The Return @tubendo
Chapter 15

Looking down at the large walled settlement of Gaochao, Katara made a small smile; she thought that at the very least, the refugee family they'd been travelling with would be safe there, away from the threat of the Fire Nation. Appa was still slowing down as they made their final approach, the refugee children eagerly looking off the side of the saddle at the town.

"That's a big town." Xia commented, "Bigger than anything I've ever seen before."

"Oh, you haven't seen much. Ba Sing Se is much bigger." Sokka commented, earning a few interested looks from the refugees.

"You've been to Ba Sing Se?" Tai asked him, the Water Tribesman nodding.

"Yes, but not lately. I assume the situation's a little prickly there, at the moment." he explained, the refugees grimacing.

"Haven't you heard?" Kuo turned to face him, "There was a big battle there." he explained, making the eyes of the whole group widen.

"Sorry, a big battle?" Aang asked, the adult refugees nodding.

"Yeah, the Fire Nation military was thrown out by the Dai Li." Tai added, "That was like three months ago. I assume it's not a very nice place to be at the moment."

"Do you know what happened to the Fire Nation forces?" Sokka asked, sounding a little nervous; seeing that he'd played a part in the suppression of the Dai Li, and vocally decided he wanted to get rid of them again, he must have been worried about what could have been their allies in that fight.

"I think they still control the Outer Wall, but that's just a rumour. Maybe the Dai Li just doesn't want anybody trying to come inside the city." he guessed, turning to face his brother, "Did you hear anything, Kuo?"

"Nope." he shook his head, "I know as much as you do."

"Well, that's news." the Water Tribe warrior mumbled, before turning his attention to the city they were quickly approaching, "I guess this is it, then."

"Thank you for flying us all the way here." Kuo smiled at them, giving a bow while seated, "You've done us a great service."

"Don't mention it." Aang turned to face him with a grin, "It's the least we could do. Will you all be alright here?"

"If we can find some jobs, it'll be fine." Tai assured them, before nervously looking toward the walls, "Hopefully the people in charge here are better than the Fire Nation."

"They have to be." Katara mumbled, "These people can't be like them." she spoke under her breath, hoping by saying it, it would just be true.

She wasn't that sure, however, feeling that it could be just as reasonable that the Earth Kingdom were just as cruel to their own people as the Fire Nation was to them; the story of the Dai Li themselves didn't paint the best picture of their country, and neither did the story of a crowd of Earth Kingdom villagers trying to stone Sokka and Azula to death, all because they found out she was a firebender.

"Just let us off before we get to the gates." Kuo spoke up, "The guards mightn't be very happy to see a sky-bison just land in front of them." he advised, Aang making a slight grimace, obviously understanding his point.

"Yeah, some people are afraid of Appa." he conceded, before pulling the reins up, indicating for Appa to drop down to the ground; he groaned loudly, before he slowed his flight, descending down onto the dry, gravelly ground below.

The hillside in front of the town was mostly barren, and Katara guessed it might have had something to do with the war; she assumed that before their whole civil war, the Fire Nation might have been intent on taking the town. Of course, at that very moment, it seemed highly unlikely to occur. She glanced over to the refugee children, feeling a slight unease with letting them go; she didn't know what circumstances they'd be facing in the town, but she knew that it would have been better than roughing it out in the wilderness. Even if one could survive in the woods, it wasn't a life many people would tolerate. Being from the South Pole, she was actually quite tolerant of the idea of camping out and living in the woods, given there was food everywhere, though she wasn't eager to just give up her home, no matter how desolate it was- it was her home, after all. As they climbed off of the saddle, Katara reached over to their bags, helping them take them off of Appa by handing them down to the adults, who placed them down on the ground beside them, each of the refugees taking their personal belongings and slinging them over their shoulders. She turned to Aang and Sokka, wondering what they ought to do next.

"Are we going to head into the town?" she asked them, the two looking at each other for a moment before they shrugged their shoulders.

"Do we need to?" the young Avatar asked, "I don't think we're running short on food."

"We might need some more before we reach the Northern Water Tribe though." Sokka admitted, before turning to face his sister with an uneasy smile, "So, uh, maybe a short trip to the market."

"We won't buy anything too expensive. I don't know if we're going to get any donations from the Northern Water Tribe." she conceded, making her brother snicker.

"Might not want to once we're done with them." he grinned at them, Katara allowing herself to smugly smirk, knowing that she would take pride in kicking down the stupid traditions of the Northern Water Tribe, both for her own dignity and that of her grandmother; she deserved to have the Northern Water Tribes stuffy leaders kicked for her, seeing that she'd raised her to be tough and headstrong person she was.

"What exactly are you going to say to them, Sokka?" Aang turned to face him with a nervous face.

"Things." he commented in a purposefully vague manner, "I'm still working on my proud 'screw your stupid traditions speech'." he clarified, making Katara point a finger at her brother.

"I'm looking forward to it, Sokka."

"Oh, I know you are." he grinned at her, before turning down to face the refugees, "We're heading into town. You mind if we tag along with you guys for a bit?"

"No problem." Kuo smiled at them, Sokka slapping his own thigh with an approving face.

"Brilliant. Let's go." he leapt off of the saddle, turning his eyes back to Aang and Katara, "Come on." he prodded them, the other two following on behind him and the refugee family as they began to walk toward the gates of Gaochao.

The Water Tribe girl strode after her brother, though her focus was immediately drawn to the walls of the city, or more specifically, its gates, where a group of Earth Kingdom soldiers were standing guard, and immediately took a bending stance as the group approached. She was confused exactly why they were getting all defensive when it was just a group of refugees, but she did remember they had arrived on the back of a sky-bison, which must have been the weirdest thing they'd seen in a while.

"State your business." one of the soldiers addressed them, raising his fist to create some walls around them as they approached the gates; whether that was intended to intimidate them or stop them from escaping, she couldn't tell, though she was certain it wouldn't stop Aang, who had a glider and his airbending to use to get around essentially any obstacle.

"We're refugees." Kuo spoke up, "My family and I have travelled for a while, and heard your town was safe for us." he explained, the soldier nodding.

"That is true." he confirmed before his eyes turned to the odd part of the group, which happened to be Sokka, Katara and Aang, "But what are two Water Tribesman and a... who are you?" he looked at the Avatar with confusion, unaware that was who he was.

"I'm the Avatar, but you can just call me Aang." he introduced himself, the soldier stepping back, his eyes filled with shock, turning to face his comrades.

"Did you guys just hear that as well?" he asked them, the soldiers nodding along, confused and surprised by Aang's presence, "How- why are you here?"

"Uh, well, we gave this family a ride here, and we were going into your town to buy some supplies. I hope that isn't an issue." he stepped forward, the soldier looking at him with his mouth open, lost in thought as he stared at the young Air Nomad, "Hello?"

"Uh, yeah." the soldier shook his head, "That's fine. You can come inside." he confirmed before turning his gaze toward the gates, gesturing his hand up, which led to said gates opening up a few moments later, "I'm sure that the Governor might want to speak with you."

"Oh, for fighting the Fire Nation?" he asked the soldier, who gave him a curt nod.

"Uh, yeah, pretty much."

"I can't actually do much for you at the moment. We're heading to the North Pole, but in a month... or however long it takes to learn waterbending, we'll be back around here. I could help out then, if you need some assistance. That's my job, helping people." he grinned, pointing to his chest with a rather cocky grin; Sokka was unamused by his confidence, though he didn't complain.

"Uh, okay, then." he nodded, understanding of their circumstances, 'Well, it was nice to meet you, Avatar Aang." he saluted the young Air Nomad, whose face straightened, unsure how to respond; he leaned over toward the Water Tribe warrior.

"Uh, do I salute back?"

"No." he assured him, striding past, "Let's just go inside." he spoke not just to Aang, but to the refugees as well, who seemed eager to get inside.

Katara followed after her brother, eyeing the large gates as they approached them, noting how they were actually controlled with earthbending, made of a thin sheet of stone which seemed to be pulled inside the walls when closed; she found it a little interesting, though what was more attention grabbing to her was what was past the gates. The town of Gaochao was bustling full of people, and had to be the first proper Earth Kingdom town she'd seen, since New Omashu, though a city, was rather unusual in how it was laid out underground. The people immediately looked their way, taking note that they were odd looking, not being Earth Kingdom, while the refugees beside them didn't get a single look, being as plain as they came. She acknowledged that perhaps Earth Kingdom disguises would come in handy, though they didn't make much sense until they headed to Ba Sing Se, where they'd need to deal with a hostile group who would immediately attack them if they knew they had Sokka and Azula with them.

She strode on inside, walking alongside Xia and Aang, as the adults and Sokka led them along down the narrow streets of the town; the buildings they walked alongside were all at least two-storeys tall, and there were unlit paper lanterns hanging between the buildings which she assumed would be quite pretty during the evening. As they continued along, she took note of the various shops that lined the street, where she could see people working, making products right before her eyes; weaving baskets, assembling furniture, cutting up food or even carving glassware. She found it all rather interesting to look at, though her attention turned forward as they made their way towards what had to be a market, given the wider, open street they had reached.

"We must be near the market now." Aang concluded, before glancing toward the refugee girl, "Are you guys going to get some stuff here?"

"We don't have much money." she admitted with a slight grimace, "But Dad and Uncle might look for some work. There's probably got to be something for them to do around here."

"I'd sure hope so." Katara admitted, glancing around, "This place seems very busy." she acknowledged, making Aang chuckle.

"Welcome to cities." he raised his hands up, "Everybody runs around like they've got something important to do... and I'm unsure if they always do." he explained, the Water Tribe girl holding back a laugh; she didn't want to mock the people they were walking by.

"We have to go off and look for some work." Kuo admitted, turning around to face his wife and daughter, "I think you all should remain with the Avatar and his friends for the meantime. We'll meet you back here, at the market." he explained, Lian nodding at him, making a small smile.

"Don't take too long, Kuo." she warned him, the refugee man giving her a reassuring nod.

"We won't." he told her, before turning to face his brother, "Tai, let's just have a quick scope around the place, and if we can't find anything, we'll come back and look for some food. I'm sure the children are getting hungry."

"We're not that hungry, Dad." Xia stressed, before Ho stepped forward with a pout.

"I might be a little hungry." he told them, his father leaning down and patting him on the shoulder.

"I'm going to go find some work, and then we'll be able to get a nice big meal for the whole family. Don't worry, Ho." he assured him, his youngest son nodding, the elder looking at his father with a slightly worried face.

"Just don't punch anybody again, Dad." he warned him, Tai laughing off Shi's comment.

"I won't, buddy." he assured him, before he grasped Kuo by the shoulder, "See you."

The group waved to the pair as they strode down a street to their left, pacing off as quickly as they could; Katara was unsure if they would find what they were looking for, but she hoped that they would.

"Uh, so are we going to get some more supplies, or what?" Sokka asked them, the pair turning to face him and both nodding.

"Yeah." Aang smiled, "You guys can all come along. We might be able to get you some lunch, too." he clarified, the refugee children's expressions brightening.

"Well, we-" Sokka began to speak up, before he sighed, "No, you're right, Aang." he conceded, before he began to continue along, approaching the market.

He probably didn't want to spend any more of their coin, which was quickly getting spread thin; they still had enough spare to get the refugees lunch, but if the Northern Water Tribe weren't as charitable as Bumi, they'd quickly begin running into money problems. She followed on after her brother, walking alongside Aang, noting that he was still getting looks from people, who must have realised who he was; he was wearing his monk robes, and hadn't put on his bandana, given that they were in a friendly settlement, well out of the way of the Fire Nation's occupation. Sokka turned around to face them, his expression brightening, seeing that he was thinking about food, the one thing that seemed to always get him in a better mood.

"What did you guys want for lunch?"she asked the refugees, who looked amongst themselves, just considering what to say; Lian was the first to respond, with a calm voice and a small smile.

"I think if you just got us some jook that would be fine. Or noodles. I don't know what would be cheaper." she admitted, Sokka scratching his chin.

"Okay, well, let's go find a stall that sells jook or noodles." he declared, marching along ahead, as if it were some kind of serious mission; though getting food was a serious matter for anyone who didn't have much, like the refugees, it wasn't so serious to ask for the gusto her brother was putting into his strides.

Leading the group along, Sokka meandered through the market, quickly checking the stalls that covered the street they were walking down; Katara turned to face Aang, a little amused by his attitude, and decided to ask him.

"Do you know what's up with Sokka?" she asked, the Avatar shaking his head, making a perplexed face.

"I have no idea." he whispered, "Maybe it has something to do with you know who."

"But wouldn't he be sad instead?" she asked him; he glanced over toward Sokka for a few moments, before turning back to face her.

"Maybe." he mumbled, "I don't know how he deals with his problems."

"By fighting, or doing warrior things. This isn't really a warrior thing." she concluded, knowing that Sokka's usual reaction to his problems was to act like a tough and serious warrior and do the things according to that ideal of himself- tough and serious warriors didn't go out of their way to buy people lunch, at least in her eyes.

"But it is a mission." Aang acknowledged, "And it's helping people. He likes doing that." he conceded, smiling at that thought; her brother, despite how annoying he could be at times, did actually have a good sense of morals, and always wanted to do what was right.

Even if she thought she was pretty moral herself, she realised that in hindsight, her brother was a lot more of a considerate person than she was, though Katara would say she'd improved a lot lately after seeing the world and the varied shades of gray that came with every decision and person she came across; even then, she could have never imagined herself getting along with Azula as he had back in that forest, if it had been her in his shoes.

"Ah, I think I found something." Sokka gestured toward a stall; she took note of a number of steaming pots, inside which she assumed some jook or noodles was being cooked.

The stall had a decent sized line behind it, but when Lian made sight of it, she smiled, "Ah, yes, this is what I was looking for." she acknowledged, before turning to face her daughter and nephews, "We'll get some lunch here, okay?"

The three of them nodded, and Katara turned to face her brother, "Were we going to get our supplies while they wait in line?"

"Oh..." he mumbled, surprised by her words, "Good thinking, Katara." he smiled at her, before walking past to approach Lian, "How much do you think it'll be for you all to get some bowls?"

She gestured over to the sign above the stall, which read out 'two copper for a bowl'; after seeing that Sokka nodded, pulling out a silver piece from his pocket, "Just take this and get a bowl for you and the kids. If you need anything else, just ask us." he explained, the woman looking at her brother rather flustered by his generosity.

"Th-thank you, Sokka." she bowed toward him, making him laugh.

"Ah, don't worry about it. If I was in your situation, I'd want somebody's help too." he admitted, before turning his eyes back toward the other two, "So, what do we need to buy?"

"Probably just some dried food." Aang admitted, "That will last when we're flying to the North Pole, right?" he turned to Katara, who nodded.

"Yep, that's how it works." she confirmed, "We'll go get that, and then we'll come back and see how you're all going. Maybe we can get some lunch too." she acknowledged, her brother chuckling.

"We don't want to spend too much. We already have some food on the saddle, remember?" he warned her, "Though, I am pretty hungry for something other than a few day old vegetables." he conceded.

"Maybe you shouldn't have eaten all the jerky." Aang argued, making him cross his arms, slightly offended by his comment.

"I was hungry, Aang." he retorted, Katara giggling at his reaction.

"He's just prodding you, Sokka." she assured him, before turning to wave to the refugees, "Okay, we'll see you guys in a bit."

"Bye!" Ho raised his hand up, avidly waving to them, the others a little less enthusiastic.

She turned around, following after Aang and her brother, who continued along down through the market; she glanced around, looking at the various stalls, trying to spot a stall that sold what they were looking for. She guessed something like a whole lot of dried meat, fruit or rice crackers would serve them well; she couldn't exactly cook on top of Appa's saddle, let alone start a fire. Azula was the only reason that had been possible, and without her firebending it was a serious challenge to do much without a proper campfire.

