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The Dragon-King's Temple

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It felt like Sam had no sooner closed her eyes than she was catapulted up out of sleep – and into absolute darkness.

What – power failure? No, mission – campfire went out? Where…?

It was a soft sound – breathing that tried to be steady but couldn’t quite succeed, with an all-too-familiar hitch in it.

Veteran of a thousand infirmary sit-ins and night watches, Sam had no trouble placing that sound, no matter how sleep-addled she was. Someone just came out of a nightmare.

Her brain still was stumbling through the fog of sleep, however; her hand fell on her jacket and she had fumbled out her penlight and clicked it on before her mind had quite caught up.

Zuko’s wide, startled eyes flashed gold as the beam hit them. A moment later the boy recoiled harshly, turning pointedly away from Sam as he tried to surreptitiously rub his face clear of that betraying wetness.

Sam blinked for a moment, as her mind finally clicked into gear and the situation they were all still trapped in came crashing back into her consciousness.

Then she winced. Great move, Sammie. SG-1 had given up any pretence of keeping their night terrors to themselves – they had to, living practically in each others’ pockets as they did on missions and during the occasional (all too frequent) base lockdowns. But reaching that level of ease with each other had taken over a year. And none of them were teenage males, with all the prickly, easily bruised pride that came with the turf.

Giving Zuko a chance to piece together his composure and some semblance of dignity, Sam turned to check on Janet. The blue-white light of the penlight washed away whatever color the doctor had regained, but her lips didn’t seem to be blue anymore, and she was warm to the touch, and not shivering.

Thank God. By the time they’d gotten into shelter, Janet had been well into second-stage hypothermia, chilled to the point of incoherence. Now that she herself was warmer, Sam had to admit that she hadn’t been doing so well either. Which was part of why she hadn’t realized that Janet – smaller, lighter, with a redhead’s sensitivity to extreme temperatures, and less accustomed to strenuous physical activity under adverse conditions – would be far worse.

We should have gotten under shelter as soon as we were out of sight of the ha’tak, as soon as I realized that blizzard was coming in on us. I was so busy worrying about getting away from pursuit that I forgot we were fighting the elements as well.

Which was a very good way to get yourself killed. Especially in an extreme environment like the equivalent of a polar icefield.

Stupid, stupid, stupid!

Then again, she wasn’t exactly accustomed to traveling companions who could create the perfect shelter to hole up in, given a big enough rock.

Or who can heat it up just by breathing. Sam thought she remembered seeing occasional little puffs of flame out of the corner of her eye as they’d trekked over the ice, and she’d definitely seen them in the dark of the cave as they were warming Janet up. And she could feel the effect even now, in air of the cave that was actually comfortable even out from under the pile of coats that was acting as a blanket. Come to think of it – granted, he and Toph were sharing body heat because he was carrying her, which must have helped, but… I wonder if Zuko has a higher body temperature naturally? Or if he can use the fire-tricks to raise it, even.

Although if that were the case, he had to be burning through calories at a horrendous rate. Literally.

Frowning, Sam grabbed her jacket from the pile of coats they’d been using as blankets and began rummaging through the pockets again. She’d survived too many missions with Daniel where a “Did you eat before we left?” all too often prompted an “Um… food?” – she never went off-world without a stash of emergency nibbles anymore.

Composure apparently restored, Zuko glanced over as Sam set the penlight to face the nearest wall, using the reflected light from the wall to transform the narrow, too-bright beam to something a little more diffuse, and freeing her hands as well.

“Hungry?” Sam asked, tearing off the wrapper and shoving it into her pocket as she held the energy bar up for him to see. She took a small bite to prove it was food, then held it out to him in a clear gesture of offering – one she’d practiced on strange cultures, wild animals, stray anthropologists and cranky colonels, all to good effect.

Apparently it worked with magic kung fu kids, too. Zuko accepted the bar with a wearily resigned expression that made Sam wonder what sort of trail rations he was used to getting, but muttered something that sounded like thanks, accompanied by a tilt of his head that was almost a bow. Still looking a bit dubious, he took a cautious bite. Blinked at the taste.

Sam carefully hid a grin as the rest of the energy bar vanished. Yep. Definitely a teenager.

A yawn that apparently had been lying in ambush took advantage of that moment to pounce. Sam hastily covered it with her hand, but the sound was embarrassingly loud in the quiet.

Zuko glanced sidelong at her from under the messy mop of black hair – she wondered if he always wore it loose like that, or if he’d simply lost a hair tie somewhere in the chaos. “Okosh’tay, wari,” he said quietly.

Hm. Going by the tone, I think that was an apology. She had a pretty good guess what it was for, too. “Don’t worry about it,” she said with a dismissive wave, trusting her own tone would carry the message. Really, considering the way they’d all been sleeping in one big pile to share warmth, it was amazing that she was the only one he’d woken up.

Zuko grimaced, still looking uncomfortable as well as still somewhat drawn from strain and upset. Still embarrassed, probably. She hoped he was just bothered by her witnessing his reaction to the nightmare, rather than by having a nightmare in and of itself. Even people who’d been fighting and killing for years would have had nightmares after what he’d been through.

Sam stopped abruptly, looking at that thought and remembering the events of the escape, and needles of fire piercing Jaffa armor…

Oh, hell.

That would be fuel for nightmares, all right.

Where’s a drink when you need one?

Bad thought. Now she suddenly was aware of the fact that she was thirsty, and the Jaffa had taken just about everything she and Janet had been carrying except a few odds and ends squirreled away in pockets. Including the water canteens.

Not that that’s the kind of drink I was thinking of… Ah well. He’s not old enough for alcohol anyway. And this is no situation for getting drunk. Or even tipsy enough to take the edges off.

She cleared her throat. “Ah… Zuko?”

He’d been checking on Toph (sleeping like a rock, by the look of it – and sticking to the nearest warm body, that being Zuko, like a little green burr), but something in her tone made him look up sharply, one eye a dark-lashed oblong against pale skin, the other a glittering point among shadowed crevices as the light picked out every fold and crease of scarred skin in merciless relief.

All scars have stories. No soldier needed an anthropologist to tell them that one. Wondering what was behind that one, Sam met his gaze carefully as she asked, “First kill?”

Zuko’s brow furrowed slightly as he tilted his head, a wordless, sorry, I don’t understand.

Damn it. Never going Gate-hopping without Daniel again, I swear. How did you ask a kid if this was the first time he’d ever killed someone, when you didn’t even speak his language?

You start by breaking it down, I guess. “Um… kill.” That was easy enough. She mimed one of his fireball-punches, drew a finger across her throat – bet that’s a universal constant – and slumped dramatically. “Kill.”

From the way Zuko winced, Sam was pretty sure he got the idea. But he nodded, then mimed holding a pole that jerked – ah, he was pretending to fire a staff weapon – then pretended to take a hit to the chest and slumped. He glanced up, raising that lone eyebrow. “Kill?” he echoed.

Yeah, I think he got the idea. Now… Sam frowned. How did you convey “first”? She didn’t want him to think she was trying to give sympathy for “only one kill” – especially when she knew for a fact that his score was at least three higher than that.

Well, she might at least start with numbers, just to get him thinking in the right direction before she tried to move on to abstracts. Do I have… hah, yes! Pulling out the remaining three energy bars – Daniel wasn’t the only one to make an occasional “sustenance-related oops,” and it only made sense to carry at least one bar per member of the team anyway, just in case – she set the first down, then held up a single finger. “One.” Set the second bar next to it, raised another finger to join the first. “Two.” Third bar, third finger. “Three.”

Zuko nodded, and echoed her gesture with his own fingers, annunciating each word carefully. “One. Two. Three.” Then, somewhat to her surprise, he switched to snapping his fingers, first once, then twice, then three times. “One, two, three?”

Sam nodded in return. Now we get a bit more complicated. Picking up the three energy bars, she put them down in a row, left to right, spaced about six inches apart. “First, second, third,” she said, pointing at the bars in the order she’d put them down. Gathering them up, she repeated the process, this time going from right to left, and pointed at the rightmost. “First.” Then the tricky bit: she gathered them up again, and repeated the process, but put the center bar down first, followed by the right, then the left. “First,” she said, a little more emphatically this time, pointing at the center bar.

Zuko had watched her juggling the bars with a small frown of concentration. When Sam sat back to wait for his feedback, his frown deepened for a moment, then eased. Reaching out, he awkwardly scooped the bars up with one hand.

The same hand, Sam noted with concern, that he’d used to count and to snap his fingers.

I don’t think I’ve seen him use his left arm at all, not since… She thought back. The zat. I first noticed something was wrong after that. Come to think of it – hadn’t his left arm been raised in the initial block?

I guess it did some damage after all.

As she’d been thinking, Zuko had dropped the energy bars in a line between him and Sam, front to back. Sam shoved the concern away – not much she could do about it – and watched as he pointed to the one closest to Sam, the first he’d placed. “First?” he asked.

When Sam nodded, Zuko brightened, then looked thoughtful. “Exit,” he said unexpectedly. “Exit – Sam first?”

