AN: I might as well give advance warning – the interpretation of Goa'uld history here is pretty much made up out of whole cloth, with fibers taken from canon. I tried not to blatantly contradict canon, so much as my knowledge would allow, but there are definitely more than a few things here that fall into the category of "no explicit evidence against it (so far as I know)."
Also, regarding the language protocols in the Stargates – in chapter four, Sam mentions that it takes two Stargates with active protocols, one of which matches a language the traveler already knows, in order for the "upload" to take place. Nor can it simply lift a language out of a traveler's head, or from a bystander – it needs long-term exposure to put a coherent language pack together. (If this were not the case, Earth's Stargate would have gotten translations up and running a lot faster.) The language pack on Earth's Stargate would be English – that's the language spoken in its vicinity, and the primary language spoken by its most common travelers. The Gate on P6X-486 would only have a basic language pack of whatever the basic interstellar standard spoken by Jaffa is, courtesy of the Jaffa implants. (Which, I should point out, are not canon; just my headcanon; I had to justify the relative ease of language for Teal'c in the first episode somehow.) The Gate on Asunyti had no language pack whatsoever, until the Avatar more or less shoved Asunytian down its metaphorical throat.
THE DRAGON-KING'S TEMPLE
~Even the Dragon-King's temple floods.~
"You invented zats."
Oh-ho. Djehuty – no, Urdu – really was smarter than the average Goa'uld and certain colonels. His odd, reptile-gold eyes widened slightly at the banked menace in her voice, and he raised large, clawed hands, palms forward in the universal I am unarmed, please don't hurt me gesture as he leaned back slightly.
Even so, his voice was mild as he said, "Given their… less than socially acceptable tendencies, I found the zat'ni'catels preferable to leaving the System Lords armed only with lethal weaponry, Doctor Fraiser."
Point, much as she hated to grant it. Pursing her lips, Janet glanced down at the report she'd been busily jotting notes on.
Technically, she really shouldn't have been here. Yes, she'd come through the Gate at the start of this mess – but at the time, they'd thought P6X-486 was nothing more than an uninhabited world with some mildly interesting ruins on it.
I'll admit, we've been mistaken in our preliminary assessments of worlds before… but this has to go down as one of the more spectacular ones.
Point being, as one of the SGC's primary physicians – and particularly as a specialist in pathology, rather than trauma surgery or combat medicine, despite the whatever-works nature of her usual duties – she really had no business traveling to a world with a Goa'uld present, no matter how accommodating or out of the ordinary he might appear. Particularly not when, miraculously, SG-1 and their cohorts had somehow pulled through with nothing more serious than bumps, bruises, chilling that was caught before it could develop into hypothermia, a few minor burns, and one broken leg that had been healed by alternative methods the minute the battle was over.
But when Jack had activated the Gate to radio back for proper diplomatic support, and to report that the yukiuso had been neutralized and they were withdrawing to Urdu's ha'tak to recover, along with four more children from Zuko and Toph's world who'd somehow arrived just in time to turn the tide of the battle…
Janet had to admit that personally, she wasn't going to consider her earlier mission to P4-X684 completed until she'd seen Zuko and Toph safely home. And for both personal and professional reasons, she wanted to meet their friends.
But that hadn't been the only news Jack had radioed in which set a stir in the SGC. The social sciences, in particular, were all aflutter with one cat that had landed squarely amongst the pigeons.
The Goa'uld may not always have been as we know them today.
She looked at the report a moment longer, then looked back at Urdu. The Unas was watching her calmly. No doubt he'd guessed some, or more than some, of what was on the pages she kept looking at.
All right. She'd bite. "You said that the Goa'uld weren't always…" Psychopathic megalomaniacs, had been Jack's phrasing. She settled for a more neutral, "…the way the System Lords are now." She bit her lip slightly, and took the plunge. "Do you know what changed? Why?"
Urdu blinked slowly. The motion carried the same faintly inquiring air that Janet associated with a human's raised eyebrow. "Why do you want to know?"
Janet fidgeted with her pen. "I just thought…" she said, fumbling for a way to explain that didn't sound… well, arrogant. Like she thought she could get away with playing God. "…if there's a cause, then there might be a cure," she finally said, in a rush, spreading her hands. "If we could get even a few Goa'uld to – not even to help, like the Tok'ra, but just leave us alone…"
She trailed off. For a minute…
Urdu… if she were to guess, she'd say he probably wasn't particularly old for an Unas, not that she had any frame of reference whatsoever. But suddenly, he looked… ancient.
And very sad.
"Doctor Fraiser," he said quietly. "You have just summed up my entire life's work."
Janet's hands tightened on pen and pad as she drew them close again. "You do know why," she surmised.
Urdu looked down for a moment at the display table in front of him – and oh, but Sam had drooled over that holographic display – but at the moment, his eyes seemed millennia away. "I do," he admitted, and sighed. "There are… many factors at play, Doctor Fraiser. But… I believe the nail in the coffin, so to speak, came when Ra first discovered your Earth."
Janet blinked. "Come again?"
Urdu gave her another of those eyeblink-eyebrow looks. "Much as I loathe the comparison… What do you know about parasites, Doctor?"
Whoof. Janet couldn't help a full-body shudder. "We define them as organisms that benefit at the expense of another," she said. "They come in a lot of varieties – plants, birds that lay their eggs in another bird's nest, organisms that get into the internal systems of creatures… some can even affect things like brain function." Earth had plenty of nightmare fuel of that variety, long before the Goa'uld had come. Her interest in parasites ran to the intracellular – disease-causing bacteria and viruses both qualified. The effects of those alone… Toxoplasma gondii came to mind. Not something to read about right before bed. Fortunately, that sort of creature was…
Her eyes widened.
"…usually highly specialized," she breathed.
Urdu's smile was dry. "Goa'uld and humans evolved on completely different worlds," he pointed out, almost gently. "There is, naturally, a certain… mismatch."
A mismatch. Janet thought back to the dozens, hundreds of ways even an normal interaction of that type could go wrong, and swallowed. "Why risk it, then?" she demanded. "What makes humans so attractive to the Goa'uld?"
Truth be told, she'd wondered that ever since learning about the Unas on Cimmeria. It had been larger, stronger than a human. Tougher. And definitely more intimidating. And despite the history Daniel had found on Abydos, and Ra's own claims, apparently Unas bodies were at least as easy to repair as human.
Why would the System Lords give that up?
Suddenly, she realized that the low rumble in Urdu's chest, almost like a crocodile, was a chuckle.
"An unfortunate choice of words," he said with a crooked smile. "I personally don't find humans particularly attractive. Too soft and… hairy. You remind me of Unarian ground apes."
Janet arched an eyebrow at him. "Always good to be underestimated," she said, in a passable imitation of Jack as his most infuriatingly sarcastic.
Urdu snorted. "Which only goes to show that you've never encountered an Unarian ground ape," he informed her, and shuddered dramatically.
He is teasing me! Janet hadn't thought that the Goa'uld even understood the concept.
Which simply brought her back to the original question. "If aesthetics aren't a factor…"
"They were not a factor originally," Urdu corrected her, more solemn this time. "My people – Djehuty's, rather…" He paused. "And may I say that you Tau'ri, and humans in general, have a frustrating lack of personal pronouns appropriate to dealing with ghoti-"
They have an entire vocabulary, an entire language, based around the assumption that some people are under parasitic possession.
Janet suspected the truth was far more complex than that. It didn't stop the fiercely visceral sense of repulsion. She shuddered, and tried not to be too obvious about edging faintly away.
She suspected that Urdu noticed anyway. But he courteously continued as though it hadn't happened. "Well. We tend to take on the preferences of our partners. My interests run far more towards… say, Nubiti." He shook his head. "Which can be somewhat disconcerting. The hazards of consecutive partners of different genders."
Seated at a nearby display as she went over some form of schematic – from the bits of text Janet could make out, probably something from the Ancient database – the female Unas simply chuckled, not even bothering to look away from the display as she waved her hand in an unmistakable, Go away, little boy, I'm not interested gesture.
Janet swallowed. She knew they had to stay on track… but…
"How did you survive separation?" she asked, hands tightening on the clipboard holding the reports and her notes.
Now Nubiti did look up. "The Goa'uld secretes a neural cytokine when preparing to leave. It allows the links between the neural networks to dissolve and reseal safely…"
The clipboard dropped to the floor with a clatter.
"Doctor?" Urdu said, frowning in concern.
Janet simply stared at the two of them. "The toxin," she whispered, still reeling from the sudden realization. "The Goa'uld toxin… isn't. Is it."