"Where is it?" she mumbled to herself, unsure where the right stall was; most, if not all the stalls she saw either sold trinkets or street food, the latter sounding enticing, but not exactly helpful when they needed food for a long flight to the North Pole.

"I think there might be something up here." Aang gestured ahead of them, Katara noting that the market, along with the street, forked with a crossroad intersection; as they reached it, the three of them glanced down each of the potential paths, before looking at each other.

"Well, which way do we go?" she asked them, Sokka pointing his finger down each of the ways they could go.

"Well, there's three of us and three ways. I say we all look down each for a stall that sells what we're looking for." he argued, the other two nodding along.

"Got it." the young Air Nomad piped up, before darting down to their right; her brother gestured right ahead of them, and Katara nodded, taking the left turn.

She made her way down the street, eyeing each of the stalls, taking note of the various things they sold; there were stalls selling greens, tea, pottery, old clothes and even what looked like scavenged armour. What anybody would need to buy it for confused her, but she guessed there must have been some people who'd find it useful; Jet and the Freedom Fighters came to mind when she thought of such attire, and she cringed, remembering how they'd left the camp. The Freedom Fighter had been shouting at them, calling them traitors and cowards, much to her frustration; she knew that Jet wasn't a bad person, but he was certainly a dickhead- he really was so set in his ways, and she had no idea if somebody like him could change. She really hoped he could, at least for the sake of the world; there had to be people like people everywhere, on both sides of the war, who would stop at nothing to see the other side pay. She shook her head, knowing that she was distracting herself from the matter at hand with her random thoughts.

She eyed along, before she smiled, seeing a stall that looked like it was seeing rice crackers and jerky, the kind of food you'd need on a long journey; she was about to approach it, when she suddenly heard a whistle to her left, which was confusing. She glanced over, and saw somebody standing by an alleyway, and they immediately turned away; she was confused by why they had signalled out, whether it was to her or somebody else. She tensed up, unsure whether she ought to do something; she was drawn, purely out of interest, to glance into the alleyway, which was shrouded by darkness due to the angle of the sun in the sky, which obscured the lower portion of the alley. She narrowed her eyes, taking one step forward, before suddenly, she felt somebody whack her in the lower back, making her fall down, right on her face; her arms were close enough to her face to stop it from hitting right into the gravel, but she was shocked by the sudden fall.

She was about to turn herself around, when she felt something poking her back; it felt sharp, and she immediately assumed it was a knife. Katara had found herself being robbed, right of the side of the street; the blade was probably an incentive to stop her from shouting out, though she still turned her eyes to look at the person who was robbing her. It was a man, probably a little older than Sokka, with ragged robes and dark long hair, with a serious look on his face.

"Hand over your coins, right now, and you don't get hurt." he demanded of her, the Water Tribe girl cringing, unsure what to say or do.

"Why are you trying to rob me?" she just asked him, hoping it'd buy her time to figure out a way to get away from the mugger.

"What kind of question is that? Are you trying to make fun of me? I need the money." he declared, "And you're an outsider. Doubt anybody's gonna listen to somebody from the... Water Tribes?" he asked her, sounding a little unsure of himself.

"Yeah, that's where I'm from." she confirmed, turning her gaze behind her, taking note that there was a pothole in the street, which was filled with water; she smirked, realising that it was her opportunity to test her bending offensively, "Ever heard of the saying, don't mess with a Water Tribesman?" she asked him, the mugger raising a brow.

"That's not a saying." he scoffed, leaning a little further back, and removing the knife from her back, giving her some breathing room, both literally and figuratively.

"Oh, it will be when I'm done with you." she smirked, reaching her arm back and flicking her wrist forward, creating a crude water whip, which flicked the mugger right in the face, making him flinch back, giving her the opportunity to turn around and trip him over.

When he fell toward her, he dropped the knife, which she grabbed, throwing it away at once; the mugger landed beside her, grunting in pain, "Ow... my nose."

"Serves you right. I was just going about my business." she sighed with frustration, dusting herself off as she rose up to her feet.

He grumbled as he tried to get up, and she placed a foot on his back, and leaned over, pushing him back toward the ground, "I don't want to hurt you. I know you're obviously a refugee and I assume your life's been pretty crap." she conceded, "So, I'm just going to forget this happened, and I hope that you do find some work, or something. Just don't follow after me, or I'm going to do something worse than a water-whip. Okay?" she asked him, the man groaning; she lifted her foot off of his back, and that gave him the opportunity to take a breath.

"Okay." he mumbled, "I won't follow you."

"Thank you." she smiled, before straightening her expression, wanting to actually give him some advice, "Please don't mug anybody else. Just go... I don't know, mug a nobleman or something. Something that won't hurt other people."

"Huh." the man mumbled, "That's a better idea, actually." he conceded, "Not that there's many of those around here."

"I'm not telling you to do it. But if you don't have any work, I guess it might be the best choice." she conceded, disturbed by what she was saying, but understanding that it was a fact of life; the refugees were poor, just like the family she had just travelled with, and she was sure they didn't have much other options.

She strode off out of the alleyway, hoping that the mugger would just go off and let her be; turning her eyes around, it seemed he did, as he walked off into the alleyway, disappearing into the shadows, hopefully not to mug somebody else by a street corner. She realised that he had been alone, and that whoever she'd seen enter the alleyway wasn't the man who tried to mug her. Katara was confused, but decided she ought to best focus on the matter at hand, that being buying some long-lasting supplies for her, Aang and Sokka. She turned down the street, and saw the other two already back at the crossroads; she gestured over to them, and the young Avatar noticed her first, tapping her brother on the shoulder. Once they both saw her, they approached, and she walked over to the stall she had seen before she got nearly mugged; it looked like it was selling the right kind of things- rice crackers and jerky.

She stood in line, and waited for the other two to approach her, her brother immediately gesturing to her head, "Uh, Katara, your face is kinda dirty."

She tapped her cheeks, realising they had been covered with dust, and sighed with frustration, "Yeah, I nearly got robbed just then." she explained, Aang's eyes widening with surprise.

"Wait, what? By who?" he glanced around the street.

"Some random guy. I warned him to go away after I water whipped him in the face."

"That'd do it." her brother snickered, before eyeing the stall, "This is what we were looking for." he acknowledged, "I'd like to get some more jerky, please."

"Yes, Sokka, we can get it. Nobody's going to stop you, as long as you get a fair amount. We need enough food to feed everyone, remember, not just your stomach."

"And don't forget Momo." the Avatar raised a finger, making Sokka roll his eyes.

"He needs to stop eating our food. He's perfectly capable of eating nuts and berries when we camp." he suggested, the young Air Nomad making a small pout.

"But Sokka, he likes people's food." he explained as a matter of act, making him sigh.

"Yeah, I know he does." he mumbled, "Maybe we should get something specific for him."

"Like what?" Katara raised a brow at his idea, unsure exactly what he was suggesting.

"Like fruit?" Aang guessed, "He likes fruit."

"We can get some of that. I'm just unsure whether it's going to last that long." the Water Tribe warrior conceded, "Either it'll rot, or he'll eat it all. I assume he'll eat it all."

"Well, we can at least get some rice crackers for ourselves, right?" she asked the group, both boys nodding, the Water Tribe girl turning her gaze to the line, which had gotten a little shorter.

"And after the rice crackers, then what?"

"Say goodbye to the refugees and start flying." Sokka declared, narrowing his glare, showing that he was taking their schedule seriously, "We're only a week from the North Pole if we try to minimise our stops. Obviously, Appa needs to sleep, but other than attending to what he needs, we'll be in the air."

"And then there's waterbending." Aang spoke up, "I'm looking forward to learning more."

"I'm looking forward to shaming the Northern Water Tribe for their backwards culture." Katara raised her chin up, her brother smirking, approving of her intentions.

"How much do you think I can make fun of them until they kick me out?" he asked, making Katara raise a brow; Azula had been his enemy, yet she had tolerated his mockery because of his help.

"I think it relates to how helpful we are. So maybe mock them after you reveal her majesty's master plan." she guessed, Sokka clapping his hands together.

"I thought it'd be funnier to surprise them."

"Funny and smart do not correlate here, Sokka." she warned him, making her brother pout with disappointment.

"I'm not stupid. I just want to teach them a lesson they'll never forget."

Azula hadn't realised she'd needed a massage so bad, until she received it; her back was so knotted up and tense after her injury on Crescent Island, but with the help of the servants who came around to give the Princess and her friend some spa treatments, she was feeling so much better. She didn't want to compliment the servants, knowing that they were simply serving their role; it was not something that required her commendation, though she would appreciate it in silence.

"Zula, isn't this great?" Ty Lee piped up, the Princess raising her chin up from the bed she had been lying upon.

"It is." she admitted, "We have to do this more often." she added, her friend beaming at her brightly.

"We sure do." she grinned, "I wonder what they'll do next?" she scrunched her lips up.

The servant girl who was doing her massage raised her chin up, "Lady Ty Lee, we will be attending to your hair." she explained, making her friend giggle with excitement.

"Oh great, I haven't had my hair done in ages. I wash it myself, but I'm sure you will do it justice."

"That is what we hope for, my lady." the servant girl assured her before returning to massaging her back.

Azula took a few deep breaths as she appreciated the massage, laying her head back down on her arms, which she had in front of her; soon enough, however, Ty Lee spoke up once more, though no longer on the topic of their spa treatment.

"So, Zula, what were we actually going to do today?" she asked her, the Princess raising a brow, remembering that she wanted to attend to a few things, though one was clearly more pressing than the others.

"I need to see War Minister Qin's aircraft." she clarified, "It's what I will need if I want our plans to succeed."

"Ah, so do you need to figure out how it's going to be replicated or something?" she guessed, the Princess nodding.

"Well, he only has prototypes, and I assume, given that they were the first designs, probably won't be that large. I believe, though, if I can give him and his engineers a few pointers and orders, we could have a second prototype complete quickly enough, and it will be usable in my plans." she clarified; she didn't know how long it would take for Qin and his men to get a new prototype, preferably big enough to fit a decent sized group of soldiers inside.

"So, then what else?" she asked her, the Princess raising a brow as she considered what else was on the agenda; she had to see how the logistics of her army was working, and with that, figure out how best to approach her plans to seize the colonies.

"War plans, Ty Lee." she simply put it, "Even with Aang's help, we aren't exactly going to be ruling the Fire Nation any time soon without some plans in place."

"Getting to the colonies sounds like it'll be a pain if you have to walk there." she conceded, "That walk we did yesterday and the day before was such a pain; I can't imagine doing that for a few weeks."

"Neither can I." she acknowledged, "I assume that with Zhao's fleet, we will be able to strategically assault each of the colonies from sea and land at the same time." she gave her best idea on the matter, "I don't believe in a full-scale conflict. That would simply waste lives. What I need to do is have the people of the colonies trust in me to protect them, and they can do half the work for me. More men for my army, and security for the Fire Nation."

"Who will fight for us?"

"If the situation in Yu Dao a few months ago was any indication, I assume a few people would be sympathetic to our cause." she acknowledged, before chuckling, "And maybe some people will just support us because of Aang."

"But people kinda hate the Fire Nation. Not everyone, but a lot of people." Ty Lee acknowledged, "What are you going to do about that?"

"Though I don't prescribe to Katara's foolish views of good and bad, I do understand the benefits of benevolence. I intend to be a great, considerate ruler; I don't want the people to hate me, but rather, I want them to idolise me." she explained, before smirking, "Plus, the rebels who are fighting against my brother might find solace under my rule; they will still have a country to defend, in the end."

She moved her shoulders around a little bit, feeling somewhat uncomfortable from where the servant was massaging her. Azula's bruise still hurt, and she realised it might take a little longer for it to heal fully. The servant leaned over, clearing their throat.

"Your highness, I'm going to move to your hair now." she explained, "Could you lie on your back, and have your head on the edge of the bed?" she requested, the Princess heeding her words, rolling around into the given position.

Though she had to wait a few moments, the servant got around to behind her head, and kneeling down, she began to rub product into her hair, foaming up as she ran water through it. She smiled as she felt the servant begin to brush her hair, turning her eyes over to Ty Lee, who was receiving the same treatment as her.

"Ah..." the acrobat gasped out, with a wide smile on her face, turning her eyes toward Azula, "This is pretty good."

"My hair hasn't had a good wash like this in a long time." she smiled, finding with each brush, her locks became more loose and flowing, instead of the matted texture she'd associated with it for quite some time; though she did try to keep her appearance as fine as she could, the Princess found it challenging to achieve the same level of cleanliness as she would in the Royal Spa.

"So, Zula... what do you think Sokka's doing right now?" she asked her, making the Princess snicker; the first thing she could imagine was Sokka sleeping on Appa's saddle, snug up in their sleeping roll, abusing the extra space left by her departure to wrap himself even tighter than usual, refusing to get up.

"Sleeping. Or refusing to get out of bed." she suggested, making the other girl giggle.

"It's nearly midday." she observed, the Princess smirking.

"And he's Sokka. He hates getting out of bed." she acknowledged a fact that she had learnt well; she had trained him to get out of bed, mostly via threats or the offer of breakfast, something that seemed to entice him most of the time, "Maybe if Katara pulled out the jerky and wagged it over his face, he'd be up, but you never know. She mightn't even think to try."

"Are you saying you've done that before?" she asked her, the Princess scrunching up her lips.

"Something like that." she vaguely phrased it; she had once gotten some breakfast from Kanna and just sat in the tent eating it until he asked to have some- it worked, and he got up after that.

"I hope they're alright. I know he mightn't be that happy now you've gone." she observed, which made the Princess straighten her face; she didn't know how Sokka would be dealing with his emotions, as she hadn't really left him in those months they'd spent together- perhaps for fishing and hunting trips, but not much longer than that.

"He's a tough guy." she stated her own belief on the matter, "He does what needs to be done. I'm sure he's accepted the situation for what it is, and he's going to do what's right."

"Uh... you mean help Katara and Aang learn waterbending?" she asked, the Princess tilting her head down slightly, not wanting to make a full nod while the servant was carefully brushing her hair.

"That's what needs to be done. He'll be making sure they get to the North Pole punctually." she argued, "Sokka and I both adhere to the principle of timeliness, even if on a day to day basis he's lazy."

"When will we be going?" she asked Azula, who narrowed her eyes, unsure how long replicating the design that War Minister Qin had would take.

"Soon enough. If we're lucky, then within the next two weeks, and the balloon will be fast. Maybe not as fast as Appa, but we'll be able to move toward the North Pole and get there in a few days." she explained her idea on the matter; she didn't know much about the flying contraption, but from what she had heard, it worked, and they did move faster than their ships, even if it could not carry nearly as much, given its purported size.

"Huh..." she mumbled, before smiling, turning her eyes toward the Princess, "Then you'll see Sokka again."

"I assume he won't be very happy about all of this." she conceded, before sighing, "But there's nothing I can do about that while I'm here and he's making sure they get to the North Pole." she admitted, before she narrowed her eyes, realising that she had been talking about private matters, that even if she didn't mention her intentions for Zhao, said intentions could be inferred from what she had said, "Excuse me." she cleared her throat, her eyes darting up and behind her, to look at the servant girl, whose eyes immediately filled with fear as each of theirs met.

"Y-yes, your highness?" she asked her, the Princess staring her down; even if she was looking at her upside down while her hair was being brushed, that didnt' mean she couldn't intimidate the servant girl.