Sam blinked at him, then caught on to what he was trying to say and nodded. “Yes!” She had been the first out the main gate, come to think of it.

Okay, he’s got the concepts. Let’s see if we can make them work… She raised her chin, willing the solemnity of her earlier question to come back. She thought she was successful, when Zuko met her eyes gravely. Chewing her lip for a moment, Sam gave it a shot. “Jaffa. First kill?”

Hope that’s enough – he’s bright, he’s got the pieces, he should be able to put them together… Blast it, I don’t even know if his culture acknowledges someone’s first taste of lethal combat as important!

But, from the way Zuko drew in another slow, careful breath, the way his chin rose and he seemed to… not so much close off as distance himself, somehow…

Yeah. He knows what I’m trying to get at.

Iieh.” That was too calm, too level to be anything but a “no,” even without the shake of his head in negation. “First janah ka’ta.”

Sam released the breath that she hadn’t even realized she’d been holding. Thank god. I had no idea how I was going to talk a combat neophyte through his first post-battle crash when we can barely communicate…

…He’s a kid. And this wasn’t the first time he’s killed?

Note to self, walk him home through the Gate. I have some parents to pound.

The worst part was… she wasn’t surprised. Lethal experience fit with the rough profile she’d built for Zuko in her head.

He’s a combat veteran. Both of them are. With a readiness to face target-rich environments that reminded her of Teal’c and Jack.

Or maybe Daniel. What was it he said? It had been after another crisis-of-the-week, while everyone was still in, “hey, we’re all mostly alive, how about that?” mode. “People say ‘someone has to do something,’ and they always leave out the other half – ‘and that someone is me.’ After all – if not me, then who?

Zuko was watching her, mostly expressionless but with a wary edge in his eyes. Sam nodded her acceptance of his answer with a small smile. He nodded, briefly, and they both turned away slightly – giving each other a bit of space, even if the ‘space’ was mostly a comfortable illusion in the tiny cave.

“If not me, then who,” indeed. They rescued themselves, Sam mused, still following that train of thought. Heck, they’re the ones who rescued us. And even when they were being pushed to the limit, back during that last rush – they weren’t expecting anyone to rescue them. Not even me or Janet, when they knew we were right there. They didn’t expect any backup, except from each other.

Although there were some differences between the two. Toph… the girl was as tough and pragmatic as they came, but at heart, Toph was a brawler. It was all there in the attitude, the way she pushed herself forward to take on all comers, in the way she psyched herself up with sass, in the way she reacted when she met something she couldn’t fight. While Zuko…

He’s trained. Military training. And not just military…

He’d found a way to match Sam almost immediately; they’d worked out a rough but functional communication system within a minute or two. He’d figured out what Sam could and couldn’t do, and adjusted his fighting to fit his abilities with hers – just as she had.

He’d cleaned up the bodies while Sam hacked the computer. Should have realized then that he wasn’t a stranger to killing.

Then there was the audacious trick he’d pulled, hiding them practically in plain sight in the corridor. And Sam had been pretty out of it herself by the time they’d stopped last night, but she remembered that while Toph had been the one actually making their cozy little cave, Zuko had talked her through what to make, and through the hypothermia treatment afterward.

Tactics, infiltration, survival… huh. Maybe I should start calling him the magic ninja kid.

Wait. Last night?

Suddenly alarmed, Sam pressed the button to illuminate her watch, and swore softly.

Four hours until we miss the dial-in deadline and go on temporary lockout. And we still need to find the Gate – and dodge the Jaffa while we’re doing it.

Time to start moving.

 

~~Even the Dragon-King’s temple floods.~~

 

The problem of water, at least, proved easily enough solved. Toph scurried down the tunnel and returned, with a stone bowl filled with snow.

Returned shivering, and promptly made a beeline for the warmest thing in the cave. Zuko yelped – apparently the thin cloth of his shirt didn’t offer much protection against cold feet shoved into his side. Toph’s dismissive hand wave and imperious reply had to work its way out of the pile of coats she’d burrowed under. The boy shook his head, looking bemused, and shifted his focus to the snow-filled bowl she’d shoved at him.

After only a few slow, controlled breaths, the white crystals began to darken and collapse in on themselves. Soon the snow had melted into water – water that soon began to steam.

“Now that’s handy,” Janet murmured, glancing at Sam as Toph emerged from her cocoon with a rough stone cup in hand. Warm liquid to drink would help them stay hydrated and fight off hypothermia.

“Maybe. I’d rather not ask him to wear himself out keeping us warm,” Sam said, frowning. “I still don’t know how their tech works, but energy doesn’t come from nowhere. For the time being, I’m inclined to consider their ‘magic’ tricks the equivalent of heavy lifting.”

Janet nodded as Toph finished her cupful and handed the makeshift mug over to Zuko. Physical exertion did help fight hypothermia – but exhaustion would help it set in all the faster. She hadn’t missed how quickly Toph had inhaled her energy bar. And even then, the girl had insisted on sharing part of it with Zuko, despite the boy’s attempts to object. (In fact, Toph’s method of insisting had been to wait until Zuko opened his mouth to refuse, then shove a third of her bar into it to silence him.)

Janet had worried, briefly, about allergens. But it was clear that the kids needed food, and Zuko had apparently already eaten one bar with no harm done. Besides – these were Daniel-approved energy bars. You couldn’t find many foods more innocuous than that.

Zuko tried to pass the bowl of hot water over to her one-handed, but either it was heavier than he’d expected or the bowl was too unwieldy, or both; his grip fumbled and he nearly dropped the water all over himself and the coats before Sam swooped in and rescued it.

Janet tried to smile at the pale boy as he passed her the rough stone mug, although her heart was still trying to apply the brakes after the close call, itself. A dousing here might not be the disaster it could have been out in the elements – here, at least, they were out of the wind and warm. But they would have had to stop and wait for their things to dry – she didn’t know if Zuko could dry things without actually burning them, and wasn’t inclined to try it and see with one of their few coats

And we’re on a deadline.

Plain, hot water – well, it sure as hell wasn’t coffee. But Janet wasn’t inclined to be picky at the moment. Handing the mug off to Sam when she’d finished, Janet said, “I want to check Zuko’s arm before we go.” Not that there was much she could do, probably, but the utter unresponsiveness of his left arm worried her. She couldn’t just move on without at least checking for the sort of damage that might be worsened without some sort of treatment.

Sam chewed on her lower lip for a moment, then grimaced and nodded. “I need to check the lay of the land, try and get my bearings. We don’t have much margin for error.”

As Sam squirmed her way down the hole in the floor that was the exit of their cave, Janet cleared her throat to get Zuko’s attention. “Let me take a look at that arm.”

He blinked at her. Janet sighed. She’d worked with people who didn’t speak English – or any Terran language, for that matter – before, but there’d always been an interpreter handy. She gestured to her own left arm, then his. “Your arm. Please?”

Zuko hesitated, clearly understanding her message – these were two smart kids – but equally clearly trying to decide how far he trusted her. Frustrating, but understandable. Fighting alongside someone in shared extenuating circumstances was quite different from letting them see just how badly you might be injured. After a few moments, however, he sighed and shifted to present his left shoulder. And then reached across with his right hand and picked the left up.

Disturbing. Particularly since partial paralysis was not a typical side-effect of a zat blast. Then again, I’m not sure I should be expecting anything about that particular blast to be typical, Janet had to admit to herself, remembering the sight of Zuko wreathed in blue-white arcs before suddenly flinging the light back the way it had come. Think of it as keraunoparalysis, for the time being. Temporary paralysis of extremities was a known side-effect of electrical trauma.

But when she took his wrist in one hand, supporting his elbow with the other, she found his arm warm to the touch rather than chilled. She couldn’t really verify whether there were any signs of cyanosis, thanks to the blue-white penlights. I wish we had better light! But his fingernail bed paled and then regained color reassuringly quickly when she applied pressure and then released it, she didn’t see any signs of mottling, and his pulse was steady and even, if a bit slow – not surprising in someone so athletic.

All right, so we can rule out problems in circulation. That meant the culprit was probably something in the nervous system. Makes sense. Zats are designed to target the nerves.

First things first. “Can you feel this?” she asked, tapping the normally sensitive skin on the inside of the elbow. Zuko frowned at her, then shook his head – showing incomprehension, not negation.

Bother… sorry about this, kiddo. With no warning, she pinched the inside of his elbow as hard as she could.

Itai!” Zuko yelped, trying to yank his arm back by twisting his shoulders away.

The next thing Janet knew, Toph had shoved her way between them and was directing a fearsome scowl at Janet from point blank range.

Chira-bi oh ijime’teh ii nowah,” the girl declared, jerking a thumb at her own chest, “konoh Toph sh’kanay!

No stranger to quirky friendships, Janet had no trouble translating Toph’s tone to a rather Jackian, “The only person who gets to pick on him is me!” – especially when Toph punctuated it with a pointed punch to Zuko’s shoulder, prompting a yelp and a soft growl as he rubbed it with his good hand and scowled at her.

