AN: Sorry about the delay in getting this out. Here I thought I had the holiday to get some real editing in… and instead I came down with a cold. Add to that the fact that this chapter needed a bit more in the way of editing…
By the same token, expect the twelfth and final chapter to be a bit late as well.
THE DRAGON-KING'S TEMPLE
~Even the Dragon-King's temple floods.~
It materialized out of nowhere.
And it was fast. Sam only caught a glimpse of a long, sleek shape loosely sketched in shadows, vague shade-on-smoke impressions in what seemed like a head that might be eyes, as indistinct and ephemeral as a wisp of smoke as it streaked past her.
There was nothing ephemeral about its fangs.
She hissed in pain, clapping a hand over the streak of blazing white cold that burned across her arm as though her jacket sleeve weren't even there, twisting in an attempt to track the blasted thing…
Sam was a veteran of two and a half years in the flagship team of the SGC, a hundred or more different worlds, and at least that many bizarre situations.
The world was lit by a strange, bluish illumination that seemed to have no source – not even the strange clouds churning furiously overhead in a turbulent sky, lit from within by blue-white lightning dancing back and forth between restless thunderheads. The light concealed as much as it revealed; she could just make out jagged mountain peaks looming black against the sky, shaving off wisps of cloud with edges as sharp as only flaked obsidian could possibly be…
She was throwing herself down to barren, hard, glassy ground before she even registered the shout, as the corner of her eye registered a streak of dark motion that meant the shadow-shape had come around for a second pass.
A second swift motion, from the other direction, silvery and bright, cut through it. With a hollow shriek that didn't seem to hit her ears at all, the shadow-shape burst apart into misty wisps that dissipated in moments.
Small hands were grabbing her. "Stop staring and get over here!"
Sam scrambled across sharp-edged, glassy stone, concentrating on not slipping – because she knew, somehow, that if she slipped and fell here, the stones themselves would cut her to pieces.
Although somehow, the thought of that was better than the lingering ice-cold burning on her arm. She glanced at it once and couldn't help a shudder. There was a streak of stark white, a cold fog smoking off it, across the sleeve of her jacket, as though someone had swiped her with liquid nitrogen.
She didn't want to see her arm beneath it.
Her scramble ended as she skidded into the inside arc of a curving boulder, next to a familiar small, solid shape. "What's going on?" she gasped.
"You're asking me?" Toph snapped, voice high-pitched even for a twelve-year-old.
Russet-and-gold moved to intercept two more shadow-shapes lunging out of nothingness towards their shelter. "Spirit World," Zuko said grimly, his back to them as he kept watch for more of the things. "The yukiuso pulled us across…"
Sam blinked. Where did the swords come from? They looked very much like the Chinese sabers that Tai Chi enthusiasts used – except this was no exercise aid. These were weapons, meant for bitter, bloody use.
From the ease with which Zuko held them, and maneuvered them not as two separate weapons but as a fighting pair – he was all too familiar with that use.
"The Spirit World?" Toph demanded. "Twinkletoes talked about the Spirit World, Sparky! It's all… swampy and creepy and stuff. I can't even see, and I can tell you that this…" A furious gesture took in hazy half-light and black, glassy slopes – and nearly cut Toph's arm open on the edge of their shelter before Sam managed to intercept. Toph didn't even seem to notice the save. "…this is not swampy!"
"Yeah, well, I get the funny feeling that this place doesn't exactly have a lot of living things to liven it up!"
Three more shadow-shapes manifested simultaneously, and Zuko cursed softly. A quick turn and parallel slash with both swords took out two as they darted in – but he missed the third, and only a desperate twist of his body that nearly sent the boy tumbling down onto the sharp-edged ground got him out of its path. As Zuko regained his footing, Sam caught a glimpse of his face: wide-eyed, thin-lipped with determination, and pale in a way she didn't think could entirely be credited to fear. The pyrokinetic was tiring.
Wait. Pyrokinetic. Why is he using swords at all? Why isn't he using fire against these things? And why wasn't Toph fighting, rather than latching onto Sam's bad arm with a death grip? It seemed utterly unlike the boisterous girl…
Apparently Zuko agreed. "Dammit, Toph – I need some back-up here!" he snarled, as the one he'd missed came around for another pass, joined by two more out of the haze.
"Hel-lo!" Toph snapped back. From the sound of it, she was keeping it from being a wail by dint of pure stubborn cussedness. "Spirit World here! There's no bending! At least you have your swords – how the heck do you have your swords? But I'm blind!"
"This is the Spirit World – we are as we see ourselves! Of course I have my dao!" Zuko actually laughed, a little breathlessly. "And you're blind and yet you still… knew I had my swords back," he added, making an odd corkscrew-turn that cut apart a shadow diving down on him. "You're letting a little blindness stop you? Are you the Blind Bandit or not?"
"…Sparky, we get out of this and your butt is kicked." Toph actually giggled. "What, are we the Ember Island Players now?"
Zuko's grin was all teeth. "Going to take a look at things by yelling?"
"Oh, I am way cooler than that." Toph scrambled to her feet, shamelessly using Sam's shoulder to lever herself up. "You just keep 'em back, Sparky," she added, humor underlined by fierce determination.
Then, taking a deep breath, she cupped her hands behind her ears.
Sam bit her lip and stayed down, trying not to distract Toph or interfere with Zuko.
I can't believe this. I'm a major in the Air Force – I should be helping them, not hiding behind them! Especially if she was following what they'd said correctly, and their psychokinesis didn't work in this Twilight Zone.
Yeah. Right. I'm not even armed… And going hand-to-hand with these shadows struck her as a very bad idea.
Wait. What was it Zuko had said? "We are as we see ourselves!" And now that she looked… Zuko and Toph were both wearing the same clothing they'd had on when Sam had first met them, escaping Djehuty's ha'tak. And she knew Zuko had scorched his to shreds, healing his arm. And Toph…
Toph was dressed as she had been, yes. Except… her clothing was colorless. Literally. Sam could look straight at it, and it had no color.
…because she's blind. She has no real concept of color.
"Zuko!" Toph suddenly yelled. "Over there!" One hand was pointing out into the haze, at something that might have been a darker shadow. "There's something bigger, it's where the little things are coming from! Get it!"
"Love to!" Zuko growled, ducking another icy shadow narrowly. He was keeping up with their numbers – barely. But if he missed one… they were manifesting faster and faster. Sooner or later, he'd be overwhelmed. "How?"
Sam rose to one knee, arms extended. "Toph, cover your ears!" she said, and fired.
Because she was an Air Force major. Of course she had a gun.
I never thought I'd ever say this, she thought, fighting down a half-hysterical chuckle, but thank God for Hollywood.
Something inhuman howled just beyond sight and far, far too close. And in the next moment, the shadow-shapes were melting back into the haze.
Zuko finished off the last of the attackers and backed up a step or two. Sam had already turned, putting the three of them back-to-back-to-back. "Thanks," he said roughly, obviously trying to steady his breathing before whatever came next.
Sam shook her head. "No problem," she said over her shoulder. "But I hope you two have a bright idea for getting out of here, because I'm coming up empty…"
Her words stuttered to a halt, as something that should have been painfully obvious suddenly slapped her in the face.
She wasn't the only one to reach the same sudden realization. Zuko's eyes widened almost comically in one of the most impressive double-takes she'd ever seen.
"…Whoa," Toph said at length, sounding impressed. "Since when could you talk like a real person?"
"Toph!" Zuko said, shock vanishing under amused exasperation.
Sam couldn't help laughing a bit. "I've heard worse," she admitted. And she had. There'd been far too many civilizations that didn't care that Gate translation allowed you to understand most of what they were saying. If you were an outsider, of course you wouldn't hear them talking about you.
Gate translation. "Is this some sort of… Spirit World thing?" Sam asked carefully.
Toph shrugged. "Probably. Sparky's the sage, though."
"I am not a sage!" Zuko snapped over his shoulder. "Do I look like Guru Pathik – Toph, don't even go there."
The girl widened blind eyes and smirked.
Zuko huffed. "Anyway, I've just… picked a few things up."
"Over Pai Sho?" Toph grinned tauntingly.
"And gallons of tea, spirits – Sam, on your left!"
She sighted and fired. She wasn't a crack markswoman; the bullet only skimmed the trailing edge of the shadow-shape as it hissed and veered off. Still, it seemed to be enough; the shape melted back into the haze.
Thank goodness for small blessings. I don't have the ammo to relo… Wait. A quick check confirmed her sudden hunch. What do you know? Unlimited ammo. Cool.
"Pick up anything about getting out of this?" she asked, scanning their surroundings. Whatever she'd shot earlier, she suspected there were more – which meant that they'd have a second wave of attackers soon.
Zuko released a long breath. "Not as much as I'd like," he admitted reluctantly.
"C'mon," Toph needled, her voice low and soft, probably to keep from deafening her all-important ears. "Spirit-quests. That's classic shaman stuff. You can't tell me Uncle didn't talk about it!"
"Spirit-walks, sure," Zuko countered. "Except this isn't a spirit-walk, we've been physically transported into the Spirit World! Like Sokka and Hei Bai."
"I missed that one, remember?"
"So did I, that doesn't change the fact that it's not really a good thing!"
"So start from first principles," Sam said, trying not to betray the fact that she was biting her lip to fight off sudden laughter. Good grief. They even banter like SG-1!
She had a team with her. They might not be her team, but they were a team. Their surroundings seemed oddly lighter with that realization.
Or maybe not odd at all, if perception really does have tangible effects here.
"This friend of yours," she said, taking a wild guess, "something like this happened? How did he get back?"
"Hei Bai gave him and the townspeople back after it calmed down," Zuko said dryly.
"Great," Toph said. "Any bright ideas on how to calm down a yukiuso?"
"I hear dying works." Zuko slashed down another darting shadow. "In a spirit walk, you get out by returning to your body. That might work – going back to where you came through."
"I don't think we've left," Sam admitted. "And…" She trailed off, remembering howling wind and cold that shattered solid stone in seconds.
Toph could have been reading her mind, from the sudden, whole-body shiver in the tiny frame. "Yeah. Not a good idea. Anything else?"
Zuko's lips thinned. "So far as I know, no. Unless you can get a spirit to help you out."
Sam winced, unable to fight a quick glance up at the roiling clouds not nearly high enough overhead. She didn't even know if there were stars up there – let alone Earth, or Zuko and Toph's world. "And none of us have any spirit friends on this world," she said reluctantly.
"Oh," a sharp, dry voice said, "I would not say that."