"You and your friend here aren't to mention anything Ty Lee and I discuss here. It is for the greater good of the Fire Nation that you keep your lips shut; I don't need to tell you what would happen if you were to do otherwise." she explained the situation as bluntly as she could, trying to make her voice as serious as possible.

The servant girl nodded at her, her hand trembling as she brushed Azula's hair, which told her that her voice had done its works, "Of course, your highness." she spoke up, before the other servant girl turned to face her, bowing in deference.

"We wouldn't dare to betray your trust."

"That's what I like to hear." she smiled deviously, appreciative of her loyalty, before clearing her throat, addressing the servant behind her, "Now, hurry up with the hair. I have an aircraft to examine." she prodded the servant, who began to speed up her brushes; not to the point where she would damage the Princess's hair, but clearly with haste- she did not want to waste any time when it came to her plans.

The servant continued to brush and her hair, cleaning off the product that she put in it by lightly dousing it with water; the Princess smiled, and closed her eyes, letting herself relax for a short period of time, knowing that she ought to have a little calm before she attended to the serious matters she would be facing. That would ensure she was clear of mind, which was the whole reason she, or anybody else, for that, meditated; clearness of mind was the tool by which she could face her goals with impartiality and a sense of rationale that she mightn't have been able to muster otherwise.

Becoming needlessly emotional would only cause problems; even if her firebending required her emotions to be harnessed, they otherwise needed to be suppressed, especially when she was attending to important matters where she had power and authority. At a moment's notice, she might require their use, so she needed to find an equilibrium; becoming like Mai was something she couldn't see being possible, nor very useful, given that she still required her bending, even if it wasn't her most powerful tool- her mind was.

"Azula, were we going to do some training today as well?" Ty Lee asked her, "I haven't practiced my chi-blocking since... uh... you know." she mumbled, realising that was an easy way to bring up a painful memory for her.

Though she knew she had to do what she did to Sokka, she knew that it wasn't right; at least not right in the sense that he deserved it. He didn't deserve anything of the likes, after all he'd done for her, but she had to do it, for his own safety. The dilemma frustrated her to no end, and she knew that he wouldn't be happy about it, and perhaps, resent her once they reunited because of it; he had every right to be angry at her, just as she had the right to feel angry at him when she found herself stuck in the forest with him- he'd tried to kidnap her, after all. In the end, they weren't the same; back then, Azula didn't know Sokka, and he didn't know her. When they shared that moment in the camp, it was as if everything they had done before that had just led up to her saying goodbye, leaving him there, chi-blocked on the ground, probably feeling like he was the least powerful person in the world.

"We can train." she answered her question after a pause that must have gained Ty Lee's suspicion.

She was always the observant one, even if she made stupid comments and observations from time to time, and she seemed to have gotten better at it as of late; it was either that or Azula covered her emotions far less effectively than she did before she met Sokka, which made too much sense, and made her feel uncomfortable. He had broken her in a way that nobody else ever had; she used to be stoic and uncaring, or at least, she thought she had been, and he made her open up- now that she was open, she was finding it a lot harder to close herself off again.

"I'm sorry for saying that." her friend admitted, "That was really stupid of me, Zula." she sighed, "I know you don't want to have to think of that, and I know it's half my fault."

"No, I told you to do it." she stressed, raising a hand up, not wanting Ty Lee to take the blame for something she really didn't have a choice in; she was loyal to a fault, and that had its drawbacks at times, "What I did there was necessary." she stressed the fact she was forcing herself to believe; she couldn't even call it a fact- it was practically a lie based upon the truth that Zhao might have killed Sokka if her intentions were revealed before she could get rid of him.

"And what about this." she mumbled, "Is this all necessary?"

"Well, I need my army." she stated the fact of the matter, "That was something I required no matter what. I'm simply... securing my position. I am to be the Fire Lord, so I am going to act like a Fire Lord."

"Like your father?" she asked her, the Princess tensing her jaw as she thought of the man himself; what she was doing, at least ignoring the whole fixing the Earth Kingdom and helping the Southern Water Tribe, was in line with her father's ethos- the strong guiding the weak, power making one's decisions right, and mercy being a fool's tool.

"My father might have been right about a few things, but he isn't that smart." she admitted, "Or maybe he's just arrogant. The point is, Zuko overthrew him for a number of reasons, some of which I can say are his fault. If he had simply had a more tempered fist, Fire Lord Ozai would still be sitting on the throne at this very moment."

"And where would have that put you?" she asked her, the Princess narrowing her eyes; before her father's 'death', she had still wanted to use her alliance with Sokka to her advantage- perhaps to pacify the Southern Water Tribe, she had thought, before all of the chaos that ensued, and the unspeakable things she did with the Water Tribesman.

"Somewhere far away from here." she admitted, before sighing, "I wouldn't have had the chance to gain the wisdom I have learnt."

"Was it Sokka or was it losing?" she asked her, the Princess laughing; they were both so intertwined that she couldn't say it was one or the other.

"Both." she raised her chin up, "Zuko might have been the one to redirect that lightning bolt at me, but Sokka was the one who was sitting there watching."

"You're saying you lost because you were thinking about him." she guessed, the Princess shaking her head; she didn't even have an argument against Ty Lee's assumption, because she simply didn't remember what happened, at least not properly in a way that she could trust her own memories- there were distortions and nightmares that she didn't want to have think about ever again.

"I don't even know." she sighed, "I can't remember the duel that well, after all that happened that day. All I know is how it ended, and why it ended."

Ty Lee turned her gaze over toward the Princess, her expression sympathetic, "I'm sorry, Zula. That sounds like it must have been pretty bad."

"From what Sokka said, it was." she acknowledged, "But then that idiot went around and saved me." she acknowledged the facts for what they were, "That's what I know, and I'll just remember that. I won't forget it." she assured Ty Lee, before she turned her eyes back toward the servant behind her, "Is my hair nearly done or what?" she asked snappily, the servant leaning back, trying to keep her composure.

"It's just drying, your highness." she explained, Azula rolling her eyes, wishing they had gotten to that part a little earlier; as relaxing as the spa session was, she had a million things on her mind, and thus, she was compelled to do something other than lie down- that being in this situation, to see War Minister Qin, analyse the schematics and prototype for the aircraft, and have it replicated at a larger size.

"So, what's been going on through that head of yours, Ty Lee? You haven't been ogling anyone of late, have you?" she asked her friend, deciding to make some conversation that was unlikely to divert to her own issues, something she wasn't in the mood to discuss.

"Uh, of course not." Ty Lee laughed off her question, which suggested the exact opposite.

"Who?" she raised a brow, the acrobat making an uneasy smile.

"I'd prefer not to say, if to just keep the awkwardness to a minimum." she argued, the Princess snickering at her reasoning; it wasn't the worst reasoning, given that though she was rather uncaring toward others opinions, for the most part, Azula did understand awkwardness to be a frustrating thing- a social weapon of sorts, to be used against oneself, like a poorly trained firebender setting their own hair on fire.

"Ah..." she scrunched her lips up, "Well, I'm still intrigued, but I'll just wait for you to spill your guts eventually. You always do."

Her friend laughed, though it was not one expressing humour, but rather unease, "Y-yeah, I do." she conceded, before narrowing her eyes, "I have been thinking about what I want to do after all of this is over."

"As forward thinking as ever." she smirked, knowing that Ty Lee had already been considering going to the Royal Spa as soon as she was offered the opportunity to help Azula, even knowing that to achieve that, she'd have to have already taken the throne; it made complete sense she'd think the same about her future career paths.

"I think I want to still use my skills." she admitted, "Chi-blocking and acrobatics are what I'm good at, which translates well to... any kind of fighting, I guess." she smiled, "I don't know what kind of job that would suit though. I don't think joining the domestic forces would do- that just sounds boring, guarding around a few factories and cities"

"I concur." she smirked, "That's not the kind of job for you. You need a little more action."

"Yeah, exactly." she smiled, "I was wondering if you had any ideas."

"Well, there's the option of being my personal guard." she conceded, making the acrobat scoff.

"Ahaha!" she laughed, before she turned her eyes to face her, "Wait, you're being serious?"

"You're pretty close to it already. I wouldn't force you to wear the same kind of armour and do the duties of an Imperial Firebender, but I'd want you by my side. You'd be a great asset to prevent the kinds of things that any monarch would want to avoid." she explained, "Plus, I could use the company." she admitted, a little more quietly.

Even though she hadn't really thought of her much before she found her in the circus, Azula was thinking that she actually enjoyed having Ty Lee around; she was somebody to talk to, and even if she had Sokka for that, Ty Lee was different to him in many ways.

"But Sokka's going to be around. You don't need me following you around all the time, do you?"

"Sokka won't be there every minute of the day, Ty Lee. He's his own person, as much as I'd prefer him to be by my side all day long; he probably is going to be the Chief of the Southern Water Tribe at some point, and I doubt that we're going to be alternating residences or something like that" she admitted, "And I value your support, Ty Lee. You're a... you're my good friend. Mai is too, even if she's off with Zuko at the moment."

"Thanks, Zula." she smiled at her, "I appreciate that you're willing to talk about this." she simply told her, before grinning, "And I appreciate this spa session. It was great. Not Royal Spa great, but good for where we are." she clarified, with a raised finger, making her snicker; she was right- the spa session had been good, even if she'd had to be a little harsh on the servants.

"Is my hair ready?" she asked the servant girl behind her, who rose up to her feet.

"Yes, your highness. You may tie it up now." she explained, the Princess clearing her throat, "I apologise. I will tie it up for you."

"That's better." she smirked, glad that the servant was at the very least learning how to treat her; she probably wasn't used to giving people spa sessions, or at least people of the Princess's stature.

The only people she could imagine actually receiving them would be any wives or daughters of officers present at the base, who might have joined their respective family members in virtual exile, given that it might have been dangerous for relatives of her supporters in the homeland. She waited as the servant girl tied up her hair, pulling it into its usual top knot, allowing her bangs to fall down from it to frame her face. The Princess raised her head back up once her headpiece was put back in, something she felt unusual wearing once again; it was the same one she had been wearing before her Agni Kai, and hadn't worn it again since, at least not in public. The day prior was the first time she'd worn it, deciding to put it on when she walked into the base, knowing it would be far easier for the troops to recognise her with it in her hair. She rose up from her position on the bed, tapping the back of her neck to check that the hair was in place, before touching her bangs; feeling confident in her appearance, the Princess turned to face Ty Lee, who was still getting her hair braided.

"I think this was a successful spa session, Ty Lee." she addressed her friend, who smiled.

"Yeah, it allows me to relax." she closed her eyes for a moment, "I feel like we need a little relaxation every once in a while. To get our minds of all the things that we have to deal with."

"You mean the things I have to deal with that you assist with?" she asked in clarification, finding that to be a more accurate description of their situation.

Ty Lee snickered, "I mean, I am helping you out, aren't I?" she asked, the Princess sighing, before she forced out a nod; she didn't want to confirm her friend's wishes, but she didn't exactly want to ignore the role she would play.

Even if her friend was just tagging along in the end, she knew that Ty Lee would be extremely valuable when they went to the North Pole, given her abilities would allow her to handle any unwanted situation rather swiftly; before that, she'd provide good counsel on Azula's decisions, and ensure that she wasn't making any decisions that were just absurd or arrogant.

She knew that she had been haughty and confident in the past, and because of that, she'd made mistakes. Those kinds of mistakes were the kind she was sure her friend would help her avoid, just as Sokka had attempted to, back before the Agni Kai; she hadn't listened to him, as much as she should have, mostly out of that arrogance, and thus, she was decidedly certain on not ignoring her friend when she had something to say.

Once her friend was up and her hair tied, she turned her eyes toward her, "Okay, so are we going to see this aircraft thingy now?" she asked, the Princess gesturing toward the door as she got up from the bed, planting her two feet firmly on the ground.

"Go right ahead." she told her, the acrobat doing just that, though once she opened the door, she turned back to face her with a perplexed look on her face.

"I just don't know where it is." she admitted with an awkward face, Azula striding right toward the doorway, forcing her friend to step out of the way.

"Well then, I'll lead the way." she declared, before turning her eyes back to the servant girls once more, "Clean this all up," she commanded them with a nonchalant expression, which quickly shifted as she remembered what was more important, "and don't mention a thing either of us have said here." she warned them once more, wanting to drive home that point.

If Zhao got a whiff of her foul intentions, things could turn out very badly; his loyalty would be replaced by anger and fury which she had learned to be a rather dangerous tool, given what had happened to his and Zuko's forces in Yu Dao that evening he had decided to attack, with the intent of destroying the Fire Lord, she had gathered.

"Of course, your highness." the two of them responded in tune, bowing with respect, before Azula turned her heels down the hallway.

She and her guards had been granted their own quarters within the main compound, though she assumed that the quarters had been reserved for somebody else; her room was not that large, at least not befitting of her role as their de facto Fire Lord, though she just guessed the infrastructure was never in place for her. She would be livid, however, if it turned out Zhao or the other high ranking officers had better accommodation than her; it wasn't that they didn't deserve it, given their ranks, but rather, that she was deserving of equal or better treatment than them in terms of her living arrangements. She knew it sounded demanding, though perhaps that was the part of her that had spent six months in a tent with Sokka at the South Pole saying that rather than the part of her with any sense of royal dignity; she doubted Zuko would tolerate something of the likes, let alone her father.

Making her way toward the doorway at the end of the hall, she opened it up, leading her out into an open, wide hallway that led through the compound; the building itself was quite large on the lower floors, and Azula had been afforded a room on the first floor, which gave a view over the nearby bay, which she found to be aesthetically pleasing enough, though nothing like looking out to the perfectly maintained gardens of the Royal Palace.

Ty Lee furrowed a brow at her, "Where would these prototypes be kept. Like in a warehouse or something?"

"A warehouse, I believe." he raised a finger, "I know that War Minister Qin has a building for the inventions seized from the so-called Mechanist. That was what he told me last night when I went and asked him a little more about it. He'll have the aircraft out for me to examine today."

"Oh, okay." her friend scratched at her chin, before gesturing a finger down the hallway, "But where is the warehouse?"

"By the northern end of the inner portion of the base, outside of the compound." she remembered, hoping that her memory had not failed her.

The previous day had been a bit of a blur after all the walking she did; though she was awake enough to deal with Zhao and the likes, she quickly got drowsy and was struggling to keep her eyes open during the formal meeting she'd had later that night with all of the officers about their efforts since her 'disappearance' from Yu Dao about ten months prior. She was contrastively well-slept and ready after her spa session to deal with the day's matters.

Azula strode on down the hallway with her friend by her side, making her way toward the entrance of the compound, she could see a few officers walking by, and they all bowed to her in respect as she walked by, something that made her momentarily purse her lips up, simply appreciating the deference she had garnered. She pushed that thought away, knowing that thinking about her power was just something that would make her gloat and feel haughty, instead of actually taking the situation for what it was. She had been gone for months, and people still believed her to be the Princess she used to be; she was still Azula, but the Azula that had left the Fire Nation Capital seeking to smite down a plot in Ba Sing Se was not the same one who faced her brother in Yu Dao, nro the Azula that stood before them at that very moment, plotting to subvert the very man they saw as their leader.

When she reached the gates of the compound, they were immediately opened up for her, and the Princess strode on out, glancing around into the settlement that surrounded it; much of the place was essentially a town made of tents, given that most of the soldiers would be moving about a lot, and that originally, the base probably only housed a relatively small amount of troops. There were solid structures around as well, though they seemed to be interspersed, with a few bunkhouses, stables and warehouses about the inner settlement. The outer portion, beyond the pales and embankment, was entirely tents, which made her think about how big her army actually was. Much of it must have been spread about the nearby areas, either in occupied towns or outposts that would be keeping Zuko's forces at bay.