The worst of it was, she believed them. The whole concept of the toxin had irked her. Goa'uld weren't like the parasites that needed the host to die as part of their life cycle. They were dependent on their hosts, in so many ways. Given that there was no practical way for a host to harm the Goa'uld, and the potentially dire consequences to a Goa'uld whose host died… having a built-in way to kill its host simply did not make sense.
But that it was actually a beneficent adaptation, but intended for a species with a completely different biochemistry…
"It's an abomination," Nubiti said hotly. "The azti is a gift, for healing and rebirth into a new self. To use it to kill your other half…!"
Urdu sighed. "Unfortunately, for the System Lords that was considered part of the appeal of humans as hosts – the ability to control, absolutely, and give nothing up."
"Give nothing up?" Janet asked warily, picking up her clipboard again.
Urdu steepled his fingers – which looked very odd, given the heavy claws at the end of each – thoughtfully, and Janet was struck by the sudden sense that he'd had this, or similar, conversations many, many times before.
"A ghoti – a blending – between Unas and Goa'uld is precisely that," Urdu said, and looked at her pointedly. "If you were to scan my brain, Doctor Fraiser – you would not be able to define any exact point where Ur ends and Djehuty begins."
The hairs rose on the back of Janet's neck. "But – if your neural matter is entwined that deeply…"
"It has a powerful effect on the personality."
God, just the thought was terrifying. "You mean you literally take over the host's brain."
Urdu gave her that odd eyeblink again, and it really did come across just like a chiding eyebrow. "Doctor Fraiser, think. The blending is not one-way."
Startled, she hauled back on her gut reaction. "…Your host rewrites your personality as much as you rewrite his."
"Hm. I would call it influencing," Urdu admitted. "There is no clear line between blue and green in the visible spectrum, yet they can still be called distinct colors. Or not, depending on how you are pre-disposed to view them. I am Urdu as much, or more, as I am Ur and Djehuty. But yes – exactly." He frowned slightly. "This is far more confusing than it would be in Unarian, but… I-Djehuty of Urdu is not the same as I-Djehuty of Nubiti. Just as I-Ur of Urdu is no longer I-Ur the individual."
He was right. That was confusing. They make that many distinctions between different ways of saying I? No wonder Sanura has at least three different names for Djehuty, depending on the context – that has to be confusing to keep straight. Danny's going to be in heaven. But if she broke it down and looked at it… "You're saying that both sides of a… a blending," God, it felt like treachery to call it that. She was glad Sam was out with Sanura and Teal'c, ensuring that the trapped yukiuso was dealt with permanently, rather than listening to this and remembering Jolinar, "become a kind of gestalt personality." She shook her head. "And it doesn't bother you?"
"It bothers some a great deal," Nubiti said with a shrug. "Not everyone is prepared to become a Wisdom Seeker."
No wonder. The idea of having your very self altered like that?
Then again. Daniel's pointed out a thousand times that culture has a huge impact on our concept of self-identity. If they come from a culture where this is common enough to have different pronouns… they may simply have a more fluid concept of self. Hard as that was to imagine with the System Lords…
"I'm guessing there are Goa'uld who aren't too keen on that, either," she said, eyes narrowing. "And that's where we come in, isn't it. Humans didn't co-evolve with Goa'uld…"
"And your neurophysiology is compatible enough for control, but not compatible enough for blending." Urdu shook his head. "The System Lords found the combination… addictive."
Humans: the interstellar tobacco, Jack's voice snarked in the back of Janet's mind. But the physician in her was wincing. Psychological addiction aside – and while she wasn't about to pretend she was an informed expert on Goa'uld psychology, there had been numerous studies on the effect even a little bit of unanticipated power could have on a human's psyche – as a doctor, she was all to familiar with more physical forms of addiction.
Urdu sighed. "Please do not misunderstand me," he said. "I have nothing against humans as a people – unfortunate resemblance to ground apes aside. But my own life would be far simpler if Ra had never found you."
Believe me, the feeling is entirely mutual. The words were burning on the tip of Janet's tongue when, suddenly, Nubiti laughed.
"You're just being bitter," the woman chided, without ever interrupting the amused rumble that seemed to come straight out of her chest. "You forget that you and I shared wisdom. The System Lords were lost long before Ra discovered Earth. The Stargates alone were enough to assure that."
Janet felt her eyes widen as a chill ran through her. Swallowing once, carefully, she said, "Could you explain that?"
For a moment, Nubiti looked startled. Then her eyes softened slightly, as though she'd read the dread in Janet's thoughts. "You're familiar with the language transference protocols in the Stargates, I assume," she said.
Language transference. Interesting way to phrase it. "Yes," she admitted. "Although we don't really understand how it works." And she did not like that. She wasn't a neurologist, but – language was deeply embedded in the human brain. That the Stargates could manipulate it that precisely…
Nubiti nodded as Janet felt shocked realization cross her face. "The protocol does not harm humans, so far as we have observed – and the Wise One has observed the effects of Stargates on Jaffa and System Lord slaves for millennia," she added. "It would appear that, despite the difference in neurochemistry, the neurophysiology of humans is close enough to the Gatebuilders that the protocols are harmless." She sighed. "But Goa'uld and Unas… My time of ghoti was intended to be much longer, Doctor Fraiser. But in a crisis, I was forced to use the Stargates several times in very rapid succession, with no chance to disable the protocols. The damage done was… sufficiently severe that Djehuty and I both required the azti to recover."
Janet shook her head. That toxin had stood as an implacable enemy for so long. To think that it was meant to heal…
She blinked, distracted. "Disable the protoc… So that's why you speak with an accent!"
Urdu snorted. "In part. Although that is mostly the result of physiological differences." He smiled a little too widely for comfort, baring sharp teeth. Not fully carnivorous, but definitely more in line with true omnivores like raccoons or bears than a human's blunt dental accoutrements.
Janet's mind had moved on, slotting thoughts into place. "But if there's a way to disable the protocols… why haven't you told the other System Lords?" she demanded. "If human hosts are harmful – if the Stargates can do brain damage…"
"What makes you think I have not?" Urdu spread his hands, real frustration slipping into his tone. "Ra listened, at least enough to avoid using the Stargates as his primary form of transportation. But most of the System Lords, the Tokra… They call me old, and a fool. What could they, born with the genetic memories of their forebears, possibly have to learn?" His lip curled. "In many ways, the beginning of the genetic encoding of memories was the death of Goa'uld civilization. At least, as embodied in the System Lords."
Janet furrowed her brow with a frown. "It's not native to the Goa'uld, then? The genetic memories?"
Urdu hesitated, obviously thinking. "Our genetic matrix – that of Goa'uld – does change over time, unlike most species. Particularly those who undergo ghoti; the azti plays a part there, as well. So yes – unlike many species, our young inherit some of our life experience, as well as our genetic matrix. But…"
"Not to the point of full genetic memories?" Janet guessed.
"No. That was the result of very deliberate genetic manipulation." Urdu sighed. "And as a result… the System Lords and their offspring are born feeling that they already know everything. They are not curious."
And that, Janet realized, summed up what had baffled Daniel and Sam and most of the SGC in general. How did any species manage to rise to such prominence if they weren't curious?
Which is what made Djehuty stand out from the beginning, she recalled. So why is he different?
About to ask, another thought occurred to her, and she shivered. "The Goa'uld – no, the System Lords," she corrected herself. He's making a very clear distinction there. I wonder why. Does that mean there are Goa'uld out there who aren't like the System Lords? Setting the thought aside, she continued. "They see their young as just copies of themselves, don't they?"
Something bleak in the set of Urdu's face as he nodded made Janet suspect he knew where her line of thought was leading.
Swallowing, she took the plunge. "Is that how they started…"
Urdu's eyes darkened. "Eating their own offspring?" he asked bluntly. "It may be how they justify it." Crossing his arms, he frowned at nothing in particular.
Janet carefully loosened her fingers on the clipboard. So at least one Goa'uld apparently found the practice repugnant as well. No surprise. Any species that fed on its own young – well. Evolutionary dead end, that. So that begged the question of why…
And I think we've already answered that. "It's the naquadah, isn't it?"
The question pulled Urdu out of whatever dark thoughts he'd fallen into, and he blinked quizzically at her.
Janet fiddled with her pen. "To be honest, I never thought about it much – not until we were faced with Zuko and Toph, and I realized that if we were going to keep them healthy, we'd need a bioavailable source of naquadah… The Goa'uld may not have nearly the concentration of it that they do, but you still need it, don't you?"
"In small quantities, yes," Urdu said, nodding at her. "Not in our natural state, but… much of our technology requires a level of naquadah to manipulate, despite my efforts otherwise. We have been modified to require it."