“Sorry,” Janet said apologetically, still the target of a truly impressive Evil Eye for a blind girl as Toph reluctantly stood down. Picking up Zuko’s hand again – and smiling sheepishly at his suspicious look – she tried tapping at his elbow again. “Um… ee-tah-ee?” she said, trying to approximate what he’d yelped and hoping he got the idea.

The baleful look he gave her said very clearly, you couldn’t have found a better way to ask? But he nodded, and continued to nod as Janet worked her way over his arm, verifying that there were no numb areas. In fact, if she were to guess, she’d say that the nerves might even be unusually sensitive.

No burn, though. Because he channeled the energy of the blast, or is he simply more resistant to heat?

“Well, we’ve made it as far as the mountains. Not quite sure where in the mountains, though.” Sam’s expression was dark as she set the bowl, once again filled with snow, on the floor before levering herself up and out of the tunnel.

Janet bit her lip. “Can we make it back to the Gate in time?” Less than four hours’ margin to find a single valley in the mountains? She had a feeling she already knew the answer.

“I don’t know,” Sam admitted reluctantly. “I want to try. We have to get back and report, before another team gets sent straight into the teeth of those Jaffa.” And we can’t last here for long, she obviously thought but didn’t say. On unspoken agreement, the two SGC officers had split a single energy bar – but that still only left one, and whatever they could scavenge. Assuming there even was anything they could actually eat on this frozen planet.

On the other hand. Hiking through polar mountains, with minimal supplies (two staff weapons, four Jaffa coats, two pairs of oversized Jaffa mittens, what they were wearing, and the contents of their pockets: two penlights, one energy bar, two multitools, and a finely made dagger that Zuko had been carrying) and only the vaguest idea of where you were going? There was a word for that.

Sam turned slightly away, obviously struggling with the same uncertainty. “How’s his arm?” she asked, changing the subject with an abruptness that didn’t surprise Janet.

“Beyond muscular paralysis, I’m not sure,” Janet said. “Hopefully it’s temporary; I think it should be, but I’ve never seen a zat victim respond this way, though.”

“Most zat victims don’t hold the energy in a concentrated form for several seconds before shooting it back out again,” Sam said dryly. “I really want to know how he did that. And without disintegrating himself.”

“I’d settle for him not needing to do it again,” Janet said pointedly, then sighed and shook her head. “There isn’t anything much I can do. He should probably keep it in a sling, just to get it out of the way, but we don’t exactly have the material to make one.”

“I think he’s ahead of you.”

Janet looked over her shoulder, surprised, to see that Zuko had pulled his paralyzed arm inside his tunic, and was currently struggling to tuck the garment tight around his arm and tie the sash closed again, all one-handed. “That works,” she admitted, and reached over, taking the ends of the sash. “Here, let me…”

To her surprise, Zuko recoiled a little, looking wide-eyed and a little flustered. Janet smiled at him and rolled her eyes a little, tying the sash snugly enough to hold his tunic firmly closed around his arm. “I’m not going to bite, you know.”

Sam coughed something that sounded suspiciously like watch out for the needles though, and Janet tossed a mock-glare over her shoulder as she tugged on the hem of Zuko’s tunic to help him straighten it out. Only to have her hands hastily batted away by a very flustered teenager.

Toph laughed and elbowed Zuko roughly in the side, smirk sly as she said something that made him stare wide-eyed at her – then suddenly look from her, to Sam, to Janet, and turn bright red, despite the washed-out light.

Sam laughed ruefully. “I think someone just realized he spent the night with three partially-dressed ladies.”

Janet stifled a laugh of her own. Poor kid.

 

~~Even the Dragon-King’s temple floods.~~

 

The problem with having an earthbender for a friend was that even if the floor did obligingly swallow you up, she’d just make it spit you back out again. Yes, Mai had helped him with dressing when he was recovering from Azula’s lightning, but – Mai was his girlfriend. That was different!

And if Toph made that harem joke around said girlfriend, well… Zuko would get back at her. Somehow. Although it would probably have to be from beyond the grave…

Cursing his firebender-pale skin, Zuko raised his chin and pointedly ignored the cackling earthbender. And Janet’s indulgent smile, too. Instead, he focused on Sam, who at least looked a little sheepish. A bit like Sokka – laughing at the joke in part because she knew she’d probably be the butt of the next one.

Come to think of it, Sam seems to be the Plan Guy, too. “Sam. Where, go-in?”

Well, that took care of the laughing. Sam sighed and rubbed at her eyes, then looked thoughtful. “Where… chappa’ai. Chappa’ai, go-in.

Toph puffed her cheeks out. “Well, that’s helpful,” she muttered sarcastically. “You ever hear of this… cha-cha thing?”

Zuko shook his head. “Haven’t a clue.” He tried to put his confusion into his face as he echoed, “Chappa’ai? What is that?”

Sam looked a little taken aback, then curious. Had she expected them to know the term or something? Zuko shrugged under the questioning stare and shook his head. “Sorry.”

Sam grimaced, running a hand through her strange hair – then began going through her pockets with an fervor that told Zuko she was looking for something. A few moments later, she was dropping down to sit cross-legged next to him, a strange, short, metallic stick in one hand, and an odd little book no bigger than the palm of her hand, only loosely bound together by a spiraling wire at the top. She flipped to a blank page, pushed on a little button at the end of the stick, and…

“Whoa.”

“Whazzup?” Toph had been fetching the refilled bowl of snow; now she paused, brows drawn together in puzzlement. “Paper?”

“Yeah. Self-inking brush… kinda.” It wasn’t a brush, exactly, the lines were bizarrely even and unexpressive, but… “Note to self, don’t let Sokka get his hands on that thing. He’s a menace as it is.”

“What, ‘cause he thinks he’s an artist? I happen to think his paintings are great!”

“What, really…” Argh. “Don’t do that!”

Toph just cackled and shoved the bowl of snow into his lap. “Make with the steam, kettle-kid. I’ll have a longjing with a trace of chamomile.”

“Do you have any idea how weird it is that you like quiet teas – what? I traveled with Uncle for years, even I learned a thing or two.” Scowling, he pointedly ignored her snickering as he glanced at the picture Sam was sketching with that bizarre writing thing. Two circles, one slightly inside the other. Seven triangles around them, connecting the two. Open at the bottom, although now Sam was adding a flat line…

Erk.

Without thinking, he grabbed her wrist, making the writing tool slip a bit and leave a long black line down the paper. “That…” What was the word she’d used? “Chappa’ai?

She nodded. “Sta-geit.”

That was helpful. Not. Two words for the same thing?

“Sparky?” Toph asked carefully. She’d probably picked up on the lurch of his heart.

Zuko eyed the picture. “Toph… remember that spirit-ring we were looking at?”

“The one in the ruins?” Toph was deadly serious now. “The one that had you all twitchy and made the hair dance on my toes? Even before those weird clunk-feet came through and started blasting things?” She broke off abruptly, stopping the slow rise of her voice in both volume and pitch.

“I think that’s what Sam’s looking for.”

Toph was silent for a long moment. “Appa turds,” she muttered at last, clearly fighting to shove the unease out of her expression. She rallied a moment later. “Well, that’s going to be a bit tricky. ‘Cause last I checked, we sure weren’t in your old Fire Nation ruins anymore. Unless you guys have some really freaky weather going on.”

“Of course we don’t. Aang’s not expected to drop by for a few more days yet.” Unfair, yes. Zuko wasn’t feeling very fair at the moment. Especially when it came to spirits. Although… that didn’t feel like a spirit-place, exactly. And neither does this place… “Maybe there’s more than one?”

Better to think about that, than how they’d gotten here. Or where “here” was.

Zuko had been to the poles before. Both of them. And this… place… didn’t feel right.

The sun is wrong.

He could feel it, far away, somewhere on the other side of the world. He was a firebender – he knew the sun. He could feel where it was, feel its slow progress towards the eastern horizon and sunrise. It felt… slow, distant, in a way he’d never sensed before.

That strange silver water that appeared when the energy surged… was that a gateway into the spirit world?

Except that this wasn’t the spirit world. They could bend here.

Enough. Focus. That – thing – was some sort of doorway. The Jaffa came through it. You already guessed that they took you and Toph through to the other side – to wherever they came from.

If that was the case – maybe there was another one here. And that would hopefully be able to take them home.

And if it can’t… we’ll just find another way. Somehow.

Something of his thoughts must have shown on his face, because Sam looked at him thoughtfully, then said. “U’ii…” She waved an arm at herself and the red-haired woman sitting back and watching them talk. “Sam, Janet. Tau’ri.” She pointed to another sketch – a symbol of some kind? An open-ended, downward-turned triangle, with a tiny circle at the top.

The word made no more sense to Zuko than Chappa’ai or Sta-geit. But Janet started and looked at Sam with wide eyes, asking something in a tone that verged on demanding. Sam shrugged and replied, but her eyes stayed on Zuko’s, watching his reaction.

She expects it to mean something? Looking up to meet Sam’s eyes, he shook his head and shrugged.

Her gaze took on a speculative edge at that, one that immediately made him wary. More thoughtful than plotting, but…

Azula. Ozai. Even Uncle, when he was thinking for the good of the world. Zuko had acquired certain reservations about being the target of contemplation.

