If I ever find myself in the past, I am going to find whoever invented zats. Then there will be murder with malice aforethought. Pretty sure I can justify it under the Oath as preventative medicine… Breathing carefully as she tried to ease the throbbing in her temples, Janet began another circuit of her cell.
Not that she really expected to find anything she hadn’t already discovered on the previous five or six rounds. But it kept her moving and thinking, rather than panicking and fretting herself sick over her cell mate.
The little girl hadn’t moved since the Jaffa had dumped her in the cell maybe an hour ago. Janet had done what she could, elevating the feet and donating her jacket to ensure that the girl didn’t get chilled, but there wasn’t much else she could do. Zat, the doctor thought blackly, remembering the light electrical burn she’d found on the girl’s left shoulder. The front of the shoulder – she must have been hit before she even had a chance to run. And given her body mass… damn it, even one shot could have killed her. She’s just a little girl! Twelve or thirteen was Janet’s estimate; just on the cusp of physical maturity. And even for her apparent age, she was tiny.
Dietary? Late growth? Or it could be genetic. She seems to be from some sort of East Asian stock.
The clothing did seem reminiscent of some traditional East Asian styles, at least the cream-colored tunic over the loose-fitting emerald green shirt and pants, and the way her black hair was pinned up behind a green-and-gold headband with tassels at the ears. No shoes, oddly – just green ankle-bands to match the ones on her wrists. Janet had thought that perhaps the girl had lost her shoes sometime during her capture, but when she’d checked the feet for injury she’d found soles callused to the texture and toughness of hardened leather and with enough dirt ground into the calluses to impress a hippie. The bare feet were habitual, then. Which didn’t match the indications of wealth in the form of gold and jade jewelry, but…
Oh, stop it, Janet! Leave the anthropology to Danny.
Except that Danny wasn’t here. Although she could take comfort in the fact that he, at least, was safe on Earth. But those thoughts brought her around to what she was really trying not to worry about: Sam, the missing research team, and what the hell is a Goa’uld doing here?
This was supposed to be a safe world!
They’d found the address in the Ancient database, not the Abydonian archive, and when they’d come through the Gate there was no sign that anyone had disturbed the place since the Ancients departed. Just the Stargate tucked away in a small valley high in the polar mountains, and a small Ancient research facility in what might once have been a set of natural caves nearby. Small. Unimportant. Safe. And the promise of Ancient research notes was considered sufficient reason to deploy a small research team to investigate the lab. She and Sam had come through to do a quick check-up – Janet for the team’s health, Sam for the scientific discoveries. The trip was meant to be a combination of practicality and some much-needed light duty after several hectic missions and the resultant medical crises.
They’d found an empty facility and no team.
“Most of their equipment’s still here,” Sam had said, eyes hard and calculating, Major Carter at her military best as she searched the section of the lab that the research team had opened thus far for traces. “There’s no sign of any sort of struggle, either. The guards’ weapons are missing, but the scientists’ aren’t… at a glance, I’d say it looks like they all walked out with whatever they were holding at the time.”
“Out to see the local aurora, maybe?”
“Or checking a new site, perhaps. Dr. Jansberg did think that this place was too small to be the entire facility.” Sam had stood and resettled her own gun, a resolute look on her face. “They wouldn’t have gone far, not with their supplies here. Let’s go see what all the fuss was about.”
They hadn’t gotten far. One blind turn, and they’d walked straight into a squadron of Jaffa. And their zats.
Guess that answers the question of what happened to the research team. Although it doesn’t explain why we couldn’t find any signs of a struggle.
And if the team had been captured, they weren’t here. She’d awakened alone, several hours ago. No research team. No Sam, either, and that worried her.
Feeling panic starting to slip in under the concern, Janet stopped where she was, covered her mouth and nose with her hands, and forced herself to breathe deeply through the obstruction. Slow the breath, slow the thoughts, control the thoughts.
I can’t do anything for Sam right now. I need to focus on what I can do. Even if a little corner of herself wanted to curl up in a corner and cry that she was a doctor – she didn’t do daring escapes, her job was to help the escapees recover afterward.
She glanced down at her wristwatch. Six hours since we came through the Gate. Hammond will expect us to return after eighteen. If we haven’t contacted him in twenty-four hours, he’ll lock our signals until further notice and send a follow-up team. At least that team would be on high alert and ready for trouble…
The sound of a stifled groan caught her attention. Janet glanced over to her cell mate; the girl had rolled over onto her side, curling in on herself in obvious pain.
I know how you feel, kiddo, Janet thought sympathetically. Thundering headaches aside, zat blasts triggered muscle spasms that left the body aching even after the direct activation of the pain receptors of the nervous system ended. At least, unlike real lightning, they left the brain undamaged – the side effects were purely temporary.
Usually. We haven’t exactly studied their effects on children! Abandoning her fruitless search of the cell, she moved toward the girl, one wary eye fixed on the Jaffa standing guard outside their cell. They’d ignored her as she’d made her way around the cell over and over – although with those faceless animal helmets, who could tell?
Some kind of long-beaked bird? I’ll have to ask Daniel if he knows what that means…
The girl stiffened as Janet knelt next to her. “Hey there,” the doctor said quietly, keeping her voice low and relaxed. With luck, she’d recognize the tone as a friendly one.
After a moment’s pause, the girl slowly pushed herself up to a sitting position, turning a frown towards Janet.
Janet blinked at the clouded, unfocused green eyes. She’s blind, she realized with a shock and a sudden chill. A side-effect of the zat? The Goa’uld weren’t exactly known for bothering with prisoners with such obvious physical abnormalities…
But there was no hint of the panic that should have accompanied awakening to find herself suddenly blind, no reaching for her face or groping about in her own private darkness. The girl tilted her head, clearly listening to her surroundings. After a moment, her brow furrowed in a deeper frown as she focused on Janet again.
“Oi, chirabi-wa doko!” she asked. The tone was sharp, demanding, clearly interrogative. The words had some sort of odd up-down staccato rhythm that teased at the edge of Janet’s mind as vaguely familiar, but it wasn’t any language she knew.
Should have known it was too much to hope that she’d speak Abydonian or English, Janet thought, resigned. And she was no Daniel Jackson, able to hear four or five words and puzzle out the rest of the language on the fly.
“Easy,” she said, trying to keep her tone reassuring. She met the girl’s blank eyes levelly, trying to project reassurance and trustworthiness. Hopefully her sincerity would get across, even though the girl couldn’t actually see her. “You were out for quite a while.”
The scowl vanished in a look of bafflement. The girl asked something else – Janet suspected from the tone that it was something along the lines of I have no idea what you’re saying. Without waiting for a response, the girl levered herself up to her feet, swaying a bit. Janet reached out to steady her, but her hands were swatted away with remarkable precision before they even came close.
Blind, Janet. She probably hates being touched by people she doesn’t know. Janet was no stranger to pride, either – or how necessary it could be in an alien situation. So she settled back on her heels as the girl took a moment to breathe deeply and deliberately, carefully testing her arms and legs.
Then the girl raised one foot and stomped.
Whoa. Janet raised her brows, impressed despite herself. If the girl did that often, then no wonder her bare feet had soles like army boots. She’d all but felt the floor ripple under the force of that foot.
Sounding for echoes? Janet wondered. Humans were capable of a form of echolocation – using clicks or stomps or taps and listening to the sound waves bouncing back around them. Blind humans in particular, training their hearing to compensate for what their eyes couldn’t do. She’d heard that footsteps and stomping could be used that way – she’d just never seen it before.
Well, apparently it was effective. The girl turned suddenly and marched straight for the heavy metal grid that formed the gate of their cell.
Where the guards waited, expressionless behind their bird-masks. Suddenly uneasy, Janet grabbed her jacket up from where it had fallen forgotten on the floor and followed.
The girl stopped barely inches from the bars. “Oi.” She waited a moment or two, then repeated, louder, “Oi, kimoi-ashi!”
When that failed to elicit a response, she scowled fiercely, then said something else, much longer and more complicated – and, by the tone of it, including vocabulary that a girl her age really shouldn’t be using. The words were incomprehensible, but the sassy, demanding anger and the petulant stamp of her feet were not. Tiny hands rested lightly on the metal – then suddenly tightened as the girl screamed at the Jaffa.
Janet had heard plenty of screams before. This one was not a scream of terror. This wasn’t even a scream of I don’t want to be alone. This was an I am pissed, and someone is going to be in a world of pain soon if I have anything to say about it scream.
Oh no. Kid, this is not a good time or place for a temper tantrum!
One of the Jaffa pointed his staff weapon at the girl, although from the one-handed grip he at least didn’t mean to fire it. “You will be silent.”
They don’t speak her language either? Janet blinked.
The girl looked down, thick black bangs falling forward to obscure her face. “Shoh-ga nay… yaroh-ka?”
That was not the voice of someone intimidated or resigned. All the hair on the back of Janet’s neck stood at attention and then ran for cover.
The girl cracked her knuckles, and out of the shadows of her hair came a manically gleeful grin that promised mayhem.
Janet had served with the SGC and a certain Colonel O’Neill far too long to miss this will hurt you much more than it hurts me when she saw it. Trained reflexes had her backing away from the danger before her conscious mind could catch up.
The girl’s hands suddenly shot out, slammed down, and snapped up into what looked like a guard position in front of her face. And the solid stone floor surged up with her fists, trapping the two Jaffa in rock up to their necks.
Janet knew she was staring. She continued staring anyway. That… some kind of tech? But…
Snickering, the girl parodied a flirtatious wink, complete with a cutesy bob of the head sideways as she kissed the fore and middle fingers of one hand and ‘flicked’ the kiss at the stone-encased guards. Although the gesture was undermined by the fact that her vague stare had settled somewhere in the region of the guards’ ribs.
Then she drew her arm back and stabbed those two fingers forward like a spear, directly into the seam where the two massive metal grates that formed the cell door joined together. The metal screamed and buckled around her arm, buried up to the elbow. When she pulled it out, Janet saw that she’d punched clean through to the other side, right through several inches of steel.
Triggering some sort of counter-lock she slipped into the gate? But the floor – and she was unconscious when they brought her… A ribbon device or something like it? But I checked, she didn’t have anything. And there aren’t any weird lights!
In a way, that was the strangest part. The girl shoved and elbowed the hole she’d punched in the gate, forcing it wider until she could get a foot through to stamp down. The grate groaned, bending and buckling like cheap aluminum as the girl used her feet to kick the opening wider still. And through it all, not a single glow or sparkle, no hum of energy, nothing at all to suggest that she was doing this through anything but raw strength.