The Princess immediately made her way down a path, heading toward a cluster of warehouses that sat to the north of the walls of the compound, where Qin said they'd be; she walked past a few more troops, who bowed to her one by one, before continuing on their way. Ty Lee giggled at the deference, and the Princess turned to raise a finger toward her.

"I'm Princess Azula, remember?" she smirked, the acrobat grinning as she pointed a finger toward her with each of her hands.

"Don't you mean Fire Lord Azula?" she asked her, the Princess rolling her eyes; she wasn't the Fire Lord until she was crowned by the Fire Sages, and didn't intend to start calling herself until said ceremony had passed.

"Not yet." she stressed, before turning her attention ahead as she continued to approach the warehouses.

She thought there wasn't much going on in the area, though she was proven wrong when she turned a corner and saw what she had been waiting for; the aircraft, sitting uninflated and flat on the ground, was there, right in front of her, with War Minister Qin chiding the engineers who were meant to be handling it. His gaze turned back toward her, and he straightened his posture at once.

"Oh, Princess Azula." he cleared his throat, making a conciliatory smile toward her, "I am glad to see that you made it. Did you want to examine the craft?"

"I want to understand how it works, so I can understand how it can be replicated and improved upon." she clarified his question, the Minister nodding along, before he gestured for the engineers to scatter; they stepped back, allowing the Princess to approach it.

The craft consisted of an engine, which sat inside a basket, and a large balloon, tied to the balloon by metal supports, though the balloon itself was a rather sorry sight to look at, as it was uninflated and looked more like a rotting fruit than a balloon.

"How does it fly, again?" she asked the Minister, who stepped a little closer toward her before speaking up.

"By using the heating of the air inside the balloon. That's the purpose of the engine, to burn coal to heat the air." he explained, making her furrow a brow.

"Could you power it purely by firebending?" she asked him, the Minister looking at her with surprise before nodding.

"I believe so, but you'd need a few firebenders to achieve it, given the weight of the craft."

"Well, without the engine, there wouldn't be much weight other than their own bodies." she argued, the Minister's jaw dropping slightly, understanding her analysis after a few moments of awkward silence.

"Ah... that does work." he acknowledged, the Princess furrowing a brow.

"And what of sustained flight?" she asked him, the Minister stroking his facial hair in thought.

"We can achieve it, with a speedy ascent. The issue lies in dropping down. The aircraft seems to retain the heat longer than it is gained, thus, you have to turn off the engine to stop it from rising, and then allow it to slowly descend." he explained, the Princess furrowing a brow.

"With a firebender at the helm, that doesn't sound like too much of a problem." she conceded, before narrowing her eyes, "Though, I believe that issue needs to be dealt with if you want to increase the size of this craft. You'll need an engine that runs on purely coal, and a way to drop and rise with more precision."

"I understand, your highness." Qin bowed toward her, "Do you want the engineers to make a new prototype that fits your specifications?"

"That's exactly what I want them to do. How quickly can it be done?" she asked, the Minister turning to face the engineers he'd told to go away, gesturing for them to come closer.

"Did you hear the Princess?" he asked them, the men all nodding, "You've all examined the aircraft designs. How quickly could you make a larger version?"

"With the right machinery and workers to assist... five days." one of them explained, "We can repurpose a steamer engine to get more power for the engine, and all we need is to assemble a larger balloon and gondola. We believe that out-gassing valves on the balloon will allow it to drop when necessary with more precision."

"Oh, good." the Princess's expression brightened, "So you know what you're doing?"

The engineers bowed toward her, "Yes, your highness." they all spoke up to her, before one of them continued alone.

"We can have this prototype ready for flight within a week. We swear on it." he told her, Azula turning her eyes to Ty Lee.

"How long did Sokka say it'd take them... a week?" she raised a brow, the acrobat nodding along.

"Well then, if you're on schedule, it will be immensely helpful to our war-effort. I already have a first target in mind." she explained, War Minister Qin turning his eyes toward her with a surprised expression.

"Did you want to bomb the enemy with the aircraft?" he asked her, Azula cocking a smirk.

"Oh, no." she shook her head, before placing her right hand on her chin, imagining what it would be like to fly into the Northern Water Tribe, unseen as they soared above the clouds; Zhao would be ecstatic to hear her plan, and he would be none the wiser to accept it, thinking himself closer than ever to his morbid dream, when in fact, he would only be closer to his doom.

"I have a far more covert use for this technology."

Sokka thought flying above the clouds, away from the ground and whatever concerns lay there, would be calming, but being away from everything only drew him back into his thoughts; thinking about Azula, and her plans, and what might happen next. He didn't know when she'd show up at the North Pole, or how exactly, at that. The Water Tribe warrior was sure of a few things, one of them being that the Northern Water Tribe was certainly not going to be accepting of his sister's wishes when they arrived, and that they'd probably not take much of a liking to them in general. They probably would have heard about their association with Azula, and perhaps like the Kyoshi Islanders, would want nothing to do with them. He was sure that his girlfriend's plan would be considering that.

In the end, whatever was to be done with Zhao, he hoped that it would help the Northern Water Tribe trust them, Azula included, and at the very best, consider helping them in their efforts to pacify the Earth Kingdom. Bumi's rebels were just a start, but they were only one peice in the puzzle to solving the problems that lay in the Earth Kingdom. The Southern Water Tribes' ships would be sailing north at that very moment, probably attending to the Southern Raiders, and with any luck, they'd reach New Omashu and assist the rebels in moving out about the Earth Kingdom and stirring up support.

He wondered where his father was at that very moment, and just hoped that he was doing alright; he knew that the warriors would be putting themselves in danger, and he wished that he could have been by their side. He knew, however, that helping Aang was more important, at least when he considered the consequences; the Avatar could truly bring an end to the war, and help the world return to balance. Though the warriors were great at fighting, and could really pack a punch against the Fire Navy, they weren't going to change the world on their own.

"Sokka, what are you thinking about?" the young Air Nomad asked him, Sokka raising his head up from the saddle.

"What Dad and the others might be doing right now." he simply told him, "They might have gotten to New Omashu by now."

"I wonder if they've been using that trick against the Southern Raiders." Katara mumbled, before turning her eyes toward her brother, "Blocking an engine without waterbending wouldn't be that hard, would it?"'

He raised a brow, not having thought of that; he knew that the warriors had done similar things on the ships they'd attacked before he got shipwrecked with Azula.

"I think they can do it." he agreed with her, "But the Southern Raiders aren't pushovers." he conceded, "I could fight them well enough, but that's only because I could chi-block them. Dad and the other warriors don't have that skill up their sleeves."

"But Dad's pretty smart, Sokka." she argued, making him snicker, agreeing with her wholeheartedly.

"Dad's the smartest guy I know." he assured her, before he glanced off into the clouds they flew past, finding them to be rather pretty, though they didn't distract him from his racing thoughts- Azula was out there, and though he was sure she was safe, he didn't know how long that would last.

He leaned back over, glancing over to the side so he didn't have to look in the direction of the sun; Sokka didn't know what to do, other than just lie there. He could make conversation, but he knew everyone was rather bored and tired; they'd already talked about a lot that morning. The beatdown his sister gave a mugger and what the refugees were going to do being the primary topics of discussion; the refugees were probably going to be alright, and they heard that Kuo and Tai both found some work in Gaochao, working as labourers at a workshop, and the family had a few nice bowls of jook.

Sokka had bought some more jerky, and he had decided to savour it and not eat it all just yet; they had enough rice crackers, dried fruit and nuts to last them a week, so he was sure they would be alright. He heard some shuffling around on the saddle, breaking him from his chain of thought; Sokka glanced over to see Katara laying down beside him, which was a bit of a surprise. Whether she wanted to keep him company, go to sleep or something else, Sokka couldn't be sure.

"You know, you've been pretty quiet today." she acknowledged, making him chuckle; the implications of her words were too offensive to ignore.

"Oh, so I'm really loud and annoying most of the time?" he asked her, making his sister cringe, though she tried her best to keep a positive face.

"N-no..." she mumbled, "Well, maybe a little. Only when you're complaining."

"I'll only complain when there's something worth complaining about." he argued, before crossing his arms, "You didn't actually want me to complain, did you?"

"Nope." she shook her head, the grimace on her face assuring him that she didn't have some weird wish to start an argument just for the sake of it; that was the kind of thing Azula would do, though Katara usually tried to have a reason to start an argument, though most of the time, it was rather petty, "I'm just wondering how you're going on in that head of yours."

"Just thinking about things." he shrugged his shoulders, "What else can I do?"

"Sleep?" she narrowed her eyes at him; Sokka held back a laugh- he could sleep, though he would find it a little challenging to do so with the sun bright and high in the sky.

"Ah I could try." he conceded, "But I'd rather just stay awake. I never know when Momo will try and steal my food." he acknowledged, Aang turning around to face him with a pout, gesturing to the flying-lemur, who was curled up sleeping by the front of the saddle.

"Hey, Momo wouldn't just do that. He knows what's his." he assured the Water Tribesman, who narrowed his eyes at him.

"Have you not seen him trying to nibble at my jerky?" he asked him, "I swear he was doing it earlier." he argued, his sister snickering.

"Are you sure Sokka? Your mind just might be playing tricks on you." she warned him, the Water Tribesman idly glancing toward the sleeping lemur; perhaps he hadn't done anything, and Sokka was just going crazy, a thought that amused him somewhat, though he was beginning to take it seriously after self-consciously realising his behaviours had shifted with his girlfriend's departure.

"Hmph, you might be right. Maybe I just need more sleep." he argued, Katara raising a brow with confusion.

"More sleep? You slept in pretty late today." she acknowledged, Sokka groaning; the sleeping in was only relative- everybody else had woken up at dawn, so when he got up just as his sister and Lian were finishing breakfast, he was technically sleeping in, even if it was barely past sunrise.

"Yeah, slept in until sunrise." he growled, "I mean, I understand why we got up early, but man... I drained my energy pretty quickly." he acknowledged, "Breakfast was good though."

"Thanks, Sokka." she smiled at him, before she glanced around, "You can sleep if you want. I'm sure nothing amazing will happen if you rest your eyes for a bit."

"But it's barely past midday." he gestured toward the sun, "If I'm like this because of a little sleep deprivation, what am I going to be like if we keep getting up early every day to start flying?"

"Well, you can sleep on the saddle, Sokka." Aang explained, "It's not that bad up here. Maybe a little chilly, but that's what the sleeping roll's for."

"Huh, good point." he acknowledged, "Maybe it won't be that bad." he smiled, before stretching his arms up into the air, "Yeah, I think I'll get in the sleeping roll."

His sister pulled it out for him, and Sokka began to unfurl it, remembering how big it was; it was weird using the sleeping roll without Azula, given that he wasn't big enough to just take up the whole sleeping roll by himself. The Water Tribesman slid himself into the sleeping roll, rolling around a bit to find a snug position, before he yawned.

"Do you have a bedtime story for me?" he jokingly addressed Katara, who looked at him with a dumbfounded face, her jaw dropping slightly, before she realised he was just making a joke.

"Sokka..." she growled his name, before raising a finger to her chin, "Though, you know what, telling you a bedtime story would get my mind flowing. I've got to think about something other than the shapes I can make out in the clouds."

"That's pretty fun, though." Aang argued, the Water Tribe girl making an awkward smile.

"Well, it's fun... until you spend two months doing it nearly every day, unintentionally because you have nothing else to do."

"We really need to buy a Pai Sho set or something." Aang furrowed his eyebrows, "Sokka, is that allowed?"

"Yeah, sounds good. Something for Azula to beat me at once she gets back." he mumbled, knowing that that was the most likely outcome if they got Pai Sho and he tried to learn it.

"Monk Gyatso always beat me, but I think I've gotten good at it- good at cheating, that is." he cocked a smirk, making Sokka snicker.

"You do know the rules, right?"

"Uh... yeah, totally. You can't break them without knowing them." he raised a finger, Katara laughing, pointing a finger at him approvingly.

"That's a good one, Aang."

Sokka shrugged his shoulders, "Okay, so, we can go buy a Pai Soh set, wherever they sell those." he noted, before furrowing a brow, "Do you know where they sell them?"

"Probably at general stores." Aang guessed, "But I haven't seen one before." he conceded, turning his eyes ahead, "I guess we'll just have to play travelling games until then."

"You mean like asking weird questions?" Katara raised a brow, "That never seems to end well." she conceded, the Water Tribe warrior snickering.

"Well, you're lucky Azula isn't here to ask those questions." he noted, before scratching his chin, "Is there any kind of game you can think of?"

"The laughing game." the young Avatar grinned at him, "That's fun."

"Yeah, it is pretty fun." the Water Tribe girl conceded, turning to face her brother, "What do you say, Sokka? Got any ideas to make us laugh?"

"I'll play, but I want you to try and make me laugh." he argued, preferring that she try and get him to cackle; he knew he could use the distraction.

"Okay then." she nodded, crossing her arms as she raised a brow in thought, "Now, how do I make you laugh, Sokka?" she asked him, obviously rhetorically, as he wasn't going to give her any pointers.

"Something about food, or puns." Aang argued, making the Water Tribesman smirk; he did like a few puns or food jokes.

"Oh, oh!" Katara's eyes widened, "I think I've got something."

Sokka turned his eyes to face her, pulling as smug a face he could, "Oh, really?" he mocked her, "Come on then."

"Okay, so this is kinda a little story, but it's funny, trust me." she raised a hand, the Water tribesman scrunching his lips up as he thought about his sister's words.

"Like a story about me? I won't laugh at myself." he declared with confidence, knowing that it would tarnish his pride to laugh at a story like the 'pee-puddle' story she'd told them before to make Aang laugh.

"No, no, it's made up." she assured him, "So, there was once this fisherman, and he was the best fisherman in his village. He kept catching heaps of fish, even when other villagers couldn't even catch one."

"Did he steal them or something?" he asked her preemptively, Katara shaking her finger at him.

"No, no, I'll get to that." she clarified, before clearing her throat, "So, the other men and women in the village started getting suspicious. He was generous in giving them fish, but he kept asking for things in return. Nobody liked that, so they decided to investigate his igloo when he was out fishing one day."

"What was there?" Aang turned around, intrigued by where the story was going.

"They looked from top to bottom, but they couldn't find anything that told them how he was catching the fish." she explained, Sokka gesturing his hand up.

"So what's funny about this? A guy's good at fishing and everyone suspects him of doing something..." he stopped himself as he realised what the joke actually was, "He was doing something fishy!" he exclaimed and let out a hearty laugh; Katara clapped her hands together, proud of her achievement.

"Thanks for the advice Aang, I knew it would work." she declared, before turning to face her brother, "So, did you like that one?"

"There's gotta be more stories you can come up with. All the wordplay." he raised his hands up, just appreciating the wit that had to go into jokes like the one Katara just told him.

"Well, Sokka, I'd say it's your turn to make Aang laugh." she acknowledged, the Water Tribesman furrowing a brow, turning his gaze toward the young Avatar.

"And what makes Aang laugh?"

"Funny things." the twelve year old told him, matter-of-factly, which wasn't very helpful nor amusing to Sokka.

"Oh, what do we call funny? Aang nearly getting himself eaten by the Unagi because he was too focused on showing off?" he suggested, the young Air Nomad cringing at his suggestion; that memory was probably not very fond in his mind.

"I think that's more of a life lesson than a funny story." his sister acknowledged, before she raised a finger to her chin, "You could probably tell him something funny from your journey with Azula."

"We covered all of that like two days ago. It won't be funny when I tell him a second time." he argued, thinking that wasn't a good idea; he needed something novel to make Aang laugh.