Not in our natural state? Janet echoed in the back of her mind, startled. So the naquadah wasn't inborn to the Goa'uld as it seemed to be with the children?
But if that was the case…
"Oh," she said quietly, as facts slotted into place.
Now both of the Unas looked at her curiously.
"I always wondered why we didn't hear of any mad hatters among the Goa'uld," she said slowly.
That got her a blink – a real blink, not the arched-eyebrow equivalent – from Nubiti. "Mad what?" she echoed.
Janet flushed slightly. "Sorry – it's a reference from Earth's history. There was a time when we used mercury to cure beaver fur for hats. Hat makers tended to get… very, very strange after a few years. Humans don't deal very well with heavy metals in the brain." She looked at them. "And neither do the Goa'uld, do they? That's what I've been missing. It's not that there are no mad hatter System Lords – it's that they're all mad hatters."
Urdu smiled faintly, but it seemed pained. "That sums up the nature of the problem, yes."
No wonder the Goa'uld, even the Tok'ra, believed that Djehuty was senile. In the land of the blind, one person with vision would be called insane. "So you don't have naquadah in your system?"
"I do," he corrected her. "As I said – the System Lords were modified to require at least trace levels of it, although our tolerance to the damage was not raised accordingly." He shook his head. "I simply avoid naquadah-dependent technology as much as possible, and regulate my intake very carefully. It is playing with fire, but…" He turned his hands up an a helpless shrug.
Janet tilted her head. "How do you get it?" she asked. Because given his reactions, she could not imagine Urdu following the System Lord custom of eating larvae.
"There is a particularly protein-rich algae that can carry naquadah in a bioavailable form; it is what our larvae eat," Urdu explained, the very image of dignity. "The taste is, I admit, not the most appealing, but it is nutritious enough."
Surprise had Janet bursting into laughter before she could catch herself. "Urdu," she said, fighting and failing to hide a grin, "are you telling me that you eat Goa'uld baby food?"
"As he said," Nubiti said, smiling back, "it is an effective and relatively safe source of naquadah."
Urdu was rumbling a deep laugh in his throat, but it quickly faded into solemnity. "I knew that the System Lords would consider that solution beneath them," he admitted. "But when I informed them, I never imagine they would turn to…" He trailed off, shaking his head.
"…That's why you were interested in Asunyti, wasn't it?" Janet realized, as her mind flashed back to the scene she'd walked into almost straight out of the Gate.
"Sokka? Rock candy. You have some. Give."
"Sheesh, Toph, pushy much? I'll have you know those are my emergency sup-ow, ow, okay, here!"
Toph accepted the odd blue-green crystal with a smirk before cracking it in half and tossing one half to a very dubious-looking Zuko.
Janet vividly remembered the look on Urdu's face when the crystal had crunched like sugar under hungry teeth.
"It wasn't just the energy beings like the yukiuso. It wasn't even mostly about them," Janet said now, slowly. "You were looking for a better naquadah source!"
Janet blinked. "Not…?"
Urdu crossed his arms and regarded her with a level, unreadable gaze. Finally, as though coming to a decision, he said, "You recall that I said that the Goa'uld were modified to tolerate – and require – certain levels of naquadah."
Janet nodded. "And you said the genetic memories were the result of modification as well." She frowned. "Although I don't understand why. If the results were so harmful… surely you foresaw at least some of the consequences!"
"You assume the Goa'uld were responsible for the modifications," Urdu said quietly.
Janet opened her mouth. Closed it. Swallowed. Remembered the other part of Jack's report.
"The Ancients?" she whispered.
"But…" But that makes no sense, she wanted to cry. The Ancients had been part of a great alliance against the System Lords. Why would they have had a hand in creating them in the first place?
Then again… it's not like we haven't seen the Law of Unintended Consequences in full force before.
"But why would they do it?" Urdu finished for her in a rhetorical tone, and shrugged. "I never asked." He shook his head. "But they were interested in the biological application of naquadah, as well as the study of energy-beings. Some of that research was done here." He looked down at the display of the map. "I may even have been here. Although I do not recall it. Unsurprising. My memories of that time are… very distant."
You're that old?
Janet didn't realize she'd spoken aloud until Urdu looked up at her.
"Old enough," he said neutrally. "I was… lucky, if it could be called that. The modifications did not take properly; I was born deformed, crippled. Unable to survive long outside a specially engineered tank, or a host." His face quirked in an expression that resembled a smile, distantly, but held something more bitter than amusement. "One of many such failed results. So the Ancients graciously released me back into the wild."
Janet paused for a long moment, considering her possible responses. "How did you survive?" she finally asked.
"True luck, in that case. A wisdom seeker from a nearby clan encountered me, and took pity." Urdu looked back at the holomap. "In many ways, it was he who was the true Wise One, although his descendants have granted that title to me."
Following the line of his gaze, Janet studied the mountains, the location of the two labs highlighted in yellow, and then looked over at Nubiti and the display that the woman was ignoring in favor of their conversation. "You're looking for the experiment records," she surmised. "You want to try to undo the modifications?"
Startled, she looked back at him.
Urdu wasn't looking at her. Instead, his gaze rested on something a thousand miles and probably as many lifetimes away.
"I have watched the collapse of my civilization for millennia," he said softly. "And tried to reverse or mitigate the damage as best I could for just as long. My success has been minimal. Perhaps, had intervention come sooner… but it did not. It took me too long simply to find a place to begin even understanding what had happened. Now… You are a doctor, Janet Fraiser. If a limb is diseased beyond hope of treatment, and the effects reaching to the body, sometimes there is only one viable option."
Janet swallowed, not certain she wanted to know what Urdu was looking at with those distant eyes.
No. Djehuty. She could feel it, in the weight of too many memories underneath that unreadable tone. She was not talking to Ur-and-Djehuty now, but the ancient Goa'uld himself.
Saying that his people may have to die.
She couldn't imagine what it would be like, to watch your entire race spiral into insanity and know that in many ways, you were the last left. And to have no way to stop it…
Surely not his entire race? Amputating a limb implies that there's an organism that can still be saved… There have to be other Goa'uld, ones who weren't manipulated to such a destructive extent, maybe.
But even so… They would probably be no more Djehuty's people than the humans SG-1 encountered on what felt like every other planet could be said to be the same people as humans from Earth.
"What about your children?" she blurted, without thinking. "You're stable. Surely they would…"
Ah. But given that he viewed other Goa'uld as mad… Not exactly an attractive proposition, in more than one sense. Add in the fact that Djehuty was apparently a cripple by Goa'uld standards…
And Nubiti had just made a strange choking sound, and was staring fixedly at the display again, spine stiff.
Urdu glanced at her, then shook his head with a strange, wry smile. "I – Djehuty," he clarified, slipping back into the tone Janet associated with Urdu, "tried once. But… while the Ancients' modifications did not take so strongly with my mind, there were… consequences. Very few of the young survived. And of those that did…"
He shuddered once, violently.
"We've heard that the Tau'ri have met his surviving child," Nubiti said coolly. "She is called Nirrti."
Eyes going wide, Janet swallowed.
"Suffice to say, that is an experiment I do not intend to risk twice," Urdu said. "So… no, Doctor Fraiser. Although I would rejoice if we were to find something that would help break the cycle of destruction in the System Lords, I am not holding out hope for that outcome."
"Then why…?" Janet began, very tentatively.
Urdu glanced at her, his smile dark and full of very, very sharp teeth. "The Gatebuilders wished to Ascend, to leave this realm and their messes behind. And in the process, they created – and left behind – devices like the yukiuso trap. Devices that might be used to bring them back."
Janet was careful to meet that dark smile without flinching, and swallowed, very carefully. Think about it. Later, she told herself firmly. Urdu had given her a lot to think about. Too much; her mind was reeling. Think about it when you have time to process.
But there was one thing she needed to know right now. Drawing herself up, and cursing her small statue against Urdu's looming bulk, she met that smile with the steady stare of a military doctor.
"What are you going to do with the children?" she asked.
Urdu blinked, looking completely nonplussed. "Send them home, of course."
She narrowed her eyes slightly. "Even though they're Ancients."
To her surprise, Urdu blinked again-
And laughed softly, shaking his head as, just like that, the looming sense of angry predator faded.
"They are," he admitted. "Or at least – they are the descendents of a small, very particular group of the Gatebuilders."
Janet studied him a moment longer, then looked down at the nearly-forgotten reports she still had in her hand. She hadn't even noticed she'd been taking notes all along.
"Why are they called Renegades?" she asked, slowly.