That’s not possible.
That thought snapped Janet’s mind out of its fugue, as the girl squirmed through the opening. Oh, screw what’s not possible, just roll with it and go! A moment’s check to ensure nothing would be left behind, and she dove out after the girl.
It was a tight squeeze; Janet was grateful for her own fairly small build. When she emerged, the girl was waiting, absently shaking out the hand she’d used to punch through the door. Oddly enough, the little gesture made Janet feel obscurely better. Maybe that whole thing had been impossible, but it hadn’t exactly been effortless, either.
The situation did rather demand comment, however. Janet looked from the girl, to the shell-shocked Jaffa, to the ruined door, and back.
“Okay, I’m impressed.”
The girl grinned broadly and crossed her arms over a chest puffed out with unmistakable pride. “Tenka no ts’chizukai no tensai da!” she announced.
Then the smug grin became something a little friendlier, thought still distinctly cocky, and she freed one hand to jab a thumb towards the bridge of her own nose. “Toph.”
Janet blinked. “…Toph?” she echoed carefully.
The girl nodded. “Toph bei Fong,” she said proudly, then turned her hand to point at Janet with her eyebrows raised expectantly.
Names. It was such a simple, mundane little detail that Janet almost laughed. “Janet.”
“…Zhanay?” Toph repeated somewhat dubiously, looking nonplussed.
That didn’t sound quite right, but Janet wasn’t inclined to be picky. “Janet Fraiser,” she said with a nod, before remembering that the blind girl wouldn’t be able to see it. But Toph simply flapped a hand dismissively, her attention to their surroundings again.
Janet paused to get her bearings. Their ruined cell was at the end of a short hall with one or two grates on either side, marking other cells, currently empty. She didn’t see anything that looked like an exit, but the corridor made a sharp turn, hiding what lay beyond.
Odd layout… deliberately isolating these particular cells? No sign of anyone coming to check the racket, but with such a limited line of sight… Spotting the guard’s staff weapon on the ground where it had fallen, she grabbed it up. Clumsy, but a weapon was a weapon.
She’d barely gotten it in her hand before Toph, apparently impatient with the delay, grabbed her elbow. Janet stumbled after the girl, half-pulled and half-jogging as Toph set off down the corridor, easily side-stepping past the guards as though she could see exactly where she was going.
She’s blind, Janet couldn’t help but wonder. I know she is. You couldn’t fake that distinctively unfocussed gaze, or the tell-tale lack of response in the pupils to light or movement. Those eyes clearly weren’t responding to anything. And yet, she knew exactly where the gate was, where the guards were, what they were doing – she even seems to respond to my body-language. Can she really get all that from echoes?
Janet’s eyes dropped to those bare feet, each step planted with the deliberate force and precision of a general entering a captured city – or a martial artist feeling out the terrain in which he’d be fighting.
Some animals use vibrations in the ground to detect prey or predators…
Toph went barefoot. And given what she’d just seen, Janet wasn’t at all inclined to dismiss that impression of faint tremors in the ground at each step as just her imagination this time.
They rounded the bend in the corridor, and Janet stopped short in disbelief. The passage stretched away before them, featureless save for several cells on either side to match the one they’d just escaped from. How many prisoners do they expect to hold at one time? And stranger, no windows, the only light steady and artificial…
The thought was distant, distracted. Most of Janet’s focus was on the end of the hall… featuring another cell, exactly like the one she’d just escaped from.
A dead end – there’s no exit!
Maybe Toph somehow sensed the problem. Maybe she heard it in Janet’s groan, or sensed it in the sudden slump of Janet’s shoulders. She frowned, tilting her head to listen, and Janet tried to muffle her breathing so as not to interfere.
“Oi! Chira-bi! Ima-sugu kotaehnay to sugay okotchau yo, zuko!”
Janet yelped, ears ringing from the shout. That is one big voice for a little kid! “A little warning next ti…!” she began hotly, only to almost swallow Toph’s hand whole when the girl shoved the palm into her face in a clear shut up! gesture.
Tired, head pounding with a renewed migraine, and worried sick underneath the anger she was using to keep fear at bay, Janet glared and nearly kept yelling anyway.
Toph was biting her lower lip, worrying away at it with her teeth as she listened so intently that her whole body seemed an extension of her ears, ready to vibrate at the slightest sound.
Janet held her peace.
The silence stretched out around them. Despite the size of this prison block or whatever it was, the air was frighteningly still. Other than the two of them and the two Jaffa still trapped in stone around the bend behind them, Janet didn’t think there was a single soul in the place.
Which just made her concern sharper. Where was Sam?
A faint shadow on Toph’s brow deepened into a worried furrow. At length, her shoulders slowly slumped forward as she let her head drop, apparently realizing no response was coming.
Even on the strength of a few minutes’ acquaintance, Janet thought there was something simply wrong about seeing the little juggernaut dejected. She was reaching for Toph’s shoulder when, from the far end of the hall, she heard a distinctive thm-thm-thmp sound and saw the first stone circle drop into position.
Of course – how else to keep a prison secure, than to have no doors for prisoners to escape through?
Toph froze in shock, jaw dropping. Grabbing her shoulder, Janet flung them both into the dubious shelter of a cell door’s recess in the wall. Her shoulder hit the massive steel bars with bruising force, but she shoved the pain aside to raise her stolen staff weapon and bring it to bear.
Her first shot went off the moment the transport rings lifted, only to glance off a smooth, golden-gleaming barrier. Janet swore.
Since when do Jaffa carry riot shields? Since when did riot shields capable of deflecting staff blasts even exist?
Then the line of shield-bearing Jaffa hunched down slightly, revealing a line of staff-armed Jaffa standing ready behind them. Heart in her throat, Janet jerked herself back under cover as the corridor filled with a return volley. Seizing a lull, she leaned out again – and found that the first row had dropped as well, revealing a second firing line with weapons charged and readied.
She fired without aiming as she took cover again. The shot went wild – and even if it hadn’t, with the return fire keeping her down, the odds of getting past those strange shields weren’t good.
Shield walls, staggered lines of fire, suppression tactics – I hate it when the enemy remembers to fight smart!
A strange grinding noise made her look up – then turn to look at Toph.
The blind girl had picked herself up and was standing with her arms over her head, palms flat as though pressed against the ceiling a good ten feet above them. Frowning in concentration, she shifted feet and shoulders the way someone looking for leverage might. Then, slowly, she began to swing her arms forward and down, palms still flat, almost as if she were using her hands to bring down a garage door from the inside.
Above them, a massive slab came free of the ceiling and pivoted downwards.
One of Toph’s knees dropped to the floor as she bent and lowered her hands to it as well – and the slab slammed into place with a bone-shaking BOOM, sealing off their section of the corridor from the advancing Jaffa.
…whoa. Ears ringing, Janet blinked for a moment before forcing herself to focus. That bought us time – but it won’t be long before they just blast through that thing, she thought, eyeing the damaged stone left in the wake of the earlier barrage.
She paused. Looked at the blast marks and the damage. Looked up, at the deep depression in the ceiling that Toph’s slab had just vacated.
Maybe… Hope it doesn’t collapse!
One blast from her staff, right above where the metal grid of a cell door reached the ceiling. Stone blackened. A second; cracks began to show, a few bits of gravel came loose and pattered down.
Third, and that patch of ceiling shattered in a cloud of rubble, shrapnel and dust. Janet quickly covered her head against the bruising rain as Toph crowed, then she reached for the metal bars.
Janet’s intent was to use the grid as a ladder and climb, but her fingers barely brushed the metal when she heard a now-familiar stamp and the floor surged up under their feet, carrying the two of them up and through the hole.
Into… some kind of cargo hold? Janet guessed hurriedly, scanning the room as she jumped clear of the impromptu elevator. Her stomach sank. Transport rings, a cargo hold, cells meant to hold large numbers of people… Please tell me we’re not on a Goa’uld ha’tak. Please.
At least this hold was empty for the moment, though that would likely change soon enough.
Next to Janet, Toph exhaled slowly, lowering her hands palm-down in front of her chest; the slab of stone that had carried them up receded with a soft grinding sound.
Then the girl turned to Janet with a downright wicked grin. She nodded at the staff-weapon still clutched in one white-knuckled hand and said… something. Janet still didn’t understand the words, but the tone was clear enough. You’n me? Are gonna get along just fine, doc. Her mental translation even included a very Jack sort of drawl.
Janet hefted the staff weapon, calculated odds, and smiled thinly.
Hang in there, Sam. We’re coming.
~~Even the Dragon-King’s temple floods.~~
When this is over, I am going to find Aang and sit on him until he explains to the spirits that if they want my help fixing the world, they need to get off my case once in a while!
Not that Zuko thought it would do much good. Aang was courageous, smart, loyal, and mind-bogglingly devoted to his philosophies. And the Avatar’s idea of “mediation” was pretty much, “Let’s just stop fighting and everyone be friends!”
Idealistic, optimistic, and a bit short on practical alternatives. That was Aang all over.
Behind him, his companion’s barely-audible curses ended in a muffled exclamation of success. Turning from his careful watch on the dim hallway that stretched out before and behind them, Zuko raised his eyebrow and the woman – Sam, she’d called herself – gave the raised-thumb signal that meant “ready” and nodded at the door.
Zuko pressed his ear against the door again and listened carefully. Low voices, the occasional footstep, sporadic chirping noises like no bird he’d ever heard…
Well, whatever was going on in there, it sounded like Sam’s meddling had gone unnoticed. Good. He wanted out of this exposed hallway.
Catching Sam’s eye, he nodded, then dropped into a ready crouch, settling into a familiar breathing pattern as he counted down on the fingers of one hand. Three. Two. One…
With a hiss unlike any earthbending he’d ever heard, the door slid open and he dove forward into a roll. Onto his feet, still low to the floor in a crouch – it took taller enemies a moment to shift their attention downward and that was all the time he needed to…
First spin, leg out – gather energy, set it into motion. Shift the weight, snap the energy into the other leg to spark as he kicked it into the second spin and sent a blazing arc roaring outward.
Breathe. Hold the flames away from everything but his enemies; in that first moment diving forward he’d glimpsed a small platform over open space, like some of the army warehouses he’d seen, and if these people had anything like blasting jelly stored here and he set it off they’d all be screwed…
Focused heat and energy sent the armored guard nearest the door flying over the railing. Two more, farther out, stumbled and fell, knocked off their feet. A fourth, beyond the range of the fire, lunged for something on the wall.