~Even the Dragon-King's temple floods.~
Either he fell into the seat, or the seat jumped up and grabbed him.
"Don't you have inertial dampeners on this thi-" Jack started, and then cut himself off and gritted his teeth as the entire ship jounced and shuddered.
"In atmosphere?" Sanura asked, teeth bared in a fierce grin as she fought the Tale'sedrin around again. "Surely you jest."
…Ouch. Point. Inertial dampeners cancelled mass, according to Sam, which meant they effectively canceled weight. Light weight aircraft in heavy winds? Disaster waiting to happen.
And more than that – if they were going to get out of this alive, Sanura had to be able to feel what was happening to the ship.
Another teeth-rattling jolt nearly flung Jack out of the seat again. He swore and scrabbled reflexively at the seat. His fingers came upon something flat and tough – he pulled the strap forward and found a matching slot in the side of the seat.
Danny would laugh. Seat belts, the universal consta-oof!
Unfortunately, he couldn't strap his stomach in, and he nearly left it behind as for a terrifying second, they lost lift completely and dropped – only to hit a gust going a different direction and nearly tumble over.
In the chaos, it took him a second or two to realize the odd ringing wasn't his ears, but an incoming transmission.
Gritting his teeth, he released his death grip on the seat and slapped the receive button, glad now that he'd kept an eye on what Sanura and Teal'c were doing in this thing. The last thing those two needed was a distraction, as they wrestled with ship and winds and controls to keep the Tale'sedrin in the air.
Flying storms was hard enough. Flying a lightning-laced blizzard that was actively trying to kill them…
"This had better be good," he growled through clenched teeth. Last thing he needed right now was to bite his tongue.
"Jack! Urdu says the monitors he set on the Stargate just went off – someone's dialing in!"
Of. Freaking. Course. Because there was no situation so dire that Murphy couldn't stick his two cents in.
"Sit tight," he said, mind racing. Who would be dialing in to this place? It wasn't exactly Grand Central Station!
Though the way things have been lately, you coulda fooled me.
Their wild flight had leveled off somewhat. Which was a good sign, really. Only, not, because that meant they were flying with the winds rather than against them.
Playing along with what Killer Cold wanted for them struck him as a really bad idea.
"Any day now would be nice," he commented.
Sanura didn't even look at him. "Perhaps you would prefer the controls?" she snapped. Teal'c didn't even react, eyes locked on his display as he made some arcane adjustments, and Jack had never been happier that the big guy knew his way around Goa'uld tech.
Frankly, yes, Jack did – if only because flying would demand too much of his attention for his mind to keep jumping back to the moment when they'd cleared that last rise – just in time to see an arm of the storm surge forward and engulf the three tiny figures in the valley. And the way they'd simply faded into wind and blowing snow, like a high-budget special effect…
Keep a grip, Jack, he thought grimly. Not that he wasn't doing that already, physically at least; his knuckles were white, clutching at any handhold he could get as the ship suddenly bucked and tossed – Sanura had just veered out of the airstream they'd been following, skipping through turbulence to get to another. He just prayed the yukiuso didn't get the bright idea of dashing them into a mountain, because all he could see at the moment was whirling snow, dark clouds, and lightning. Sanura had to be flying by instrument alone. Urdu said they probably pulled through okay, they're just in a different phase. Not like they hadn't seen stuff like that before.
Hang in there, Sam. We'll get you out of there, if you don't beat us to it.
"So what's the problem?" he asked.
Sanura didn't bother answering this time; it was Teal'c who looked up and said, "There is a powerful layer of fast-moving wind around the outer edge of the storm. It will take significant momentum to force our way past it."
Ah. So that was why Sanura was playing along – trying to get up enough steam to punch through.
"Lovely. Whatever Sam did, she must have really ticked it off."
"Indeed. However, we may be fortunate in that regard."
Jack eyed him. "Oh?" he asked warily.
"It would appear the entity is too angry to attack our minds."
Too bad his stomach had gotten left behind between a zig and a zag somewhere along the lines. His heart could have used something to stop its fall. "Dammit, Teal'c, what have we told you about tempting Murphy…"
The screen blazed white, and the ship went crazy, alarms going off everywhere as the whole thing spun out of control for a moment, as if it were nothing more than a child's toy punted out of the way.
Lightning strike? Jack thought wildly, as Sanura wrestled the craft back under control and the viewscreen cleared-
His jaw dropped.
They were on the edge of a great V of clear air cutting through the whirl of a storm. He could see all the way to the peaks around the Stargate's valley.
"What the devil was that?" he demanded.
"I do not know, I do not care," Sanura snapped, whipping the ship around.
Jack was already scrambling for the comm against as she punched it, landscape whipping past at a dizzying speed. "Daniel! What's going on?" Silence for a moment. "Danny!"
"…Ow," the anthropologist mumbled after a moment. "Inside of my head isn't supposed to be a gong…"
"What happened?" Jack pressed.
"I'm not sure." It was Nubiti who answered this time. There was the sound of something making an odd click-beep sound. "The surveillance on the Stargate appears to have overloaded.."
"Lay low," Sanura gritted, bringing their altitude up. Jack was trying very hard not to think about how low they'd been forced to fly in that storm. "We're on our way."
"O'Neill," Teal'c said quietly. "Look."
As Jack twisted around, Teal'c did something with his display board, and suddenly a section of Teal'c's side of the screen changed, showing a rapidly retreating landscape dominated by towering clouds.
Ooo, rear view mirror par excellance. Nice…
Jack sucked in a startled breath.
The giant storm was pulling in on itself, outer edge retreating to the border of the valley, winds whipping faster and faster and clouds piling up until it looked like it was trying to pull down the stars. It was wreathed in blazing lightning crackling back and forth until the whole thing was covered with a flickering, shifting net of blue-white electricity.
Something was in there.
He couldn't make out details, other than a hint of fierce golden light edging the clouds in flickers and flashes. But the clouds themselves pulsed and churned, squeezing in as though to crush the intruder only to billow outward again as if burned.
Then the mountains broke.
Jack nearly swallowed his tongue as the peaks of several peaks surrounding the valley suddenly cracked, huge masses of stone lifting up into the air and then flinging themselves headlong into the elemental clash.
"Okay," he said at last. "Even for us, that's not something you see every day."
~Even the Dragon-King's temple floods.~
Sam slowly lowered her gun. "…Khenut, I presume?" she guessed.
"Correctly." The older woman crossed her arms over her armored chest, voice surprisingly melodic for the iron-gray hair and hard lines of her face. She could have been forty, or sixty; either way, she was hewn from weathered granite. "You're well-informed."
"Sanura mentioned you." And… something about this woman just reminded her of Teal'c, somehow.
Which raised an awkward point. "She thinks you're…"
"Dead?" Khenut asked dryly. "I am."
Um. Well. That's a conversation killer for you. Sam suppressed the urge to wince. Great. I'm channeling Jack again.
Zuko's back was still against Sam's, with only as much room as both of them needed to be able to move freely at a moment's notice. But she felt him shift to look over his shoulder at Khenut. "You're trapped here?" he asked quietly.
Khenut tilted her head. "Indeed," the Jaffa ghost said. "Or I was. Along with everyone else this creature has devoured."
"You don't sound very dead," Toph said dubiously. "And you're sure not acting very trapped."
"And this is neither Duat or the Fields of Aaru," Khenut replied. "But so far as I am aware, one does not walk away from being frozen from the inside out."
Sam felt Zuko fight down a convulsive shudder. Toph didn't hide her reaction so well – Sam heard her swallow, hard.
Khenut shrugged, as if it didn't matter. "But luck was with us, you and I. That spirit-trap from the Gate-builders' lab? It landed right at my body's feet. Broke the ice-demon's grip. It has allowed me to move about in this realm."
"Spirit-trap?" Zuko echoed, sounding startled – and uneasy.
I thought he was able to read the label on it? Sam thought, blinking in surprise. The way Zuko and Toph had reacted certainly suggested that they'd recognized the terminology, if not the context. "What did you think it was?" she asked curiously.
"…Never mind," he said, face shuttering into an expressionless mask.
Don't push for now, Sam thought. Whatever it was – it's something he's not ready to tell just anyone. And they didn't have time to indulge her curiosity. Not now.
Wait. "You mean the trap works?" she asked, startled. When the yukiuso had blasted through Toph's sheltering wall and sent it flying without so much as a flinch, she'd been certain she'd lost a fool's gamble.
But Khenut smiled darkly. "Oh, it works well enough. Why do you think the ice-demon brought you here, rather than playing with you?"
"But…" Sam started, and then paused. "Oh," she said quietly, feeling like a fool. "Of course. The yukiuso's outgrown the trap – it was never designed to hold something this…" At a loss for words, she waved her hand sharply at the hazy light, the roiling storm, and the half-shadows still dancing at the edge of materializing. Apparently they weren't quite bold enough to tackle the four of them at once. Yet. But Zuko's swords were still out and ready, and Toph was still listening, and Sam wasn't about to put her gun away either.
Of all the stupid mistakes. All that effort to find out how the Ancients had dealt with the entity, and it had never occurred to her that maybe the Ancients hadn't needed the sort of resources to take on what they were facing now.
"This… spirit-trap," Zuko said carefully. "It freed you. Can we use it to free the others?"
Khenut actually blinked.
She wasn't the only one taken aback. This time it was Sam's turn to glance over her shoulder. "What do you mean?" she asked.
Zuko shrugged sharply, radiating discomfort. "What?" he asked defensively. "Most malign spirits gain power from death. You don't fight them on ground where they've already killed if you can avoid it."
Sam knew she was getting stretched dangerously thin when she found herself fighting the urge to giggle at that. Daniel would go nuts, fitting that into known folklore. Who knew there was a sound tactical reason to dislike being near graveyards?
Khenut snorted. "Unfortunately, this whole planet is a killing ground, child," she said darkly. "It has been the ice-demon's playground for a long, long time."
"All the more reason not to leave you trapped here!" Zuko snapped back, scowling fiercely.
Khenut's eyebrows jumped nearly to her hairline, and she paused for a long moment, studying the boy thoughtfully.
"…What?" he asked, shoulders hunching defensively for a moment before he shook himself fiercely.
"You are not as I expected," Khenut said thoughtfully.
That got her an odd look – startled, suspicious, but also… oddly resigned.
I do believe he's heard that before. A lot. "So what did you expect?" Sam pressed.