"You're a funny guy, Sokka. I'm sure you can make me laugh." the Avatar gave him some words of encouragement, making him raise a brow suspiciously at him.

"You're the one I'm trying to make laugh. Do you want to?" he asked him, Aang grinning at him.

"Of course I do. But, this game's all about effort, right?"

He dropped his chin down, noting that his friend was correct, "Yeah, that's right." he conceded, before he lay back, trying to consider what might make the other boy laugh.

Before he could come up with a smart line or a humorous story like his sister had, he was interrupted by the sound of what could only be a fiery explosion below them.

"Ack!" he nearly sequaled, rising up from the saddle, "The Fire Nation better not be trying to shoot us out of the sky again!"

"I don't think they're aiming at us." his sister assured him, peering over the side of the saddle, before another explosion sounded off, "But they're definitely fighting down there."

"Should we... do something again?" Aang asked suggestively, making the Water Tribesman raise two hands up.

"Come on, I wanted to actually rest."

"You were bored, Sokka." Katara observed, "Kicking some butts to help out the Earth Kingdom is a good way to not be bored, right?" she asked him, the Water Tribesman sighing, pulling himself out of the sleeping roll.

"Urgh... you're right." he conceded, "But we're here to help people. I'm not just going to jump down and beat up some firebenders. So, we're going to focus on stopping them from winning, not beating them." he argued, the other two nodding along.

"You're the boss, Sokka." Aang conceded, before grasping Appa's reins, "So, we're going down?"

"We should check it out before we do anything. If this is just some Fire Nation goons fighting each other, I say we should just ignore it. I know that sounds bad, but them fighting each other is actually good for the Earth Kingdom."

"I have to agree with Sokka there." his sister glanced over toward Aang, "If this doesn't involve the Earth Kingdom, we should probably fly away. It's just stupid to get involved with the Fire Nation fighting between themselves."

"Okay." he pouted slightly, though his face showed that he understood, even if he didn't like the idea, "I get it."

"Take us down." the Water Tribe warrior told his friend, his tone becoming stern; given that he wasn't much of a leader himself, thinking what Azula would do was the best way to go about bossing the other two around.

With that, Appa groaned and began to circle downward, diving down through the clouds, which wet them as they made their way through; Sokka wasn't too concerned, however, and reached back for his club, which he slung over his shoulder, making sure it was ready to use before they reached the ground. He always had his boomerang on the ready, and was confident in his chi-blocking skills; even if he couldn't defeat Ty Lee, he could certainly take down some Fire Nation goons with it, just as he had on Crescent Island. He noted Katara taking a form already, though he realised why as she motioned her hands, collecting water as they moved through the clouds. He smirked approvingly, but turned his attention ahead of them, knowing that he had to be ready for whatever they might face.

As they reached the lowest clouds, the ground below revealed itself; they were circling down over a steeply sloped valley, in which two groups were fighting. Sokka could tell from the clothes and what was being thrown around, that being rocks and flames, that it was a group of Earth Kingdom fighters going against some Fire Nation troops; given that the Fire Nation soldiers were coming uphill with komodo rhinos, he assumed that they were the attackers, while their opponents were simply defending their territory. He couldn't see any kind of outpost or village around them, but he knew that if earthbenders had an outpost, they might have just built it like New Omashu, and constructed it underground.

"Well, this seems like an Earth Kingdom Fire Nation fight." Aang observed, before smirking, "So, are we going to kick some firebender butts?"

"Yes, Aang, we are." he smirked at his friend, before rising to his feet, waiting for Appa to reach the ground, which he was quickly approaching; Momo had been roused from his slumber, and screeched, flying up into the air.

"Momo! Wait!" the young Air Nomad cried out, the flying lemur further annoyed by a fire stream being sent in their direction; he flew off into the distance, and Sokka cringed, just hoping that he'd be okay while they helped out the Earth Kingdom.

Glancing down toward the firebenders, they looked up their way with confusion, as well as their opponents, who were equally confused by them showing up.

"Who are these guys?" a soldier gestured toward them, Sokka drawing out his boomerang and throwing it right at his head; he hadn't been expecting it, and was flung down off his feet.

He cocked a smirk, pointing down toward the Fire Nation soldiers, "We're your worst nightmare, buddy!" he proclaimed proudly, before turning to face his sister, wagging his finger toward her, hoping she'd get the message; she needed to start throwing some water at the firebenders before they got set on fire.

She realised what her brother was trying to tell her, and wrapped the water she had collected around her, before firing out a powerful water whip striking a few firebenders off their feet by whacking them about like she was smacking them, as if they were badly behaved children. He chuckled at the analogy, and the sorry state they were in afterwards, but as he saw Aang leap off the saddle with his staff in hand, he realised he would need to contribute to the fight; a single whack from his boomerang was not enough to get the Fire Nation to run for the hills, or in this specific case, run away from them. He jumped off of the saddle, skidding down the hill slope as he eyed the Fire Nation troops. One of them threw a fire stream his way, and Sokka ducked down, stopping his controlled slide down the slope, before he drew out his club. He had yet to retrieve his boomerang, but he would get around to that quickly enough.

The Earth Kingdom fighters were enthused by their arrival, even if they didn't understand why they'd shown up. Aang was making quick work of the soldiers, throwing them off of their feet, and deflecting any fire blasts they sent his way. When a firebender charged at him with his hands full of flames, he probably thought he could throw a fireblast at Sokka's face, but was sorely mistaken as his flames were waded through by his thick whalebone club, which swung down on his leg, forcing the soldier down to his knee.

"Ow!" he cried out, the Water Tribesman cocking a smirk.

"Well, don't try and set me on fire." he suggested, before kicking him in the chest, forcing him onto his back as he scanned ahead, ready to take his boomerang back and start what he seemed to be best at- giving unsuspecting benders a beat down with chi-blocking.

He charged ahead toward his weapon, which the enemy realised he was going for; so, being the smart fighters they were, they all decided to send a fire blast his way at once. It didn't do them much good as Katara's water whip sliced through their attacks, dispersing them and creating a lot of steam, which provided a great distraction for him to pick up his boomerang. He scooped it off of the ground, and began by lopping it right at the neck of one of the firebenders; though he was still conscious after the hit, found himself paralysed, slumping down to the ground. His comrades were obviously shocked by the move and immediately began to draw away from Sokka, realising the danger he posed. They also were incentivised to move away as rocks began to be pelted at them from behind the Water tribe warrior, the earthbenders getting in on the action.

He smirked, confident they had changed the way the fight had been going, and moved forward with his club in hand, ready to deal some damage; he wasn't going to reveal his chi-blocking skills just yet, knowing that was an advantage best kept secret until the opportune time. Katara skid down the slope, just as he had, distracting the firebenders for a few moments as she pulled up a water shield, defending herself from their volleys of fireballs.

Sokka moved in at once, throwing a soldier off his feet with his club, tripping him before striking the soldier beside him in the head with the weapon. That threw him into the next enemy, the two of them falling to the ground; the Water Tribe warrior let out a cocky smirk, thinking that getting two-in-one was a good result. He spun around, blocking a firebenders blast by forcing his hand up with the whack of his club, before he used said weapon to strike his kneecaps; the soldier grunted with pain, before he was thrown off his feet, Aang firing an air blast in his direction. He smirked at the Avatar's quick work, but turned his attention back toward the firebenders, who moved into formation, ready to send a number of fire blasts his way at once.

He stepped back, just hoping his friend would provide some cover with a well-timed gust of wind; he was surprised and pleased to see, however, the earthbenders behind him taking form, raising up a wall of stone to block the flames; it held steady, before it was shattered, part by part, and throw by the Earth Kingdoms soldiers toward their opponents. Katara landed down beside him, and took a fighting stance beside Sokka and Aang, who grinned at them both.

"Let's go kick some butts." he declared, charging forward as the last of the stone wall was sent toward their enemies.

Sokka raced ahead, picking up his boomerang, which had been strewn on the ground, before he threw it toward their opponents, striking one of them in their helmet; he was amused to see him slump down to the ground, beside his comrades, who looked like they had no idea what to do. He approached some soldiers wielding pikes, and was able to block their weapons with his club, before they were stuck in place, suddenly, by Katara dropping a mass of water by their feet and freezing it. He laughed at the sight, and then knocked them out with a few quick jabs of his fists, not even needing his club to deal with them.

Once they were out of it, he picked up his boomerang which had been left behind by the slowly withdrawing enemy, and immediately glanced around, wondering who would be the smartest opponent to attack. He decided upon throwing it at one of the komodo rhino riders, who once unconscious, was unable to stop the beast from walking around erratically, getting in the way of the firebenders, who were forced to duck under a number of rocks being pelted their way. The Water Tribe warrior continued his advance, readying his club against some firebenders, who seemed intent on getting rid of the threat he posed.

He was forced to raise his club up to block a fire blast, and though it didn't actually help that much, his sister was quick to sweep, using her water whip to whack the firebenders over, giving him the opportunity to whack them unconscious with his club. He turned to face her with an approving smirk, acknowledging that her waterbending was fast improving in its combat application; she used to be restrained to bobbing sea water up and down and throwing snow at time, while now, she was already capable of using a number of waterbending forms with a surprising degree of skill.

"Good job, Katara!" he applauded her efforts, before turning to face the quickly retreating Fire Nation forces, "I didn't even need to use my best trick. They're already running."

Aang spun his staff around, creating a powerful wind-gust, which threw a number of firebenders off of their feet, while the earthbending soldiers behind them created a number of pillars out of the ground, striking the enemy in their torsos, quickly knocking out.

"Ow." he cringed in imagining what they were feeling at that very moment, before he turned to face the Avatar, whose chest was heaving, suggesting he had gotten a fair bit of a workout, "Well, I think we thoroughly kicked their butts."

"Yeah." he made a smile, before turning to face the Earth Kingdom soldiers, who were approaching them with confused looks on their faces.

'Who are you guys?" one of them asked, Aang gesturing toward his chest.

"I'm the Avatar, and these are my friends." he pointed to Sokka and Katara, "We just saw you guys fighting and thought we could help out."

"Oh." one of them mumbled, turning to face his comrades, "Did he just say he's the Avatar?"

"That's what I said." Aang piped up, one soldier striding ahead of the others, his attire suggesting he was their commanding officer.

"Avatar." he bowed toward him, "We thank you for your assistance."

"No worries." he smiled at him, before gesturing down the hill, "Did you want us to chase them off for you?"

"No, no, I think they won't be coming back after that beating." he admitted, before looking at them with confusion, "Why are you here?"

"We're heading to the North Pole." Katara clarified, "We just saw the fighting and Aang wanted to help."

"I can't let the Fire Nation rule your country, so I help out where I can." the young Air Nomad assured him, before Sokka stepped forward, unsure what exactly they had walked into.

"Were you just defending there, or did you find them?" he asked the leader, who looked at him with slight offence.

"We are defending our homeland from invasion. You can obviously see that."

"No, no, I mean, were these soldiers looking for you?" he clarified his question, the leader narrowing his eyes for a moment before giving a nod.

"Yes, those ash-makers have been looking for our base of operations for a few weeks now. We've beaten them back every time." he explained, before gesturing up the hill, obviously in the direction of wherever they camped out "We could give you shelter, if you like. The Avatar and his allies are friends of the Earth Kingdom." he simply commented on their relationship, which made the young Air Nomad grin at him.

"Oh, that's good to hear. I thought maybe you guys wouldn't like me after I disappeared for a hundred years." he conceded, with a cringed face, Katara looking back his way with confusion.

"Why would you think that?"

Sokka raised a hand, "No, Aang has a point there." he conceded, before turning his eyes toward the Earth Kingdom soldiers, "We're trying to gather support for reuniting the Earth Kingdom." he explained one of their other intentions, which didn't exactly have anything to do with them landing down and assisting them, "Would you be interested in coordinating with our other allies?"

"Oh." the leader's eyes widened, "Well, I can't say for sure. I'm just the commander of this fighting force. We serve General Hong." he explained, "Our base of operations is in the mountains to the east of here. If you want to meet with him and discuss such matters, you can come with us."

"I'm sorry, but we can't do that at the moment." he conceded, "Aang needs to learn waterbending, and we need to go to the North Pole right now. We hope to gain the support of the Northern Water Tribe in our coalition as well." he explained, the commander bowing toward Aang.

"I understand. I wish you all the best of luck with your journey. Please, do come to us when you can. We would very much like to make our country whole once again." he admitted, the Avatar grabbing his bison whistle and blowing through it, Appa groaning as he rose up from the nearby hill, and began to fly down toward them.

"That's a scary friend you've got right there." one of the soldiers admitted, "Does he eat firebenders for breakfast?" he asked, making Aang laugh.

"No, Appa's a vegetarian. He just eats grass and stuff like that." he assured them, the soldier looking at his comrades with confusion; he was a little perplexed why the young Air Nomad didn't get his joke, something that Sokka had noticed, though he couldn't be bothered explaining it to his friend.

"Well, back to sleep for me." he smirked, raising his hands into the air, "I think we dealt with those firebenders well." he declared, before glancing around, "Now, where's my boomerang?"

Katara was already walking over to get it, the helpful sister that she was, and he grinned at her, giving her two thumbs up to thank her, though she obviously wasn't as enthusiastic as he was. She strode over and handed him his boomerang, before she looked back toward the Earth Kingdom soldiers, who were making their way back up the gully, heading presumably back to their base.

"Well, I guess that fight was over pretty quickly." she conceded, before turning to Appa, "And now we just keep on flying."

"Maybe we can fly under the clouds this time so I can get some sleep." Sokka suggested, "The sun's a little too bright above them."

"Hmph, okay." the young Avatar nodded at him, before glancing around, "Where'd Momo go?" he asked, making Sokka turn his eyes about the gully, noting that their little furry friend hadn't followed them.

"Maybe he's up the hill." he guessed, "He probably didn't want to go anywhere near those firebenders."

"Momo!" Aang called out to his flying-lemur, to no avail; the Water Tribe warrior placed a hand on his shoulder, sympathetic with his plight.

"Let's just get on the saddle. I'm sure he'll be up there somewhere." he assured him, the young Avatar pouting, before he climbed up onto the saddle.

"I hope you're right." he mumbled, "I don't want him going off somewhere dangerous."

"Momo's as skittish as a- well, I don't know what, but he's always ready to get away from danger." Katara admitted, smiling up at him, "I'm sure he's fine."

The two Water Tribe siblings climbed up onto the saddle, and a few moments later, their friend whipped the reins, "Yip-yip!" he called on the sky-bison, who roared, before he began to glide up into the air.

He moved up the gully, toward the Earth Kingdom soldiers, who turned around, watching with awe as he flew over them; everybody seemed to be in awe of the sky-bison, who was probably the biggest creature they'd seen- for the group, Sokka was sure that the Unagi was the largest thing they'd seen. Aang then pulled on the reins, driving them to the left, back in the direction of where they last saw Momo.

Appa stayed close to the ground as they moved along, across the mostly treeless hills, in the direction of the woodland that lined the lower portion of the hills; that was where they had landed, so he assumed the flying-lemur would be nearby. The Water Tribe warrior kept a keen eye out, looking over the trees, before he noted something odd; it looked like a few stray fruit, lying on the ground, just by the edge of the woods.

"Aang, slow down a bit. I think I spotted something." he explained, the Avatar nodding, as he pulled on Appa's reins, making the sky-bison drop even lower, to the point where his feet were almost on the ground.

Then they were able to see it- Momo was climbing up a tree, picking fruit and chewing them down; he'd gotten to have a little feast to himself while they were off fighting the bad guys. Sokka would admit, even if he thought the fight was a little invigorating, he knew eating would be a much more enjoyable experience.