Something that buzzed with compressed fire shot over Zuko’s head, catching that one right where his chestguard joined the humming-heron helmet. The body slammed into the wall and tumbled out of sight onto the stairs.
Don’t think. They had to do this fast and hard; they couldn’t afford an alarm. And these Jaffa – Sam called them that, and Zuko made a point of putting names to his enemies – wouldn’t surrender; he’d learned that lesson hard and well already.
Push off with supporting leg and hands, flip, come down on his feet in a solid stance…
He felt the burst released below without seeing it. Reflexes faster than thought, he slashed a hand through the oncoming blast, shattering and dissipating the energies as his eyes caught sight of another Jaffa on the level below, alerted by the fall of one of his fellows. Snap the other hand forward with the momentum of the block, and focus, a regular fireblast would just wash over all that armor…
He’d used this move once to pierce straight through the haft of Vachir’s bow and sever the string when the Rough Rhinos had attacked him and Uncle. It seared through metal chest plate and the heart underneath just as easily.
Zuko spun sharply to see Sam take down one of the two he’d tripped before the Jaffa could bring a weapon to bear. The other was still down, and only death or unconsciousness would stop these warriors.
Sam slapped the strange panel next to the door, and it slid closed behind them. She glanced at him. “Zuko? Kle-ar?” she asked, annunciating the strange word carefully.
He drew in a deep breath through his nose, let it out slowly through his mouth, drew another in, and closed his eyes to concentrate. Just like feeling the flames in a room…
Always first, the fire burning inside him. He mentally set it aside and quested outwards, looking for other, tamer flames.
Agni – this had to be a storehouse for those firebending-staves. He was doubly glad he’d held the fire low now; he didn’t want to imagine the result if all that caged heat-in-potential broke free at once. But most were dull, barely sparks. Active ones left a much more distinctive impression, and he only felt six nearby. One was Sam’s; that left five for the five guards.
Good. All accounted for, then – assuming that all the guards had been armed. But given that he couldn’t hear anyone moving around either… He opened his eyes and nodded. “Kle-ar,” he affirmed.
The woman glanced at the hand he’d used to block the blast. “Yu-ohkei?” she asked. Recognizing it as a query about injuries, Zuko suppressed a flash of annoyance – he knew how to block a fireblast without burning himself, thank you! – and flexed his hand to show he was uninjured. Sam nodded, turned, and headed for the boxy shapes near the glowing image set in the wall.
Zuko eyed that image uneasily. It didn’t feel like something of the spirits, but general principles about not messing with suspicious glowing things aside, anything with light in this mad place of rock and metal hummed with a hair-raising sense of caged lightning. It made him reflexively start to settle his chi whenever he got too close, just in case he needed to redirect something in a hurry.
Sam seemed to know what she was doing. She was the one who knew how to make the doors around here work, at any rate. For his part, he’d just stay a healthy distance away.
Besides – he had bodies to hide.
He dealt with the dead easily enough, dragging them out of sight behind some crates. Although moving them was hard – they were bigger and heavier than he was, Earth Kingdom-size at least, and all that armor did not help.
On the other hand, Zuko was a little grateful for that. If he was busy concentrating on the weight and the strength he needed to move it, he wasn’t thinking about other things too hard. Like what, exactly, he was handling.
The unconscious ones were more problematic. Zuko knew what he should do; finish them off and hide the bodies with the others.
No idea where I am, don’t recognize a spirit-cursed thing except that I’m in the middle of an enemy stronghold and I can’t even talk to the only ally I have!
…not an unfamiliar situation, come to think of it.
At least at Pohuai, I knew where I was going and how to get out again. And that I wasn’t going to be there long.
He’d already been here several hours, at least, without seeing so much as a window. And every enemy they left alive was one that could regain consciousness and raise the alarm – or strike them from behind.
Tactically, practically, finishing the job would be the smart thing to do.
Zuko couldn’t help a small smirk. Right. And of course I always do the smart thing.
It took some doing, but he got the unconscious pair – the one that had gone over the rail in the first rush and the one that had knocked himself out when he tripped – trussed up in a little nest of boxes, well off the ground. They wouldn’t be getting down from there on their own, but they also would be able to call for help when they regained consciousness.
Which wouldn’t be for a while – he’d taken the time to hit one or two nerve points. He was no Ty Lee, but given time, if he wanted someone down for an hour or two, he could usually pull it off.
Pity he couldn’t take their armor – but he and Sam were both too much smaller than these Jaffa to wear it. And it was nothing like Fire Nation armor. You couldn’t bend wearing this stuff; too heavy, too clumsy, and how did they even breathe in those helmets?
Returning to the upper level, he heard Sam muttering in her odd language. Or rather, swearing. The words might have been an incomprehensible mish-mash of sing-songy, slurred-together nonsense, but he knew the tone of cursing something unto the third generation when he heard it.
Reaching the top of the stairs, he found his ally craning her head back and forth in front of an open panel below the glowing image, twisting and shifting…
Ah. Not enough light, and her shoulders block most of it. He’d helped with enough finicky repairs throughout the course of his exile to be familiar with the problem.
Well, if it was light that she needed… “Sam,” he said quietly to get her attention, crouching next to her and extending a hand, palm up. She looked up in surprise as a small flame flared into existence over his palm. Breathing slowly, Zuko focused on keeping the energies contained; he wanted small and bright, not large or hot.
Sam blinked at the unwavering white flame hovering over his palm, looking as thoroughly taken aback as if he’d bent water instead.
That was the weirdest thing about Sam. Never mind the sunbeam-bright hair, the Earth-hazel eyes, the fact that she was nearly as pale as he was – never mind that, all told, she looked like all the Great Spirits had gotten drunk at some party and then forgotten who’d lost which bet. After traveling the world for three years hunting down every hint of spirit activity in the hopes of locating the Avatar – to say nothing of everything that happened after he’d finally succeeded…
Yeah. He might avoid the spirits and their messes whenever he could – mutual antipathy and all that – but at least it was familiar, at least as much as spirit business could ever be.
No. What was downright weird about Sam was her reaction to bending. She acted like she’d never seen a firebender before – like she’d never even heard of firebending!
Of course, as reactions went, it was better than some. Zuko frowned a little, shoving memories of Jet aside.
Not to mention that Sam was far more disciplined than the freedom fighter, surprise surprise. After one brief moment of staring, she shook herself and turned her attention back to the panel.
Holding the flame steady and bright took concentration when you didn’t have a candle to provide the base flame – but it didn’t necessarily take attention. Curiosity winning out, Zuko peered inside the open panel as well.
The contents that Sam was furiously rearranging were like nothing Zuko had ever seen – except, maybe, the internal workings of the firelocks. Now Zuko wished he’d paid more attention that time Sokka had gotten his hands on one and gleefully taken it apart in an attempt to figure out how it worked. At the time, Zuko’d been distracted trying to warn Sokka to be careful, some of that is combustible, don’t…!
The resulting explosion had taken out part of the floor and scared several servants half to death – not to mention the captain of the guard, who’d been afraid that some assassin had gotten past him and his men.
At least Sam, unlike Sokka, seemed to know what she was doing. On the other hand… Zuko breathed slowly and, centering himself, tried to prepare, just in case that caged lightning lashed out.
Sam pulled away with a victorious cry as the glowing image above the panel… changed, somehow. Looking at it, Zuko blinked. That… looked like a schematic of some kind. Triangular, or maybe more of a pyramid. And…
Whoa. Big. Easily larger than an airship, even with the balloon included. The Earth King’s palace was probably bigger… maybe. But if so, it wasn’t by much.
The image moved in a dizzying swirl – almost like riding Appa through one of his headlong dives out of the sky, when the town suddenly grew in the space of a single breath from a dot far below to the point where you found yourself holding on for dear life as the bison dodged buildings. Symbols sprang up at the edges – almost writing, but like no writing Zuko had ever encountered, not even in the oldest archives or the ancient ruins, not even on the odd ring of almost-stone that had started this mess.
At least Sam didn’t seem to need the light any more; she was fiddling with some sort of control at the top of the box, but the light of the image itself provided plenty of illumination. So Zuko withdrew to stand guard at the door, listening intently for the sound of footsteps outside.
Behind him, Sam swore, muttered briefly, and then the sense of lightning behind him… faded, somehow. Glancing back, he saw her approaching, face an odd mix of worry and stubborn determination.
I know that look. Plan A didn’t work, now I’m going to wing a Plan B and make it work, and spirits help whatever’s in my way.
Her expression lightened with a blink when she looked at the light-flame still in his palm. Zuko had kept it going mostly out of familiarity; it was a variant on what he used on candleflames late at night, when he needed to read.
“Ku-l.” Sam nodded at his hand, and the flame in it. “Sa lait – sankyu.”
That… sounded like it might be gratitude? Zuko shrugged and flicked his hand, dissipating the flame, and they both paused to let their eyes readjust to the gloom.
Not three breaths later, the silence shattered.
Zuko had never heard anything like this shrill cacophony before, but he knew an alarm when he heard one. As did Sam. She swore, slapping the panel that controlled the door, and was out and into the hall again the instant she could squeeze through.
“Are you insane?” Zuko demanded, momentarily forgetting that neither of them could really understand the other. “Dammit… Jaffa! Deinja-!” he tried, pointing at the hall as he struggled to convey that open thoroughfares were a bad idea if an alert was going to send guards boiling up out of the stonework.
Sam shook her head fiercely, rambling something in her own language as she waved a hand of her own at the room. Zuko managed to pick out “naht gu-d,” but that was about it. Looking frustrated, Sam waved a hand over her head, then pulled on her earlobes. “A’la-m!”
That had to be alarm, but “bad”? What was wrong with a defensible location that was out of the way and offered hiding places?
Unless they somehow know we’re here. Then it’s a trap. If someone knows the terrain, listen to them – didn’t you learn that in the hurricane? Cursing to himself, Zuko followed Sam, who turned and dashed back the way they’d come as soon as she saw he was with her, stealth thrown to the fires in favor of a breakneck run. Even if he misunderstood her logic – he couldn’t afford to lose his only ally and the one who seemed to know what she was doing.
Left, left, down a flight of stairs, right…
They came to a T-intersection and Sam started to turn left, still retracing their earlier route, only to pull up sharply at the sound of heavy, armored feet approaching at a quick march. Muttering an oath, she turned the other direction, and blanched. From the sound of it, another squad was coming up hard and fast from that direction as well.
