually forced myself to eat a little each time."

Her sudden…DG-ness…left him perplexed and even more uncertain than before, but he couldn't help the telltale twitch that threatened at the corners of his lips. He covered with a clearing of his throat and a humble, "How terrible for you, Majesty."

"Oh, have your laugh, Tin Man. If I didn't find something to laugh about every night, I don't think I could do this…."

She stopped. The air felt abruptly uncomfortable, as though it was weighted down with the innumerable and suffocating worries of the monarchy. The queen looked at him quietly for a moment, and then forced a smile. Her voice was somewhat strained when she spoke again.

"Hey, you know what? I'm going to change out of this elegant torture device and into something a bit less stiff. Hang out in here for a few minutes until the food arrives, and then bring it through that," she pointed to an unmarked passageway to the left, "door. Okay?"

Again, the sudden informality left him confused, and he settled for merely nodding with his hat once again respectfully tucked to his chest.

She disappeared through the door, and the room felt empty.

The two Atlantians fought their way through the autumn-browned plant life, looking for signs of life and shouting names intermittently, Rodney's voice breaking in anxiety. He felt close to tears, but whatever happened, he couldn't break down; he had to find Katie. He could only hope she wasn't….

John stopped suddenly, looking confusedly through a rare clearing in the shedding trees; Rodney followed his gaze.

There, in the sky, setting large and with a majestic flourish of color, were two suns.

"I don't think we're on M24-559 anymore, McKay."

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A More Extended Author's Note:

I had a more difficult time with this one. This is the first time I've tried to write ship…ever…and I find that it's tricky to write emotional material for a character that is obviously very passionate, but completely and utterly undemonstrative. So…let me know how you think I did with that. And send ship-writing advice if you have it, 'cause there might just be more to come.

And…Happy New Year! Plus a day or two. mh