"You got to eat all this fruit and you didn't tell me?!" he cried out, before he jumped down off of Appa's saddle, making his way toward the tree, "Good find, though. Now we can have some fruit to eat too." he turned to face his friends with a grin.

"You'll let Momo eat some more, right?" Aang asked him, the Water Tribesman glancing toward the flying-lemur, who had a noticeably swollen belly.

"Maybe not right now, but he can have some." he clarified, before gesturing toward the lemur, "Come on, buddy." he pointed toward his shoulder, Momo eyeing his way, though he didn't jump just yet.

"Okay, suit yourself." he raised his hands defensively, "But don't blame me when you can't fly due to that filled stomach of yours." he warned the flying-lemur, who didn't seem to have a care in the world.

The Water Tribesman then strode over to the fruits that had been knocked to the ground by Momo, and picked up a few, bundling them into his arms; glancing back toward the other two, he figured he could throw them the fruit. He cocked a smirk, wondering if they could do it without warning; it was a good test to make sure their reflexes were up to scratch- that was what Azula would tell him, so he was heeding that advice when he lopped at fruit right at Aang's head. he was quick enough to stop it, catching it in a ball of air, while Katara was able to skillfully catch the fruit he'd sent her way.

"Nice catchǃ" he commended them both, his sister only slightly amused by his move, given that she might have had a face full of fruit if he'd thrown toward her first.

He picked up a few more fruits, and began to throw them over to the pair, Aang taking advantage of the situation by scooping them all up with his airbending; then he began to juggle them, which seemed to annoy Katara, who might have otherwise wanted to catch some herself. Though, her annoyance seemed to fade as she took a bite from one of the fruit; Sokka did the same, licking his lips upon having a taste- they were sweet, but not too much so, and it filled the grumbling in his stomach, satiating him, even if only for that moment.

He turned back around to face the fruit tree, looking at the various fruits that still hung up on the branch; he realised they'd be a challenge to reach, unless he wanted to throw his boomerang at each to knock them off the tree. That didn't sound like it would be worth the effort, so decided to work around the problem by something they'd learned well sharing camp chores- delegation.

"Aangǃ" he called out to the twelve-year-old, "Could you use some fancy airbending to whack these fruit down?" he asked him, the Air Nomad looking at him with surprise, before he nodded, jumping down from the saddle.

"Yeah, I can do that." he confirmed, before taking an airbending stance, beginning some kind of airbending form that Sokka didn't recognise.

He began to slowly move his hands around, creating a number of vortexes that spun in the air around his body, which he let out at the tree, as if he was throwing his own aethereal boomerangs, which threw the fruit off the branches, allowing Sokka to jump in and catch them as they fell down; quickly enough, he had a dozen fruit in his hands, and he grinned brightly, knowing that the new supply of food would help keep their food stores up, at least for a few days at that. He handed some of them to Aang, who helped him carry them over to Appa's saddle. Then they began to throw the fruits up onto the saddle, Katara catching them and piling them into the bags they had spare. Once they were all up on the saddle, Sokka began to chew down on the fruit he'd begun eating, smirking as he enjoyed it.

"Well, I gotta say, this is better than rice crackers." he conceded, before the boy beside him leapt up onto the saddle, offering him a hand up, which he accepted, the Air Nomad using his bending to help Sokka jump up onto the saddle.

"Airbending's a real treat, you know that?" he patted the boy on the shoulder, making him grin brightly.

"Yeah, it's pretty good." he acknowledged, before he turned to face Momo, who was still eating a fruit, hanging from the tree, "Come on, buddy, we've got to get flying again."

The flying lemur chittered, before he leapt over onto the saddle, barely able to glide with his engorged stomach. The lemur rolled over onto his back and panted, making Katara and Aang giggle at the sight.

"Aren't you full now?" the Water Tribe girl scratched him on the belly, making him flail his legs around, unable to roll over due to his swollen guts, "I'll take that as a yes." she acknowledged, before helping him roll over the lemur coiling up, probably ready to go back to sleep.

That gave Sokka an idea as he practically leapt into his sleeping-bag, ready to sleep for the rest of the afternoon, having had enough of games, fighting and fruit-picking. His sister looked back at him, rather amused by his immediate desire to go back into his sleeping roll.

"So, is it back to sleep for you too, Sokka?" she asked him, the Water Tribesman letting out a smile as he closed his eyes, laying himself back on the saddle.

"I wouldn't have it any other way."

"Your highness, are you ready to go?"

Azula turned her head around, taking note that Renshu was calling to her through her bedroom door; she'd been looking over the various military reports collated by Zhao and the other officers, giving her a run-down of the military situation, a little more detailed than their prior meeting had been in terms of its descriptions. What she read might have seemed normal to Azula about a year prior, but sitting there, reading about how her men had burned down villages, and forced people from their homes, all under the pretense of 'securing the borders'; she hadn't really spoken about that with anyone, not wanting to indicate to her shift in views.

It was in her interest to have everyone believe that she was the same old Princess Azula everyone else had come to fear and admire. That Azula had died with the lightning bolt that should have killed her, and she didn't think she'd be coming back, no matter how power tempted her. Even if she could act like she used to, and assert the authority that she had always deserved to have, she could not unlearn what she had learned at the South Pole, from Sokka, and probably most importantly, from her own inward reflection. Even if others had allowed her to achieve that better understanding of the world, it was the Princess herself who had to consider what she had done in the past, to see what her future ought to be.

"Give me a moment." she spoke up, not wanting to rush out of her room; if she was to go speak to Zhao, she had to be in the right state of mind.

She got up from her seat, looking back down at the map she had been analysing; the most glaring detail was the marking of each village her men had sacked and seized control of in her name. The suffering that had occurred, without her consent, from her authority; once she might have simply accepted it as part of the conflict that existed between the nations, but it wasn't that simple anymore- the Earth Kingdom was being ripped to shreds by the Fire Nation, over its own internal affairs.

The cruelty was ironic, given that, instead of the Earth Kingdom being pillaged by the Fire Nation's near total victory with the fall of Ba Sing Se, it turned out that their suffering came about because of the very actions of somebody who probably wanted to prevent said suffering, that being her Uncle. Of course, Iroh had probably not foreseen what happened, but he was probably regretting his actions, now that he saw what their fellow countrymen had done to the world, and to each other.

The Princess turned her heels, moving toward the door, which she opened up, setting her eyes upon Renshu, who had dispensed of the ragged robes he had been wearing, which made him seem far less like an elite guard and more so like a peasant. Now, he looked as he was meant to, with his slick steel armour, and his intimidating helmet, though at that very moment, it was not on his hand, but under his arm, hoisted by his waist. His gaze was calm, but she could see behind those outward emotions that he was feeling conflicted; perhaps over what she had become, and thus, who he was serving. The Captain had followed the mighty, undefeated Princess Azula, not the girl who stood before him, a distortion of that image he held in his mind.

"Captain." she simply addressed him, "I assume you've done your reading. I wanted you to be... prepared to deal with whatever questions the Admiral throws our way."

"Of course, your highness. I made sure to understand your whole plan. The North Pole is a dangerous place, and I can see why you've taken the route you have. Our nation has failed to breach their walls yet, but your plan, it works around that problem quite well." he commented on what he had already learned; she was unsure whether he was being truthful in giving his opinion, or just telling her what he thought she wanted to hear.

"Even if we aren't going to go through with his insane plan, I have formulated something that could have worked. In a different time, I may have accepted this kind of move, but killing those spirits will only bring harm to our nation."

"May I ask a question, your highness?" he queried, making her scoff.

"That was a question." she rolled her eyes, before raising a hand, gesturing for him to go ahead.

"Why are we going to this effort? Couldn't you just speak with the other officers, tell them what you want done with Zhao, and why, and just be done with it?"

"If I was simply intending to take this army here and liberate the colonies, I would have done just that." she conceded, before narrowing her eyes, "But I think you can appreciate the complexity of this situation. I am not simply trying to earn the respect of my nation, but of the world. I need to deal with this threat in a way that will most benefit myself and Aang. He needs to gain traction with the Northern Water Tribe if he has any hope of getting them to support our efforts in the Earth Kingdom."

He nodded, conceding to her point; he wasn't going to oppose her, even if he questioned her actions. In the end, he was loyal to her, and he would follow her words; she could acknowledge that his comment was a fair one, and made her consider the viewpoints the others might hold. The other leaders in her forces mightn't comprehend her actions; they might see her as a traitor for what she was about to do, but even then, she could not explain the matter, not while Zhao was still around.

She could not give him a chance to escape, to take his fleet and betray her; she needed his loyalty while he had his authority, which would only go as far as his commands did- without access to his fleet, he was merely a man, but an important one still. That was why she needed to use him as a bargaining chip; he was not an end in and of himself, but a means to one.

"Well then," she spoke up, gesturing down the hallway, "Should we go see him? I'm sure he'll be done with whatever commands he had to deal with to his subordinates."

"He does have a lot of them." Renshu conceded, "Which is half the reason we need him, isn't it?"

"I'm unsure how many are personally loyal to the Admiral, but a few of them must still respect him, even after all his blunders. If they didn't, they might have just defected over to my brother's forces, or to my father's." she acknowledged, noting that they posed a threat in and of themselves; once she played her move, there was no telling how much of his fleet would turn on her.

"Perhaps we need to earn their loyalty." the Captain raised a finger to his chin.

"That is something that can be achieved through intimidation." she decided, "Even if I am no longer as feared as I once was, I can still play with those feelings; if they believe the worst of me, they will be far more afraid to betray me."

"That tactic has worked in the past." he admitted, before grimacing, "I apologise if that causes you any offence, your highness."

"Offence is the wrong word, Captain." she narrowed her eyes at him, before gesturing to his helmet, "You ought to put that on; you are my personal guard, remember?"

He cleared his throat, placing the imposing steel helmet over his head, tightening it into place before turning to face her; he did seem very different with it on- with that helmet, he was just any other guard, but without it, he seemed a lot more human.

"My apologies, your highness. It's just a little uncomfortable wearing this after nine months without." he conceded, Azula holding back a laugh.

She could say the same about her attire, and having to deal with everyone actually treating her as if she was a Princess; she wouldn't say she missed the Southern Water Tribe, but she did find an affinity to their meritocratic society. There, she had pulled her weight and earned her respect without any consideration of her former position; people actually treated her harshly because of it, so she was sure that when they lauded her with respect, including Katara, she had to have been doing the right thing.

"I understand, Captain." she conceded, before she gestured down the hallway, "Let's go, I'm sure the Admiral will not appreciate us running late to this meeting." she explained her reasoning, the Captain nodding before the two of them began to walk down the hallway.

"He's a busy man." Renshu commented on her words, before dropping the volume of his voice, "For now."

She tried her best to keep a straight face; she was all too amused by his words, knowing that Zhao probably thought nothing was wrong. To the contrary, he was probably elated by her suggestions that they would be heading for the North Pole. She kept her mouth shut, and didn't speak further as they approached the exit, the Captain pushing the door open, leading her out into the man hall of the compound. They would have to climb the damned stairs again, but she was willing to tolerate that, assuming that the man beside her could keep up.

"How fast can you run in that armour?" she asked him, his head turning to face her, and the silent look he gave her suggested he was a little confused, "I don't want to waste all our time walking up those stairs." she clarified the context of her question, "So, can you run?"

"I am capable of doing so." he conceded, "I haven't had much practice, but the men and I have been training these past few hours in our full armour. I believe I can do it."

She pursed her lips upward, "Brilliant." she simply commended him, before turning her gaze ahead, watching as they walked by a few officers, who given their youthful faces, probably weren't very high-ranking.

They immediately bowed toward the Princess, who flat out ignored them; she had no time for their ilk, and simply needed to get to Zhao's office. She was a woman of principle and focus; she was not going to waste her time with their deference. The Captain glanced back toward them as she made her way toward the staircase, and he let out a light laugh.

"How offended were they?"

"Less offended, more afraid." he referenced her previous comment, the Princess letting out a momentary smile.

"That's what I like to hear, Captain." she nodded, before she eyed the staircase, "I wasn't joking about the running part."

"You are not someone for jokes, your highness." he acknowledged; she did like to insult people with sarcasm, but that was mockery, not joking around- when she ordered someone to do something, she expected it to be done.

She hastened her pace as she got to the stairs, and began to jog up them; not so fast to seem inappropriate or deranged, but enough so that she was going to get up to Zhao's office in a shorter amount of time than she had the last time she went up. Of course, when she was last scaling the four flights of stairs, she'd been walking all day, so running was absolutely out of the question; the refreshed and capable Princess was more than ready to run. She thought that she ought to do some training with her guards, but she realised that there was something more important that she needed to do.

She had mentioned to Zhao that she would be able to train some of her soldiers to be ready for the environment she'd expect at the North Pole. Such training would be rather simple in her eyes, focusing on the two key elements she saw to be necessary in that environment: how to protect oneself from the cold, and how to best apply one's breathing to ensure that one did not lose any bending capabilities from the temperatures alone. Firebending was weakened by a lack of sun, which would be an issue during the polar night, but she knew that even then, that did not make firebenders incapable; she wasn't expecting much of a fight when she got there, given her intentions, but she wanted said soldiers to be ready. She knew that they could have a very real application later on when she returned to the South Pole with her forces and gathered resources from the colonies; rebuilding the Southern Water Tribe, at least to begin with, would require some assistance from her troops to rid the South Pole of the threat that was the Southern Raiders.

Azula had continued all the way up the staircase, not stopping once as she and the Captain quickly scaled each flight of stairs; she reached the top far quicker than she had when she was exhausted, and was simply relieved by the fact that it wasn't as hard as she had expected. When she got to the fourth floor, she immediately turned her eyes toward Zhao's office, and approached it at once, slowing her pace, wanting to retain a degree of composure when she met with the Admiral.

The guards didn't even address her, simply bowing as they opened the doors for her. She then eyed the man she had been intending to meet, talking with a few of the other officers; she could tell from their attire that they were in the Navy, and relatively high ranking. She wondered what they might have been discussing, though she didn't intend to find out; it wasn't overly relevant to what she was doing there. Though she did intend to ingratiate herself with all of Zhao's lackeys, she'd require his trust and support first, knowing that if she did so first, it would become apparent a whole lot quicker than she was planning to dispense of him.

"Oh, your highness." he rose from his chair, before he bowed to her, the other men doing the same, "I didn't expect you to- well, actually, no, this is exactly like you. I thank you for your punctuality." he smiled at her, his words sounding off a genuine appreciation for her timeliness, even if she had interrupted whatever discussion he was having with his subordinates.

"It is not a worry. I simply arrived when you desired me to." she clarified, before eyeing the men who had bowed at her, "Is your meeting nearly over, or do I have to go wait somewhere?" she asked, knowing that her words would lead to a punctual exit by those who stood in the way of her discussions with Zhao.

"The meeting is over by your will, your highness." one of the officers addressed her, before turning to face Zhao, "I apologise, Admiral, that we slowed down your affairs." he spoke to his superior, who didn't seem overly fussed.

"Thank you. Just see yourselves out. I'll have a look over your reports as soon as I can." he explained, which made the Princess raise a brow.

His words suggested to Azula that the men before her were scouting, though where, she could not be sure; it was also possible that they'd been fighting her brother's forces, though that didn't seem to fit with what the Admiral had already told her about his current strategy of holding down their territory and securing it from outside threats. Once the men had left the room, the Princess turned her attention to the Admiral, who gestured to the seats the other men had been sitting in.

"Please, sit." he suggested, "Did you want some tea?"

"No, I'm fine." she refused his offer, pulling one of the seats out and sitting down on it.