"Ah." Urdu leaned against the table, almost sitting on its edge. "That, is a very… interesting question. And the answer, I fear, is… I'm not certain."
Janet blinked. "You're not…?"
Urdu fingered the short horn framing the left side of his chin thoughtfully, rather like a man stroking a neatly trimmed beard. "You must understand," he said slowly, "that what I know of the Renegades comes from those who called them that. And the Gatebuilders… did not care for dissenting opinions." He snorted. "Likely because the mere existence of dissent implied that they might possibly have been wrong."
"No one likes to admit that," Janet said wryly.
"True." Urdu shook his head. "I do not know why the Renegades rebelled against the other Ancients, or what drove them to a dur'Asada world."
Janet narrowed her eyes at him. "But you have suspicions."
Urdu thrmmed deep in his throat. "Given the timing – it is not only possible, but likely, that their quarrel had something to do with the Gatebuilders' interest in Ascending and leaving this phase of reality entirely. Which is… interesting."
She raised her eyebrow.
"Because the golden glow of their Avatar is characteristic of Ascension."
~Even the Dragon-King's temple floods.~
"…and then it showed up the next night, and I really didn't have any idea what to do, but then I saw an acorn and I thought, oh, okay, it's mad because the forest is gone, maybe if I show it the forest is coming back, the way Katara showed me, then maybe…" Aang trailed off, big gray eyes narrowing suspiciously. "What are you doing?"
Jack was scowling as he shoved one of the odd sweet bars at a broadly smirking Toph. "She," the man grumbled, jerking his chin at the earthbender, "suckered me into betting on how long it would take you to inhale."
Zuko couldn't quite suppress a smirk of his own. "Airbender," he said with a shrug, when Jack narrowed his eyes at him. "Breath control is at least as important to Air as it is to Fire."
Aang huffed. "Guys…" he said as he turned, clearly intending to appeal to the others-
"Yes, yes! All bets are called in now! Pay up, people!" Grinning fit to split his face, Sokka was making the rounds of the room, and the highly amused soldiers gathered in a nearby lounge, watching some kind of… play-in-a-box that the people who had come with Janet from that other world had brought with them, apparently on Jack's recommendation.
A play in a box. Zuko was trying not to wonder too hard about how that was even supposed to work.
Aang puffed out a huge sigh. "I hate you guys," he pouted melodramatically, and paused. "And you owe me some of that!"
Toph held the odd sweetbar protectively away from him. "Nuh-uh. Mine, Twinkletoes. I got it off Snark-Feng fair and square."
Aang turned huge, pleading eyes at Zuko.
"Hm." Zuko paused for a moment, pretending to think deeply. "Sorry, Aang. When it comes to Avatar versus the Blind Bandit, I'd rather err on the safe side."
Suki snickered. "So you do have a sense of self-preservation. I've wondered."
"Nah," Katara and Toph said in unison.
"He's just good at faking one," Sokka said with a grin.
Zuko flushed slightly, remembering some of the downright stupid messes he'd gotten into, chasing the Avatar. Okay. Point to them, I guess…
Jack was listening to the banter with a pointedly raised eyebrow, looking far more amused than could be possibly good for anyone. "Soooo," he drawled into the pause. "This sort of thing really is normal for you kids."
Sokka frowned. "I'm not sure I'd call this normal," he said, gesturing at the strange walls around them.
"Spirits?" Suki said pointedly.
"Utterly improbable coincidences?" Zuko added.
"Meeting utterly weird people?" Aang contributed, grinning broadly.
Sokka's shoulders slumped. "Okay, so it… kinda-sorta is normal for us," he admitted reluctantly.
Jack shook his head. "Next thing I know, you'll be saying it's Tuesday…"
Zuko and the others were blinking at him, trying to figure out what that was supposed to mean, when the distance-speaker clipped to the man's belt made the odd crackling sounds that meant someone was about to speak.
"Sir, we're approaching the drop point," Sam's voice announced.
Jack's eyebrows bounced up. "Huh. That was quick. Good turn of speed on that thing…" Dropping his hand to the little switch on the device, he pressed it. He paused as it made an odd brrt! noise, then said, "Roger that. I'm moving to an area with better reception."
Jack glanced at Zuko and the others and raised an eyebrow. "Wanna come?"
Zuko raised his unscarred eyebrow back. "Is there anything we could do if we did?" he asked bluntly, thinking back to the absolutely insane plan Sam had proposed for disposing of the yukiuso as though she did this sort of thing every day.
Then again, given that they seem to use this Stargate to visit other worlds on a regular basis, and have gliderships and flying buildings… Maybe they do.
And he'd thought King Bumi was crazy.
"Stand around and look pretty? It's pretty much what I do," Jack said with a shrug.
Toph and Sokka both snickered. Zuko traded a long-suffering look with Katara before turning back to the older man and shaking his head. "We'll be fine here."
"Your call." Making a flick of his fingers near his head that seemed to be a kind of casual salute, Jack glanced past them, into the small room where Daniel was enthusiastically explaining Jack's strange portable play to a curious audience of Urdu's soldiers, then headed for the door, shaking his head.
Zuko's ears caught the edges of one of the actors in the play, declaiming the lines, "You're gonna endanger us, you're gonna endanger our client. The nice lady who paid us in advance before she became a dog."
"Um." Toph rubbed at her ear. "Okay. That was weird even by our standards."
Zuko looked from the doorway to her, and back again. "…I was really hoping I'd misheard that."
Sokka blinked at both of them. "Misheard what?"
Toph rolled her eyes. "You know – that. You made more sense after drinking cactus juice, Snoozles!"
"Um…" Suki looked back and forth from them to the room. "It just sounded like babble to me…"
Startled, Zuko looked at the others. They all nodded agreement.
Toph's jaw dropped. "Wait – you don't understand them? But… you were talking to Snark-Feng just fine, a minute ago!"
Zuko tilted his head, thinking hard, and blinked. "Two languages," he blurted, as something he'd noticed when they were exploring the strange hidden workshop clicked into place. "Sam and Janet – their world has its own language. But the language of these… Jaffa… they all speak it." He pointed at the others. "You understand them when they speak the Jaffa language. But for some reason, Toph and I understand both…"
Aang's eyes widened. "Wow!" he exclaimed. "You mean, they speak whole separate languages? Like the sacred language? Not just really, really heavy dialects the way you get with the swampbenders?"
Sokka cleared his throat. "Kinda wondering how any of us are speaking any of it in the first place," he admitted. "Because, I've got to say, those swampbenders made no sense half the time…"
"Like these people do even when you do know what they're saying?" Katara said with a slightly crooked smile.
Zuko couldn't quite fight the rueful smile of sympathy, before he looked at Sokka. "I don't know how you four are speaking the language. But – Toph and I were in the Spirit World with Sam." More than that. They'd pulled her across the barrier with them. He should probably be grateful that he and Toph weren't trying to play with tame lightning. And that Sam wasn't trying to earthbend inconvenient walls out of her way.
"And somehow, it… stayed with you?" Aang hesitated, looking troubled. "Are you guys really okay?" he demanded. "I mean, I know you said you were okay, and Katara looked you over, but you look…" He trailed off, face puckering as he bit at his lower lip. The expression would have been funny, if he hadn't looked so worried.
Aang looking worried. They must look pretty bad. "Just tired," Zuko said firmly. "It's been an… interesting week."
"Tired, and elemental deprivation," Toph tattle-taled. "Both of us."
Wait. "What?" He twisted to stare at her. "You're…?"
"I know, it makes no sense. We were in a mountain," Toph admitted, and shrugged. "I poked a little. When I was healing Aang, and again when Katara was checking us. Whatever's in the rock candy, we're both low on it."
Zuko shook his head. He didn't even like rock candy, but just this once, it had been… well, he still didn't like the taste, but he wouldn't turn down another shard if it showed up.
"Maybe it's this whole… different world thing?" Suki suggested tentatively, looking like she only half-believed the words had come out of her own mouth. "Maybe the elements are different on other worlds, or… something." She shook her head. "Different worlds. No one at home is ever going to believe this…"
Zuko looked at them. "How did you four even get here?" he had to ask.
Sokka scratched the side of his head, pursing his lips. "Now that, is a bit of a story," he admitted. "I mean, we figured out something was wrong when Aang turned up with you guys still nowhere to be found. So we went looking for you. Found your campsite and the stairs, followed them up to the old temple…" He paused, narrowing his eyes at Aang. "And I think we need to have the talk about never split the party again. You keep taking off and forgetting that your backup can't fly."
Aang swallowed, looking pale under his arrow tattoos. "I… think I remember that part."