Cursing, Sam started to double back. Zuko grabbed her arm.
Forces from either side, they’ll meet each other here, that gives them only one way to go. Can’t outrun them forever. Which meant…
One of the slanted wall supports created a shadowed alcove. Sam seemed to get the idea when he shoved her towards it, and crouched in the dark, making herself as small as she could. But there wasn’t room for two, and the other alcoves were lit…
The slanted braces had smaller supports near the ceiling, forming a small triangle of space between them and the ceiling. Zuko jumped, grabbed the support, kicked his legs up, hooked one knee over, pulled…
He’d just hauled himself up, back braced against the wall, legs against the support, hands against the ceiling, when both groups of soldiers rounded the corners from both sides and met in the intersection.
And stopped there.
Zuko forced his breathing to hold steady and slow. If the Jaffa looked up – this support wasn’t enough to hide him. But those helmets had to limit vision – and in his experience, most soldiers didn’t think to look up.
He just prayed that they didn’t think to look in the shadows, especially when the two leaders – a woman and a man, by their voices, the woman radiating controlled anger and the man stiff-spined and trailing rock dust, of all things – stopped to consult right in front of Sam’s alcove.
They spoke briefly and with no shouting or gesticulation; these were disciplined soldiers. In only a few moments, the man drew back somewhat, clearly ceding command to his counterpart. The woman raised a hand and, with only a few short, sharp gestures, formed up the two squads in a single unit and started off down the third passage, the one Zuko and Sam had just come from.
When they were gone from sight and hearing, Zuko allowed himself a sigh of relief and relaxed, letting himself roll out and drop to the floor in a controlled tumble. Sam emerged from her hiding place a few moments later, pale but frowning as though in concentration. Zuko looked at her quizzically, but when she caught his glance, Sam shook her head, waving a hand in a don’t worry about it gesture.
Not important, or not something she can explain? Their patched-together mix of short phrases and hand gestures didn’t exactly lend itself to detailed explanations.
Either way, it didn’t matter. Sam took a moment to assess their options, then set off again. No longer dashing headlong down the corridor, she stuck close to the walls, ready to dive for cover at a moment’s notice. Zuko did the same, trailing a hand along the wall.
Which was how he felt the first tremor.
Faint, barely noticeable against the distraction of caged lightning, and I didn’t live this long by not trusting my senses.
“Wait,” he whispered to Sam, and pressed his hand fully against the stone.
There, again! Stronger this time. Sam had copied his gesture and clearly felt it as well; Zuko saw her pale.
They were surrounded by stone. If it wasn’t stable, if something brought it down on their heads… and yet, Zuko couldn’t help thinking that this felt familiar.
Wait. No, she couldn’t be…
Oh yes she could, came hard on the heels of that thought, accompanied by a giddy wash of relief. That little walking earthquake? She would.
Sam was probably doubting his sanity, given the way she was eyeing his slow smile. Zuko could only shrug. “Friend,” he explained, although that wasn’t in their limited shared vocabulary. Then he raised his other hand and rapped sharply against stone in a very specific pattern.
Another tremor; he rapped the Earth Rumble theme again. Another – definitely closer, he could feel the floor tremble under his feet this time, and Sam’s grip on her weapon was white-knuckled. He prepared to knock again.
A section of the wall directly to his right blasted inward to shatter against the far wall, followed by a rather more durable missile wearing cream and green and the biggest grin he’d seen since Sokka had gotten his space sword back.
“Sparky!” Said missile launched herself at him, and it was all he could do to keep them both from crashing to the floor.
Toph pulled back to give him a victorious (painful) punch on the arm, glee written in every inch. “Okay, Sparky, I gotta hand it to you. Best. Field trip. Ever!”
~~Even the Dragon-King’s temple floods.~~
Reflex had Sam’s staff weapon pointed squarely at the sudden attack. A second reflex-
Ally in your line of fire – don’t shoot!
-jerked her finger away from the trigger before she fired.
Eyes widening, Sam stared for a breath, then moved to help the red-headed physician scramble through the wall’s newly acquired hole. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Zuko stagger and wince as their ambusher slammed into him and, from the look of things, attempted to see just how loudly his ribs could creak.
Stagger and wince – but not recoil or try to break loose. And for a moment, she saw his eyes close in pure relief.
Houston, we have friendlies.
Then her ribs were doing some creaking of their own as Janet gave her a short, fierce squeeze – followed by an intent once-over, clearly checking for injuries.
“I’m fine,” Sam reassured Janet quickly, spreading her arms to show that she was indeed intact. “Beyond the headache, at least. What happened to you? How did you get here? How…” She waved inarticulately at shattered stone.
“Not sure I can really explain that last one, but I think credit has to go to my little cellmate there…”
One very brief summary of what must have been a hectic fifteen minutes, pared down to only the most pertinent details, and Sam was frowning. “Staff-deflecting riot shields? And troop formations to take advantage of them?”
“Someone’s getting creative,” Janet said darkly. “Which Goa’uld are not exactly known for, either.”
And all too often, it was the SGC’s relative willingness to innovate that kept them standing. If a Goa’uld had actually managed to pull its head out of the sand enough to start trying new things… We need to get back and report.
“What about you?” Janet pressed. “What’s happened? Have you seen Doctor Jansberg and his team anywhere?”
“Afraid not. I came to in some kind of lab, but they left me alone there. As for how I got out…” Her lips quirked. “Well. You aren’t the only one who met up with a magic kung fu kid.”
She nodded at Zuko – who’d just yelped. He was rubbing his arm and glaring at the little girl, who answered the glare with a reckless grin, saying something with gleeful relish. Zuko’s eyes widened – at least, as much as the scarred left could – and then suddenly he shook his head with a chuckle that lifted some of the deep-rooted solemnity of his expression and betrayed the fact that he was only a teenager himself.
Janet’s eyes lit. “Of course. I wondered what Toph was after. She must have been looking for him.” She raised her eyebrows at Sam. “Magic kung fu?”
All right, so perhaps that was a more Jackian phrase than Sam normally resorted to, but… “Nanites, sufficiently advanced whatever, I don’t know what the tech actually is. But Zuko throws fireballs. And I’ve seen him block staff blasts with his bare hands.” Sam shrugged. “They dragged him into the lab where they’d been keeping me… probably about the same time they left Toph in your cell. Only as it turned out, he was already conscious, just playing possum. The minute the door closed, he turned the tables and took them down. We teamed up, got to a computer access point…”
“The lab didn’t have one?”
“It got fried.” Literally. Fortunately, Zuko had made a point of staying well clear of the electronics since.
She shoved the thought aside. Focus. Won’t have much time before someone comes to investigate the booms. Or the holes in the walls. “We’re on board a ha’tak, but it’s planet-side at the moment. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find information on the ship’s Stargate, if it even has one. Might not, it seems to be on the small side.”
“Who’s the Goa’uld?”
“No clue. I don’t recognize those bird-helms.” And nothing from Jolinar. Apparently, even if she’d dealt with this particular Goa’uld, it hadn’t left much of an impression on the Tok’ra. “I did find the coordinates of the planet’s gate – looks like we’re still on P4X-684. If we can just find a way out of this thing…”
“Right.” Janet sighed, hefting her own stolen staff weapon. “Not like life hasn’t been constant reruns of the Great Escape these past two years.”
One thing Janet hadn’t mentioned, Sam couldn’t help but note when she glanced over at Zuko’s approach, was how creepy it was to see a little girl’s eyes staring blankly into space, while her feet picked deftly through the rubble on the floor without so much as a single hesitation, let alone misstep. Zuko didn’t make the slightest move to assist the girl, either, not even checking Toph’s progress over his shoulder – and Sam didn’t think that was just teenage thoughtlessness. Zuko trusted that Toph could handle herself.
Zuko paused after drawing close, keeping his gaze on Sam – although his eyes did flicker briefly towards Janet with clear curiosity.
He’s waiting for an introduction, Sam guessed, and quickly obliged. “Janet, this is Zuko. Zuko, this is Janet.”
“Zha…” Zuko frowned, shaking his head, and tried again. “Jan…et?” When Janet nodded, he repeated the name one more time, as if to be sure of the pronunciation, then leaned forward in a shallow bow, hands in front of his chest in a fist-pressed-against-palm pose. Straightening, he gestured to the girl. “Koitsu…” He hesitated, then tried, tentatively, “This-is? This-is Toph.”
“Yo!” the girl said, tossing in a jaunty wave that ended up aiming somewhere between Sam and Janet.
And that’s deliberate, Sam thought shrewdly. As precise as she was walking around? She has to know exactly where we are.
Playing up her blindness to be underestimated? Or just to get away with off-handed rudeness that someone like Zuko probably couldn’t?
Could be both. I think we’ve learned by now that assuming someone has only one motive for doing something is a bad idea!
Zuko had turned to Toph while Sam was weighing those thoughts, saying something in that rapid-fire language of his – probably an introduction, Sam thought she caught her name in there, with the same careful annunciation he’d given Janet’s.
Toph was waving a hand dismissively when her blank eyes suddenly widened and she stiffened. “Kuru!” she snapped in a taut voice, jerking her head at the hole in the wall. “Atchi kara.”
Zuko’s eyes narrowed and he twisted to catch Sam’s eye. “Jaffa,” he said warningly.
Sam eyed the gaping hole in the wall. Yeah. Bit of a glaring “here we are!” sign, that. “This way,” she said. Janet fell in behind her easily, Toph with her, as Zuko dropped back to take rearguard.
Sam hated that thought. Zuko was a kid – not all that much older than Toph. But Major Carter knew that Zuko was the best fighter for guarding their backs, and from the focused look in his gold eyes, he knew exactly what he was doing.
And we aren’t going to wonder about how he learned right now. She was going to focus on getting them out of here. And praying that she hadn’t gotten completely disoriented, running through this maze.
Goa’uld architecture. See logic, absence of. Granted, Daniel could sometimes get into the Goa’uld mindset enough to navigate, and she could usually sort her way through the functional parts of the ship…
But this wasn’t the command center or a weapons center, and she was no Daniel. The third dead end and hallway looping back on itself she’d hit in as many minutes was proof enough of that.
Finally, she had to stop. Running around trying to make your surroundings fit your plan rather than the other way around – it’ll get you killed here just as much as in the wilderness. Think, idiot.
After the pause had stretched out for a minute, Zuko cleared his throat to get her attention. She glanced over at the boy. His eyes were flickering from her to Toph, rather than the hall. Apparently he trusted the blind girl’s ears – or maybe her feet? – to warn him of trouble.