Best to offer a distraction – and a change of subject. “This… Sta-geit? Where?”

…why did Sam just wince?

But she flipped back a page or two of her odd book, to another sketch, a series of jagged lines curling around one edge, a small circle standing out among them, a few other jagged lines across the page, and a triangle on the other side. Pretty nonsensical…

Or, it didn’t make sense, until Sam pointed at the little circle and said, “Sta-geit.

It’s a map, Zuko realized, as jagged lines settled into the lines of mountains and ridges. A reasonably detailed map, no less, if somewhat clumsily drawn… Ah. Sam must have done that when she went to get more snow for water, when her hands had been in those giant mittens Janet had appropriated. The bowl she’d brought back was still sitting on his lap, and the chill was quickly seeping through the travel-silks designed for the early autumn of the Fire Nation, not this polar wasteland. He set his functional hand on one side of the bowl and breathed, stirring the chi that called sparks of heat to sink into crystals of ice, as Sam moved her finger to indicate the triangle on the other edge of the paper. “Ha’tak. Ah… Jaffa.

Jaffa were the soldiers they fought… Ha’tak must be the strange place they’d escaped last night, then.Inhale, exhale; the snow was melting quickly now. “What about us?” He frowned, thinking back, then tried the term Sam had used earlier. “Um – u’ii, where?”

Sam winced again, and turned up her free hand in a gesture of helplessness.

She doesn’t know? Why…

Zuko stopped that thought, remembering the night before, walking through a wall of darkness and white billows of snow. He’d been so tired that he hadn’t even noticed that something was wrong with the sun, but at least he’d still been able to feel it. It had let him keep track of what direction they’d been going in. Sort of. But Sam and Janet weren’t benders. For all they knew, they’d spent half of that trek going in circles.

Darn it… wait. He paused, eyeing an odd little perpendicular cross on one corner of the paper. Too even to be anything natural, too big to be a landmark of some kind, and that odd zig-zag at the top didn’t look like the mountain-scribbles. If this is a map – that must be the compass. I think we were more or less traveling in the direction of sunset when we escaped – west, although we were drifting south. Although that was harder to verify now; the sun must be near zenith on the other side of whatever benighted place this was supposed to be. And sun-direction near the poles could be unreliable.

An earthbender is never lost. “Toph? Which way is north?”

Toph tilted her head curiously. “Why?”

“Trying to figure out where we are.”

“Hm.” She turned sharply on her heel, arms out like the needle of a compass, and stopped with her hands pointing at two opposite corners of their almost-square cave – nearly poking Janet in the face before the woman hastily ducked. Then the earthbender dropped one hand, leaving the other pointing at its corner. “North’s thataway.”

Huh. Interesting. Normally, a firebender’s gift for sensing the sun was less useful for determining direction the closer you got to the poles – strange angles got mixed into it, especially near the solstices, because the sun wasn’t really shifting position relative to you all that much. But if that was north…

Don’t worry about it at the moment. “We should be close to some mountains, west of us.”

“We’re knocking on their slopes right now.”

“How close?”

Toph’s grin settled into the blank look she often had when she was being totally, completely serious. “We’re in a low spur, I think. But the ridge of it just keeps going up.” Her hands traced a fairly sharp slope, with a curve. “Heads north-ish the higher it gets. I think the nearest peak is…” She hesitated, then breathed slowly and deeply, the solid stone under her feet crunching as her toes sank into it and she listened. “…well, maybe a little over half a mile? I can feel it, but not that clearly.”

And Toph’s range for big landmarks tended to be about half a mile, so long as the earth she was feeling was reasonably of a piece in composition. That was how she’d found the bunkers in the lip of the caldera of the capital; the old volcano was essentially all one piece of stone. “Is that going over the mountains, or along the ground?”

“As the Appa flies.” Toph made a face. “Twinkletoes always complained if I did actual surface distance.”

Right. Zuko let the heating meditation settle him as he tried to make rough calculations match Sam’s sketchy map. If that was north, then they had strayed south a little during their trek. That would put them on the trailing arc of mountains towards the bottom of the page. But if it was half a mile to the peaks, roughly, and he was right about how far they’d walked last night – and he was fairly confident; Uncle had hammered it into his head that you always made sure you knew how to backtrack when crossing unfamiliar territory, which meant keeping track of where you’d been…

The water was actually simmering in its bowl now, and the heat seeping through the stone was actually verging on uncomfortable even for a firebender. He winced, breathing away some of the heat and venting it into the air of the cave instead, and Janet reached over and took the bowl without being asked, using the sleeves of one of the coats as makeshift mitts to to insulate her hands. Zuko couldn’t help wishing he had it back for a moment – at least the heat had been a distraction from the ceaseless painful pins-and-needles feeling in his unresponsive left arm.

Still, he could feel the arm now. Even if he couldn’t move it at all, or even move his chi in it.

Worry later. At least now his good hand was free. And if his estimate was correct… “Here,” he said, and pointed at the bend where the mountains turned north. “U’ii, where, here.” About a mile from the Sta-geit. Although how much distance that actually represented, in terms of altitude and switchback trails and dead ends…

Not to mention, enemies.

On the other hand, going by the stunned look on Sam’s face and the slowly brightening one on Janet’s… well, he’d seen looks like that on captive waterbenders when he and Katara had gone to Ozai’s prisons to heal and free them.

Hope.

 

~~Even the Dragon-King’s temple floods.~~

 

“I like them.”

Sam looked over her shoulder at Janet, although between the darkness and Janet’s hood, she couldn’t make out much of an expression. P4X-684 had a rotation cycle nearly twice that of Earth, and if her estimate was correct, they’d escaped the ha’tak not long after sunset – part of the blizzard was probably the transition from cold-but-bearable daylight to frickin’-freezing night. A freezing night they were now perhaps halfway through, and the starlight was covered over by scuttling clouds. Although they were beginning to break apart at long last, offering teasing glimpses of stars far brighter than most modern humans ever saw.

“They’re good kids,” she agreed, glancing back. Toph and Zuko made an odd figure, bundled up under two over-large Jaffa coats. Toph had not been pleased about the continuing need to be carried; now that they were mostly walking on stone rather than ice, she wanted to walk.

Janet’s right. She must be getting some sort of feedback through the ground in order to see.

If that was the case – Sam couldn’t blame her for hating being out of contact with the ground. But just because the stone wasn’t ice didn’t mean it couldn’t freeze her bare feet with just as much harmful effect as the ice itself, in these temperatures.

And beyond that… she and Janet would have loved to help carry Toph, if only to take some of the burden (and subsequent energy drain) off the one member of their group who could help the rest of them stay warm, but there was another reason the kids needed to double up. Under those stolen Jaffa coats, their clothing was all lightweight stuff, meant for a much warmer climate.

Zuko might be able to breathe fire to warm up – and Sam had caught him doing exactly that while he and Toph were getting arranged, before he’d been able to pull the coats on – but she was willing to bet it took a toll of energy he didn’t really have to spare. And Toph didn’t have that option.

She reached the top of the ridge and offered Janet a hand up. The doctor accepted. “Very – oof – good kids,” she agreed, grunting as she scrambled up the last, particularly steep bit of slope. “But that’s not quite what I meant.”

“Oh?” Sam reached down and offered Zuko a hand as well. With only one arm mobile and Toph throwing his balance, he needed the help – and even so, he scrambled up with an ease that had a jealous bit of Sam’s mind sniffing, teenagers.

Zuko leaned against a rock briefly, probably catching his breath. He opened the collar of his coat a bit, and Sam saw a pale little hand reach out to press against the stone, and heard a brief consultation before Toph’s hand retreated back into warmth and he closed the collar again.

Doko?” Sam asked, and tried not to reflect on the irony of a blind girl being their guide.

Zuko pointed. “Asoko. Up.”

Following his pointing finger, Sam noted a shelf twisting its way along the side of the ridge, higher and higher. They were nearly off the spur they’d sheltered in and into the mountains proper now. She nodded, and Zuko curled his fingers into a warmth-saving fist and tucked it back into his pocket, then stood back to let Sam and Janet take the lead.

Another bit of irony, that their guide had to take the rear. But given that Zuko was carrying the weight of two people, it worked better for Sam and Janet to lead.

At least the kids seemed relaxed; Sam could hear them talking quietly inside the coat.

As for their own conversation, Janet waited until they’d started up the new trail before admitting, “They remind me of… well, you.”

“Me?” Sam blinked.

“Not just you, really. SG-1.” She could hear the smile in Janet’s voice. “It’s all in the attitude. ‘Kidnapped by crazy aliens who think they’re gods? Time to start busting heads.’ Going up against things that are bigger and badder than you and winning by luck, grit, and creative planning. Sound familiar?”

Sam blinked, and had to admit that it did. She held that thought up against her own observation of the kids, and shook her head. “I wish Daniel were here.”

“I wouldn’t mind seeing some cavalry myself. Or did you have a specific reason in mind?”

“He would know if I’m just fooling myself, or if what I suspect might really be true.”