"Far more callous arrogance," Khenut said bluntly, and kept going, leaving no room for more questions. "You can free others, if you can get the trap to them. But if you wish to actually hurt the ice demon, you must weaken it."
Her head jerked up suddenly, eyes fixing on something in the distance. And she smirked.
"And it would seem our time is at an end. Move fast!"
The world exploded into chaos.
The landscape vanished. They were in the heart of a roaring storm, lightning lashing against surging magma, howling wind and snow whipped into a polar hurricane driven by a shriek of cold hate and a roar of implacable fury. It was all Sam could do to cling to Zuko and Toph – if that sense of golden-bright presence in the madness was really them…
And in the midst of it, she had the sudden sensation of another pair of hands, once human, grabbing the three of them and flinging-
~Even the Dragon-King's temple floods.~
"Colonel O'Neill," Teal'c said sharply, jerking Jack's attention back to the forward view, and the Stargate that was just shutting down.
Narrow-eyed, Jack started scrabbling for the release on the safety harness. "Sanura? Take us down for a minute. Think we just got some cavalry."
Finally finding the release, he was up and at the back hatch by the time he felt the distinctive shudder of the Tale'sedrin settling. A moment later, the door slid open.
Call him a gambler, but he was willing to bet there was only one place the three in front of him could possibly have come from.
Oh. Great, he thought, jaw tightening reflexively. What the hell is wrong with that world? They're all kids!
But there was nothing kidlike about the way the dark-skinned boy was holding that sword, that said very well that he knew exactly which end was the pointy business bit and how to use it – even if the amazement and hint of glee as he looked at the ship was pure teenager. And the fans the girl with the painted face was reaching for might look pretty, but Jack had run into war-fans before. He'd rather not do that again. And the girl in the back, who could have been sword-boy's sister…
Houston, that would be a check for the hydrokinesis.
Grabbing the edge of the hatch, he leaned out. "Hey!" he yelled. "Zuko and Toph – friends of yours?"
The girls' eyes narrowed, but the boy straightened slightly. "Cranky snarky flame-throwing ninja and itty-bitty boulder-flinging badass?" he shouted back.
Oh, I'm going to like you. And, interesting. Sounded like their Stargate had finally gotten its translation protocols up and running.
Or something. How did they manage to dial in, anyway? We know Zuko and Toph didn't know anything about the Gate…
"That's them," Jack said with a smirk.
"Where are they?" the blue-eyed girl demanded, water still flowing in the wake of a slowly circling arm. Jack made a mental note not to tick her off until they were somewhere warmer. He had no idea how she was keeping that stuff liquid in what amounted to the coldest time of a polar night, but one thing was for sure. Getting soaked in these temperatures would get ugly.
Then the girl with the painted face and the war fans looked up past the ship and the mountains, to the raging storm, and swallowed hard. "Um. Guys?"
Sword-boy looked up. His shoulders drooped. "Never mind. I think I can guess."
~Even the Dragon-King's Temple floods.~
world distant fragile Huh? empty Be careful! loss return not again why Won't let you! cold fire electrons dancing kindred spirits harmedWhat's going on? power power power burning losing hold can't go can't stay years orbits around the sun power linking seasons gone Katara! returned gone-but-here My god, they actually went through with it! empty world space between atoms Sokka! Suki! spirits pure energy just beyond I won't go! anchors mentors friends kin danger Zuko, Toph! Where is everyone? web weakening coldest air clashing against cold air malevolence not Them but close Over my dead body! lines of force Somebody, help!pulling pushing backlash Look out…!
…What just happened?
Everything felt… fragile. Thin. Not quite there in the normal sense, only way more there in some other sense. Like…
Like the Spirit World!
Although, what it looked like was that secret chamber in the middle of Oma and Shu's secret tunnels, the one he and Katara had found with the riddle about the glowstone, except… all in white.
O…kaaaaay. This is weird.
Aang scratched his head, slowly turning to take in the room. Every time he'd bumped noses with the Spirit World, it had been… well, jungle. And rocks. And sometimes just clouds as far as the eye could see. Never buildings, except for maybe the odd shrine-gate, unless he was going back to look at someone's memories or something, like with Roku.
Frowning, he tried to form an airball. Nothing.
"Okay," he muttered to himself. "So maybe this isn't the Spirit World I'm used to, but it's definitely not normal, either."
Well, first things first – look around. Not that there was much to see. He didn't even see any doors…
On the back wall, where the image of the two people facing each other had been in the real hidden chamber, there was a mirror.
Huh. That's different.
Well, standing around here staring like an idiot wasn't getting him anywhere. Squaring his shoulders, Aang approached the mirror gingerly. After all – mirrors were supposed to be like spirit-doors, right? So if this was a spirit-place, however weird, the mirror might be the way out.
Still. No reason to be stupid. So he approached it kinda… sideways, so that he didn't actually step into the reflection path until he was close enough to get a good look. Then he took a deep breath, and peeked.
Heart hammering, he picked himself up off the floor, got a grip, and looked again.
What he saw inside wasn't just a reflection.
Some of the figures were tall. Some were short. There might have been one or two chubby ones, definitely a few skinny ones, and a whole lot of fit ones. Some had their hair in Fire Nation-style topknots, others in the tight braid that Earth Kingdom official-types sported, others in the loose Water Tribe style, others didn't have hair at all, just Air Nomad arrows. One after the other after the other, stretching out in and endless line, and none of them had faces. Just shadows hinting at faces. Heck, everything about the figures was all shadowy.
Except the blazing, gold-glowing eyes.
Aang swallowed. He'd seen this before. Once, talking to Roku back at Fong's fortress. And the other time, a flash of vision as he'd been slammed against a point of rock just on the chakra that Azula's lightning had blocked…
Only, this time, they were all lined up behind… him.
His reflection, rather. Sort of. It acted like a reflection, at least, moving as he moved. Except that like all the others, it – he – was all in shadow, except for the glowing eyes and arrows.
Swallowing, he looked down at hands. They were normal. Not all shadowy. And – he turned them over – no glowing arrows.
"I'm not in the Avatar State," he muttered, frowning at his hands. Better that then looking at the creepy mirror again. "And every time I've seen – that – it was either going into the Avatar State or a freaky vision. So why…"
He blinked. Maybe this is a dream?
This was kinda like the vision he'd had while meditating on his chakras, back during the war. And it was the only explanation he could figure for how he'd suddenly be here, in a white room with no doors, with no memory of how he'd gotten here.
I was… at the caldera. Katara and Sokka and Suki, they were there. Zuko and Toph… weren't.
Oh. Right. Zuko and Toph were missing. And… now he remembered, they had gone looking, following the message Zuko had left with Iroh about where they were going, just in case. Some really old temple?
Aang's brows furrowed. I… think I remember that part. Although it was kinda fuzzy, all messed up with a horrible sense of wrong wrong wrong and the world feeling fragile all around him…
Aang shook his head fiercely. The point is, they're in trouble, which means I don't have time to be puttering around in my head having cryptic visions!
He glared up at the ceiling. "So if whoever brought me here would please just get in here and talk to me," he said, trying to sound polite rather than annoyed, "I'd really appreciate it!"
In the middle of lowering his gaze, he paused. On the other side of the chamber, there was another mirror.
He narrowed his eyes at it, then glanced at the creepy, creepy line-of-the-Avatar mirror.
Wait. That's the line of the Avatar. It's the… Avatar-me. So the other side – that should be me-me, right? Brightening, he moved over to the second mirror to take a look-
betrayed lost found protect those who are left Not again! changed altered No one else, I can't let them do this to anyone else! nowhere left to run anchors in danger How dare-
He wrenched himself away from the mirror, gasping and shaking like a leaf in one of the sudden twisting wind-dragons that rose up in the spring on the wide plains in parts of the Earth kingdom, where there weren't any mountains or even many trees to cut the wind or buffer the clash.
What was that?
Only, he was afraid that maybe he already knew. Because he remembered now. Flying out over the islands. Finding the campsite. Finding the old temple. Finding what lay below the temple.
That part was very fuzzy. All mixed up with a sense of not-right and wrong and no, no, no, this can't be happening, I won't let it happen and a wash of not me not real memory dream thoughts. All of which climaxed when he'd found that chamber with the strange ring.
"They've come. After all this time, they've come…"
Yeah. That part, he definitely remembered. Mostly because it had been so weird. Whoever – whatever – had said, that, it hadn't been him. It had been way, way older than that.
But it had known what was going on. So he'd settled in to meditate. If he could just find the incarnation that had… spoken…
Aang stared wide-eyed at the blazing golden light in the mirror, and only belatedly remembered to close his mouth.
If he looked really, really carefully – something about that blazing light was very… human.
I went looking for a past incarnation of the Avatar. He swallowed. I think I found it.
Now what do I do?
~Even the Dragon-King's temple floods.~
Zuko was rolling the moment he hit the ground, absorbing the shock of impact as the world shifted, his limbs suddenly heavy and clumsy as tough waterspider silk suddenly became stiffer, bulkier polar gear…
My swords are gone! The instinctive gut-jolt of reaction threw him back to his feet, he couldn't afford to be unarmed, not with his bending…
Wait. Swords are gone. I'm wearing the coat Sam gave me. And the world was solid and bitingly cold around them again.
"We're back!" Toph shouted. She'd tumbled over as bare feet suddenly became booted and threw her balance off, and by the way she was hugging wind-scoured basalt, she wasn't in any hurry to get up.
Wait. "Sam!" Zuko called, looked about quickly as the wind whipped his hair every which way. Not fifteen paces in any direction was a howling wall of darkened white whirling around their small circle of false calm.
We're in the eye of the storm. I didn't even know blizzards had eyes. No wonder the winds seemed to come from everywhere. He remembered the storm when he'd let the Avatar escape. Even in a large steamship… after the sixth monster rogue wave out of nowhere, he and the crew had almost been ready to face the lightning again.
Sam was standing slightly behind him, closer to the center of the eye, staring upward.
She's all right. He hadn't been sure, with her strange chi – but apparently returning to the living world was easier.
I shouldn't be surprised, as anchored as she is in her body.
Zuko grabbed her arm. "Sam!" he called, startled at just how much he had to raise his voice to even hear himself over the howling winds. "We have to find that spirit-trap!"
Koh take it – they weren't in the Spirit World, they couldn't talk to each other now…
"What is that?"
…or perhaps they could. Startled, Zuko followed her gaze upward.
His eyes widened.