And that says something. Not quite sure what it says yet, but something.
Zuko was frowning slightly. “Doko-ey iku?”
Sam blinked and shook her head. That was a new phrase.
Zuko grimaced, plainly trying to come up with some way to get his meaning across. “Iku,” he repeated, holding his forearm out level in front of him and “walking” the fingers of his other hand along it, from elbow to wrist. “Iku,” he said one more time, maybe for emphasis, and then pointed at the back of his hand before turning both palms up in a supplicant gesture – or maybe a quizzical one? “Doko?” he asked, clearly some kind of query.
Iku… walk, travel… to go? And a question… “Where are we going?”
Sam bit her lip, torn between sympathy and frustration. Dammit, kid – I get it, I really do, but couldn’t you have picked a better time…
Then again, what better time could he have picked? Sam hadn’t even had a solid plan until they’d found that terminal. Zuko was bright, quick, and observant – he’d probably guessed as much.
And it didn’t take a genius to figure out that Sam was a bit lost. Without knowing where they were trying to go, the kids couldn’t help.
And right now, it doesn’t matter that they’re kids. We need all the help we can get.
“We’re trying to find the exit,” she explained, and frowned. “Um… going.” She copied the walking-on-the-arm gesture. “Exit… oh, blast it…” She sketched a rectangle in the air with a finger, then set her hands side-by-side and “opened” them, like a set of double doors.
The boundary between scar and normal flesh on Zuko’s brow furrowed as he frowned slightly. Then his eyes suddenly lit. “Toph,” he said, glancing at the girl, who’d been listening to their antics with a wry grin on her face. “Chizu, tsukureru?”
The wry grin morphed into a smirk. “Doite,” she replied smugly, grabbing Zuko’s arm and pushing him aside. She made impatient shooing motions with her hands at Sam and Janet; before Sam could react, Janet had grabbed her by the arm and was pulled her away to the wall.
“What’s she…?” Sam asked in an undertone, watching as the girl took a stance in the hallway, feet firmly planted. That’s definitely some kind of martial arts stance, like Zuko. Different style, though… is that how they manipulate different materials?
“Not sure,” Janet admitted. “But the way she’s feeling the floor with her feet, she’s about to do something tricky, or something big. And when a girl who levitates rocks weighing in the range of tons tells me to move…”
One foot came up, then slammed down again with all the force and precision of a sumo wrestler doing a ritual purification. Only her foot didn’t just thud. With a bone-throbbing thwomp, the floor at Toph’s feet impacted in a square nearly the width of the hall itself, an intricate design of geometric channels maybe a quarter of an inch deep separated by a delicate lacework of raised stone lines.
Then Sam blinked, and realized what she was looking at. It’s a map. She made a map of this level of the ha’tak in the floor.
Okay, now that’s cool.
Zuko scanned the map quickly, stepping carefully around the edges rather than chancing the strength of the slender “lines” of the walls. “Atchi – areh.” Then, to Sam’s surprise, he did a double-take – followed a moment later by the soft huff of an almost-laugh.
Confused, Sam looked where he had pointed. Her eyes widened. There, in one hall, were four little figures. She could even pick out a few small details, enough to differentiate the four of them, particularly Zuko and…
Suddenly, she had to laugh. Maybe she was no Daniel, but she’d bet good money that the miniature of Toph was doing their culture’s equivalent of flipping someone the bird.
“Toph…” Zuko’s tone was amused and resigned and chiding all at one and the same time. Toph chirped – yes, chirped – a sassy reply in response. Sam looked up just in time to see Zuko roll his eyes a little and bop Toph lightly on the head with his fist. To which Toph just grinned, made a fist of her own, and slugged him in the arm, hard. Zuko yelped and glared, looking put-upon… a little too much so, in fact.
Yep. That was definitely a smile hiding at the edges of his expression.
Janet was hiding a grin of her own, one that sparkled in her eyes when Sam traded amused glances with her.
Tough kids, Sam thought, with a bit of relief. If they could be goofing around in a mess like this… well, that spoke well for their chances of holding up under the stress.
But they very clearly appreciated the severity of the situation, humor or no. A moment later, Sam was the target of an intense golden stare, and a listening tilt of Toph’s head. Zuko waved at the map. “Doko-ey iku?” he asked again. “Doko… going?”
Sam shifted her own focus back to the map, trying to pick out the nearest way downward.
Interesting. In some places, the map was detailed almost to the point of ridiculousness. In others, it was plainly a broad-strokes painting, accurate but scant on particulars.
Seems to be a function of proximity, Sam guessed. This area around us now is detailed… seems to start really dropping off some fifty yards out? If I’ve got the scale right, at least. The rest of the details – I’ll bet that’s the path we took to get here, and how she and Janet got to us. Huh. Damn good memory, that kid. Although even where the details were lacking, the simple fact that she had managed at least approximations of the entire level…
“Can you do a lower level?” she asked eagerly, then caught herself. “Um… Lower? Down. We need to go down.” She pointed at the floor, then mimed walking her fingers downward. “That… map.” She made a sweeping gesture over Toph’s stony diagram. “Map – down?”
Frowning in concentration at Sam’s gesticulations, Zuko nodded slowly, then turned to speak briefly with Toph. For the barest moment, Sam thought she saw a flicker of uncertainty in the set of the girl’s mouth, before Toph covered it by tossing her shoulders back and pursing her lips mulishly.
There were no big movements this time, however. Instead, she shifted her stance with startling delicacy, shifting feet and hands with delicate precision.
With a crack of stone separating from stone, a second map formed, pushing the first up on top of it as a delicate lattice of stone lines. There was no “floor” (save below the little figures marking their group), giving it an effect similar to looking at two transparent overlays on top of each other.
Transparent overlays in 3-D. Sam circled the map carefully, letting her eyes get accustomed to the mix. All right. We’re there. The nearest stair is there – that’s our first goal. From there… oh, damn.
At some point in all the running, she’d lost her bearings. Which way should they head in order to reach the door of the ha’tak? Was the nearest edge of the ship the front, the back, or one of the sides? If they came down in the wrong place, they’d have to make their way across one of the largest levels of the ship – not to mention one of the best-guarded.
When she tried to ask Toph for a third level of the map, however, the girl huffed scornfully and stabbed a finger at the two levels already mapped, saying something incomprehensible but clearly biting.
What’s her… Sam slapped herself on the forehead. Reality check. Magic kung fu or no, that’s a lot of thin rock. It’s brittle. She makes more, and it’s going to break. Assuming she can even ‘see’ that far.
She must have muttered her thoughts aloud. Janet leaned in. “Wait a minute… Sam, why bother with a map?”
Sam blinked in disbelief. “You do want to get out of here, yes?”
“Yes. But why navigate this maze when we can go in a straight line? Toph can make doors for us, Sam – same as she did to find you guys. Just…” The doctor paused, frowning. “Toph? Um… exit. E-xit.” She tried copying Sam’s earlier gestures. “Exit. Where? Blast… Sam, what was the word again?”
“Doko, I think… Um. Exit. Doko? Go, exit.” Sam accompanied gestures, then pointed at Toph. “Toph. Go. Um…” At a loss, she finally tried to imitate the girl’s earlier stance and mock-punched towards the wall. “Exit. Go?” She mock-punched again.
Toph looked torn between deep offense and braying with laughter. Zuko looked like he was biting back a chuckle as well – all right, so to experts, Sam’s form probably did look sloppy to the point of silly.
A moment later, however, Zuko tilted his head to the side and asked Toph something. The girl scowled, then shook her head and bent her arms at the elbow so that the forearms were level with the ground, palms up. She inhaled slowly, then, on the exhale, shifted one foot forward as if testing the floor for a weakness. Not a stomp, but…
But she’s put nearly as much energy into that little shift, under the control. Sam had to admit, she was impressed. Under the sass and the superpowers, she’s packing some serious discipline.
Toph held the stance for a good minute, brow furrowed in concentration. Then she turned her hands and punched, and a very distinctively shaped piece of stone rose out of the floor.
Sam hastily caught the rock – wincing as the weight of it made the angular edges dig into her hands.
“…a model of the ha’tak?” Janet leaned in for a closer look, then quickly pulled back to make room as Toph marched over.
“Antara no yuu eh-ku-sheet, koreh!” she said shortly, poking at a depression on one face of the small pyramid.
“Where are we?” Sam asked. “Um… we.” She awkwardly braced the pyramid against her ribs with one hand to free the other to make a circling motion that encompassed all four of them. “Toph, Zuko, Janet, Sam – we. Doko?”
Toph frowned faintly as Sam held the little pyramid out again, then raised both hands. One finger poked at the front of the pyramid, off-center and a little below half-way up. The other poked one of the sides, at the same height but closer to the back than the front.
Coordinate system? Sam eyed the points Toph had indicated, mentally extending them to perpendicular lines and matching them to their location on Toph’s floor map. Damn, I did get turned around – we’ve been going sideways, not toward the door.
She set the pyramid down on the floor – flexing her fingers a bit to ease the ache of holding it – and pointed to the exit. “There. Exit. Iku.” She looked at Toph. “Can you…?” Janet had said that they’d escaped the prison through the ceiling. What could go up could hopefully come down. She mimed one of the stone-moving punches again – although her hand-to-hand pride made her work on tidying up the form a bit this time. Huh. Very solid stance. Guess that makes sense…
Toph looked dubious, but Zuko tapped her elbow, and the two dropped into a low conversation in their own language. Sam drew away and looked at Janet, who’d been keeping an eye on the corridor. “Think I got through?”
“Probably. They’re quick.” Janet bit her lip absently, then visibly caught herself and let it go – bad habit in combat situations, and she’d had to stitch up the consequences enough times to know better. “I just hope this works.”
~~Even the Dragon-King’s temple floods.~~
“Think they know what they’re doing?” Toph asked skeptically.
“Probably as much as we do.”
Toph huffed. “Real comforting, Sparky.”
“You want comforting, talk to Katara.” That cut a little too close for both of them, and she felt Zuko swallow before continuing. “But they’re right, this place is a maze – and a huge maze. Getting out the normal way will take too long.”
And Sparky wanted out, Toph could feel it. Fire was stubborn and fierce and determined and it hated being boxed in. No free air made firebenders twitchy. Not as bad as Twinkletoes-twitchy, but…
And she could feel the maze of walls and corridors in her toes. Problem was…
“Don’t know about just blasting through. Getting to you guys was risky enough.” She scowled. “This rock is weird. And there’s metal all over the place, even inside the walls.”