Janet moved a little closer as the trail narrowed, and pointedly did not look towards the drop-off. “Which is?”

“That Zuko and Toph aren’t from a slave world.”

Janet looked at her, startled. Then her eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “The Jaffa didn’t speak their language – which is not Abydonian. They didn’t recognize Jaffa, or Chappa’ai, or even Tau’ri…”

“…and just about every human society touched by Goa’uld has at least stories of the rebel planet.” Sam nodded. “And they’re educated.”

“They are?”

“Well, Zuko is. I’m not sure about Toph. It’s just little things – like the map. Most people don’t think about it, but maps are pretty complex things. It takes training to read one – visualization, symbolic interpretation… We don’t usually think about it, because we learn map-reading in elementary school, but believe me, I’ve been to a lot of worlds where they wouldn’t know a map if you hit them over the head with one and walked them through every symbol.”

“And Zuko knew exactly what he was looking at, and extrapolated more.”

“Yeah.” And how had Toph known where the planet’s magnetic poles were? That was a neat trick. “And then… what you said. It’s the attitude.” She shrugged. “When you get down to it… they think like us. Like Tau’ri – people who haven’t been yoked under the Goa’uld for millennia.”

Janet was quiet for a good minute as she chewed on that. Finally… “I hadn’t heard anything about other worlds successfully rebelling.”

Sam snorted. “You’re thinking of the Tok’ra. You assume they’d tell us.”

“I do think they’d be inclined to hold the knowledge of another free world they could get hosts from over our heads.”

Sam shivered. She’d seen the sort of firepower – literally in Zuko’s case – the kids could bring to bear. The thought of someone like that, taken as a host? Brrr.

Assuming it was even possible to take them as hosts. Whatever tech they used, it had to be messing with their physiology somehow, given that she’d yet to see a control device and that it seemed to draw directly on the energy reserves of their own bodies. Then there was Zuko’s ability to, well, breathe fire, and apparently manipulate his own internal temperature.

I think any Goa’uld that tried to snake him would regret that decision.

Still. “Point,” she conceded, and then shook her head. “But that just takes us back to the original problem. Where did they come from?”

“And if they don’t know anything about the Stargate,” Janet said slowly, “how do we send them back?”

…oh, hell.

Maybe the kids were local? The survey team had been fairly certain that other than the inhabitants of the small Ancient research lab millennia ago, this world had never hosted humanoid life – but, well, survey teams had been spectacularly wrong in the past. There might be some explanation for why they were dressed in lightweight clothing on an ice world, and why they weren’t adapted to the ambient temperature…

Keep telling yourself that, and maybe you’ll… Oh. Not good.

Sam had reached the crest of the rise they’d been climbing. She looked down, and groaned. Some force had split the mountain deeply right here, leaving a deep crevasse between where they stood and where the ridge continued on the other side, a good twenty feet away and five feet higher. And the crevasse…

Sheer, and I don’t like the look of those rocks.

Janet sighed heavily, breath a white cloud. “I guess even Toph makes mistakes sometime.”

“Dammit.” Sam glared at the other side of the crevasse. If they could just get across – the Stargate couldn’t be that far. Maybe even within Toph’s sensing range – she’d mapped a ha’tak, and from the way she and Zuko had conferred, she had a pretty good mental picture of this span of the mountains. Sam was willing to bet that a concentrated mass of naquadah like the Stargate would be like a flashing neon billboard to whatever feedback system Toph used to see.

But they’d have to get across this somehow, and from here, that would take an hour or two at best, time they really didn’t have to spare…

Makaseroh’teba, chira-bi!”

Turning, Sam blinked as the lump under Zuko’s coat squirmed, then dropped, and Toph slid down the boy’s back to drop onto the ground. She yelped at her bare feet hit the frozen stone, then bit her lip as the sound echoed, painfully loud, across the half-circle of cliff and ridge they’d been edging their way along.

“Dammit, she’s going to freeze…” Janet growled, but Sam caught her before she could stomp over to the girl.

“Give her a minute,” she said as Toph danced from foot to foot towards the edge of the crevasse, looking like someone dancing on hot coals, or rather burningly cold stone – although she didn’t move out from between the blind girl and the point where trail became sheer drop-off.

Already shivering, Toph stopped a few feet away, sighed heavily, and tucked the ends of the massively oversized Jaffa coat she was wearing under her bare feet for some insulation against the cold stone. Then she extended a hand and rested it against the ledge.

A moment later, a smirk bloomed on her face and she straightened, flapping her hands impatiently at them. “Jama-jama-jama! Dokeh!

That didn’t require any translation. Glancing at each other, Sam and Janet let Toph herd them back from the edge. Then Toph drew herself up, turned, and sharply slid her leading foot sideways, towards the slope.

A long finger of rock shot out of their side of the crevasse and connected with the far side, at just enough of an angle that they would be able to scramble up and over the lip of the ridge.

Sam shook her head as Toph pumped her arm victoriously, then trotted across the stone bridge on her own. Zuko huffed in what might have been annoyance or resigned amusement and followed close behind her.

Next to Sam, Janet breathed out shakily. “I keep thinking that I’ve gotten used to that. Then they pull something else out of a hat.”

Sam shook her head and eyed the slender spur of stone thoughtfully. It looked horribly narrow and delicate against the shadows of the crevasse. But… I doubt Toph would make something that she didn’t trust to hold.

“After you,” she said. Janet nodded and began making her careful way across the stone bridge. On the other side, Zuko had already shrugged off his coat and knelt for Toph to climb onto his back and arrange the tail of her coat around both of them again.

Sam stood back to scan the valley and ridges of their surroundings, searching for signs of pursuit or surveillance. Thus far, their trek had been quiet and solitary – but she wasn’t counting on that lasting. Toph’s stone-shaping wasn’t loud, exactly – more the clop of blocks shifting against blocks. But sound carried terrifyingly well in this frozen landscape.

Nothing. No hint of Jaffa patrols, no death gliders swooping overhead, not even a glint of metal or hint of movement in the shadows. Snow, ice, stone, and utter stillness.

Wish I could decide if that’s a good thing, or a bad one.

Good – well, that was obvious. No pursuit meant no pursuit.

Bad… they were making for the Stargate. The Goa’uld had to know that. Meaning the Stargate was guarded. If they weren’t seeing any Jaffa…

Are we going the wrong way?

Or maybe the hairs on her neck were tap-dancing for an entirely different reason.

After all – just because I see them, it doesn’t follow that they aren’t there.

“You’re good,” Janet called softly, and Sam glanced across the crevasse to see that Janet had made the crossing and was helping Zuko pull his own coat on over Toph again. She had a sinking feeling that the boy and Toph were both shivering.

Hope they don’t have to pull this stunt again. We don’t really have energy to spare for them to dump all their heat.

The darkness lightened when Sam was half-way across the stone bridge, as the clouds finally parted for real and starlight filtered down. Sam wasn’t certain she was particularly grateful – not when the light illuminated the sharp edges of broken volcanic stone at the bottom of the crevasse, debris from whatever force had split this part of the ridge in two. She breathed a sigh of relief when she made it to the other side safely.

Even the nerves, however, couldn’t stop her from muttering, “That, is one handy trick.”

Daniel, she knew, would probably gush about the forms of architecture available to people who could make stone move as they pleased. And no doubt want to know all about the sort of culture that would develop around a technology that broke the laws of physics. Sam…

Toph had just turned what could have been a half-day’s detour into a five-minute crossing. The logistical implications were… intriguing.

“Very,” Janet agreed. Then, in a more solemn voice, “How much time do we have?”

“About two hours.” Sam couldn’t check her watch easily, buried as it was under layers of coat and mittens, with the bite of sub-zero air against her wrist any time she broke those layers as an additional deterrent against pushing her sleeves back to check – but they had only had about three hours by the time they’d made their plans and left the cave. And after all the race-against-the-clock, down-to-the-last-second close calls she’d survived, Sam had acquired a fairly accurate internal clock.

Janet bit her lip. “That’s… not much time.”

“It’s still time. I’m not giving up until we’ve used every last scrap of it.”

Sam checked her grip on the staff-weapon – she wanted to be able to fire the thing on a moment’s notice, but with the oversized mittens she couldn’t rely on touch to find the trigger – and turned to Zuko, meaning to verify that they should continue up the ridge.

Her query stopped short on her tongue. Zuko stood with his head tilted back, good eye nearly circular with shock and the scarred left nearly as wide as he stared upward.

Glider? Aircraft? Dammit, I didn’t hear… Sam spun sharply, ready to make a stand…

Nothing. Wind, the last remnants of clouds scattering from a star-strewn sky…

…Oh.

Sam relaxed her defensive stance with an honest wince of sympathy. She didn’t know how many trips through the Gate it had taken before something small and primal coiled in her gut had stopped panicking whenever she looked up at the night sky to see utterly alien stars. Even to this day, she couldn’t help a little shiver of dislocation.

Oh, kid, do I ever know how you feel.

And this reaction pretty much put paid to any lingering thoughts that the kids might be native to this ice-world. And if they don’t know about Stargates and Goa’uld and all that – how am I supposed to explain it? Or even just tell him that it’ll be all right?