On all sides, the spirit-storm raged – snow and mist keening in a solid wall of raging wind twining around them. The narrow tunnel of relative calm where they stood rose up, and up, to a tiny opening dizzyingly high overhead – higher than even the craziest airbender would want to fly…
In that shaft of open air, a battle was raging.
Out of the walls of snow and ice and lightning whipped a long shape of frozen blue, a deadly dragon formed of a rippling mass of indistinct, misty forms and hungrily slashing fangs. It was met by a raging golden ribbon of light arcing and slashing through the air, cutting the ice-dragon apart only to have the pieces scatter and pull together in strangling bands around a shape hovering in the air – eyes and mouth and arrows blazing with furious inner light.
No wonder we still understand each other, he thought weakly, feeling lightheaded for a moment as he stared at the rippling blue and gold of pure spirit-energies that mortal eyes were not supposed to even be able to see. This place is so saturated with power, it might as well be the Spirit World…
"What is that?" Sam repeated, more desperately this time.
"Really not good," Zuko rasped weakly, mouth painfully dry. He'd never really seen the Avatar up close, other than the once when they'd first clashed in the South Pole. At the North Pole… there had been the raging Ocean, but he'd been a little busy dealing with a power-mad Admiral who wanted him very, very dead. And in Ba Sing Se – Aang had barely had time to start before Azula had cut the Avatar's power short with cold fire.
Aang. What was Aang even doing here?
A crack like thunder, and the blue bands were wrapped around, not the tiny, too-frail mortal frame of the Avatar, but a shell of black stone that suddenly burst outward, shattering itself and blue energy alike. Only for the fragments to reform into the vicious, utterly wrong serpentine form again and dive into the raging whirl of the thundersnow, flickering in and out of sight like the Unagi circling a ship.
In the moment of calm, Zuko glimpsed just a hint of sky in the distant opening of the clouds, far above the battle. The stars were just starting to fade with the first hints of dawn.
Sunlight powers storms… dawn is a yukiuso's enemy, but it's using the advance of the sun to make the storm stronger!
Zuko tore his gaze from the battle. "Sam! There!"
Sam started, eyes widening as she reflexively followed his gesture and her eyes landed on the spirit-trap, lying at the feet of the ice-statue – of Khenut's body – where it had fallen when the yukiuso had attacked. Her eyes narrowed sharply, and she dove for it-
Zuko reacted to Toph's yell and the sense of movement without thinking. He grabbed Sam and threw both of them sideways.
The world shook as a massive basalt boulder came thundering to earth where they'd just been.
For a second, Zuko stared at the shard of a mountain that had just nearly killed them. Aang? Your aim needs some serious work.
The boulder clove in two – but from the bottom, rather than the top, forming a triangular sort of lean-to. "What are you guys doing?" Toph demanded, scrambling into the makeshift shelter it had become. "Get over here!"
Good advice. The yukiuso's attention was on the Avatar, but… this was a thundersnow. And he could feel the energies already splitting between earth and sky. One thing he'd only learned while teaching Aang to redirect – and it would really have been useful back when he'd been trying to actually create lightning – was that it wasn't just parting yin and yang and bringing them together. If you did that… well. Boom. In the bender's face. You had to send the yin out and bind it to your target, so that when you released, the yang exploded outward in its rush to rejoin its other half. Half of redirecting lightning was feeling the yin energy gather around you and acting – because by the time you saw your enemy move, you'd already be too late to block…
But that was consciously directed energy. The energy of a storm… it was a field of divided chi, and you had no idea when it was going to go off. Zuko really didn't want to try it.
Sam's face was pale, but her lips thinned with determination. Scrambling back to her feet, she caught up the trap from the ice-statue's feet.
"Thanks, Khenut," she muttered, and ran for Toph's stone shelter.
Zuko caught a hint of movement from the corner of his eye as she passed, and skidded into stance, arm pulling back and shoving…
The howling winds almost snatched the fire out of his hands entirely. But it held, just long enough to sear the wraithlike wisp of blue light out of existence.
Heart hammering, Zuko scrambled into Toph's lean-to, fist clenching to douse the flame. It fought him, feeding on the winds all around them. "Note to self," he said, a little shakily, as the last sparks finally died. "Be very careful with fire out there. It's either going to go out, or start something I'm not sure I'll be able to stop."
Sam was bent over the trap, fiddling with the strange wires and switches.
"It's intact," she said at his quick glance. "But if we try turning it on now – there's no way it can hold all that energy!" Grimacing, she grabbed for the odd distance-speaking device and activated it with a strange crackle. "Colonel O'Neill, this is Major Carter, please come in…"
As she spoke, hands like iron grabbed Zuko's arm and yanked. "Sparky," Toph hissed. "Out there…" She swallowed, hard. "Please tell me it's not what I think it is."
Zuko exhaled slowly, feeling the sheer energy in the air battering at his chi. "It's… pretty much what you think it is," he admitted quietly.
Toph bit her lip. "Ohboy. That's… really not good. Is it."
It shouldn't have been. Aang was the Avatar. If there was anyone who could take down a raging yukiuso, it was the World Spirit. Right?
Sam must have overheard the exchange, because she lowered her speaking device to stare at them. "Wait. You two know what's going on out there?"
Zuko grimaced. "Sort of…" Spirits. Where to even start…?
Before he could even try to begin gathering his thoughts, the speaking device crackled, a strange sound almost like that of static. "Major?" Jack's voice was oddly flat and scratchy through the noise. "What the hell is going on down there? We saw you vanish!"
"We got a little inside help with getting out, sir," Sam replied, words tumbling over each other in her rush to get them out. "Along with some intel. Sir, we need…"
There was an odd sound from the speaking device – almost as though someone had just tackled Jack. Then a familiar voice snapped, "Yeah, yeah – intel me first, are Zuko and Toph okay? They'd better be, or I'm going to…"
Toph grinned fiercely. "Save the weapons-grade puns for the bad guys, Snoozles."
"Toph!" And that was Katara's voice, and Zuko suspected that the soft hint of dire threats he overheard was Suki hauling Sokka back. "You're okay! What's going on?"
"Long story," he replied for the earthbender. "Really long, and we're still trying to figure out half of it… What are you guys doing here?" he demanded.
"Rescuing you, obviously," Sokka said. "Which has involved ancient ruins and a freaking-out Avatar and let me tell you, that's not fun even without the mail-chute fun-ride through the glowing puddle in the spirity ring thing and…" The chatter cut off suddenly, as though Sokka had swallowed his own words. When he spoke again, his voice was low and solemn, the blooded Water Tribe warrior. "Zuko. What is this thing? These people we met with the freaky glidership thing say it's a yukiuso, but…"
"It is," Zuko said, gritting his teeth. "And now the Avatar's in the middle of it. Which means we've got a problem."
He could hear Sokka's blink. "Wait, wait… What's the problem here? I mean… Cold spirit? Avatar. Ice cube? Volcano. Fwsht!"
Zuko's hand clenched. "I'd agree with you, except for two things," he said.
A moment's silence, and then Suki said, "We're listening."
He drew in a deep breath, looking outside, to where walls of wind and snow were flashing alternately golden and blue as the battle raged high overhead, acutely aware of Sam listening intently. As Jack and Sam's other friends probably were, on the other side of this device.
Then again, this is no time to be hiding tiles up our sleeves.
"First," he said flatly, "this isn't a normal yukiuso. It's ancient. Maybe as old as the Avatar itself. And it's been unopposed all this time." He swallowed. "I would guess that it's on a level with the Face-Stealer."
There was a much longer silence this time. "…and second?" Sokka asked uneasily.
Zuko released a slow breath. "This isn't our world."
Someone made a choking noise.
"It's true," Toph said quietly. "That spirit-ring you mentioned came through? Our new buddies call it a Stargate."
Oh, but that was weird. He'd been able to pluck the term out of overheard conversations in the strange language these people spoke, and he and Toph had figured out more or less what it probably meant. But now – he actually heard her saying it, in that language. And it made perfect sense.
My head hurts.
So did Toph's, from the way she grimaced and shook it briskly, as though trying to shake the bizarre sense of double-hearing out of her ears. But she didn't let it stall her more than a moment. "Point is, that wild mail-chute ride? Takes you to a different world."
Even through the odd interference, Zuko could hear the baffled noises of surprise, disbelief-
-and one soft gasp of shocked horror.
"Katara?" Suki prompted.
"If this isn't our world," Katara said slowly, "then… Aang… the Avatar, the World Spirit…"
Zuko's lips tightened grimly. "Unless we can find a way to tip the scales? Is probably going to lose."
~Even the Dragon-King's temple floods.~
Oh, Sokka thought faintly. Well. No pressure or anything.
Jack crossed his arms. "Well," he said in a slow drawl, and Sokka almost had to laugh, because, seriously. The guy could already pass for a Water Tribe chieftain or a Fire Navy captain, even with his odd no-color eyes, because seriously, grizzled veteran was its own type – but he even acted like Chief Hakoda. "Major, I hope you've got some ideas for us, because right now we're running on a whole lot of empty out here."
"In a way." That was the strange woman's voice again. "We have the spirit-trap, sir, and it still works. But there's a problem."
"Hands up, those who are surprised," the woman who really could pass for Water Tribe said. Her eyes were glued to the front window, all her attention on… well, something arcane with what looked like the wildest airship control panel ever.
"What is the nature of the problem?" the big guy sitting next to Sanura said – Tea-lack? Or something like that?
Easier to think about that than the way these people talked. It was like – mouths moved, weird babbling sounds came out, and somewhere between his ears and his brain they all sort of blipped and suddenly made sense…
"Scale." The woman's voice was grim. "It was never designed for anything this big. It works. But using it now – it's like trying to bail a lake with a bucket. We need to weaken it first."
"Great," Jack growled. "Anybody got any bright ideas… Wait." He turned a sharp look in Sokka's direction. "You guys know anything about how to fight this thing?"
Sokka puffed his cheeks out as he scratched at the base of his wolftail, trying to think about something other than not our world and how do we get into these messes? "Fighting? A yukiuso? Huh. Not much." Other than… Um. Wow. He'd never thought how fascinating a floor could be. It was metal, like the inside of the airships, but… dark. And glossy. "I've, um, heard that one way to keep them off is to… drink. Lots. And then collect it, and make a line in the snow around the camp with it… If you know what I mean."
For the space of an eyeblink, no one said anything.
Toph whooped. "Oh, man – why do the Water Tribes get the fun ward-offs?"