The hairs stood up on the back of Zuko's neck, and he didn't have to look around to know that he wasn't the only one.
Wide-eyed, Katara rested her hand on Aang's arm. "What do you remember?" she asked softly.
Carefully, Aang ran his tongue over his lips, as though trying to moisten them. "Sleepwalking," he said at last. "Or… it felt kind of the way dreams do, you know? When you're going somewhere, and your dream-you is moving and doing things," he waved an arm demonstratively in the air, and Zuko absently side-stepped the puff of wind, more out of engrained habit than anything else, "and dream-you knows exactly what's going on but you-you is just along for the ride?"
Sokka was pale. "You mean, like… Hama?"
Aang shook his head vigorously. "No! Hama was all…" He stuck his arms out, hands hanging limply from his wrists, and shuffled forward and back a step or two. "You could feel yourself getting jerked back and forth, remember? It was really weird. But this… I wasn't being controlled, I just… wasn't the one saying yip-yip."
"…Creepy," Toph said, shuddering with a vigor that Zuko suspected couldn't be entirely attributed to an Earth Rumbler's sense of drama.
Dropping his puppet pose, Aang looked around their small circle uneasily – they'd all drawn in close, letting the background noise of the cheerful chatter (and sounds of things going boom; whoever was putting on that play, they were at least as fond of their effects as the Ember Island Players) cover their quiet conversation from any eavesdroppers, deliberate or not. Even so, Aang lowered his voice a little. "That, and… well, there was something else. The world just… felt different."
Zuko frowned. "How so?" he asked carefully.
Aang's lips puckered in a frustrated moue. "It's really hard to explain…"
"Try," Katara urged.
"It was like everything around me went all… fragile. See-through. Like glass," Aang said slowly. "Because suddenly I could see the… the not-being of it all, and the being – it was all just different forms of energy, and if I reached…" Aang silently moved his hands as though shaping an airball, and finally exhaled noisily before looking around their circle again. "I've had that feeling before. When I fought Ozai."
In the Avatar State, Zuko concluded silently.
Sokka raised his hands. "Wait a minute, wait a minute," he said, brow furrowed. "Look… so I'll grant that there definitely was some Avatar-induced freaking-out back in that temple, even before the whole Berserkatar BOOM thing. And, okay, sure, you've moonlighted as Roku or Kyoshi a time or two when the Avatar had something to say or, you know, a volcano to blow up – which, wow, you'd think Roku would be a little less casual about that, given how he died… um. Anyway." He shook his head. "Now you're telling me that the Avatar Spirit can take over your brain? Without triggering the Avatar State?"
Aang swallowed hard, looking very, very pale. Zuko didn't blame him. The Avatar State was terrifying enough, but… to not be able to trust that your thoughts were your own…
Suki cleared her throat. "Um… Okay, this is probably a stupid question, but… does the Avatar Spirit go off and do its own thing a lot?" she asked uneasily.
"No!" Aang almost shouted, modulating his tone down to a fierce whisper just in time. "It's not supposed to happen at all, not anymore, not now that I've mastered the four elements and opened my chakras! I'm supposed to be able to control the Avatar State now…!"
Aang broke off abruptly, biting his lip and closing his eyes. Then his shoulders drooped, and he slowly sank down to a crouch, balancing on the balls of his feet as he rested his elbows on his knees and hung his head.
"Maybe I'm not as ready as I thought," he said quietly. "The Avatar State… it's huge. Ancient. And I don't think it would know what calm meant if calm snuck up and bit it on the nose."
"Doesn't sound like a very calm thing to do," Sokka said thoughtfully, in what was most definitely a deliberately light tone.
"Try having tea with Uncle when he's in a philosophical mood," Zuko suggested dryly.
Toph giggled. "That's not calm sneaking up and biting. That's calm hitting you over the back of the head with a boulder."
The grins that flickered around their group were strained – but Zuko thought the effort was worth it, no matter how clumsy, when Aang's shoulders shook with a surprised snicker. When the airbender raised his head, his expression was still solemn, but there was a light in his eyes again.
But he shook his head. "See… the thing is, I haven't really mastered any of the elements except for Air and maybe Water, have I? Not unless I'm actually in the Avatar State, which would kinda defeat the purpose. And… the Avatar's not supposed to know until he's sixteen right? Maybe there's a reason for that."
"Is there some way we can help you?" Katara asked.
"Um…" Aang scratched his head. "Short of throwing Iroh and a pot of tea at me the next time I Berserkatar?"
Suki snorted. "I'm not sure that would help."
"Wouldn't," Sokka said solemnly. "You do not want to see what Aang gets like when the tea's too strong." He looked at the airbender. "Any other ideas?"
"Not really," Aang admitted, shoulders slumping again for a moment. Then he straightened, eyes brightening. "But – maybe it doesn't matter for now. I mean, the war's over! I can go back to being a kid for a while, at least until I'm sixteen. And I can take the time to master the elements for real…" Aang trailed off, blinking at the expressions around him. "Um. Guys?"
Zuko glanced at Sokka, only to find the Water Tribe warrior looking back at him.
This is not at all the way we imagined this conversation happening. But – we're here, we have some privacy, and we're not going to get a better opening than this.
Zuko nodded silently.
Sokka sighed, hooking his thumb his sword harness. "Aang," he said quietly, "the war's not over."
Aang's eyes went huge in a suddenly pale face. "But… I…"
"You defeated my f… Ozai," Zuko said, swallowing and pretending that it had been ingrained caution against being overheard that had made him change his words, and not a wrench of grief. Not for Ozai himself. For the father he'd tried to make himself believe he'd had, his entire life. He pushed on. "Technically, that ended the war – but only technically. The fighting – hasn't. Not really."
"Like with General Fong," Toph added, grimacing. "You saw what he was like. He didn't care."
"But it takes two to fight!" Aang argued. "If we just…"
"It may take two to fight, but it only takes one to break a peace. One way or the other," Suki admitted. "Kyoshi Island was neutral, but… we only managed that because we weren't worth the trouble it would take to conquer us. Neutrality only lasts until someone decides that you have something they want."
Zuko winced. "…Yeah. Sorry about that," he muttered.
Suki eyed him for a long moment, then shrugged. "It happened. It's over. At least you and your guys left when Aang did."
Somehow, that didn't really make him feel any better.
"Yeah, well, there are a lot of guys who aren't interested in leaving, let alone leaving be, just because we say that the Avatar says the war is over," Sokka said bluntly. "And the Earth Kingdom isn't the only place with a General Fong or five." He kicked at the floor, suddenly not quite looking directly at any of them. "A couple sailed with my dad."
Katara winced as Aang's stare went from her to her brother.
"I-I heard rumors, but… you mean they're true? But… can't Chief Hakoda…"
"Tell 'em to stop?" Sokka smiled dryly. "How? The Southern Water Tribe is a whole bunch of tribes. Not all of them want to listen to Dad anymore. Not now that the Fire Nation isn't taking over the world."
Katara met Aang's gaze sadly. "I know. You want to just be a normal kid again, for a while. You should get to be a normal kid for a while. But Aang… the world needs the Avatar now, more than ever. Or we're going to tear ourselves apart before we can adjust to the idea that we don't have to fight anymore."
Aang frowned slightly and then turned, so that his back was to them. Not angrily, not dismissively – more like he was trying to create a bit of space so that he could think.
"I'm sorry," Katara said, sounding miserable. "I know you don't want to…"
"It's not that, Katara," Aang admitted. "It's just…" He drew in a deep breath. "It's just, I'm not sure I even should."
Toph blinked, before inserting her pinky into her ear and turning it. "Come again?" she said, frowning.
Aang twisted about a little to look at Zuko. "Do you remember what you told me? About the turtle-ducks and the wild hog-monkeys?"
Zuko blinked, thinking back. "…Yes," he said finally. "Why…?"
"I've been thinking about it," Aang said simply. "When I fought Ozai…" He frowned slightly. "When I fought Ozai, I took away his bending. So he wouldn't hurt anyone anymore."
Zuko held the reflexive shudder down with an iron mental grip. "He wouldn't have stopped for anything else," he said firmly.
"I know that!" Wincing, Aang lowered the tone of his voice. "I know that," he said, softer now. "And if I had to, I'd do it again. But… Once I was in the Avatar State, Ozai didn't even have a chance. I pretty much acted just like him, like having the most might made me right-"
"You're not! You weren't!" Katara snapped, lunging forward to grab Aang's hands. "You're nothing like him," she said fiercely, blue eyes hot. "Ozai could have stopped, any time. You only fought him because he wouldn't. And… you risked your life, your spirit, to find a way to keep him alive."