Toph had apparently picked up on Zuko’s tension. “Nani?” she demanded sharply – a term that Sam was, by now, fairly certain meant What?

Hoshi,” Zuko replied in a numb voice.

Hoshi,” Sam echoed, and got a surprised look as her voice pulled Zuko from wherever his thoughts were. “Star?” She pointed up at the sky. Talking did require words, after all – and Daniel wasn’t here to shoulder the burden. They had to start somewhere.

“Star?” he echoed curiously. Then his eyes suddenly widened. “Stargate?”

Janet whistled quietly. “They pick things up fast, don’t they?”

“Looks like.” Thank goodness for that. Things would be a lot trickier if the kids weren’t so quick on the uptake. Sam nodded to confirm Zuko’s words.

His reaction was… interesting. Eyes still round disks of gold, Zuko slowly tilted his head back – to Toph’s grumbling – to look at the star-spangled sky again. Looked at Sam and Janet. Flickered his gaze over snow and ice and black stone. Paled.

And proceeded to swear like a Marine.

 

~~Even the Dragon-King’s temple floods.~~

 

“Wait, you think we’re on… another star?”

“Makes sense, doesn’t it?” Sparky’s voice was still a little shaky, but he’d stopped swearing. “The sun feels wrong. Strange. That spirit-ring, the Sta-geit or whatever they call it… it was a door to somewhere. And… This isn’t the spirit world. But it’s not our world, either.”

Way, way creepy. “Come on, Sparky. Stars are stars. Little sparkly lights in the sky. Even I know that, and I’m blind!”

She heard the sound of feet against stone, and felt Zuko shift his weight as he started walking. “They’re not just little lights in the sky. They’re suns, Toph. Or rather, our sun’s a star, too. We’re just a lot closer to it than we are to the stars.”

Toph’s grip tightened as she thought about it. Sokka said there were lots of stars in the sky. If they were all just really, really far-away suns… “Really?” she asked, and kicked herself for sounding so tentative. “Wait, how do you know?”

“Toph – eclipses. Sozin’s Comet. Believe me – the Fire Nation has a lot of reasons to keep an eye on the sky.” Zuko shivered a little, although what with the two of them squeezed together under the coats, things were actually a little toasty. “Besides. I’m a firebender, Toph. I know the sun just like you know the earth gates. Firebenders have always known that our world circled the sun, and that our sun was kin to the stars.”

“Maybe you’re just misreading the stars?” she tried tentatively. “Katara only managed in the desert because Sokka had stolen a star map…”

Katara didn’t know…?” Zuko’s incredulous voice trailed off. “Actually, that makes some sense. She and Sokka were left in the village – they might not have learned how to navigate on the open ocean. And they never left the South Pole. The Si Wong Desert is almost on the equator.” A rueful sigh. “I keep forgetting that most people don’t know about the northern and southern stars being different.”

“And you do? Oh, right, Fire Nation watches the sky…”

“Heh. I lived at sea for three years, Toph. Traveling all over the world. I know star maps. But none of the constellations I know are up there.” Zuko paused. “And neither is our sun.”

Toph shivered and tightened her grip. That… she didn’t know what to think about that.

Except… it matched what she’d felt, feeling for the earth gates here, the places where the chi of the world flowed in and out and differentiated between north and south. They were there, just… odd. Not quite where she knew they should be. A little too far apart.

Not that she had any time to get used to it, since she had to be carried. Carried! When they were walking on stone!

Well, it had happened before, back when Sparky accidentally burned her feet after she’d snuck up on him in the middle of the night. Although she kinda understood why he’d done that a little better now, from eavesdropping after he’d nearly dumped her on the floor shooting up from that nightmare.

Sparky’s used to people trying to kill him. And… he’s killed them back. Even before all this. That…

Well. She’d deal with that later. For the time being – well, Toph liked her toes right where they were, and they wouldn’t stay there if she tried walking on this rock. She was only just getting the feeling back, with her feet snugly stuffed into the pockets of Zuko’s travel-tunic.

Zuko paused. “Toph?”

“Now what?”

“Fork in the trail.”

Which meant she needed to scan and see which one would keep them going in the direction that Zuko thought would lead to this Sta-geit thingy. Which meant she could see for a bit. Toph grinned and flexed her fingers. “Gimme a wall, ostrich-horse.”

That got her a snort, but Zuko moved towards where Toph could sense a vertical wall rising up alongside them – she might not be able to see, but she could sense pebbles flying through the air, and knowing where big rocks were near her was a lot easier than that. He rested a shoulder against one and unfastened the front of his coat, letting Toph reach out and rest her hand against stone.

These were young mountains. She could feel it. Not that they were young in human terms, but… well, they still felt all sharp and pushing to her. More like the mountains of the Fire Nation than the type around, oh, Omashu. But they were still all of one piece, especially when you got up higher and away from the debris and fallen shards, and…

“Hah!” Toph wiggled her fingers. “Think I’m feeling that… Sta-geit thingy.”

Whoof, was she ever. There was no mistaking that stuff. It was like the Undercity of Ba Sing Se, or the crystal-lit pathway that Aang and Katara gushed about in the Secret Tunnel around Omashu. (…gah. Earworm. She would not start humming that stupid tune – and note to self, she seriously needed to take revenge on Aang for singing it every time he turned around for a whole week!) Only, this was way more intense.

Crazy. But that did make it easy to track.

“It’s about half a mile north-northwest of us,” she explained. “Other side of the next peak, really. We can get there, easy.”

“Says the one who isn’t doing the climbing,” Zuko groused, but she could hear a smile in it. Neither of them had any idea what would happen when they got that far – but it was nice to have a destination in sight.

So to speak. Heh.

Zuko turned to talk to the others, twisting so that Toph wouldn’t have to break contact with the rock. Toph turned him out; fun as it was to listen to him make a fool of himself trying to communicate, it took forever.

She flexed her fingers, feeling for a trail that would take them up without killing them. Teasing aside, she knew how tiring it could be to just walk. She remembered the Si Wong desert brutally well. And… she wasn’t particularly crazy about hopping off to use earthbending again, not even to platform them up. Likelihood of attracting bad guys aside – contrary to what Zuko thought, she did understand the term subtlety, she just chose not to use it most of the time – the cold hurt. And this wasn’t very good stone for that, anyway. Too sharp, too new, the deep chill giving it an unpleasantly brittle harmonic…

…the heck?

“Sparky?”

Zuko had been nodding to something Sam was saying, but the tone of her voice snapped his attention back with all the force of a lodestone. “What’s wrong?”

Toph’s hand was starting to shake. And that she could even feel that, when her hand was going numb… “I think something’s coming.”

“Something? What?”

“I don’t know!” Her exposed hand hurt, and she couldn’t move it, it was rock and it was so cold that it was about to crack…!

Then Zuko rested his good hand over it, and the heat hurt all over again, but at least her hand was a hand again and not a brittle piece of iced-over glass. Toph took a deep breath, making herself calm down. “I don’t know. I don’t feel feet. It’s just… cold, coming straight at us. The stone is freezing.”

Zuko tensed. “Slide down,” he muttered. “I may need to move.” Then he raised his voice. “Sam! Janet! Deinja-, here!”

Toph, meanwhile, let go of his shoulders and squirmed down, feeling her coat bunching up around her as she squeezed out from under Zuko’s. Finally, though, she got down far enough to drop, even if she was so tangled up she would have landed on her rear if the stone face behind her weren’t so close there wasn’t room for that nonsense.

At least my feet landed on the coat. Normally that wouldn’t be a good thing, having something between her and stone. But with that creeping, killing cold coming closer, yeah. She’d take what protection she could get.

Especially since now she could actually hear the creaking of cold-stressed stone, little snaps and cracks caused, not by ice – anything that could be ice already was – but by the sheer chill, destroying all the flex and give of living stone.

Or maybe she didn’t hear it at all, just felt it. What her ears heard was the wind. She’d traveled with an airbender for months. She knew the sound of wind. And this was just wrong. Too directed. Too purposeful.

And it was laughing.

She couldn’t make out the laughing at first; it was soft, mixed into the wind so well that they were more or less the same sound. But as it came closer, she heard less wind and more a gentle, quiet chuckle that raised the hair on her toes.

Something was there. She knew it. But she couldn’t see it – just that creeping chill coming in, now in a shrinking half-circle around them. From the way Sam and Janet had backed up against her and Zuko, eyes weren’t any better than feet at finding it…

Then she felt a shift in the rhythm of Zuko’s heart, the sort of shift that came when he’d decided to do something crazy like charge out of shelter to take on Azula and two airships on his lonesome. The firebender breathed deeply, took a step forward towards that advancing line of killing cold, drew his good arm back…

Ha!

The crack nearly deafened Toph, as super-cooled stone suddenly became super-heated and dealt with the stress the only way it could, by breaking. She reflexively flexed toes and hands, strengthening the stone beneath before the trail crumbled out from under their feet.

The laughter paused, then shifted in tone, and slowly drifted away.