She crossed her right leg over her left, and placed her hands together, wanting to sit in a posture that would suggest her authority; sitting so casually was usually a sign of disrespect in the Fire Nation, but given that she was the one in a position of power, it had the opposite effect- Zhao would know his place, and listen to her without question.

"So, Princess, what do you have to speak with me about? Do you have any news of Qin's aircraft?"

"Five days." she answered his second question rather simply, "Five days is how long it will take. I assume that you will be able to provide the Minister and his engineers with whatever equipment they require to make the larger craft. It will be necessary if we want to reach the North Pole."

"I understand." he nodded along, pursing his lips up, probably imagining the victory he had sought out for years, "What will be done in the meantime, then?"

"I need to train an elite group of soldiers to be prepared to deal with the North Pole. I will instruct them myself, given that I have first-hand experience. I want them to be ready to face the elements- not just the one being bent at us." she clarified, the Admiral huffing, seemingly amused by her comment, "So, as soon as I can, I would like to commence training them. Given that you have been here, overseeing the use of this army, I assume you would be better placed to choose those for our operation."

"I thank you for your kind judgement." he nodded, "I believe I can find you the men who would be suitable. We need to be taking this operation very seriously."

"That I am, Admiral." she acknowledged, before turning her eyes to the Captain, "My subordinate here is to help me oversee the training regime, and help us plan out the operation; he and my guards are highly skilled fighters, and obviously will be accompanying us on this operation."

"I understand, your highness. You will need all the protection you can get against those savages; they do have a number of advantages on their home ground, but I assume that your plan intends to counter those." he narrowed his eyes, acknowledging her thoughts; he was thinking along the same lines as she was, which was good- it proved that she was understanding what would needed to be done in the case they were actually going to go after the spirits.

"We will use the environment to our advantage. The Poles are known for their snowstorms and horrible weather, but such weather is brilliantly useful as cover in our operation. We will need to make sure the aircraft is capable of handling such weather, which is why we will take it north on a test flight first before we undertake our operation." she explained, the Admiral nodding along with growing smirk.

"I see." he noted, before placing his hands up on the desk, putting them together in front of himself, "So, according to what you've just told me, we can make our strike on the Northern Water Tribe in less than two weeks?"

"That's right." she nodded, "I simply need the time for this craft to be built and tested, and for my soldiers to be ready to face the threats of the North Pole, and we will be victorious."

"I am appreciative of your approach, Princess." he acknowledged, "Your mindset is something we need more of around here. Everyone has been far too cautious for my liking."

"Well, that is about to change soon enough." she smirked, her words not a lie; she knew that the Admiral was probably lying through his teeth, given that he was probably the one trying to avoid a direct confrontation with both the Northern Water Tribe and Zuko- to face both without the means to win would not end well.

"Do you have any news from the homeland, Admiral? I am curious as to how the situation there is unfolding."

"There is no open revolt against your brother just yet." he looked down, sounding saddened by the fact, "But there is tension brewing. Zuko is not the Fire Lord of his whole nation, not just in terms of the reach of his authority; not everyone agrees with his stance. Our nation will remain divided until you make your move, your highness, and then, we will see glory return to the Fire Nation." he acknowledged, the Princess placing her hands together, smirking at him.

"I will see that glorious future for our nation. The dream of Fire Lord Sozin will be accomplished, and the war, the war will be over." she told him the blunt truth, though he was too blind to see what she was actually telling him; he didn't react, simply keeping his cocky visage up.

"I believe in that future, just the same." he assured her, without any understanding of what she truly meant, "The reign that was vested to you. You were the Crown Princess, and it is only because of his possession of that crown and the approval of those damned sages that you aren't the Fire Lord right now." he acknowledged the fact of the matter- those were the things that stood between her and her rightful role.

"That is true." she nodded, imagining what it would be like to achieve that victory, no matter how far away it might have seemed to her at that very moment, "When I have the Capital, the crown will come with it, and the sages will bow, as they must."

"As would be expected." Zhao nodded, "They wouldn't want to end up in prison for disobeying the will of their rightful ruler."

"Precisely." she smirked, knowing at the very least, Zhao was right about that; when it came to things that didn't concern himself, he was somewhat of a pragmatist, but when it came to his own ego, his vanity came before all else- that would be the knife upon which he would fall, "Now, do you have any recommendations for who I should be training for this mission?"

The Admiral narrowed his eyes for a moment, before he cleared his throat, glancing toward a cabinet of scrolls he had, "I believe I have some reports in there that may be of use to your question. You are looking for the hardiest men around."

"Strength of the mind, not the body, Admiral." she clarified as he rose up to his feet.

The Captain glanced toward her, suggesting that he wanted to speak, and she nodded, allowing him to do so, "Admiral, may I recommend anyone who has had to deal with isolation. The threat that we will be facing at the North Pole not lies just in the terrain and the enemies that await us, but the dangers to the mind. Being so far away from everything that makes sense to a soldier can drive anyone mad."

"I see." Zhao nodded, seeming to understand his point, and turned to scanning over the numerous scrolls he had stacked up in his cabinet.

Azula held back a laugh, considering whether her time with Sokka had driven her insane in a way that she hadn't expected; perhaps from her father's point of view, that would be what happened, but from her own, she had gained knowledge and perspective, the kind that she couldn't have found anywhere else- it was not the forest, but Sokka and the experience they shared together. A similar kind of effect could come upon anyone, if they were put in a harsh enough situation; people could become erratic, poor of judgement, because they mightn't know if they were going to live, die, or see their home again.

"There is a group that fits your ideas, Princess." the Admiral spoke up, pulling out a scroll, "A group of fifteen soldiers from the twenty-seventh division. They were stuck in the wilderness of the Northern Earth Kingdom for a number of weeks, about four months ago, after the town they were occupying rose up against the garrisoned troops."

She pursed her lips, "Sounds like the right kind of men for this operation. Any other details you have about them?"

"They have a strong camaraderie, according to the report, and have requested to remain a whole since their experience in the woods." he clarified, "They are currently stationed as border-guards to the west of here."

"How long will it take to recall them?" she asked, the Admiral raising a brow.

"Well, I am not a master of land-based logistics and troop movements, but I'd guess off where their posting is, around five days on foot." he explained, the Princess nodding along.

"Well, send a messenger hawk to them at once. I wanted them recalled for this operation." she explained, the Admiral nodding.

"Of course, your highness." he bowed to her in respect, "Should I inform their commanding officer of this redeployment?"

"Yes, we cannot afford for gaps in our operations, Admiral." she acknowledged, Zhao striding back over to his seat.

"What else do you require of me?" he asked her, the Princess raising a finger to her chin, scratching it lightly as she considered his words.

"I merely need everything to run punctually, Admiral. When I need a ship to send this airship north, I will want it at once." she clarified, the Admiral pursing his lips upward.

"Trust me, Princess, I will have everything in place to ensure we can depart as soon as possible. So, with the testing of this craft and its construction time, would you agree that two weeks is enough time to enact the operation?" he asked her, the Princess nodding.

"That is acceptable." she conceded, "Once the North Pole has been dealt with, we will move onto more pressing matters."

"The colonies." he deduced, Azula glancing toward the Captain.

"Captain, what do you say of the defensive capabilities of my brother's forces?" she asked, Renshu turning his head toward her for a few moments, before he cleared his throat.

"The number of men by the border have increased substantially since the events at Yu Dao, primarily due to redeployment of troops from other parts of the Earth Kingdom that are no longer of priority to your brother, from what I can gather from the intelligence gathering the guards and I have completed over the past few months." he explained, before stretching out his right hand, moving his fingers, as if he was getting ready for a fight, "I believe our operations will require more stealth and subterfuge than what we had intended when we first entered the colonies."

"Blockading the enemy will not be a problem." Zhao acknowledged, "The Captain is correct; the enemy are better prepared for whatever ground operations we may make, so we will need to think around their defences."

"I have a few ideas in mind, but until I have sufficient intelligence gathered on this matter, we cannot make our moves. Keeping the border secure is the best thing we can do at this moment, and avoiding unnecessary skirmishes with the enemy will ensure that we do not waste our supplies." she explained, the Admiral narrowing his unburnt eye.

"That is what I have been focusing on, your highness." he explained, the Princess not commenting, but rather just continuing on with explaining her thoughts.

"Our forces are not occupying the richest part of the Earth Kingdom, and until we take the colonies, there is little chance we will have much resources spare for wide-ranging operations. An invasion of the homeland is functionally impossible without either support from locals, sympathetic to my cause, or with all the resources and manpower that the Earth Kingdom territories can provide to us."

"So, we will need to gather support in the colonies first. I assume that your ideas involve achieving that." he concluded, the Princess pursing her lips upward.

"You are correct." she acknowledged; he just didn't know what kind of support she was thinking of- if he knew, he might betray her then and there to her father's forces, "We should discuss this at a later time. I am sure you have matters to attend to; you have a whole fleet to run, while all I have is this operation." she conceded, the Admiral raising a hand.

"If it is authority and duties you seek, your highness, you only need to ask, and your men will be yours to command."

"It is not the time, not yet." she acknowledged, putting on a disenchanted face; she was not actually feeling incapable of leading, but she knew that it was not wise to exert her authority while she lacked the gravity she would require with all the men she sought to one day lead against her brother.

Despite feeling that she'd prefer to run her forces at once, she could not lead them with the threat that Zhao posed to her; ingratiation was the tool she would use to get his own forces on her side, while trickery would be her weapon against the Admiral himself. The Princess didn't know what else to say to the Admiral, having gathered the information she required; she was ready to prepare herself physically for the operation, even if she didn't really need to, seeing that it was all a hoax.

However, she wasn't going to waste a few weeks getting back into shape. Though she'd been training with Sokka for the past few months, she had not been firebending as much as she would have liked; she had built up a fair amount of muscle, though with it, she'd gotten a little pudgy, though said pudginess was quickly dealt with by the harsh diet she and others had had to endure since leaving the South Pole; there simply wasn't that much food for them to eat, even when they had the money to buy it.

"Well then, I believe that is it." she acknowledged, rising to her feet, "I wish you luck on your endeavours, Admiral Zhao."

"And I to you, Princess Azula." he too stood up, bowing to her in respect, before she and the Captain turned their heels, and headed toward the doors; now she didn't have much to do, and she was feeling in the mood to spar.

"Do you know where Ty Lee is?" she asked Renshu, who looked at her, the jolty movement he made suggesting he was surprised.

"Ty Lee? I haven't seen her. I thought she would have been with you." he acknowledged, before he pushed the door open, allowing them to exit Zhao's office.

She momentarily eyed the Admiral, before turning her attention back ahead, "I haven't seen her since we dealt with the aircraft. I was simply going through those reports, and she must have gone off and done... something." she mumbled, "She better not have gotten herself into trouble; I am not going to spend the next two weeks parenting her."

The Captain seemed to be struggling to hold back a laugh at her comments, the Princess sighing, knowing that it was an amusing situation; given Ty Lee's inquisitive nature, she tended to go off and do things that were rather unusual in her eyes, and Azula wanted more than anything for her friend to remain on hand. She didn't want her off trying to get herself a new boyfriend, as much as she might have liked to do that.

"Do you need to see her again? Was there something you needed to discuss?" he asked her, the Princess nodding, her face remaining serious, not wanting to express her reasoning through any subtle facial movements.

"Yes, there is." she lied; there was really nothing she needed to discuss in particular, but she knew that she would want to spend her afternoon with her, if she was going to spend it with anyone.

The Princess struggled to admit such things, but she wanted her company; she would go as far to say that she required it, given that if she were stuck alone for long enough she might go mad. Isolation was a thing that she understood after her time with Sokka; even if she was with him, it had brought perspective to times in her life where she had been, for all intents and purposes alone. She didn't want to experience it again, as much as she liked to pride herself on her independence and willpower; even she needed the company of other human beings, from time to time, and perhaps her time with Sokka had weakened her in that regard.

Prior to having met him, she could be content training and preparing herself for the role of Fire Lord, as her father wanted for her, and the fear of failure drove her to continue that without much issue. Of course, it didn't mean she liked it, but she found nothing wrong with it; ever since he had come into her life, she had come to realise how much she actually liked the company of other people; it was something that brought her both amusement and anger, happiness and sadness.

"So, what will you do then, Captain?" she asked him, remembering that just like her, he was a person who must have had feelings just like the ones she had; he obviously wanted to be with his men, to enjoy their company and take his mind off the other matters that might bother him.

"Train with my fellow guards." he explained simply, "They aren't in the same shape they used to be."

"Well, I will likely be training too. Perhaps we can restart our training sessions."

"Without the Water Tribesman this time." he acknowledged, "I can train with the assertion that a boomerang won't be striking me in the back of the head." he spoke in a tone that suggested he was smiling under that helmet of his; she decided that she was going to break that smile, just because she knew there was a reason he shouldn't be smiling.

"Ty Lee can still kick your arses." she warned, pursing her lips up, "With more precision and speed than Sokka can."

"Oh, how wonderful." he sighed, his tone clearly sarcastic, "She doesn't try to flirt when she fights too, does she?"

"From what I've seen, I can say that she enjoys the flirting more than the fighting." she smirked, before turning her eyes ahead, "She won't go after you, don't worry."

"What?" he mumbled, just loud enough that she could hear him behind his helmet.

"Not her type. You're too serious." she clarified, the Captain snickering, shaking his head, suggesting that he might even be a little disappointed by that fact.

"Ah... thanks for telling me." he acknowledged her comment, before gesturing down the staircase, "So, we find Ty Lee, and then we'll train."

"Precisely." she nodded, before she began to make her way down the stairs.

"And what comes after that?" he asked her, Azula pursing her lips upward as she turned back his way.

"Dinner, and sleeping in an actual bed, for once." she clarified, the Captain remaining silent for a few moments as they made their way down the staircase.

"So, no more plans, or reading?"

"There's no need. All we need now is a little patience, and for War Minister Qin's engineers to be competent." she acknowledged, "I don't want to wait here overtime, when we could have already reached the North Pole by more conventional methods."

"Could you even break in without such a craft?" he asked her, the Princess scoffing at him; Renshu failed to grasp the skills and knowledge she'd picked up at the South Pole.

"Unlike most people in the Fire Nation, I have learned how to live in the frigid, desolate conditions of the poles. If anyone could break into the North Pole, it would be me." she argued, before chuckling, "Or the Southern Water Tribe's warriors, if they were really feeling up for it."

"You don't expect them to do anything like that, do you?"

"Hmph... well, if the government of the tribe proves to be frozen by their conservative stupidity, then I will have to take action, or rather, Chief Hakoda may take action for me."

"Wait, Chief Hakoda... that's-" he began to mumble, before she pat him on the shoulder, which might have come as a shock to him; she knew how antsy he was about what happened on the ship all those months ago.

"The man who bested you on the Royal Barge." he clarified, before she smirked at him, "You may end up meeting him again at some point. I'd prefer if you restrained your vengeful spirit, Captain."

"I wasn't going to do anything." he retorted, making her laugh.

"I know you cry yourself to sleep knowing you were bested by a non-bender." she smugly proclaimed, the Captain's sigh exactly what she wanted to hear.

"I don't."

"So, you're okay with what happened?"

"I never-" he began to argue in response, before she shut him up by speaking over him; he wouldn't dare speak over her, given her rank as a Princess.

"Thank you Captain for being so considerate. I know those savages were misguided in attacking me, and now that we've all made up, it's only right that you forget those past grievances." she told him, her tone clearly mocking, though she did speak with intent; he ought to give up his frustrations, because they weren't going to get him anywhere, unless he intended challenging Hakoda to some kind of duel.

The guard shook his head, conceding defeat, "Of course, your highness. I understand I must have annoyed you in the past with these matters."