Zuko bit his lip, so that he wouldn't say what he was thinking – that Ozai probably would have preferred being killed to the life he lived now. Aang didn't deserve that.
And it wasn't like he could throw any stones. Azula would probably have preferred it as well. And yet, when he'd seen a chance to end the Agni Kai without killing her…
The airbender smiled weakly, and Zuko saw his hands shift to return Katara's clasp with a little squeeze. "Thanks, Katara," he said, and drew in a deep breath. "But… don't you see? Maybe there wasn't another way. But when you get down to the basic facts… I beat Ozai up because I didn't like what he was doing." He looked up at her, face miserable. "What gave me the right to do that?"
"It's not a question of right," Zuko said. "It's responsibility. You were there, and you had the ability to stop him, and you had to decide whether or not it was worth what you had to do." He crossed his arms and tried not to show how much this whole conversation reminded him of dark nights, staring over reports and decrees by firebending-steady candlelight and wondering who he thought he was fooling by pretending he had the first idea of what he was doing, playing Fire Lord…
Or a long, uneasy night on an alien world, sharing nightmares and what ifs with Toph.
"But how do I know I'm making the right choice?" Aang asked desperately. "I beat Ozai up to make him stop. That didn't stop Sozin when Roku tried it – and you know what? Taking Sozin's bending wouldn't actually have changed anything. He didn't kill Roku, the volcano did – I think Roku might not have made it even if Sozin hadn't been there, although maybe if Sozin hadn't he'd have run away sooner. And Sozin – he started the war. But you don't have to be a bender to get people to fight. Jet showed us that." His hands tightened on Katara's. "General Fong? I had to threaten him to make him stop fighting, even for a little while. Where does that stop?" He looked at her pleadingly. "Should I have gone all Avatar on you, when you wanted to find the man who killed your mother? If that's not right, but fighting Ozai or Fong was… Where's the line? Where does it stop being right?"
Toph punched him in the shoulder.
"You're over-thinking this, Twinkletoes," Toph told him bluntly. "The thing is, you're the only one who can tell a lot of people to stop and have 'em listen without tossing in a smackdown or two. Yeah, sure, there're always going to be Ozais and Azulas and Jets around who won't listen to anything less – but a lot of people will listen to you. You're the Avatar."
Aang's lips pressed together. "Being the Avatar doesn't make me wise."
Katara blinked. "But you're the bridge to the Spirit World…"
"What does that mean, though?" Aang looked around at all of them again. "So I bend all four elements, and I'm really powerful. That's it. I don't get any special knowledge. Not until I meditate and try asking past Avatars for advice – and even when I do that, all I get is that past Avatar's opinion." His lips pursed. "Why do we even have an Avatar, if all I really am is a giant beatstick?"
"The Avatar is a guardian."
Now everyone was looking at Zuko. Oops.
Crossing his arms over his chest, Zuko shrugged uncomfortably. "That's what I found in the ancient archives. The really ancient ones, hidden in the most stable part of the islands." He still remembered finding that hidden latch in an old ruin, the hours of figuring out how the door worked, and opening up the deep shaft lined with ancient tablets in the sacred script, barely intelligible at best.
"Huh." Sokka scratched his head. "A guardian? So… what's he supposed to be guarding against?"
Zuko winced. "I don't know. That part of the archive was lost." The lowest depths of the shaft had been completely flooded, the tablets broken or worn down by erosion, and he hadn't had the time or the knowledge to excavate it. Maybe if he'd asked for scholars from Ba Sing Se… but they all had a long way to go before relations between the Fire Nation and the rest of the world warmed up enough for that.
But he did have other options. "So I started checking other old archives, and then old ruins. That's what led me to the ancient temple ruin, actually." He sighed. "I suppose that was a dead end, though."
"…I don't think it was." Aang bit his lip. "When we found that temple… I could feel the Avatar Spirit. It felt… scared."
Dead silence fell.
"The Avatar was scared?" Toph demanded. "The Avatar? What of?"
Sokka cleared his throat. "Um. Anybody else remember something about a freaky big yukiuso?" he asked dryly, waving his hand over his head.
Aang shook his head fiercely. "Except it wasn't that," he said firmly.
"So what was it about?" Suki asked, her eyes narrowing.
Aang hesitated. "I'm… not sure," he admitted. "Just that… it had something to do with that – what did you call it? A Stargate? It was like…" He paused, swallowing, as his gaze flicked around the room before he dropped his voice, so low that all of them had to lean in to hear. "Like the Avatar remembered something about… out here. On the other side of the Stargate. Something bad. Something it…"
"…was trying to protect us from," Suki finished, eyes wide. "Oh. No wonder the Avatar panicked, when it realized Zuko and Toph had been taken through the Stargate."
Aang smiled weakly. "Yeah. Know how I said it was like sleepwalking? That part was more… like suddenly realizing you'd sleepwalked yourself into a nightmare."
Katara hugged him fiercely.
"Whoof." Sokka shook his head. "Guess that answers how the Avatar knew how to open the Stargate. I'd kinda been wondering about that part."
Like Sam and her friends… "Then, the people we've met…" Zuko asked slowly, trying not to betray the knot in his stomach. He liked Sam and Janet. Jack. Teal'c. Daniel. They seemed like good people…
And we all now what my track record is with trusting people, don't we? Ozai. Azula. Even Uncle had been manipulating things behind his back for so long, although in Iroh's defense he'd always done it with good intentions…
And that spirit-trap. It had something to do with the Avatar, although the inscription had made no more sense when he'd looked it over again before handing it off to Sam for disposal than it had before.
Although at least he was able to figure out that what he'd taken for dish probably was more like container.
But Aang was shaking his head again. "No, they're okay," he said brightly.
"Which is probably a good thing," Sokka said slowly.
Zuko tensed. Sokka's expression was thoughtful, in the way that he'd learned to associated with the Water Tribe warrior's… rather unique form of tactical genius.
By the way Katara's eyes narrowed, she recognized it, too. "How so?" she asked warily.
Sokka spread his hands. "Look. The Avatar might know this stuff, but at last check, the Avatar didn't do a lot of talking." He arched his brow at Aang, who frowned thoughtfully, but shook his head. "Yeah, thought not."
There wasn't a lot of room in their little circle for pacing, but Sokka stalked back and forth over the two paces or so of space that he did have. "But these new pals of yours do know about this, right? Maybe they can tell us something."
Zuko opened his mouth, then closed it as the door slid open. "Looks like we'll have a chance to ask," he said, as Jack, Sam and Teal'c stepped into the room and headed towards them.
"The yukiuso?" he asked, when the three were close enough.
"Drop-kicked into the sun," Jack said, radiating satisfaction. "I don't care how big and bad it was down here – it's not going to survive that."
Sam sighed. "I just wish we could have found some way to save the trap for analysis."
"Given a choice between letting that thing out and burning up the box with it? Know which one I'd rather choose," Jack said bluntly.
"Urdu believes he can recreate it, given time to analyze the database," Teal'c said gravely. "And it is possible that there exist other chambers with active or dormant traps in them. Although one would urge great caution in approaching them, lest we find ourselves coming full circle with a second spirit."
"Um. Yeah. Letting another of those guys out? That would be very bad," Sokka said slowly, eyes bugging in a way that suggested he wasn't really paying attention to his mouth. A moment later, he blurted, "You really literally threw it into the sun? Isn't the sun… huge? And really, really, really far away, and…"
Katara elbowed him, hard. "Babbling."
"But it makes no sense!"
Jack grinned. "We've got cool toys."
Oh boy. There was a very scary look on Sokka's face. Last time Zuko had seen something like that, Sokka had been elbow-deep in a dismantled fire lock and about to make it blow up in the middle of the palace For Science. A quick glance at the others showed they recognized it, too.
Time for an intervention. And some answers.
"What now?" he asked, fixing Jack with the same level gaze he'd learned to use to make Aang calm down and think, or to help steady an uneasy officer coming to report to his Fire Lord for the first time. Or to warn a courier that honesty was probably the best policy… not that the last always worked.
Now it was Jack's turn to glance around at his friends – his unit? "Yeah. About that… Oi, Danny! You've had your fun, come play nice."
The comment earned him an eyeroll from the other man, but Daniel did extract himself from the small room and its occupants to join them.