"Toph!" Katara snapped, scowling. She turned her glare towards Sokka. "Sokka…"
He spluttered, waving his hands in the air. "Hey, I didn't make it up!" he said hotly. "It's what the guys who go on the deep-ice hunts after tiger-walruses say!" He sighed heavily, shoulders drooping. "Seriously, you've got the wrong guy here. I don't do spirity woo-woo stuff. I'm not even a bender!" He waved an arm in the air – and then grabbed onto a handle in the wall himself as the glidership-thingy bounced again. "I'm the meat-and-sarcasm guy. I do… meat. And sarcasm. And the occasional slicey-dicey."
"Ah, the finer things in life," Jack said with a sage nod, and, okay, Sokka was officially starting to like this guy. Master snarkbender to master snarkbender, as it were.
Suki frowned. "How long until dawn?" she asked, glancing outside to where the stars beyond the raging mass of the thundersnow were just starting to fade into the first hints of lightening in the sky.
A light on the panel blinked. "Too long," a very deep woman's voice said. "Dawn is still over two hours away."
Suki blinked. "But…"
"Huh." Sokka blinked. "So… we came out nearer the poles here?" Because yeah. It had taken him a while to get used to how fast the sun rose, once their merry bunch of misfits had started wandering around closer to the equator. Or… "Wait. If this is a different world – does it just have a slower rotational cycle?"
Jack gaped at him.
Pursing his lips, Sokka narrowed his eyes right back. "Hey! I did go to school, you know!" Sure, fine, maybe he couldn't calculate eclipse dates in his head or anything, but he'd known how the planetarium worked, thank you so very much!
There was sputtering coming from the blinking light, now. Man's voice this time, Sokka noted. "Wait. You have…"
"Danny," Jack said firmly. "Back on track. Nasty freezing thing that wants to kill us first."
"And dawn won't work," Zuko said grimly, from the crackle-box. "This is a yukiuso – the embodiment of the killing cold of polar night. That means it's an apex predator. It's not used to being threatened. But it's not stupid, either. Sunrise is slow. The minute it feels dawn coming on…"
"It'll scatter into a thousand pieces," Sam finished for him. "We'll never be able to catch all of them."
"Which means we must be swift, as well as effective," Teal'c said, and, wow. Sokka had never met anyone who could make irony sound so mild, other than Master Piandao.
He grabbed a handhold on the wall as the glidership bounced in the air; they were holding a position far enough back from the stormwall to be out of easy range of the wild winds and lightning, but it wasn't quite far enough. And how something shaped like a glider was staying in the air without moving, he had no idea. When this over, he was sitting whoever came up with this thing down and picking their brains… "Too bad we can't… gah, strap a giant lens to a war balloon or something. Send it up to catch the first rays, and hey! Insta-dawn that goes where we want." Like Zuko'd done to trick the solar calendar at the Sun Warrior's temple, kinda. Okay, more like the focus crystal that made the beam, but…
Point was… the sky was lightening. Which meant that somewhere way, way up there, the first light of morning was coming over the curve of the world. Okay, right now it was probably way, way higher than even the craziest airbender wanted to fly, but the point was that it was there. And morning came a lot faster, higher up. They'd seen that from Appa's back plenty of times.
Jack looked impressed for a minute – then he grinned. "And then what?" he asked. "We cast Magic Missile at the darkness?"
"I believe that can be managed," a deep, deep voice rumbled from the blinky light.
Jack choked. "What?" he wheezed.
"The lens," the deep voice clarified, before suddenly turning as wickedly mischievous as General Iroh about to unleash the Pai Sho tile that would devastate your entire strategy. "Although when this is over, you must explain this Magic Missile concept. It sounds… intriguing."
Had Teal'c just snickered? Nah. Guys like that didn't snicker. But he was definitely radiating you've been got at Jack…
"Urdu…" Sam started to say, and then paused. Sokka could practically see her eyes widening, which was kinda crazy, since he didn't even know what she looked like. He was kinda picturing an older Suki right now. "You've studied light – could you somehow…"
"Possibly," Urdu said.
"Need us to give you a lift back to your ship?" Jack asked.
"Not necessary. Nubiti and I can coordinate from here. And there may yet be something of value in this archive. But I will need time."
"We're a little short on that!" Toph yelped, her voice almost drowned out by something going boom. "In more ways than one!"
Wait. That boom hadn't been through the funny intercom system…
He heard a choked curse and whipped his head around to stare out the front windows of the glider just in time to see the whirling stormclouds suddenly bulge-
Then a whirling disc of wind exploded out of them, ripping the storm in half, and for just a second, he saw Aang.
No. The Avatar. He couldn't see anything of his little buddy in that furious golden glow, and somehow that was even worse-
Then the winds reached the glidership.
~Even the Dragon-King's temple floods.~
Guess this thing does have inertial dampeners, a tiny corner in the back of Jack's mind muttered. It was the only explanation for how they'd somehow come out of their uncontrolled tumble and skidded to a halt in midair, rather than coming to a stop all over Nature's pretty landscaping. Emergency air brakes. Nice.
It was a tiny, distracted thought edging its way past a roaring rush of simmering fury.
That was a kid.
He'd only caught a glimpse in the middle of the spectacular light show before they'd gotten tossed like a little leaf in a hurricane, and by the time they'd settled, the storm had closed in again. But it had been enough.
Screw the glowing eyes, the glowing arrows, the shells of light-limned stone and ice and wind and fire all around him. That was a kid. He couldn't have been older than Toph.
He looked just like Charlie. The second Charlie, the kid who'd been put together piecemeal by the Reetou as a mouthpiece…
When this is over, I'm sitting these kids down until someone explains what the hell an Avatar is supposed to be. And who'd come up with that brilliant idea. And then he was going to go hunting. Ancients or no.
"Everyone in one piece?" Sanura called, bringing the ship around.
They'd finally stabilized enough that Jack could release his death grip on the handholds. "All in one piece over here," he called back. Thank goodness this bird apparently had been built to carry passengers or cargo; by the look of things, the back had been designed on the assumption that there'd be fancy flying. Some of the arctic gear that was stowed in the back had spilled out onto flooring, but thanks to the handholds and safety harnesses, no one had been thrown about with it.
Meat-and-Sarcasm Guy – Sokka? – was doing a quick, efficient hands-on check of the girl with the painted face all the same. Impressively for a teenage guy, he was even keeping it professional – although with an easy familiarity and lack of self-consciousness that told Jack these two had probably done some non -professional hands-on stuff before.
"Almost as much fun as jumping airships," Sokka said wryly. Before Jack could wonder what that was supposed to mean, the kid raised his voice. "We're good! Just don't- Katara, what are you doing?"
Grimly, the hydrokinetic girl who looked like she was probably Sokka's sister shoved her arms through the coat she'd snatched out of the mess on the floor. "I'm going to help Aang," she said, blue eyes determined.
"Are you crazy?" Sokka demanded, lunging to the limit of his safety harness to grab her arm.
She glared at him. "You saw him out there, Sokka!" she snapped. "He's lost in the Avatar State – this is the Si Wong Desert all over again!"
"I get it, okay?" Sokka shook his head. "But right now, the Avatar's the only thing keeping all of us from becoming freeze-dried jerky strips!"
Katara drew in a sharp breath, opening her mouth as though to yell – then let the breath out slowly.
Yipes. Did I just see frost forming?
"Sokka, Aang's in danger out there," she said, voice low and intent now. "I swear to you, I swear, I will wait as long as possible. But someone has to be there to snap him out of it, or we could lose Aang to the Avatar State itself." She looked at him pointedly. "You know I have to do this. I'm the only one with a chance of getting through to him!"
Sokka stared back for a long moment, then sighed and let go.
Okay. Enough's enough. "Yeah, well, it's a moot point," he said bluntly, crossing his arms. "Because if you think I'm letting you walk out into the middle of that…"
Katara drew herself up, chin rising stubbornly. "I don't recall asking permission."
Then she turned and smacked the door controls.
Crazy insane suicidal little…!
Jack lunged as everything not strapped down suddenly tumbled back, pulled by the suction of air pressure. Stray coats and equipment were flung into open air, far above the snow and stone below.
Along with one teenage girl.
He slammed into his harness. Reflexively scrabbled for the release even as the small part of his brain not swearing screamed that he was too late, all that going after her would do was leave them with two casualties…
White flashed in the corner of his eye. His jaw made its acquaintance with the floor.
Even as Katara had fallen, the snow from below had been coming up to meet her. She landed feet-first in perfect snowboarding form, shooting down the craziest ice slide ever.
Then she was lost to sight as the hatch of the Tale'sedrin slammed shut.
"What in Duat is going on back there?" Sanura snarled. Jack could see white knuckles on her hand as she fought to stabilize the ship; popping the hatch had played merry hell with the aerodynamics.
Sokka chuckled darkly. "Just Katara being Katara."
Jack looked at him. The boy was pale under the dusky skin, but there was a kind of grim amusement in his eyes. "She do this a lot?"
"Jump out of freaky gliderships? No. Pretty much the rest of it? Oh yeah."
"Two words, Sokka," Suki said. "Airship Slice."
God. It's a whole set of them. "Leashes," Jack muttered.
Sokka flicked a wry smile his way. "Trust me. They don't work."
"Then we need better leashes – Sanura, take us down lower! Katara decided to take up paratrooping in her spare time." And he just hoped that the girl had survived the landing. Maybe the ice-chute had broken her fall, but that still meant that when she hit the ground, she'd be going awfully fast…
The comm connecting them to the three back at the lab crackled. "Sanura. I need your help. We have a problem."
"Oh, tell us something we didn't know," Jack muttered.
"I believe I've found a way to make the solar lens we need," Urdu said, speaking quickly. "However… the angle will be off."
"What do you need?" Teal'c asked.
"Get the Tale'sedrin up above the storm," Nubiti said. In the background, Jack heard Urdu's deep voice talking – he guessed to someone in the ha'tak. "As high as you can manage. Sanura, you'll need to modify the shields…"
"Like Hell!" Jack exploded. "We've got a teenage girl down there about to go against this thing on her own, and you expect us to…"
"No. He's right."
Gone was the goofy punster. Gone even was the dark, wry amusement. The blue eyes that met Jack's were as solemn, level and steady as any veteran commander.
"We have to focus on taking this thing out," Sokka said simply. "The sooner that's done, the sooner we're all safe."
Then a flash of humor returned with a crooked grin. "Besides. Yukiuso versus Katara? I think I might even feel sorry for it."
~Even the Dragon-King's temple floods.~
She was bending even as she plowed into a hastily-piled snowbank.