“That must be what’s holding the lightning.”
Toph did not eep. “Lightning?” she demanded.
“This place is full of it. All over the place. And not flash-and-gone like the lightning in a storm, either. More like…” She felt Zuko not so much shiver as shake himself. “It’s contained, though. Mostly. How, I have no idea. But if we break the containment by accident…”
And no Katara to do her healing stuff. “Okay. Really not big on the whole busting through walls idea right now.” She was the greatest earthbender ever. Lightning? Not really her thing.
“We have to try, though. I can spot for safe points for you.”
“You wanna risk getting zapped?”
“I don’t want to get cornered here. If I have to, I can deal with lightning.”
Not quite a lie – and Toph didn’t need earthsense to read that. Zuko’d looked Ozai’s and Azula’s lightning-bending in the eye; he definitely didn’t like it. But he could deal with it. So she’d let it slide this time.
She wriggled her toes in the stone of the floor, feeling the way it would break down. Bend with the cleave, that was what she’d learned from the badger-moles – heck, even from “Master” Yu Loserpants, back when he was milking her parents for money by “teaching” her the same things over and over again. This was weird stuff. Hard, really hard, but it broke down almost like sandstone – crumbling, rather than cracking along angles. Should make busting through the stuff easier. Not that I need easy.
Only, she kinda did. Stone and strong stance let her hide it from the two weirdoes over there, but her head hurt. Lots. And sometimes her fingers and toes wouldn’t quite do what she told them to, and spirits, how scary was that? To top it off, her chi was all wobbly. She thought maybe this was like the “seeing double” Sokka had whined about when he got drunk once. She couldn’t always be sure if the tremor she felt was in the stone, in her feet, or in her head.
Yeah. Zuko wasn’t the only one who wanted out.
“Toph.” Zuko’s voice was much quieter now. “Solid?”
Heh. Sparky knew better than to ask stupid things like are you okay. ‘Specially when the answer was obviously, No, but I’m not gonna die.
“I’ll manage,” she said, and cracked her knuckles. “Okay. Find me some zappy-free spots, and let’s rock.”
~~Even the Dragon-King’s temple floods.~~
“I hate this plan,” Janet was muttering under her breath.
Sam grimaced. “That makes two of us. If you’ve got a better one, I’m all ears.”
From the bitter way Janet’s lips tightened, she couldn’t think of any alternatives, either.
There – if she swapped this crystal into that junction… Taking a deep breath, Sam glanced at Zuko and nodded. He nodded back, grave and focused – but next to him, Toph cackled quietly and cracked her knuckles, every inch the confident hellraiser about to wreak havoc.
Hope she’s up to it. Because Toph was good, right up there with O’Neill in the Faking It Olympics – and Janet was an old, old hand at catching him out with her back turned, and Sam had picked up a few of the tricks. They’d both spotted the momentary flashes of unsteadiness, the too-careful stillness meant to suppress erratically trembling and spasming muscles, the faint furrow under black brows betraying a pounding headache.
In short, all the symptoms of a very bad reaction to a zat blast.
Spotted, only to grit their teeth and say nothing, because there was nothing either of them could do about it. Not here. Save to get out of here and to proper medical facilities.
She’s half the mass of an adult male, if that, Sam thought grimly. When she took the blast that knocked her out and landed her in that cell, she got the equivalent of two hits in one. She’s lucky to have survived.
If she takes another hit before that wears off… she’s not going to make it.
Fact. And fact.
But if they were going to make it out through a guarded door, with the Jaffa already on alert – they needed their most effective fighters to take point. And those fighters were not the two staff-wielding US Air Force officers.
She stepped away from the door, pressing against the wall next to Janet.
“Why can’t we just sneak out?” the doctor was muttering under her breath. “That’s got to be more sensible than this…”
“We’ve used up our sneaking permit,” Sam replied, her voice just as quiet. “It won’t be that hard to trace our route based on all those holes in the floors and walls. They know where we’re going. And the alarm’s already been raised; the exits will all be guarded.”
And whatever the tech Toph was using to manipulate the floors and walls like that, Sam didn’t want to pit it against the hardened outer shell of the ha’tak.
“In other words, they’re expecting us.” Janet tightened her grip on the staff weapon as Toph walked right up to the door.
“Probably. With luck, we’ll still surprise them, coming in through a side door like this…” Sam braced herself as Toph raised a hand.
Danny would have thrown a fit. Who’d have thought that Shave and a Haircut would be a universal constant?
But for the last booming knock, Toph suddenly pivoted and snapped out a perfect side-kick to the center of the door – and the door blasted inward.
Nonplussed silence shattered with startled shouts – and the sound of overloading crystal matrices as Sam’s tampering dumped the power surge from the broken door directly into the local energy grid. Not enough to overload the system – one little jolt was barely a pebble dropped in a pond. It made a few ripples – it wouldn’t overflow the banks.
But what the ripples would do, was to activate an emergency lockdown of the other doors leading to the main entryway. Buying them time to get the outer door open and escape.
Little Tok’ra sabotage trick, that. Check’s a bit late, but Jolinar’s paying her rent…
As the thought flashed through Sam’s mind, Toph charged, the rest of them launching through the door barely a few steps behind.
Sam fired as she cleared the door, accepting the moment’s delay to recover from the recoil in the hopes of further scattering a formation already broken by the shattered remnants of a door landing in their midst. The light of the bolt gleamed for the span of an eyeflicker on polished metal – then struck and glanced off, slamming into the floor.
That would be one of Janet’s riot shields, Sam thought blackly. The Jaffa were quickly recovering their formation behind that defensive line of shield-bearers, and damn the discipline that had let the defensive line reform so fast…
Every instinct screamed that a headlong charge into staff-fire had all the stupidity of every tactically-challenged Hollywood director combined, yelled that she needed to find cover, and fast. Sam gritted her teeth, prayed their half-coherent almost-plan would hold, and kept running.
Then she slammed the brakes on as, a few steps ahead, Toph landed in a now-familiar stance. Suddenly she had the cover she wanted, as the floor buckled, bent, and rose up in a long line between them and the guards, running nearly the length of the room.
Long, and low. Sam wasn’t tall, but even so she had to keep her head down.
Guess Toph isn’t used to tall allies. And she wasn’t going to follow that thought, not now. Using what was left of her momentum, she whipped about and raced for the exit, Janet close at her heels. Behind her, she heard the discharge of staff weapons, and the crackling roar of flames.
They’re your allies. You have to trust them.
She kept going.
~~Even the Dragon-King’s temple floods.~~
Without breaking stride, Zuko launched himself into the air, hurtling over Toph and Toph’s wall, into the teeth of the first barrage. He twisted in midair into a defensive spin to deflect some of the attacks, and hit the ground in a heel-strike that split one last blast in two. Hot wind buffeted him from either side, and he narrowed his eyes against rock dust and sparks flying everywhere.
Like the time Aang sneezed into the campfire. Only with more shrapnel.
Behind the wall, he heard Toph biting down a yelp. “What is that stuff, blasting jelly?”
The edge in her voice would be outright panic, were she anyone but Toph Bei Fong.
Blasting jelly against stone, the stone loses…
Fire darted from his fingertips as he shifted stance to whip an arm around, flinging a blazing cousin of one of Mai’s favorite tricks. The whistle of the flame-senbon in flight vanished in a roar of fire, as several bit into oncoming blasts, scattering the gathered energies – but those that passed through the volley struck those strange metallic shields harmlessly, although they left smoking red-hot circles in their wake and something that sounded like startled oaths.
But he had no time to try another strike; another volley came hard after, and he was too busy blocking and deflecting to counter.
Think fast, Toph. I can’t keep this up forever…
~~Even the Dragon-King’s temple floods.~~
Sam, I think that goes beyond “throwing fireballs”!
Janet could feel the wash of heat as Zuko vanished in a whirling firestorm, and squinted against the blazing light. She focused on the Jaffa, arrayed behind the shelter of their shield wall. But not wholly safe, she realized with a tight, tense grin, when one stood to fire and met with a flying piece of floor tile.
Behind her, Sam swore faintly, something about failsafes. Janet suppressed the urge to turn and look; there was nothing she could do to help Sam hack a Goa’uld door. Other than what she was doing, standing guard. The kids were buying time, keeping the Jaffa’s focus on them and not the two women who’d slipped to the door controls under cover of Toph’s wall. The longer that held, the better Sam’s chances of getting the door open.
But the Jaffa wouldn’t stay distracted forever.
One of them snapped a command, and the relentless barrage of fire ceased. With it, the blaze of explosions and flame around Zuko faded as well. The boy settled into a basic stance, breathing deeply…
A doctor’s instinct, adding up the careful breathing, the sheen of sweat, the way he set his feet so that his skeleton held him up without further drain to fatigued muscle. Adding up the amount of fire – pure energy – that he had been generating seemly from nowhere…
Energy can’t just be created out of nothing. He’s exhausted. And he wasn’t going to let that stop him. She could read that in the gold eyes.
Except that the Jaffa saw it, too. The pause only lasted for a breath – then he began barking commands before Zuko could rally for a counterattack. This time, the attacks didn’t come in volleys, but a steady stream, meant not to overwhelm the boy but to wear him down.
Have I mentioned that I hate enemies who fight smart?
~~Even the Dragon-King’s temple floods.~~
This is so backwards, Toph couldn’t help thinking. Earth was the element that waited and listened, then hit you with a rock. Fire was the element that hit hard and fast and didn’t stop until it or its target was down.
But those boom-staves could go right through her rocky walls. Worse, she couldn’t see them coming. No stance, no shifting weight, just point and squeeze, and since most of them were pointed at her or Zuko already, the pointing didn’t tell her much. And in this mess, with her head so fuzzy, she didn’t even know about the squeezing until the recoil hit.
And by then, it didn’t matter how well she could see. To block, you had to predict, and she couldn’t predict if she couldn’t feel their moves!
Zuko could. Zuko could feel all that boominess coming at them and bat it out of the way, or kick it aside with one of those searing sweeps.
Except that firebenders weren’t really made to defend. Most of their defenses boiled down to hit back first.
And to do that, they had to make their own fire.
She could already feel the shift in Zuko’s breathing. He’d never show it, not until he fell over on his face. But if they didn’t do something, he’d be doing just that, and soon.