"This is incredible… apparently, Ancient Egyptian language and culture were strongly influenced by Goa'uld-Unas culture. That must be why the translation protocols left Djehuty's name in the Old Egyptian form, it's reflecting the fact that he uses the original Unarian form of the name," the bright-haired man said as he approached, scrawling frantically with one of those odd metal-tipped brushes these people favored. "And then there are the pronouns – they have at least fifteen ways of saying I. There's a singular I, there's an I each for the Goa'uld and the host – the Jaffa have picked up those for the symbionts they keep – and then there's an I specific to the combined individual. And then there are ways of referring to past hosts, past symbionts…"
Symbiont? That… wasn't a very comforting thought. And from the pale look on Sam's face, she wasn't entirely comfortable with the direction of the conversation, either.
A muffled noise made Zuko blink and look over. Katara was giggling, a hand over her mouth as blue eyes sparkled. "You sound like Professor Zei," she told Daniel.
Toph's jaw dropped slightly. "Mr. Head-of-Anthropology?" She blinked. "Whoa. I completely forgot about him… You're right, he does."
Daniel's chatter cut off as he stared at them, eyes wide with surprise. "Head of anthropology?" he echoed, as though not quite certain he should trust his ears. "You mean… like the head of a department at a university? Oh – a university is…"
"We know what a university is," Sokka said, rolling his eyes. "I mean, sure, we didn't get much chance to visit the big one at Ba Sing Se, since people were actively avoiding talking to us, but…"
"You have universities?"
Toph glanced sidelong at Zuko. "Uh-oh," she muttered under her breath, grinning. "I know that tone."
Yeah, so did Zuko. Usually in the word Shopping! as uttered by Sokka.
Daniel was leaning in, a delighted light in his eyes. "How are they organized? You're obviously literate – is that common, or is it just an educated class? Is the university primarily religious, or – wait, if you have people studying anthropology…" He cut himself off, pale skin betraying a bright blush of embarrassment. "Sorry. It's just, we almost never meet cultures that have advanced to that level… I'd love to visit."
Zuko expected Jack to make a snarky comment about that. Instead, the man looked at them expectantly, eyebrow raised.
Zuko met that silent invitation with a skeptical look of his own. "You want to visit our world?" he asked bluntly.
"Well, seems like a waste to come all this way and not see the sights," Jack said innocently.
"Why?" Zuko pressed, narrowing his eyes.
"What? We can't just be friendly sociable types?"
He snorted. "As if." Ignoring Aang's be nice frown – Iroh did it better, and he'd been ignoring his uncle for years – he made a short gesture, taking in the strange sandstone of Urdu's ship that they'd been busy escaping from only a week ago, and the ice fields beyond. "You didn't know about spirits? Fine. But I watched you. You're used to disasters striking. And you came back here anyway." He kept his gaze fixed on Jack. "I've seen more than enough to know that traveling through the Stargate is dangerous. And you expect me to believe you're doing it for fun?"
Jack's eyes narrowed in return, and Zuko was struck by the sudden feeling that the man wasn't used to being called on his nonchalance. Tough. He wasn't going to back down on this.
The burgeoning battle of wills, however, was interrupted when Sam stepped forward. "You're right," she said simply.
"Major," Jack said sharply.
Sam shook her head. "Sir, they're right. And they have every right to know what they've been pulled into."
Daniel pushed his glasses up. "And Aang's important on your world, isn't he?" he asked shrewdly.
Zuko tried to keep his sudden tension from being obvious. Not that there was really much point, not when Sokka and Katara both moved protectively to shield the airbender.
Daniel winced. "Sorry. But… the Avatar? That's a title. A singular title, suggesting there's only one. When you consider what he did against the yukiuso…" He spread his hands, eyes sheepish.
Toph crossed her arms. "And what are you planning on doing about it?" she asked.
Sam glanced at Jack, who frowned at them for a moment longer, then shook his head and made a go ahead gesture.
"To ask for aid, if you are willing to give it," Teal'c said simply.
"Aid with what?" Suki asked, tone as pointed as a spear.
Sam drew in a deep breath – bracing herself, Zuko realized.
"This is a bit of a long story. But it starts when, about fifty years ago, archeologists on our world discovered a buried Stargate…"
~Even the Dragon-King's temple floods.~
"You're not coming?"
Sanura shook her head at the sun-haired woman's careful question. "I am Djehuty's Prime," she said bluntly. "I have obligations to him. I need to remain by his side – to convince him to limit the explosions, if nothing else." Her lips curved in a dry smile. "Especially now that Sergeant Dyne has come to play."
Aang hid a grin under his hand. He hadn't gotten to meet the woman Toph gleefully called Schemes, not really, but he'd certainly overheard her.
"Oh. My. God. Death Ray. Solar-powered ha'tak Death Ray. This is awesome."
The crocomander-man who'd introduced himself as Urdu had looked just a little nonplussed. "Do the words death ray and awesome normally accompany each other?" he'd asked Daniel, in an undertone.
"…Pretty much, yeah."
"Ah. Just checking."
"Besides," Sanura was continuing, "I would rather remain here for the time being, until we know how the Tok'ra will respond to the fate of Lieutenant Nekht."
"He opened a door that was clearly marked Do Not Open," Jack said dryly. "And we have security camera evidence to prove it. Not a lot they can say about that."
Sanura shrugged. "Indeed. Nevertheless… The Wise One has never been a friend of the Tok'ra, but neither has he been a foe. But if he is to open neutral relations with the Tau'ri? That may cross a line. The ha'tak is still damaged – and we took many casualties, between the yukiuso and your escape."
Zuko and Toph both winced.
Aang's heart went out to them. He understood fighting to protect your friends, or yourself. And things happened when you fought.
But this whole mess had started because of a misunderstanding. And there were people dead because of it.
What would have happened to the world if I'd killed Zuko, just because he was our enemy? Aang shivered violently. He didn't want to think about that. Zuko had been scary and relentless and angry… and he'd been trying to do the right thing. Always.
Sanura hadn't missed all the wincing. She reached out and ruffled Toph's hair, smirking at the dangerous glare she got in response. "Do not concern yourself. Most of the casualties from the ha'tak will recover, although some needed to be revived in the sarcophagi. They will rue the hangovers, but they will heal."
"Speaking of side effects." Janet shoved a large pack at Daniel. "Here. Supplies for testing food sources, nutritional supplements, and extra MREs in case you're not sure. Don't forget, you're going into the opposite problem Zuko and Toph had on our world. If there's enough naquadah for them to get it from their diet… We don't know what level of naquadah content is safe, and I'd rather not take chances. Heavy metals tend to accumulate higher on the food chain, and in the oceans. Avoid meat, especially from carnivorous animals. Avoid seafood if you can."
"Oh. Yay. Vegan diet," Jack said, face bland.
The fire-haired woman frowned at him. "Be very careful about illnesses. Avoid anyone who's sick. Remember what I said about immune systems. And we'll see you in a week." She frowned. "I'm really not happy with you gone for so long on a new world…"
Jack shrugged. "Can't be helped. Sounds like they're really spread out. If we're going to talk to people there, we need to pad the schedule for travel time." Pursing his lips, he looked at Aang and his friends. "You're sure we'll actually be able to talk to some of the head honchos?"
"Sure!" Aang said, grinning at him. "I mean, I'm the Avatar." Which might not mean what a lot of people seemed to think it meant, but Zuko and the others were right – people did listen to the Avatar.
…kinda. Sometimes. When they felt like it.
And maybe Sam and her people hadn't told them everything – Aang knew a simplified story when he heard it. Still, it sounded like they really meant well.
Plus… they wanted to know more about that Stargate, and the temple they'd found it under, and Aang was real interested in that, too.
He hadn't told the others everything about his odd dream-vision, while he'd been in the Avatar State. Not the end of it, when he'd leapt through the mirror, and the rush of knowledge-memories that had washed over him-
-protect hide run fight Won't let them! sanctuary breached secret lost defenses down-
-and then been gone as he awakened as Aang again.
Except, not entirely. Because over and over again, he'd felt a funny sense of other in the back of his mind, reaching out and feeling the world around him at that small-yet-large level he'd learned to associate with the Avatar State. He wasn't getting a sense of threat from anything – nothing that set off the horror that swirled around the concept of the mysterious them, but…
I think something in the Avatar Spirit… woke up.
Yeah. If Sam and Jack and their friends thought they might be able to dig up the answers to some of those mysteries… Aang was kinda inclined to help.
"Besides," he added cheerfully. "We might not have enough time to get in touch with the Earth King or the Water Tribe chiefs, but we're right next to the Fire Nation, and Zuko's…"
An arm dropped over his shoulders and leaned.
"Zuko's got an in with the palace," Toph said cheerfully, as if she weren't putting all her weight on Aang's shoulder. "So you definitely can talk to the Fire Lord."