Toph swallowed hard, feeling the heat from the protective circle of flame Zuko had raised against her face and seeping into the broken stone under them. After a moment or two, Zuko pulled himself out of stance and lowered his hand with an exhale, and the fire went out.

“Think it’s gone. For now anyway,” he said, and swayed. “Ow…”

“What was that?” Toph demanded. Sam was saying something, too, and by her tone, probably the same thing with more interesting adjectives. Janet, meanwhile, had stepped forward and wrapped her arm around Zuko’s waist to steady him before he could pull away or object, and was making him sit down and put his head between his knees before he fell over.

Like Katara would be, Toph thought, and bit her lip and did not sniffle. But right now, she was really, really missing Sugarqueen. And Twinkletoes, and Sokka, and Suki, and even Appa – who could fly them to that stupid Sta-geit or whatever and get them away from creepy killer things she couldn’t see!

“I think… a spirit,” Zuko mumbled. “Felt like it, anyway. A nasty one.”

Toph shivered, although there was enough radiant heat left in the rock to give them a little pocket of warm air for a minute or two. “It felt like it was going to freeze us.”

“I think it was. That’s why I made a fire wall – that blocks the influence of most ice-creatures… Eh?”

Sam had pulled something out of her coat. From the sound of it, she was breaking the seal on the last of those long thin sweet-cakes she carried.

“You’d better take that,” Toph said threateningly when Sam shoved it at Zuko and he hesitated. “I can’t carry you if you fall over, Sparky.”

Fire could block the influence of water, sure – but water doused fire, and this place was Water all the way down if ever there was such a place. Sokka had described the coolers on the Boiling Rock and what they normally did to firebenders. If Zuko lost his firebending from the cold, well, that would be bad.

Zuko sighed. “I just hope Sam and Janet know what to do when we get to this thing.” Then, in a lower voice, “I should have known this would happen.”

Toph rolled her eyes and punched him in the shoulder. “Oh, get off it. You always think the spirits are out to get you.”

“And I’m right.”

“Can’t you just accept that this was bad luck? I mean, it was going after all of us.”

Zuko snorted. “Bad luck is the spirits out to get someone. And they don’t usually care about collateral damage.” His voice dropped to a low murmur. “I’ve always been a target. And right now, you’re probably marked, too.”

“Oh, lighten up. We’re Aang’s friends. Why would the spirits pick on us?”

“Already forgot what we were talking about right before that Sta-geit thing lit up?”

Toph scowled at him, then blanched. “…Oh.”

“Yeah.”

“But we’re trying to figure out a way to help Aang!” she exploded.

“So? The spirits will always take the Avatar’s side against humans! And you and I both know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of for your own good.”

Toph winced.

Zuko sighed, and she felt his weight shift as his shoulders slumped. “Aang needs to wake up and realize that being the Avatar isn’t something he can just stop when the crisis is over. That doesn’t change the fact that in the short term, Aang is going to be really unhappy.” Zuko sighed, and took a small bite, chewed, and swallowed. “Maybe I’m wrong. But…”

Toph hugged herself, then scowled and forcibly shoved her worries aside. “Who cares? Freezy nasty thing here. So let’s get out of here, then worry about the details.”

 

~~Even the Dragon-King’s temple floods.~~

 

Somewhere on that thing, I swear, is a gadget marked “High Drama,” Jack thought with bleak humor, shamelessly misquoting a line from Siler’s favorite web-comic. And when I find it, I am going to turn it off with a hammer.

Light duty. That was what this mission was supposed to be. Sending the Doc and Sam through to a safe world with techie toys to play with and no Goa’uld in sight. Downtime that didn’t look like downtime on the papers sent to squawking bean-counters in the Pentagon who didn’t understand that humans needed the world to get off their case once in a while, lest they go messily insane rather than the quiet, fun sort of insane.

Also, vacation without actually saying vacation. No need to make things easy for Murphy.

Makepeace shifted. “General, they’ve missed the agreed-on dial-back time by nearly five hours. Surely we should…”

“We should stand ready until the agreed-upon lock-out time. They still have an hour, Colonel.” General Hammond’s voice was a bit tetchy. Then again, having the Chief Medical Officer and Jack’s 2IC-plus-resident-brainiac go MIA on what was supposed to be a routine check-up mission would do that.

Apparently, Murphy was picking up on the euphemisms for “vacation.” That was the only logical explanation for how something like this could happen when the rest of SG-1 wasn’t even there.

Seriously. We’re talking law of the universe here. All of SG-1 is to be involved when the cosmic Mad Hatter starts pouring tea. And right now, Danny was puttering away in his lab and trying not to fret about their missing teammate, while Teal’c dealt with the stress with kel-no-rem and the judicious pounding of incautious souls who’d made the mistake of asking for advanced hand-to-hand combat instruction. Both of them were staying out of the way, while Jack was just… hanging out. In the Gate control room. Just in case.

Point was, SGC’s top weirdness magnets were not collected in a single space for Murphy’s target practice. Although he was uncomfortably aware that things like day off and vacation were usually big fat Fair Game signs. Which was why they didn’t admit it was a vacation, dammit…

And now all he could do was stand here and think about all the things that could happen on a supposedly uninhabited ice planet to make Sam and Janet fail to dial back at the agreed-on time.

Avalanche. Abominable snowmen. Heck, abduction by Santa!

Scary thing is, given some of the stuff we’ve seen, that wouldn’t even be all that bizarre in the grand scheme of things.

The alarm blasted to eardrum-shattering life.

“Offworld activation, sir,” Sergeant Davis said, as the Gate in the room below began to light up.

“Here’s hoping for good news,” Jack heard the general mutter, as the ka-woosh of activation blasted into the room, then snapped back into the shimmering event horizon – promptly hidden by the iris.

Come on, come on…

“Incoming IDC, sir,” Davis said. “Doctor Fraiser’s team.”

Yes!

General Hammond ignored Jack’s little victory dance with the ease of an experienced commander. “Open the iris and transmit the all-clear, Sergeant.”

The tension in the control room didn’t ease, exactly, but it did shift as all eyes locked on the water-like surface of the active wormhole. No team missed their dial-back time without serious shit going down…

But hey, late’s better than never. The rest is just details.

Jack didn’t even have to count the seconds – he’d been on the other end of Gate lag way too many times. Took this long for a signal to get through the Gate, this long for the dialing computer to recognize and open the iris, this long for the all-clear to transmit back, about that long to grab the last bag, throw the last punch, duck the last bolt, and dive through, and that long in transit before you rematerialized-

A red-headed blur in an oversized, unfamiliar coat came through in a dive that Jack knew from personal experience – go through the Gate low to make a harder target, hit the ground with your shoulder, roll, don’t come up, get off the platform to clear the way for the rest and make sure you aren’t in the line of fire in case something unfriendly makes it through.

Janet ducked sideways and jumped to the cement floor, moving her hands in a series of signals rather than trying to shout over the siren. Evac under fire. Four, two allies.

Two allies? Jack had been under the impression that the Tok’ra didn’t have anything to do with the Rebel Outpost on Hoth. Someone had been having adventures.

Yup. Murphy went and amended the laws of the universe when we weren’t looking…

 

~~Even the Dragon-King’s temple floods.~~

 

“Watch out!”

Tackled from the side, Toph still felt the heat that came out of the horrible racket in the sky and left a sudden hole in the stone worse than blasting jelly or the boomy-sticks. She tucked in tight and let Zuko control the roll that brought them both to their feet. He made a sharp movement as though slamming something aside; she ignored frozen toes and stomped, throwing up a wall between them and the shrapnel flying out of yet another new hole in the ground.

Then she lost her stance as she cringed and clamped her hands to her ears in an attempt to somehow muffle that horrible, awful, ear-piercing shriek-whine splitting the air above them, so close she could feel the pressure of the air against her as it passed.

“Hate this, hate this, hate this!” She was not hysterical. She wasn’t. By the skin of her teeth, granted, but she wasn’t. She just really, really wanted to go home, someplace where the world made sense and there weren’t creepy laughing winds bringing deadly frost, or flying things throwing boomy blasts that she couldn’t predict and made her wish she was deaf instead of blind because then she could see them and she wouldn’t have to hear them…

And maybe she’d have seen them coming!

Everything had gone well, they’d jumped the guards at the platform before they could do anything and gotten them safely out of the way (and warm, Zuko’d insisted, some blah-blah-blah about “If you’re not going to kill them straight up, you don’t leave them to die on their own”), and Sam had started poking at some weird podium, pushing things while Sparky radiated unease and edged away, muttering about not needing another lightning bolt.

Then, just as Toph was distracted by the weirdest feeling ever, like her bones were buzzing a harmonic to a sound she couldn’t actually hear, she’d heard a distant whine getting a lot louder, and Zuko had turned and his heart had jumped straight into a gallop and Janet had yelled and…

“Toph.” Zuko’s voice was low, intent, and demanded that she listen. “Toph, I need to you to go after Janet.”

“Go after her where?” Toph demanded. “She went poof!” There on the platform one minute, she’d lunged as if to dive through the weird ring that was making the hair on Toph’s toes stand on end, her feet had left the ground, and never landed.