Then a boom and a section that was her wall suddenly wasn’t anymore – a hole Toph left where it was since it was far enough away that it wouldn’t give away that she was all on her lonesome back here, and their two weird hanger-ons were off doing sneaky stuff. Instead, she smirked and got herself some rubble.
So Zuko had to guard them? That just meant the Blind Bandit could do some damage!
And if she knocked the stupid clunky-boots hard enough, maybe they’d lay off Sparky enough for him to get a few shots in…
An exclamation followed by something that was either an oops or a curse as some of the “Jaffa” swung their sticks around to face the supposedly sneaky half of their party…
And one of the walls was moving like a drawbridge, pivoting outward from the base with a blast of coldcoldcold air.
Yes! I’ve seen enough of this place, and I can’t even see!
Provided they got there in time – the Jaffa were moving toward the door and she felt Zhanay and Xian’s heartbeats shoot way up as they scrambled for cover.
Zuko snarled, something like a saber-toothed moose-lion with a squishy intruder on its turf, mixed with a bit of distinctly not-very-Fire-Lordy-at-all language. (Not clear enough to pick the words out. Darn.) Then he ran – not to get between the women and their new opponents, but right into the middle of the mess, making all the bad guys turn their attention back to him-
Never mind the wall, no point in hiding that the others weren’t behind it any more. Toph stomped and punched, sending rocks hurtling into the melee, counting on earth-sense and experience together to tell her where Sparky would be so that she could hit where he wasn’t – and he was helping her, keeping his feet always on the ground even though firebenders liked to jump, and – yes! – messing up their line so those stupid shields weren’t in her way anymore.
Except that she was running out of wall and she couldn’t fight the way she liked, her usual stuff wouldn’t work here. She couldn’t pin bad guys to the ceiling with pillars of stone when the floor under their feet wasn’t all that much deeper than she was tall! And she could feel the stresses shifting all over the place just from her one long defensive wall. Stone against stone, supporting stone – buildings always felt just a little flimsy to Toph, all stresses and pressure and no solidity. If she didn’t watch her toes, she could knock the floor right out from under their feet.
Pause. Reach. Listen.
“Looks like we’ve got another very special birthday today,” she smirked. Then roared, “Sparky! Outta there!”
Zuko’s foot hit the ground. Angles and force pushing him that way, that far, which meant he’d land there…
Drop to one knee, cock the arm.
~~Even the Dragon-King’s temple floods.~~
From her position, Sam saw the strike from start to finish, as Toph’s punch into the floor sent a shudder through solid stone, a shudder that grew to a ripple, a wave, and then the floor literally disintegrated right under the Jaffa’s feet.
Ha’taks are built using a high-strength variant of limestone, so that if a section of the hull is punctured, it will crumble rather than split, to minimize environmental breach…
Zuko’s desperate leap was just far enough; he hit the floor at the edge of the hole with his shoulder and rolled to sturdier ground as he came up to his feet. Sam saw him glance back once, eyeing the destruction behind him with satisfaction, and then he and Toph were running to meet Sam and Janet at the exit.
Except that, as he came close, Zuko’s eyes focused over Sam’s shoulder, and widened.
Sam turned and found herself looking down the ramp of the ha’tak onto a nightscape of black, blue, white, and the deadly, shining silver of moonlight on ice.
Trapped in the Antarctic, Jack fading fast, couldn’t dial home because she didn’t realize it but she was home…
Sam shook away the memory as she freed the jacket of her winter gear from where she’d tied it around her waist in the warmth of the ha’tak’s interior, already feeling the bite of polar air rushing in. “The Gate’s that way,” she said with a jerk of her head towards the dark line of craggy stone thrusting out of the ghostly, gleaming white of snow and ice, thrusting an arm through a sleeve as her mind raced to match maps and coordinates and estimates into the reality facing her.
“How far?” Janet asked as she tossed a bundle of quilted cloth – Jaffa winter gear; must have been stashed near the door. Good call, the kids will need it… - to Zuko. The boy pulled the over-large coat on, scowling at the frozen landscape before them. It was a familiar sort of expression, the “of-freaking-course” look that Jack got when death gliders started showing up in the middle of a firefight – if rendered a bit more villainous by the scar.
“Two miles and change to the Gate as the crow flies.” Sam’s gloves had gone AWOL at some point. Janet handed her a pair of Jaffa gloves. Too big, they fit like sacks – but better that than bare hands on metal staff weapons in sub-zero temperatures.
She could hear movement below, from the hole Toph had opened in the floor. More alarming was the hum of energy from the other entrances to the hall, as the emergency failsafe holding them closed was overridden.
Time’s up! “Let’s move, people!”
She set off down the ramp, eyes fixed on the bleak snowscape of snow and ice and dark stone stabbing upwards out of that flat, white and silver plain.
Not so flat. Cracked. Rough. Stark, but not empty, she calculated, as the first real bite of the sub-zero chill began to sink in and her foot left the stone of the ramp to crunch down on frigid white. If we can just put some distance between us and the ha’tak before they can scramble death gliders or pursuit teams, we’ll vanish into the landscape… follow that ridge to get into the mountains and near the ‘Gate…
A cry of dismay had her stumble and slip on the cold ground as she unwillingly dumped momentum to turn and look back.
Zuko and Janet had been running hard on her heels, less than a breath behind. Toph, on the other hand, had stopped cold on the ramp, rigid and unmoving.
“Toph!” Zuko yelled.
Janet swore. “Sam – she’s barefoot! She can’t run around here like that, she’ll lose her feet!”
And there was no way stolen Jaffa boots were going to fit her.
Toph yelled something at Zuko, voice pitched significantly higher than Sam had heard from the cheeky girl yet, face pale in a way that she didn’t think could be blamed on moonlight.
This isn’t about the snow. She’s terrified of something.
Zuko swore under his breath – there was no mistaking the tone – and started back.
Then Sam noticed the Jaffa at the top of the ramp, arm outstretched, holding something that gleamed metal-bright in a serpentine curve in one outstretched hand.
Toph dropped flat against the ramp as the Jaffa fired. The crackling blue energy of the zat shot over her – directly into Zuko.
He caught it.
Sam heard, under the snap and hiss of discharged power, a grunt of effort as Zuko slid backward – almost as though the electrical energy of the zat were converted to pure kinetic force, pushing him back. Blue-white electricity arced and rippled through his raised arm, across his shoulders, down, making the boy light up like an over-clocked circuit for a minute-
Then with a wordless kiai the energy condensed and snapped up and out with the motion of his other hand – out and straight back up the ramp as a branching bolt of electricity that split the air with a crack that made Sam’s ears pop, and sent the Jaffa gathered on the ramp back into the ship.
As Zuko dropped to one knee, Toph flipped to her feet in a neat kip-up and turned sharply in a flurry of punches and kicks that seemed to strike nothing but air.
Until the great supports on either side of the main gate began to buckle and crumble inward, filling the exit with rubble and the tilting columns.
Sam remembered to breathe. No one’s getting out – or in – through there. Not for a while. And with a massive hull breach like that – this ha’tak wouldn’t be lifting off anytime soon, either.
Though I guess this means we could have just escaped through the nearest wall, after all.
Zuko was already back to his feet, staggering up the ramp with none of his earlier easy balance and poise. Toph met him half-way, chattering what sounded like a rapid-fire mix of chiding and boasting that didn’t cover the very real fear written in every diminutive inch, not with the way she latched onto him the minute he was in range. Zuko shook his head, speaking low and urgent as he dropped to one knee and shrugged Toph’s hands off – along with the Jaffa coat.
Then Toph was scrambling up onto his back, wrapping her arms around his shoulders while her legs hooked together around his waist, actually tucking her feet into his pockets with a snippy little chirp that made him breathe something like a laugh as he struggled to pull the coat on again, this time over both of them.
And something was wrong – he didn’t seem to be moving his left arm, and she knew that he hadn’t been injured before.
Sam hadn’t even really realized she and Janet were moving before they reached the kids, Janet helping Zuko get his one functional arm through the sleeve and then zipping the coat without even bothering with the other, leaving it just loose enough that she could pull the hood up over both their heads.
“Let’s just go,” the doctor muttered, as Zuko nodded his thanks and came up to his feet again.
Sam nodded. “Let’s.”
~~Even the Dragon-King’s temple floods.~~
The chamber of the Great Gate was in shambles.
First Prime Sanura regarded the destruction with dry amusement as poor Lieutenant Nekht finished his report. The Lieutenant was new to his rank, and he showed it in a thousand ways. He’d been in no way prepared for a disaster of this magnitude.
Then again, given the way his idiotic over-enthusiasm had contributed to the mess, there was a certain poetic justice to the fact that this had landed on his head.
Literally, judging by the amount of rock dust.
Ammit bite them – we thought they’d go for the gliders or the Stargate, she thought darkly. That’s the Tau’ri style. Not this sort of head-on attack.
Then again, if I could make the walls fight for me, I sure as Duat’s kiss wouldn’t waste my time on small fry, either.
The words “prepared to set out in pursuit on your command, First Prime” snapped her attention back.
“Pursuit?” she demanded, watching him jump at the harsh rasp of her voice. “After this fiasco? Let the ice cool them off first. We’ve got guards on the planet’s Stargate. They’re going nowhere fast.”
“But, the honor of the Wise One…!”
She snorted. “Bugger honor. Dead soldiers do not please the Wise One. Always remember that first.”
Although… the structural damage was bad, and they were still trying to trace the movements of the escaped prisoners through the ship. But the toll in terms of life…
Could have been a damn sight uglier.
Not that there hadn’t been plenty of casualties – including herself, she acknowledged ruefully, shaking out the pins and needles of one redirected zat blast.
Neat trick, that.
Although not everyone had been so lucky. Thre had been fatalities as well – to stolen staff weapons, to friendly fire, to flying rocks, or with neat little holes burned through important organs. The escapees had been deadly serious.
Heh. Under other circumstances, I’d say I liked them.
“Regroup and get your wounded and dead seen to. I’ll report to the Wise One.” Odds were that Nubiti was already with him, poking at rocks and tech alike.
And both of them well-armed with I told you so’s.
Hells. Well, time to go get laughed at.
~~Even the Dragon-King’s temple floods.~~
“Don’t ever do that again.”
“Do what?” Zuko rasped, and Toph felt him shift under her to balance her weight a little better against gravity and the wind.
“Jump in the middle of a bunch of bad guys so I can’t squish them properly!”
“It worked, didn’t it? Ow!” She’d dug one ankle into his side – it would have been a kick, if she didn’t have arms and legs locked in a death-grip. “Toph, do you want me to drop you?”