Jack pursed his lips. "What about…"
"Sir? We're ready to dial," Sam called. Nodding, the man turned and went to join her.
"Ow!" Aang barely managed to strangle the yelp in the back of his throat. Toph had just kicked him! Those boots hurt!
Hopping on one foot to rub the back of his leg, Aang gave her a dour look. "What was that for?" he demanded.
Toph scowled at him. "You were going to tell them about Zuko."
"Well, yeah…" Aang trailed off, feeling his eyes widen. "Wait. You mean they don't know…?"
Toph's grin was pure evil. "Nope. And don't any of you dare spill the beans, not until we're someplace I can kick off these stupid boots. I want to feel their reactions!"
Sokka's mouth formed an O of sudden understanding. Then he began snickering. "Hey… think we can keep a lid on things until we get to the palace? Because that would be awesome."
Aang grinned back. "Bet we can!"
Suki cleared her throat. "Um. Guys… is that really a good idea?"
The three of them turned to grin at her.
Katara reached over to pat Suki on the shoulder. "It's best not to argue with them at this stage," she said ruefully. And paused. "And it would be kind of funny…"
Zuko grumbled, reaching up to pinch the bridge of his nose.
Then all of them stiffened as an odd, soft humming went right past their ears and straight into their bones.
"What is that?" Aang yelped.
"Relax," Toph said, although she wasn't taking her own advice, shifting her feet as she turned to face the circle of the Stargate, which had just started to move. "That's just the gate thingy waking up."
It was creepy.
Which wasn't just him, Aang realized with a sudden shock. The humming in his bones was weird – but the creepiness came right out of that sense of other still mixed into his spirit.
Frustrated, he closed his eyes and poked at it.
What are you trying to tell me?
Startled, he blinked his eyes open, meaning to ask what the heck that was supposed to mean…
"I'm still not happy about this," Tui muttered, as the last of their desperate band vanished across the event horizon, leaving only the nine of them on the dais. "Asunyti was declared off-limits for a reason."
"Which is why this will work," Shu said firmly. "They'll believe we're dead, and good riddance to such undesirable elements. Keep faith. Hiran hasn't been wrong yet."
Oma bit her lip. "I just hope this really will help him." Her jade eyes flickered away from the others, towards…
"It will. And if it doesn't, we'll go all the way back to Earth if that's what it takes. We'll find a way to fix this," Agni said fiercely, and turned his back to shimmering silver, a scarred palm reaching towards them. "Let's go."
Aang jumped, eyes flying open.
Zuko frowned at him, the expression dark and severe thanks to his scar, even though anyone who knew Zuko would realize it was just worry. "What's wrong?"
Aang blinked, looking around. It was full morning, not nightfall. Sam was standing by the sthaanu-
Wait. How do I know what its name is?
-while the rest of her friends were standing on the dais, waiting.
"Aang?" This time it was Katara speaking, and Aang suddenly realized that all his friends had gathered around him.
He shook his head fiercely. "It's nothing," he said, grinning sheepishly at them. "I just… I think I had a vision."
No. That wasn't a vision. A memory.
Zuko studied him for a moment. "Are you okay?" he asked.
Aang nodded. "Sorry. I was just distracted for a minute." He looked past the firebender, to where silvery blue-white was rippling in the center of the circle. "I'm fine."
Zuko considered him a moment longer, then nodded. "All right. Let's go," he said, and held out his hand.
For just a moment – golden eyes, outstretched hand, the rippling of the Stargate silhouetting a familiar, trusted figure – the two scenes overlapped.
One thing left to do. He closed his eyes, and reached.
Time. Distance. They were nothing but illusion.
In a valley a few miles away, a power switch flipped to OFF.
And the cold night burst free.
He opened his eyes and smiled at the stars.
"You won't follow us," he told them. "The ice won't let you. Forget. Like the river forgets snow."
Then it was gone. Zuko was still waiting, hand extended.
Aang shivered, clasping his friend's hand and letting Zuko help pull him up onto the dais.
"Yeah. Let's go home," he said, and stepped through the Stargate.
~Even the Dragon-King's temple floods.~
AN: Yes, you read that correctly. The Dragon-King's Temple really does end here.
And no, I haven't answered every question that has come up. That's deliberate, for several reasons.
First and foremost – this is a crossover, yes. But it's not about the crossing over. At its core, the plot of this is fairly simple: the SGC has found two dislocated kids and has to find a way to get them back to their homeworld safely. That plot is complete. Which means that going any further would involve introducing a new plot, and new events.
Because this story isn't about Asunyti. It's about Zuko and Toph, and the SGC, and the Stargate universe. Move the characters onto Asunyti, and the entire landscape of the story changes.
Which I would like to do, at some point. After all, the GAang – and most of the readers – aren't the only ones who really want to see SG-1's faces when they go to meet the Fire Lord! (Besides. SG-1? On Asunyti? We're looking at political shenanigans and Indiana Jones style adventures – can you imagine what Daniel's reaction to Wan Shi Tong's library would be?)
Problem is… I have lots of bits and pieces, but I don't have a plot yet. Because while cultural encounter and exploring a new world is fascinating, it is not a plot.
Cultural encounter has a beginning and middle. But it has no end point. And without a clear end point, you get a story that will never end. I'm not doing that to myself, I'm not doing that to one of my stories, and I'm not doing that to my readers.
In addition, "know thyself" – I am an action writer, when push comes to shove. That's why Temple needed the yukiuso, to keep the pressure on and give events a center of gravity. So until I've figured out a good action plot for SG-1 on Asunyti (as of now, I have the elements of it, but they haven't come together in a coherent whole) – that's a tale that will have to wait.
And finally – well. "Keep them guessing," as the advice goes. Sometimes a story is better if you don't answer every question, in my opinion.
Besides. I need to take a break from this 'verse for a while. It has eaten my brain.
I do kind of wish I'd been able to go with my original plan for this story – in which Djehuty was the bad guy, cut and dried. It would have been much more straightforward than trying to figure out how to set up a fight against what amounted to a maliciously sentient blizzard!
But when I sat down to start writing the story, with the Goa'uld as a fairly generic bad guy in the back of my head, the very first line was Janet's little mental rant about zats.
And my bunnies ran with it. After all, wouldn't it be ironic if the Goa'uld in question were the one who invented zats? But wait, if that's the case, it means two things. First, he's got to be fairly old. Second, he's an inventor.
Well, what if he were really old? Say, the oldest? Because you know, I have trouble buying that the Goa'uld have really always been this way. They can't have stolen all of their tech, simply because you need the right scientific and technological concepts to understand it. That suggests that they had a fairly advanced civilization of their own at one point. Given that they share their homeworld with another sapient species, the Unas, that civilization by definition would have to include both species.
Okay. Just for fun, let's say that Unas and Goa'uld are, in fact, genuine symbiotes – they co-evolved together and both sides benefit from the relationship. So how do we explain the change that led to the canon System Lords?
Well, start with humanity itself. Just because the Goa'uld have a symbiotic relationship with a species they co-evolved with, it doesn't follow that it works so well with other sentient species from different worlds. Well, going off of The Enemy Within – one of the few SG-1 episodes that I have seen – it's pretty much canon that Goa'uld merge with the host's brain to a startling degree. That sort of thing would be highly specialized; odds of Unas having exactly the same sorts of brains as humans are vanishingly small. We're talking different biochemistries, different neurological wiring… I can see that sort of contact going spectacularly wrong.
And while we're at it… Stargate translation. That means that Stargates mess with the brain. Which apparently works for humans just fine, and one has to assume the same holds true for Ancients as well, given that they invented the things… but what happens when you get another sentient species that isn't compatible?
Neuroscientists can tell all sorts of horror stories about what just an itty bitty problem in the brain can do.
Plus, naquadah. Canon says that Goa'uld originally didn't have it in their systems. So, heavy metal poisoning is possible… And what about that genetic memory thing? I can see that looking like a good idea at first, but combine that with the side effects of everything else, and whoo boy.
…yeah, I admit. When I pulled back and looked at all of that… oof. The Goa'uld are kind of screwed.
And there's a canon race that ran around meddling with and "improving" other races (such as, oh, the Wraith…) and then failing to clean up their messes… and that dovetailed neatly with my headcanon about the origins of the Renegades.
And while we're on the topic of history – if you think that Tui, La, and Agni sound familiar, well, they should. What, did you think the Avatar was the only spirit with a History? (And yes, I put Oma and Shu with them for a reason. It can be summed up as, "Legends are rarely completely accurate.")
Thank you to everyone who stayed with this story during the long transition between posting the first chapter and when I actually started posting for real, and I hope it was worth the wait!