Don't fight. The snow would only pack itself around her into a rock-hard mass, although at least it was cold enough not to pack easily. Which meant she could move just enough-
Circle, drawing her foot around her in a smooth arc, creating a small clear space beneath whiteness for her to stand. Push with one hand, moving the snow away from her on all sides. Pull with the other, until the pressure on ice crystals was such that even in this deadly cold, they melted into liquid, and she stood in the heart of a shell of rippling water, like the time she'd confronted Yon Rha…
Water crackled into ice.
But carefully, so carefully. It had to be clear, or she wouldn't be able to see. Which was more than just controlling the freezing. She had to keep the water smooth, keep flaws and flecks from disturbing the ice…
It was hard.
Which was good, because if she slowed down enough to think, she wouldn't be able to move for terror.
This is a yukiuso.
She'd heard of the Killing Cold. Everyone in the Water Tribes had heard the stories, of huntsmen who'd wandered too deep into the vast ice plains, whose bodies were found frozen so hard and still that if you knocked them over, they'd shatter into a hundred grisly shards, their voices left to drift in the darkness of the coldest polar night…
I have to do this. My friends need me. Needed her to buy them time to set off whatever trap these strange people were planning. Needed her to call Aang back. Needed her to help the people trapped in the center of this storm. Zuko and Toph were good at hiding when they were scared – but Katara knew them.
Hands forming fists inside the oversized sleeves of her borrowed coat, Katara glared up at the column of raging wind, snow, and lightning. And the flickering hints of golden light inside.
I will never, ever turn my back on people who need me.
This was a place of snow and ice and polar night; the yukiuso's home ground. But she was a master waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe. Of all of them… she was the only one other than the Avatar who could go toe to toe against this thing and survive.
Because this is my ground, too…
She swept her arms around. Snow whispered to water and cracked to ice, and her ice-igloo was suddenly a sheltered passage into the cold fury of the storm.
Snow and wind and flashes of spectral blue that she knew better than to stare too long at battered at the ice. Furious. Impotent.
Her lips curved in a fierce grin.
And you can't freeze ice, spirit!
~Even the Dragon-King's temple floods.~
Systems humming against the pull of gravity, the massive pyramid structure left the ground with a slight shudder and began to rise towards the stars.
The repairs to the shattered doors were still weak. Not space-worthy by a long shot – but it didn't need to reach space. Not quite.
In the mesosphere, far above the highest mountains of the planet, the stars never faded from sight; the only clouds were the thinnest wisps of ice crystals. But the stars were starting to dim as the first hints of light caught on those crystals, flaring them into visibility for the brief span of time that the air below them was still dark, and the distant horizon – now ever so faintly, but visibly, showing the curve of the world itself – suddenly began to blaze a luminous golden-edged blue as the first ray of true sunlight cleared the edge of the world.
Brushed the edges of hastily modified energy shields around the ha'tak-
~Even the Dragon-King's temple floods.~
Sam almost didn't hear the radio crackle, as Zuko scorched another of those hungry wisps when it ventured towards the opening of their bolt-hole. At least not many of the things dared venture out of the clouds and into the battlefield of the storm's eye. That hesitance, and Zuko's fire, were the only things keeping them alive.
That, and the shelter of this cave, from the wind and cold as well as… other things. Toph stood with her hands pressed against the stone, teeth gritted as something slammed down from above with enough force to make Sam think the world had just shaken. As near as she could tell, the girl was keeping their shelter intact by sheer stubbornness alone.
Sam slapped the radio. "This had better be good news!" She and Danny had an open channel going as he desperately plowed through the archives, trying to find more information about the spirit-trap before Sam set it off again.
But it was Jack's voice that answered, although the words were hard to pick out through the static of interference and the tumult outside. "You and Zuko'd better cover your eyes for a sec, Sam. Things are about to get a little sunny."
~Even the Dragon-King's temple floods.~
It was a physical shock, to an entity that had almost forgotten what physical meant.
Attack defend flee move What's going on?
He-she-they lost the rhythm of battle for a moment, hands coming up to shield the eyes of their-her-his borrowed shell-
No! enemy still there don't stop move Look out-!
The yukiuso hated daylight – but within the raging storm, it had shelter from the sudden onslaught. And unlike mortals, and those who borrowed mortal form, it didn't need eyes to see.
And it saw an opening.
~Even the Dragon-King's temple floods.~
No time to think, no time to wonder why the clouds had suddenly blazed with light all around her as she fought her way ice-shell by ice-shell, always driving at right angles to the howling wind, fighting to reach the eye of the storm and the friends stranded and fighting there…
Then she looked up reflexively as wind and snow and clouds parted for just a moment, and saw a small figure falling.
Caution could go swim under an iceberg. Reaching out to the storm, Katara pulled.
Snow tore itself out of the wind to gather under Aang, breaking his fall. But something was moving in the dark of the clouds, hurtling towards the unconscious Avatar…
She'd never quite managed Master Pakku's trick of lifting himself in his own self-contained waterspout – but she didn't need to. A sweep of her arms changed her ice tunnel to spinning water that sucked her in – and flung her bodily out the top.
She hit Aang just before the strange blue light reached him, wrapping herself around him as they both hurtled through the air with her momentum and trying not to think about the fact that she'd just drenched them both…
Frostbite is better than dead! And if she could just get a moment, she could bend the worst of it away before it sucked too much heat out of them…
But she didn't have the freedom of movement. She had to hang onto Aang, had to protect him, because this was going to hurt so much.
And she was going to remember that horrifying crack of bone to her dying day, because it hadn't been her…
Then small, familiar hands were grabbing her, helping a second set of hands tug her to her feet.
"Wow. You sure know how to make an entrance, Sugarqueen."
"Toph! You're okay?" Katara jolted upright, nearly cracking heads with someone in the process. Startled, she opened her eyes, meaning to check on her friends as soon as the pain-haze cleared.
Cringed and squeezed them shut again. Ow. Okay, maybe the red-white blaze in her eyes wasn't just her body scolding her for pulling a stunt worthy of Sokka.
She raised a hand to shield her eyes and tried again. Her eyes were watering, but she could just make out a strange, pale woman with sun-colored hair and Toph…
Katara blinked. Blinked again. No, the insane pink shade wasn't just sunspots. "What are you wearing?" she demanded, vaguely aware that she should be thinking of something else, but her brain was still fuzzy from impact.
"My commander's sense of humor," the woman said dryly – this had to be Major Sam, then. "And we don't really have time to discuss it," she added, helping Katara stabilize as her body finally caught on to the fact that she'd hit rocky ground very, very hard.
It was like a flash-flood washing all the weeds out of her mind. "Aang!"
"He's fine." That was Zuko, picking up a small figure. The arrow tattoos were still glowing, but far dimmer now – and Aang's left leg should not have been that angle.
"Oh no," she choked, feeling sick to her stomach. I tried to protect him…! "Let me…"
Zuko shook his head sharply before she could call water to her hands. "No time. Everyone, back to the cave, now!"
Sam looked at him, green eyes startled. "But the lensing worked," she said, waving a hand at the blazing light around them, worse than snow-glare under midnight sun. And how the people in the glidership had managed to get a giant magnifying glass into the sky, Katara wasn't sure she wanted to know.
Sokka was scary enough with a little one. Just please let there be no hat this time…
"Yes," Zuko said grimly. "We've weakened it. And it can't run away now."
Toph gulped. "In other words, it's really, really ticked."
Katara swallowed. "And we're all in one place now."
The wind shifted. Carrying with it the sound of soft, soft, hair-raising laughter.
Zuko's eyes narrowed. "Run," he suggested.
~Even the Dragon-King's temple floods.~
The mirror was cracked.
"You know," Aang muttered queasily, "I'm guessing that's not good."
And if that wasn't good… then the shooting pain in his leg, and the stinging in his eyes, probably were really not good.
Gee, you think? snarked a mental voice that sounded way too much like Toph.
"What am I doing in here?" he exploded, hand a fist pressed to the side of his head as the other waved around. He glared at that creepy, creepy mirror with the glowing image of the past Avatar in it – and tried not to think too hard about the crack that had suddenly spread across its face, mere moments after he and his glowy not-him reflection were knocked clean off their feet by a blast of light as fierce as any high-altitude sun. "I should be out there! Looking for them!"
Frustrated beyond words, he forgot himself for a minute and glared at the mirror-
-failed can't fail not my people not my friends not this time!
But this time, soft and barely audible beneath the rush of feeling and memory…
"…can't run away now."
"In other words, it's really, really ticked…"
Aang's jaw dropped a little.
"Oh," he said quietly. "I think I get it now…"
He was in the Avatar State. Out there, at least. Except that right now, it wasn't him out there. Not really.
Resting his hand lightly against the mirror – whoof, it felt hot – he closed his eyes.
"It's you, isn't it?" he murmured quietly. "You're the reason I've been feeling so… messed-up. Something bad happened, didn't it? Something to do with that spirit-ring. And you don't want it to happen again."
He opened his eyes, meeting the eyes of that strangely fractured memory-of-self. "You want to protect my – no, our – friends. I know. I get it."
He stepped back from the mirror, bounced up and down once or twice to limber up, and narrowed his eyes. "But right now…? I'm glad you want to help, and I'm really sorry, but you're in my way."
One tremendous flying leap, and he smashed through the mirror and into light.
~Even the Dragon-King's temple floods.~
They'd caught on too late.
Toph could feel it in the whispery laughter – and in the brittle, biting wind scraping the bare stone between their little clump and their lost shelter.
Not inside the shelter, though, and somehow that was just the worst part. The yukiuso still couldn't get in. It wasn't a threshold – but her shelter was of a piece with the big stone, one solid chunk of rock. Volcanic rock, which meant that it was Earth and Fire against the yukiuso's Water and Air, and to top it off, the whole mass was still humming with the Avatar's energy.
Speaking of – seriously. She needed to sit Aang down for some words. Throwing rocks at the Blind Bandit? Apparently, the Avatar Spirit was stupid or something, and when this was over, there was going to be some head-thumping about just who was the Master and who was the student around here…
"Zuko," Sam said, talking fast as they pulled into a tight huddle, as that shivery cold scrape that was the windwall around the edge of the storm's eye inched slowly closer. "Can you do anything?"
A tight sound that might have been a laugh. Sort of. "Depends."
"On?" Katara asked, sounding as uneasy as Toph. That was never a good tone.