“I know!” Sparky was probably earning his name now, if Sokka was right about him spitting sparks when he got really frustrated. “It’s a, a spirit-gate or something, I don’t know, but Janet went through and we need to go after her and you’re next!”

“Zuko!” Sam shouted from where she was kneeling behind the thicker base of the protective wall Toph had tried to throw up when she’d realized they had trouble coming. One blast had taken care of most of it, but enough of the base was left to give the woman some cover. “En’ka-min!”

Zuko swore as the shrieking sound shifting, going from moving away to coming about. “Toph, go, before they start coming back!”

Because she couldn’t fight these things, not with them off the ground and the din deafening her ears. And Zuko couldn’t keep covering for her, not against those blasts and with only one good arm.

I hate this!

“You’d better be right behind me,” she threatened, and sprinted for the platform and the place where Janet had vanished.

Bam, foot on stone, right where Janet had last touched the earth. Other foot up, hurtle through the empty ring and why were her blood and bones practically singing

Cold.

Falling.

No earth.

Spinning.

Silence-that-wasn’t-silence.

Nothing.

No balance.

Cold.

…and she suddenly slammed into heat and noise and a ramp made of metal grate and where the heck was she?

“Toph!” Janet was suddenly there, pulling her up and to the side and away from the ring, onto a floor of some of the weirdest stone Toph had ever felt – lots of little bits like gravelly sand, bent like stone, not dense enough to be sandstone, all of it sitting on top of real stone that…

Oh. Oh wow.

Then that horrible, awful, nasty feeling of having all her roots torn up by some idiot with a hoe, and getting spun around and around in a place that had somehow been worse than free-fall because even in free-fall there was at least earth there to sense, all of it caught up with her and Toph began retching up everything she’d eaten for the past month.

Janet made a soft humming sound and steadied her, pulling her hair back while Toph’s stomach made a game try at tossing out anything that she might eat for the next week. At least, Toph thought that Janet was humming. She couldn’t tell, because there was this horrible awful racket echoing all around her.

But now, finally, she was surrounded by stone. Lovely, bendable, flingable stone, and better still, the main source of the noise was a stationary target. Pulling herself together for just a moment, she growled, stomped, and punched.

Crunch.

Ahhh. Much better. She could still hear the infernal racket going on outside this room, in the maze of hallways and tunnels, but at least she didn’t want to rupture her own eardrums just to end the pain now.

Which meant she could concentrate on the important things. Where are Sam and Zuko?

 

~~Even the Dragon-King’s temple floods.~~

 

Dear Lord. Hammond stared at the remains of what had been the Gate room’s sound system, and wondered if the bullet-proof glass of the command center was also boulder-proof.

The wormhole rippled and Major Carter burst through at a dead run. The ease of experience meant that she didn’t even stumble, only breaking her momentum after she’d cleared the ramp.

The little girl turned oddly dull and distant eyes towards the major, and coincidentally towards the command center window as well. She was still sickly pale from Gate-sickness, but her shout, in some strange language, had all the spirit of a drill sergeant’s roar.

Doctor Fraiser spoke up as well, less strident but equally urgent. “Sam, where’s Zuko?”

“Bastards learn fast,” Major Carter growled. “The minute Toph went through they deployed ground troops. He’s the one who can block the staffs – he covered me while I went for the Gate.”

Next to Hammond, O’Neill swore and turned, running for the door leading down to the Gate room itself. At Hammond’s other shoulder, Makepeace drew in a sharp breath. “General, we have to close the iris,” he said urgently. “Ground troops in the presence of an active and unguarded Gate is an unacceptable risk!”

Hammond knew the man was right. So long as the Gate stood active it was an open invitation to a security breach. His people had made it through. He should close the iris and let the Jaffa suicide to their hearts’ content against trinium-reinforced titanium.

But…

“Colonel, Doctor Fraiser and Major Carter have indicated that we still have a friendly on the other side,” he said sternly, as the two turned to stare intently at the Gate as though the missing member of their party could be pulled through by the combined force of their will. “I will not simply abandon him.” Especially if this fourth had abilities similar to the little girl – Toph? Keeping a skill like that out of the hands of the Goa’uld was worth a gamble.

“Stand by to close the iris at the first sign of Jaffa,” he instructed Sergeant Davis, who nodded with a simple, “Sir.” “And prepare to repel intru…”

The Gateroom suddenly took on a hellish cast as gold and red flames burst from the surface of the Stargate, throwing two figures locked in combat through the air and onto the ramp. One wore the distinctive armor of a Jaffa; the other was smaller, dark-haired, dressed in russet, and he heard Carter shout, “Zuko!”

“Davies! Close the iris!” Hammond barked. “Security teams, we have a single Jaffa intruder currently confined in the Gate room. Do not open the doors unless you have them sufficiently covered against an attempted escape, and yes I mean you, Colonel O’Neill!” A single Jaffa locked in the Gate room was problematic but manageable – if he escaped into the complex, however, the risk of catastrophic security breach…

The two fighters hit the ramp hard and rolled, one over the other, down its length. It was obvious that the smaller was at a disadvantage; lighter, less strong, less reach, unarmored, and he seemed to have only one hand. As Hammond watched, the Jaffa managed to grab that hand by the wrist-

Then they reached the bottom of the ramp and the smaller managed to shift their momentum about so that his feet hit the cement floor first. Hammond glimpsed a twist, as he turned his arm to grab the wrist of that grabbing hand, ducked his shoulder under the Jaffa, and surged, somehow coming up onto his feet and flinging the larger, armored Jaffa forward over his shoulder as he went.

Unfortunately, the throw sent the Jaffa directly into the small knot of Fraiser and Carter – and close enough to the wall under the observation window that Hammond couldn’t see exactly what happened. Only a flurry of movement as Fraiser wisely disengaged and pulled back and Carter attempted to grapple and was knocked aside, dazed, her staff weapon now in the Jaffa’s hands.

The other fighter, a young man, quickly jumped forward, putting himself in front of Carter before the Jaffa could take advantage of the upper hand. The Jaffa began circling, and the young man – Zuko? – shifted to match, crouched and ready.

Now Hammond could make out some brief details. Zuko was a boy, young but older than Toph, with a dark red mark covering most of the left side of his face. Dark-haired, and eyes a bright, startling yellow color. Somewhat the worse for wear, dressed in a russet tunic. He moved like an experienced hand-to-hand fighter. His left arm seemed to be tucked inside his tunic for some reason – clearly disabled for the moment. The Jaffa was female, with a hawklike face, dark hair tightly braided, and blue eyes nearly as startlingly bright as the yellow. Her helmet was missing, but the armor had an oddly yellowish patina. She was taller than the boy by a fair margin, stronger, armed, and armored. And by the look on her face, she was planning how to use those advantages.

Zuko didn’t give her the chance. He lunged, the Jaffa made to sway back and then strike-

Then had to jump back when what had seemed like a wild punch scorched the cement under her feet with a flash of fire.

Hammond drew in a breath, biting his lip.

The boy pushed his momentary advantage, forcing the Jaffa to retreat in an attempt to get enough room to bring the staff weapon to bear. She was using it as a staff, strangely, using both ends in short strikes and jabs to force the boy to shift his stance to guard his legs or use his one arm to block.

Then she struck high and he managed to catch the head of the staff. But rather than yank it back, the Jaffa pushed, clearly meaning to throw him off his balance. Zuko bent back sharply – but rather than falling, he used the shift in weight to pivot on one leg and bring the other around in a slashing arc.

One that broke the staff weapon in two.

What the – wait…

Time could slow down when adrenaline sped up. He saw the shock and dismay in the Jaffa’s eyes and the dawning horror in the set of the boy’s shoulders, in the split moment of time before the shattered weapon exploded.

Hammond wasn’t certain what he saw next. The boy made a sharp movement, the spreading explosion twisted, shot upward-

Then the Jaffa and the boy were both flying through the air to slam into opposite walls. Zuko crashed against the wall next to the door. The Jaffa nearly collided with Janet and the little girl, Toph – only the doctor’s hasty grab to pull the girl out of the way kept both of them from cushioning the impact. Even so, the Jaffa shook her head and started to reel to her feet.

Then Toph shouted, snapped her hands out, and the solid cement under the Jaffa’s feet rose up, dumping her down on her back, and then crashed back down.

By the time Zuko managed to shove himself back onto his feet, a little dazed but otherwise apparently undamaged, the Jaffa was buried up to her neck in solid concrete, like someone buried in sand at the beach. The strangest part was that, from her expression, she was torn between irritation, admiration, and amusement.

Especially when the little girl crowed, stepped on top of the cement prison, and began what was unmistakably a victory dance.

The Gate room door opened, and Colonel O’Neill stepped in, clearly ready to take on the intruder. He paused, blinked, and tilted his head, taking in the slightly scorched Sam, a flustered Janet, the blackened ceiling, the encased Jaffa, Zuko’s weary facepalm, and Toph – whose dance was now accompanied by a very good evil cackle.

Hammond’s 2IC sighed, relaxed so that his gun pointed at the floor, and pouted. “Awww… don’t tell me I missed the fun?”