That hadn’t been a death grip. This was a death grip. “Don’t you dare!” She swallowed and wished she’d remembered that she wasn’t scared before yelling that.
Zuko was quiet for a minute. “I’m not dropping you, Toph. Got that? I won’t. Ever.”
Okay, she had to sass him on that one.
“…I wish Katara were here.”
That’s not what I was going to say!
“Yeah. Same here.”
Toph hunkered down a bit more. She could hear the cold out there, in the way the snow crunched under the others’ feet, the whistle in the air, the way Zuko shifted his face to try and keep it out of the worst of the wind that had blown up only half an hour after they’d escaped and started this horrible trek through blind nothing so far as she was concerned. She tucked her chin against his shoulder in an effort to give him a little more room in the hood, trying to concentrate on the smoky-cinnamon smell of the incense he liked. Snoozles swore Zuko burned the stuff just to keep his nobles fixated on visions of sticky buns rather than intrigue. And yeah, it did make her think of sweet yummy things. But mostly it smelled warm, like Fire.
“I mean, she grew up in the South Pole. All this ice and snow is waterbender stuff.” She wasn’t rambling. Much.
“I’ve crossed ice under worse conditions,” Zuko said quietly.
Oh, she knew that wincing almost-laugh. This had something to do with before Zuko got his head on straight. “What, they never told you about me getting into the North Pole?”
She could actually feel him sigh, straight through her own ribs. A bit like earth-sensing, only not. “This… well, it was during the siege on the North Pole…”
Zuko wasn’t a good storyteller, at least not the way that Sokka and Katara were. He tended to whittle out the good stuff, paring things down to fact, and fact, and fact. This is how it happened, this is why it happened, this is what happened as a result.
Or maybe he just wanted her to overlook the certain details. Like the fact that he’d been really, really stupid!
“Wait a minute. You were walking across polar ice and it broke?” Her grip tightened without her say-so.
Zuko stumbled, caught himself. “Yeah.”
“Ice like we’re walking on right now?”
“…there is that.”
Toph shivered, even though she was probably the one member of their bunch who wasn’t cold, courtesy of clinging to the back of a firebender. I’m not going to think about it! “So… what’s with you and the deathwish?”
Toph snorted and hiked herself up again, trying to match the movement to his stride so she didn’t throw him off balance. “Come on. Have you ever done anything that didn’t almost kill you?”
“…I gave Mai a fruit tart?”
“Yeah. With rose petals.”
Sparky was such a sap. It was cute. “Mai’s your girlfriend. Mai. That’s a deathwish right there.”
“It is not!”
“Well, yeah.” And your point is?, Zuko’s genuinely baffled tone asked.
Note to self: when picking a boyfriend, send him to Sparky and Snoozles for training. Or better yet, ask Mai and Suki for tips on training him myself.
Quiet again. Only, not quiet, because she could hear the howling of the wind, and just barely the sounds of Zhaney and Xian’s feet – fine, Janet and Sam, Zuko had drilled her on the weird names until she got them right. Guess being careful with names was part of the whole Fire Lording job. They’d pulled in closer as the storm hit.
It was awful. The world wasn’t real around her. Not when all she could hear was the moan of the wind and the impact of the snow on the hood, not when she could barely hear the people walking right beside her. The only thing real was Zuko’s breathing, the smell of cinnamon smoke, the warmth he radiated.
I. Hate. Being. Blind!
She hadn’t meant to say that out loud.
“Yeah. That makes two of us.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean this storm’s so heavy, I’m not sure I could see my hand in front of my face.”
Toph gulped. “Do we even know where we’re going?”
“Think Sam knew. When we started, at least. Not sure how long ago that was…”
She didn’t like the sound of that.
“Speaking of girlfriends – when are you gonna admit the other reason you miss Katara right now?”
Ooh, nice deadpan, that. Shouted you did not just imply what I think you just implied!, all the way down to the mountains’ roots.
“What’s wrong with your arm?” she asked in return.
Zuko was silent.
You’re busted, Sparky. “I could tell something was wrong with it back on the ramp. You haven’t been using it to help carry me.” And Zuko’s chi felt… off. Hard to tell when she was reading straight through him and not through stone, but Toph knew chi; had to, to read people as well as she did. And she knew her friends’ chi best. “What gives?”
“The lightning-bending that those Jaffa used. It… wasn’t lightning, not exactly.” Zuko took a deep breath. “Uncle’s block… didn’t quite work all the way.”
Toph swallowed, remembering days, weeks of waiting for Aang to wake up from Azula’s sneak shot, the way Zuko had still been moving gingerly during his coronation, even after redirecting most of a shot during the Agni Kai that he and Katara had summed up as, Zuko was winning until Azula cheated. We won anyway. It was ugly. “So…?”
“Can’t feel my left arm.” Zuko’s voice had dropped, even though there was no way Sam and Janet could hear them through the wind – and even if they did, they wouldn’t understand the conversation. Zuko just didn’t like admitting he wasn’t in top form.
“…shit.” It was just about the only good swearword Toph knew – for all the trash-talk in Earth Rumbles, you were supposed to keep it mostly clean for the audience. “Sparky!”
“Toph. It’s okay.” It’s not okay, said the tension in Zuko’s shoulders, in the moment before he forced them to relax a bit. “I’m a firebender, Toph. We don’t… firebending’s more like airbending than earth or water. We don’t always need to move in order to bend. Just breathe.”
And on the other side of the coin, it was harder for fire and air to not bend. Took a pretty strong bender and some pretty hefty arm-waving for earth or waterbenders to bend by accident. “Doesn’t mean you aren’t in trouble if we get into a fight.”
“I’ll manage,” Zuko said flatly. “I… Janet!”
Toph quickly firmed her grip as Zuko lurched into faster motion and helped catch someone who collided with them and took a minute or two to get her feet back under her. Listening to weird, nonsense words, and feeling the new worry settle into Zuko, Toph scowled. “What’s wrong?”
“The cold,” Zuko said flatly. “I’m keeping us warm with the Breath of Fire, but…” He raised his voice. “Sam. Deinja-. We need to rest.”
He had to shout it twice, the second time, if Toph pictured what was going on correctly, practically shouting in the Sam-woman’s ear.
If. Not like she could see anything.
I hate this!
She couldn’t really make out Sam’s response. What she did know was that Zuko suddenly growled and started to open up his coat. “Are you crazy?” she demanded.
“You can’t bend through a coat, can you?” Zuko shifted his weight around, then reached back to support Toph with his one functional arm. “Toph – reach forward, about a foot. We’ve been walking along a stone ridge – I’m standing right in front of it.”
Toph gritted her teeth and let go of her death-grip with one hand, feeling the horrible biting cold that actually burned against her hand as she stuck it out of the nice warm coat. Or at least it felt like burning, before her hand started going numb and that couldn’t be good…
Then her almost-numb hand hit rock and suddenly there was a world again.
And this was stone – good, solid, real bones of the earth stone, not stone cut into blocks and put together as a weird building all threaded with metal and other stuff.
…and the singing of earthearthearth in her veins didn’t mean the blood in her veins wasn’t freezing solid. “Whatcha need, Sparky?” she asked, snatching her hand back now that she had her bearings on the stone nearby. She hadn’t even realized she’d pulled into herself so much as they crossed the ice.
“Dammit, Toph!” Zuko spluttered – probably because she’d gone ahead and tucked her frozen hand right into the collar of his tunic. Ow – thawing her fingers actually hurt more than freezing them. “We need shelter.”
“Heh. On it!”
Sam yelped as Toph punched, and busted rocks aside. Clumsy move, but the best she could do riding Zuko like an ostrich-horse. He helped her climb down onto the ledge she’d made, and then it was quick work to start drilling a small tunnel into the rock. Sam’s muttering went quiet real fast – must’ve realized what they were doing.
This was good rock – like the rock at Ba Sing Se, or in the mountains around Omashu. It liked bending. She could feel the strength of it, building up from the mountains around it, just the faintest memory of ancient fire from where it had burst forth from the ground. She had no problem following Zuko’s instructions, making a tunnel that dipped down, then up, until finally she widened it into a cave.
“What’s wrong with just a normal cave?” she demanded, as Zuko scrambled in after her.
“Heat rises,” he said tersely. “We need all the help we can get.” He was already spreading the huge coat out on the floor of her cave. After a moment, she added hers. The two practically covered all the floor – Toph hadn’t made it very big, after all. She could handle having some cloth between her and the ground as she slept just this once.
Especially as she felt Sam helping Janet in. The smaller woman was moving slowly, clumsily, and despite the way she was shivering, her pulse seemed a little slow. That can’t be good, Toph thought, and moved to help Sam maneuver Janet around the bend and up into their little burrow, since as the smallest she had the most mobility.
Besides. Earthbender. If someone got stuck, she’d just bend ‘em out.
Zuko had settled into a familiar cross-legged position and an odd, slow-in-quick-out breathing pattern by the time she got the other two up into the cave, and… Yep. Definitely warmer in here than it was before, and it’s not just the cozy quarters.
“You might want to take off your outer layers,” Zuko told her, in the odd too-steady voice that both he and Aang used when they were meditating. “I think you’re okay, but Sam and Janet need as much warmth as we can get into them.”
“And less clothes are good?” Toph asked skeptically – but she could feel Sam already wrestling Janet’s coat off, then her jacket. The boots had already been removed and set aside, along with Sam’s and Zuko’s. Toph helped Sam haul Janet’s heavy pants off, and had to shiver. She’s cold. That really can’t be good.
“If you want to warm someone up, yeah.” Coming out of his meditation pose – though he was still breathing like he was meditating – Zuko helped Sam arrange the other two coats on top of the little huddle the four of them made, Zuko and Janet in the middle, Sam and Toph more or less piled on top of them.
Weird. Now that they weren’t moving – Toph was exhausted. Her eyelids felt like rocks – which was just stupid, because she didn’t use her eyes anyway, but they still felt heavy when she was tired…
“You gonna be okay?” she muttered, squirming closer to that nice source of heat. She vaguely remembered Zuko telling Aang that even passive firebending tended to eat your energy, and Zuko’d been tired even before he’d started subbing in for a campfire.
“Yeah.” That was more a mumble than an answer. “Go t’ sleep, Toph. No point in moving ag’n, not until we’ve rested…”
Toph grinned, suddenly realizing something. Note to self – tease Sparky about sleeping with three girls, when he’s not too tired to be embarrassed!