Zuko's chi was practically smoking with frustration. "On whether or not Sozin's Comet happens to fly by in the next ten seconds. The wind's smothering any flame I try to start. If I could get one going, maybe, but…"
Inside her coat, Toph's hand brushed a little bottle-thing of glass, just a bit hot even with the energy inside mostly quiescent…
Energy. Sparky needs something to start the fire… "Hey, Zuko? Get ready."
"For what?" Sam asked.
Toph grinned and wound up.
"Fire in the hole!"
She threw with arm and bending both, and shoved as the little bauble hit stone somewhere in the wild winds.
Glass shattered in a roar of fire.
~Even the Dragon-King's temple floods.~
"Everyone, get into the cave!" Zuko shouted, snapping his hands wide and crooking fingers into claws as he grabbed hold of that wild explosion of energy. It was like the explosion when he'd destroyed Sanura's fire-staff…
Except that that time, the fire had flared fast and been gone again just as quick. This time…
Once, long before his father had been Fire Lord, Zuko had seen an oil fire in the kitchens. Someone dropped some water in a pot of burning oil – and the water had sunk below the oil, hit the hot bottom of the pot, and flashed into steam that erupted in a billowing cloud out of the pot.
Flinging burning oil out ahead of it in a fountain of fire. A fountain that had moved with consciously, maliciously controlled intent.
Two servants had died from accidentally inhaling burning oil. Five others had been irrevocably scarred, and one of them had to be released from work.
Zuko still remembered the smile.
It was one of the very rare times when Prince Ozai had been displeased with his prodigy daughter – and he'd made his displeasure known. Not because of the injuries. He'd been displeased that Azula had damaged his household and its order… and because she'd utilized a mundane fire hazard to do so.
A true firebender fueled her own flames. To do otherwise was to be weak.
Zuko gritted his teeth. Yeah, I'm weak. Especially now, still shaky from the effects of elemental deprivation So what else is new?
But if he'd learned one thing wandering the world, with Uncle and with Aang's merry bunch… it was that a skilled firebender could do so much, if he just had a bit of fuel to work with.
Don't think. It's just the floating sparks trick.
Except that the floating sparks were really meant to be used on a summer evening, when the air was still.
The yukiuso howled, as the windwall around the eye of the storm suddenly became laced with roaring, hungry flames, and the advancing cold flinched back slightly, opening the way to Toph's shelter.
"Go!" Zuko snapped through clenched teeth, when Katara hesitated for a moment.
Thunder cracked far too close, as blazing flames and frigid wind clashed and combined. He barely needed to feed the flame anymore; the yukiuso's own storm worked against it now, feeding more and more air into the fire as the flames themselves drew more air in…
It was all he could do just to hold the worst of the heat away. He still felt cold.
"Toph!" he shouted, trying to be heard over the roar and the near-constant cracking of lightning as the building firestorm became more violent. It was all he could do at this point to hold the searing air back. Scorched lungs killed. "Make a tunnel!"
"Open a tunnel outside the fire! We need air!"
Fire was a living thing. It ate. It breathed.
And it wasn't very finicky about stealing the breath from others.
Zuko tried to swallow with a dry mouth. He really hadn't had the air to waste shouting; the edges of his vision were going dark already.
Worse, he couldn't move. It was all he could do just to hold the fire back from their little clear space in the heart. Even if Toph was able to open up a channel to get air for the rest of them – and the fire's fierce pull would definitely work for them there – it probably wasn't going to reach him. Not even if he dropped the flames – and if he did that, there would be nothing to stop the yukiuso…
Something cool brushed by his face.
Startled, he gasped by reflex, and fresh air rushed into his lungs, biting a little with cold and driving the darkness back.
He risked a disbelieving glance over his shoulder.
He could actually see the cooler air, a thin ribbon of translucence rushing past beckoning hands to twine around him.
Gray eyes grinned back sheepishly.
"Hey there. Sorry I'm late!"
~Even the Dragon-King's temple floods.~
"Aang, your leg! You can't…"
"Katara, I'm a monk! Do you have any idea how much time we were supposed to spend sitting and meditating? I don't need my legs to bend!"
The shaven-headed boy was pale and shocky-looking, but the grin he tossed at the girl in ill-fitting Jaffa polar gear was very real. And shockingly normal. There was no sign of the eerie golden glow that had filled that little form not five minutes ago. And his hands never stopped moving, pulling cooler air out of the shaft Toph had hastily opened at their feet and wafting it out.
"Flirt later!" Toph interrupted. "Spirit trap! Any day now!"
Sam was already fumbling with the control panel. Focused sunlight from one side, a firestorm on the other…
I don't think we're going to get that thing any weaker than this!
And she was trying not to think too hard about what it was costing Zuko to keep that fire going, even with the naquadah explosion to power it.
Naquadah. Battery. Hand grenade. Note to self, kill Toph when we get out of this!
The heat was already soaking into their shelter, but all that accomplished was to make formerly numb fingers suddenly come alive with pain. Janet was going to have a field day, hypothermia combined with heat exposure…
Finally, finally, she found the trigger and activated it. And…
No sound. No vibration. Not even a flicker of a glow.
Sam's heart hadn't sunk like this since she'd chiseled a DHD out of solid ice, wrestled it through a reboot, finally watched the symbols activate… and then the Stargate had refused to engage.
"Oh no," she muttered, looking over the controls, the wires, looking for anything that might be causing a malfunction. "No, no, no…"
"Sam?" she heard distantly. Daniel, his voice crackling horribly with static as the electrical field of the firestorm played merry hell with the radio's reception.
A small symbol, one of the few she actually did know, from crawling through the guts of Ancient technology one too many times, flashed on the tiny display.
"No, no, no… You useless piece of…!" She clenched her fists, fighting the urge to pound them on the mechanisms in front of her. "No, dammit, no!"
"Sam! What's wrong? What's happened?"
"It's out of freaking power!"
Realization hit. Sam slumped suddenly, running a hand through her hair. It was an excuse not to look at Toph's white face, the dawning unease in the way Katara tensed, and Aang's innocent bafflement.
"When the yukiuso took us to the Spirit Realm," she said wearily. "I turned the trap on – that was how Khenut got loose. Which means…"
It meant the trap had stayed on, all this time. Wasting its energy trying to contain something far beyond its design specs.
"It basically creates a miniature wormhole," she groaned. "That's a huge energy drain. Maybe once the target was captured it could go into a power-saving mode, but…"
"Like a Stargate?" Daniel asked pointedly.
Her jaw clicked shut. Like a Stargate.
"I have the basic schematics here. You said you found this next to what looked like a Star Wars power coupling? I think it's designed to run on external power. There's a socket on the top, I think something's supposed to fit there, maybe a wire…"
"I don't exactly have a lightning rod and a metal helmet here," Sam said absently, her mind racing.
There was a grin in Daniel's voice. "On the other hand, you have someone who can make lightning go where he wants."
But Zuko was holding the firestorm at bay… "Daniel? Hold that thought. I think we need to do some improvising."
Setting the radio aside, she grabbed it and began pulling it towards the front of the cave, trying not to disturb the channel of air Aang was sending out to Zuko. Her face stung with the heat, and her hair blew in front of her face as more air gushed past, rushing into the storm. "Zuko…"
How he'd heard the conversation, she had no idea, but he was already shaking his head. "I might be able… to call lightning," he said, breathing hard and controlled. "But not down here. It would… spread."
Step potentials, Sam recalled. Getting struck by lightning was very rare – but as the activated charges raced to the strike point, they'd go through anything touching ground nearby. Including people. That was usually the true killer in lightning strike casualties.
Katara's eyes were huge. "You want to use lightning?" she demanded, pale under the tan of her skin. "Are you insane?"
"Y'know, we don't exactly have room to talk," Aang countered, bumping her with his shoulder.
Sam looked at the kid and fought the urge to squeeze him. He couldn't have been any older than Toph – but where the little geokinetic – earthbender? – was as tough as her rocks, Aang was a skinny wisp of a kid.
And he was sitting there with a broken leg, grinning because that was what his friend needed to keep it together.
God. These poor kids. These poor, tough, incredible kids…
"And these people have some awesome tricks with lightning," Toph said intently. "Sam – whatcha need?"
Sam swallowed, mind racing over what she had available. We need a conduit of some kind… "Toph, can you make a wire?"
The girl cracked her knuckles. "Hand over your copper."
Copper? Startled, she patted her pockets, and pulled out a few loose pennies that had collected there. "For luck, emergency decision making, and thought-purchases," Jack had said wryly.
But how to connect the wire? She didn't exactly have clamps handy, or even anything to attach them to if she'd had them. She could see the socket Daniel had mentioned, but she didn't exactly have a plug. Hell, she didn't even have a screwdriver…
Almost laughing, she reached into her pocket and pulled out the almost-forgotten "lightsaber-driver" she'd picked up in the lab. It fit the socket perfectly, and a half-twist locked it into place.
"Um. Sam? Think we've got a problem."
It took an act of pure will not to scream in frustration. "What?"
Toph silently held up about two feet of thin copper wire.
Sam stared at it for a long moment, then closed her eyes.
"Thought so. Not enough?"
"Nowhere near." It would take most of that just to wrap around the charger enough to solidly ground the two. And even if it had been long enough to reach outside – a wire that thin would melt down at the first three or four amps.
For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost…
Not fair, dammit. There has to be something we can use for a cable…
A dusky hand grabbed the wire. "You need something to guide the lightning to this thing, right? I'm on it."
Toph scowled, as though to hide shock. "At last check, Sugarqueen, you didn't bend metal. Or lightning."
"No. But I fought Azula, too." Katara drew, seeming to brace herself a moment before white teeth flashed in a tense smile. "I know what happens when lightning hits water."
Sam felt her eyes widen as the girl's meaning hit, then grinned fiercely. "Toph, wrap that wire around the end of this thing. Get as much in contact with the metal on the inside as possible, we need it to conduct as much power inside as we can. Then everyone, get back."
She grabbed the radio up. "Danny, Jack. We're going to get a little creative down here."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, Colonel," she said dryly, as Katara made a slow, sweeping motion with her arm around and above her head, almost as though she were flipping her hair – and a silvery river joined the stream of air from Toph's shaft to pool in the air in front of her.
Daniel's voice, even through the static, was as innocent as Toph at her most devilish. "You're going to cross the streams, aren't you?"
Sam grinned. "See you on the other side, Danny."
Teal'c rumbled, "I believe the correct response is, it has been a pleasure working with you, Doctor Carter."
Toph finished wrapping the wire – or rather, making the wire wrap itself – and hastily backed away.
"Whenever you're ready, Katara," Sam breathed.
A sudden sharp motion with both the girl's hands, like pulling taffy – and one end of a long ribbon of water whipped around the copper-wrapped charger, as the other darted out into the raging storm.
~Even the Dragon-King's temple floods.~
Zuko saw the movement out of the corner of his eye. "Aang! Take over the fire!"
It wouldn't last. Firebending wasn't airbending; it needed a root, a point to leap and dance from. With his leg broken, Aang couldn't keep the fires going long, not when the last of the fuel was going out.
He didn't need to. If this didn't work, they were screwed anyway. If it did…
Sighting on Katara's water-wire, Zuko made himself breathe.
He couldn't bend lightning. Not like Uncle or Azula. But there was so much natural lightning in the firestorm…
Just like redirecting lightning. Move the energies away…
At the tip of the water-wire, yin and yang parted.
And then the world was nothing but a furious howl and biting winds and the last flaring sparks of fire and holding onto each other as everything was pulled into a roaring center-
It's pulling us with it!
And spirit-hands grabbing onto them and pulling them back, out of the wild, wrenching pull of spirit energies, using Sam's stubbornly body-bound soul to anchor them, just as he and Toph had used theirs to carry her safely into the Spirit World.
In his mind's eye, he caught a glimpse of a dry, approving smile.
"Well done," Khenut's ghost said, and vanished into light.
~Even the Dragon-King's temple floods.~
Sokka and Suki were out the door and running the instant Sanura popped the hatch.
Jack paused for a moment as the Tale'sedrin took off again, Sanura and Teal'c going to pick up their wayward geeks, and looked around.
He hadn't exactly gotten a front-row seat to the action on the ground; Sanura had been fighting just to keep the ship – and thus their redirected sunlight – in place and on target, as the updraft from the storm had tried to toss them hither and yon. All he knew was that it had involved one hell of a lot of fire.
As evidenced by the valley. Granted, he hadn't exactly gotten a very good look at it before the yukiuso had hit, but he'd glimpsed deep snow. Not so much anymore. The valley was a black bowl of bare stone in the middle of the ice-wreathed mountains just starting to show the first hints of real morning light, the only irregularities a few rock outcroppings here and there, and one giant boulder with a cave-like crack in the bottom practically dead center.
Not a sign of the frozen bodies Sam had described.
So much for recovering them for burial. Still – cremation's not a bad way to go, I guess.
The whole place was still radiating enough warmth that Sokka hadn't even bothered to toss on a coat before running out to his friends.
Then the boy came to an abrupt stop, staring.
Toph was holding a black stone over the bald kid's leg. The bald kid – Aang? – was sitting up a little, leaning against Katara as she hugged him.
All the new kids were staring.
Toph rocked back. "Whoof. Man, you never said anything about that really shaking all the dust out of you, Sugarqueen." She scrunched black metal around in her hand until it was recognizable as her odd little black armband, and tucked it in her pocket.
The older girl started, then made a beckoning gesture. Water flowed out of the big sack she carried by her side and wrapped around the hand that she laid on Aang's leg.
She lifted it almost immediately. "It's healed," she breathed. "But… how? I've never been able to set bone like that…"
"Heh!" Toph gave her a tired, but still very smug, grin. "Hello – earthbender!" She stretched her arms out and climbed back to her feet, wobbling a little. "Greatest earthbender in three worlds, now…"
"You figured out how to heal with Earth?" Suki asked, looking impressed under her facepaint.
"Yep! Fair's fair, though. Sparky figured it out first."
So apparently Zuko's nickname really did mean Sparky. Daniel was probably doing a victory jig right now. Or he would be when he found out. Seemed that whatever had gone down when these merry misfits had taken out the yukiuso, it had pretty much the same effect as an EMP pulse. Sam's radio was now officially an ex-radio.
Still, looked like most of the people were in one piece. Catching Sam's eye from where she sat leaning against the giant block of volcanic stone that had probably started its day at the top of a mountain, he nodded. Sam flicked her fingers in a weary salute with a very real smile, but for the moment, her attention was on the conversation in front of her.
Which at the moment was involving eyes that were bugging even more, if that was possible. "Zuko figured out how you could heal with Earth?" Aang blurted.
"You mean… he figured out a way to heal with fire…?" Sokka's voice broke on a squeak as Toph nodded. He coughed for a moment before apparently deciding to pretend that he hadn't made any such unmanly noise. "What happened to you two?" he demanded. "Ancient ruins and glowy star-something puddles and super-yukiuso and gliderships that go vroom and… Earth-healing! Fire-healing! What the heck?"
Toph's grin had officially reached Epic proportions. "Isn't it obvious?" she asked archly, and punched Zuko in the arm. "Zuko finally coughed up my Life-Changing Field Trip!"
A moment of silence.
"Ooooh…" the four newcomers said in unison.
Zuko flushed bright red and glowered, rubbing at his arm. "Okay, the five of you need to let that joke die already," he growled.
Sokka sniffed, raising nose and lecturing finger high in the air. "Sorry, Your Ponytailness, but you cannot argue with statistically verified evidence!"
"I'll give you evidence, you…!"
And that, apparently, was the cue for the four newcomers to all pounce on Zuko and Toph in a whirl of laughing and ribbing. And it wasn't at all one-sided, either; Jack thought he saw Zuko grab Sokka's arm in a fierce hand-to-elbow arm-clasp as Toph gave Aang a backslap that nearly flattened the poor kid.
Feeling a tension he hadn't even realized he'd been holding relax somewhere in his gut, Jack chuckled slightly and moved over to Sam. "You in one piece, Major?"
"Ask me in the morning, sir," she said wryly.
She nodded to the odd bit of equipment glowing an ominous red-orange in the mouth of the cave. "In there, sir. What's left of it, anyway. Between the sunlight and the firestorm and whatever the heck Aang was doing to it before that… I'd say it's seriously hurting." She sighed heavily, eyes tracking the small speck in the sky that was swiftly growing into the returning Tale'sedrin. "Recommend we be very, very careful in disposing of this particular hazardous waste, sir. And preferably, permanent."
"Recommendation noted and seconded," Jack said, as the ship came down for a landing. "And believe me, I'm open to any suggestions you'd like to put on the table…"
Apparently that was a signal for the group hug to relent a little, as the kids started disentangling themselves and the excited chatter began settling out into something a bit more comprehensible.
"I mean, seriously," Sokka was saying, shaking his head. "I think we may need a rule. No solo trips with Zuko, or something." His tone was mocking, but there was very real relief hidden as he hastily disengaged from an ill-advised noogie attempt on Toph. Although from the way he was wincing, his ribs had already paid the price for his audacity.
"Can I have that in writing?" Zuko asked dryly.
Sokka ignored him. "I mean, seriously! Don't scare us like that – we thought you'd been carried off by… by flying mutant ninja were-lemurs or something!"
Oh, wow. Even Jack didn't score double-takes like that often, and he had thirty years of fine-tuning his bad joke skills over this kid.
"Flying…" Aang said slowly.
Katara pursed her lips. "…mutant…" she added skeptically.
"…ninja…" That was Zuko, in a perfect dead-pan.
Toph tilted her head to the side. "…were-lemurs?" she finished curiously.
"You know," she said sheepishly, "given that we're talking about us here… that's not just possible, it's disturbingly probable."
"Yup," Sokka said, nodding sagely as the others groaned. "I mean, come on. Weird stuff happens to us."
Awww. It's like a junior version of SG-1, Jack thought, suppressing a wry grin. No wonder Zuko and Toph had taken the Stargate's unique brand of madness in stride. It probably felt like home. Just as Jack recognized the wry, resigned, oh yeah looks the kids were trading…
All except Zuko. Who was looking past Sokka's shoulder and grinning.
"Sparky?" Toph asked in a low voice, nudging him.
Quickly smoothing his expression, Zuko looked at Sokka. "Sorry. No flying mutant ninja were-lemurs."
Sokka's shoulders slumped in obvious relief.
"…but I will raise you a giant mutant samurai crocomander-man."
All four of the newcomers stared at Zuko. And at Toph, who was suddenly smirking the smirky smirk of Pure Evil.
With a very, very tiny hint of a smirk of his own, Zuko pointed.
Just joining them, and clearly aware of the flow of the conversation, Urdu yielded to the law of comedic drama and pulled the hood of his parka back.
Sokka's jaw dropped. He looked at Urdu. He looked at Zuko. Back at Urdu.
The Unas inclined his head with grave courtesy that utterly failed to hide the fact that he was roaring with laughter under the surface. "I am honored to meet you," he rumbled.
Sokka buried his head in his hands for a long moment. And then flung his head back to scream up at the sky.
"Curse you, universe!"
~Even the Dragon-King's temple floods.~
AN: Yes, I've taken the language barrier out of the equation. I had several reasons for doing so, but primarily… well, with the addition of the GAang, the language issues went from a plot-enhancing obstacle to a major narrative problem. If only because the addition of other native speakers makes it harder to come up with ways to justify the characters needing to communicate. Especially in a crisis with nowhere to pause.
As for how it happened... there will be questions asked. Pointed ones. They just had to wait until Imminent Death was no longer an issue.
It's far from the end of linguistic geekery, but… the Stargate series went with Aliens Speaking English for a reason. At this point in the story, that reason is more important than me indulging my pet axes to grind.
Besides. Jack. Sokka. The snark. How could I possibly resist?
That said… this chapter kicked butt. Specifically, my butt.
There is nothing like having to cut six thousand words of story because your Geekbunnies got ahead of your Awesomebunnies to really, really drive home that fact.
Part of the problem was the number of characters. I try very hard to stick to Equal Opportunity Awesome – everyone should get to do at least one Awesome thing. And when you have about fourteen different major characters to juggle? That gets really cumbersome. (And this, is why I try very hard to never write a scene with more than four characters in it. As it was, I had to pare things back a lot.)
The other part was that this particular part of the story has always been a little bit fuzzy. Let this be a lesson: if you have an Epically Awesome action scene mental image? Put it at the end of your story. Not the beginning. (…And here we see why I usually do one-shots.) I started this fic with three basic images: the Great Escape, their arrival at the SGC, and Toph busting out of the SGC. I used them all up substantially before the finale. Oops.
…okay, so Zuko playing space heater was a seed image as well, and the driving force behind the yukiuso as a bad guy. And I am never writing a non-corporeal bad guy again.
By the by. Sokka's suggested ward-off for the yukiuso? I didn't make that up. It's an accepted method for chasing off a kushtaka – which the yukiuso is partially based on.