"I wouldn't say annoy." she raised a finger, "I quite enjoyed your spats with Sokka. You bonded through them a little, I'd say."

"I thought we bonded through beating the crap out of the Dai Li and those brainwashed soldiers together." he argued, the Princess smirking.

"Well, that too. Fighting for your life is a great way to earn respect for a fellow fighter who is worthy of it." she argued, before chuckling, "And you respect me because of all the fighting I've gotten out of in one piece, do you not?"

"I respect your resolve, Princess." he clarified, "You are someone who would never give up. That is why we waited for you; it would be completely unlike you to remove yourself from a situation without intending to finish the task at hand." he acknowledged, the Princess cocking a smirk; it covered her true reaction, which was shame- she had given up, and she had had a decent reason to do so.

Zuko was the incompetent child of Ozai, yet he bested her in a duel, and even before the lightning-redirection, he had actually given her a serious fight, probably the hardest she'd ever had to experience. With that failure, she felt like she was incapable of victory, and unworthy of what she sought; of course, over time, she regained her confidence, but she was sure not to be blinded by grandiose dreams, like the Admiral who she sought to remove from his high seat of power.

"I thank you for your honesty, Captain. My only desire is to be like the Princess which you imagine me to be."

"But you are." he assured her, Azula sighing, allowing herself to be honest, just that one time; she trusted Renshu enough to tell it to him straight.

"Not anymore. Not since that day."

Aang didn't know how long it would take them to reach the sea, but he was more than relieved when he finally caught sight of it. It was approaching sunset, and he knew that Appa would be getting tired, but more importantly, he'd need to rest up for their flight toward the North Pole. The young Air Nomad was looking forward to a good night's sleep after their rather interesting day; they'd fought the Fire Nation, helped refugees, and Katara had even beaten up a mugger, which he thought was hilarious.

The joke ran old pretty quickly, however, so he didn't bother bringing it up again; he knew he'd be able to talk about in the future, just to remind them of their experience. The group was tired, though Sokka had napped while they were flying, so he was actually more alert than either Aang or Katara. He was the first to address him, acknowledging that they'd arrived at the north coast of the Earth Kingdom.

"Aang, we need to take Appa down. I know everyone's tired, but we've got set up camp." he explained to him, the Avatar nodding along, pulling up on Appa's reins.

"You hear that, buddy? You get to sleep now." he told his friend with a wide smile knowing that he'd appreciate the rest after flying nearly all day, barring their short stops in Gaochao and to help the Earth Kingdom rebels.

"Down?" Katara rose up from the saddle, her hair all muddled from having laid on it for too long, though Aang didn't comment on that, knowing that'd be an easy way to aggravate her.

"Yeah, we're at the coast." he clarified, pointing out ahead of them, "See?"

"We're not just down with the Earth Kingdom yet, Aang." Sokka warned him, "We've still got to fly up along the coast tomorrow before we head out toward the North Pole. We're at the coast, but that doesn't mean we're very close to where we're heading yet."

"Oh..." his enthusiasm lulled a little, thinking they were closer to their destination, "Well, at least we're here. It only took us..." he trailed off, raising his hands up to count off his fingers how many days it'd been since they left the South Pole, though he quickly realised he couldn't remember.

"About a bit over two months." Sokka clarified, "Though we did stop along the way, and there were a few detours. Not as many as feared."

Aang pouted, remembering that they hadn't got to do everything he'd wanted to, "Aw... we still have to go see the hog-monkeys at some point." he argued, turning to face Katara, "You'll ride them with me, won't you, Katara?"

"Eh." she shrugged her shoulders, "I don't think we'll be doing that for a while Aang." she argued, which further soured his mood; she wasn't enthusiastic at all- they all needed a little more fun.

"We really need to get that Pai Sho set or something. You guys are no fun." he crossed his arms, Sokka scoffing at his words.

"I'm fun-ny, not fun." he argued, "Plus, I prefer laughing over doing crazy stuff like riding giant koi fish. I'm just a guy with a boomerang."

"And a Princess for a girlfriend." he added, knowing that had to be the most abnormal thing about the Water Tribesman.

"Oh yeah, that too." he chuckled, before glancing down over the saddle, "This area is covered in trees. Trees mean firewood, which means we can actually cook dinner."

"I can-" Katara began to speak up, before Sokka raised a finger.

"No, I'll do it. I'll make dinner, seeing that I'm the most alert one." he argued, the Avatar nodding along; that was a fair judgement to make on his behalf.

"Maybe we can practice our waterbending at the beach, Katara." he suggested to the Water Tribe girl, whose eyes widened upon the mention of waterbending.

"Oh, yeah... but tomorrow. It's going to be too dark, and we don't have a helpful firebender around to help light up the beach for us." she clarified, before leaning back on the saddle, "And I'm tired. Really tired."

"Aren't we all?" Sokka sighed, before gesturing toward Aang, "Come on arrow-boy, get Appa down. I'm sure he wants to sleep as much as her highness over there."

"Excuse me?" his sister raised a brow, making him grin at her smugly.

"See, getting you annoyed is a great way to wake you up."

"You better not try that method too much, Brother." she warned him, pointing a finger toward him threateningly.

"I don't know if you're trying to imitate Azula, but it's not working."

"Yeah, you're a little too nice to be scary." Aang admitted, hoping she'd take his words as a compliment; he really did mean it- she and Azula were polar opposites in a lot of ways, though in some, they were actually quite similar.

"I can be scary." she retorted, "But I'm just not as good as Azula when it comes to being scary."

"Replace being scary with bending and that sentence still makes sense." Sokka raised a finger making Aang snort with amusement; Katara could definitely bend, and she was getting good at it, but Azula was far better than her, without a shred of doubt.

The young Air Nomad was still afraid of the Princess's bending, and not because it was firebending, which seemed dangerous to begin with, but because of the pure power she held in comparison to other firebenders. He always thought back to Kyoshi Island, and remembered how many firebenders she'd stopped, bending their own flames away from him; he was in such awe, and he still couldn't comprehend how she was able to have such fortitude, mentally, to achieve such a feat.

"I'm not bad at bending, Sokka. Would you like a demonstration?" Katara spoke up against her brother, as if to warn him, to which the Water Tribe warrior cocked a smirk.

"Demonstrate with what water, there's no clouds and we're still way away from the beach." he argued, crossing his arms, "And also, I never said you were bad. She's just way better- better than both of you."

"You have a little bias in that area, don't you think?" she tried to break his argument down, before Aang cringed, turning back to face her.

"Well, actually, he's right. Do you remember what she did on Kyoshi Island? That was insane."

"It was insane." she acknowledged, "The gold firebending, that is."

"The gold..." Sokka mumbled, "What? When did Azula bend gold fire?"

"When we meditated and I tried to make her understand what drives her bending." she explained, the Water Tribesman narrowing his eyes with confusion.

"But Azula's fire is still blue." he mumbled, "What do you mean drives her bending?"

"Like what emotions she draws on. That's kinda how firebending works, from what she told me." she clarified, before smugly pursing her lips up.

"Wanna guess what made the gold fire?"

"Uh, the thought of having a nice family?" he asked her, making Aang cringe, remembering what they had been told while entering New Omashu for the last time.

He tended to forget that Azula was actually a Princess, one from the family that had led the destruction of his people; though he was sure some of them had to be half-decent, like Iroh, at least from what Sokka's descriptions told him, her family seemed to be full of crazy or just flat out evil people.

"That's actually pretty close, Sokka." Katara conceded, "But you're off."

"Urgh." he sighed, before his expression brightened, his cheeks flushing red, "Well if it's not having a nice family- and by that I mean us, then it has to be me, right?"

"I think you're right." she nodded, making him glance off into the distance; he didn't speak after that, and the young Avatar turned his attention toward landing his sky-bison.

Aang found the silence that followed rather awkward, but he just tried to focus on getting them down safely than what might have been going through Sokka's head; he was obviously worried about Azula, but it wasn't like any of them could do anything to change that- talking about her might just make it worse.

As Appa slowed, he pulled on the reins a little harder, turning him around as they landed by the edge of the woods; there were a few sandbars between them and the shoreline proper, but close enough that he and Katara could walk there if they wanted to practice their waterbending. When Appa touched down, Sokka immediately set off into action, and picked up the cooking bag, taking it off the saddle with him as he jumped down; he walked off, probably to make a campfire, and Aang turned back to face the girl beside him, who by her gaze, seemed to be worried about her brother.

"Do you want to set up the tent right now?" he asked her, the Water Tribe girl making a cautious nod, before she turned to face him.

"Yeah, we can do that." she confirmed, "Let's just keep an eye on Sokka. I don't know what's going on in his head, but I have a feeling it can't be very good."

"Yeah..." he mumbled, "Mentioning Azula and love and all that... probably not a good idea." he conceded in a whispered voice, the Water Tribe girl turning her head down; usually she'd get defensive when accused of something, but for that moment, she seemed to be accepting what she herself had done.

"I should just stay quiet." she decided, before turning her head toward their bags.

"Okay, let's get the tent set up." she decided, striding over toward said bags, and picking out the frame pieces of the tent, as well as the mat, "Okay, I've got these, you can get the pins and the canvas." she requested, the young Air Nomad giving her an affirmative smile before she climbed off of the saddle, following after Sokka.

He glanced around, noting that Momo was sleeping, and he patted him on the back, just leaving him there, "You sit tight buddy. I know you might get a little cold out, so just come over to the tent if you get cold tonight." he told him, unsure whether he could understand him, but he spoke to him anyway; the lemur was welcome to sleep by his side in the tent, as long as he wasn't screeching because of something outside the tent.

He picked up the canvas and the bag of bone pins, and leapt off of the saddle; glancing around, he noted that Sokka was quick at work, setting up their dinner, though he hadn't set the fire just yet. The young Avatar paced over to where Katara was setting up the frame of the tent, and he knelt over, pulling the pins out of the bag and whacking them into the ground, doing so as quickly as he could. Once he had gotten them in the ground on either side, he turned back to pick up the canvas, which the two of them draped over the frame of the tent, before pulling either side down and connecting it to the pegs. Once that was done, the pair rose back up to their feet, the Water Tribe girl letting out a yawn.

"Could you go get the sleeping rolls? I'm going to help Sokka with dinner." she explained, the young Avatar nodding along.

"Gotcha." he grinned at her before pacing back over to the saddle, finding himself not in the mood to run, instead casually approaching his sky-bison, who he patted, knowing that he deserved a little love for all the hard work he did.

"Thanks, Appa." he smiled at the sky-bison, "We're nearly at the North Pole, and then you won't have to worry about flying for weeks! Won't that be great?" he asked him; he was silent for a few moments, before he let out a light growl, making him beam at his sky-bison, knowing that he deserved all the break that he would receive as soon as they reached the Northern Water Tribe.

With the help of his airbending, he jumped up onto the saddle once more, picking up the two sleeping bags, which he slung under either arm, before leaping back off the saddle. He took them back over toward the tent, and while doing so, could hear Katara and Sokka talking.

"You can't use salt water for the rice, Sokka." she warned her brother, who groaned with frustration.

"But where are we going to get fresh water from?" he asked, Aang raising a hand up, catching their attention; he accidentally dropped one of the sleeping rolls, but that wasn't on his mind as he remembered what he'd seen while they were flying up above.

"There's a stream over that way. I saw it when we were flying over. If I just use my glider and take a water skin, I can get all the water you need in no time." he suggested, the pair nodding along.

"Huh, that's a good idea, Aang." Sokka conceded, "Just put the sleeping rolls in the tent and then go get it. I'm sure Katara doesn't want a dirty sleeping roll, though." he gestured toward the one he had dropped, making the Avatar cringe.

"Oh... sorry about that." he conceded, before picking up the sleeping roll, "I'll dust it off."

He paced over to his and Katara's tent, and proceeded to pull his own sleeping roll out, putting it into the tent nice and snugly, before he grasping hers and began to shake it off, using his airbending to blow his breath a little harder than usual, so he could get rid of the dust that way. Once it was clean enough, Aang laid it down inside the tent, before turning around, glancing back over toward the saddle, where he had left his staff.

"Uh, where's the water skin I'm taking?" he asked the pair, Sokka tossing a leather skin his way; the Avatar caught it with his airbending, before he paced off back toward the saddle, jumping up and grasping his staff.

"Just don't go too far, Aang. We don't know who's out here." Katara warned him, the young Avatar nodding; they'd gotten themselves into danger last time when they tried to rest at the abandoned farmhouse, and found the refugees.

He knew there was just as likely a chance they could have ran into the Fire Nation, which was exactly who he wanted to avoid after what he did at that battle of Fire Nation ships; after that, he wasn't so sure that the Fire Lord, that being, Azula's brother, would take too kindly to him, and neither would his soldiers. He opened up the glider, and after taking a deep breath, he leaped up into the air and took flight; launching himself above their campsite, he glanced up ahead, gliding up above the treetops, using his airbending to propel himself upward.

His breathing was steady, and ensured that he would remain in flight; moving as quickly as he could, he glided above the forest, turning his arms to push the glider to his left, leading him in the direction of the river, which he could see in the distance. Flying along, he kept his eyes focused ahead of him, making sure he didn't accidentally fly headfirst into an unexpectedly tall tree; he did not, and weaved around anything that stood out, making his way toward the edge of the river, which widened out at the beach it ended at, forming some kind of usual lake that stopped at the sandbar. He continued to fly along the river's length, wanting to get far enough away from the sea to find some decent, fresh water for them to use for cooking and drinking.

When he felt that he was far enough away from the sea and its salt water, he dropped down to the ground, closing his staff; he landed on a beach, and immediately turned toward the reached out toward the water, and decided that bending it into the water skin would be good practice; he took a deep breath, motioning his hands back and forth with the flow of the stream, which lapped up against the shoreline. Taking the water out, he pulled it slowly into the water skin, which he held out, feeling it grow heavier as he pulled more and more liquid into it. Once it was full, he closed it and tied it back around his waist, before opening his glider once more; he wondered how the extra weight would affect his flying, but decided not to worry about it, knowing that it couldn't be that much of a difference.

Leaping up into the air, he blew out of his mouth using airbending to create a funnel of air which raised him up faster than he might have otherwise, Aang noticing the weight around his waist was noticeable, but he didn't care about it that much as he glided back up to the elevation he'd been at before, moving up above the treetops and flying back in the direction of their campsite, noticing that they had a smokestack coming up, which was probably from the fire they'd gotten around to starting.

He noticed another smokestack in the corner of his eye, and thought it was a village for a moment, before he realised that it was a Fire Nation ship, off in the distance; it was sailing along the coast, from what he could tell, and though he worried about it a little bit, he was sure they wouldn't be so pedantic to go after every single campfire they saw. That would just be crazy, in his eyes, but he knew, at least from what Azula had told him, and what he'd already seen, that the Fire Nation were quite intent on going after anything they thought to be a threat.

He turned his attention away from the ship as he focused once more on avoiding the taller treetops, making his way back over toward the camp, which he was able to easily navigate back to with the campfire smoke clear to see. Once he got close enough, he pulled the glider up, slowing his descent; he eyed the two Water Tribe teenagers, who turned to face him as he moved to land. He closed his glider, and landed on his own two feet, using airbending to soften his landing with two blows from his hands.

"Huh, that was pretty quick." Sokka complimented him, the young Avatar smirking, before he tossed the water skin over toward him, as he had to Aang; he grunted as he grabbed it, obviously not expecting the weight.

"Ah!" he cried out, "Don't throw it when it's so heavy." he warned him, before sitting back down beside the campfire.

The young Air Nomad cleared his throat, knowing he shouldn't avoid mentioning what he saw, "Guys, don't panic, but I saw a Fire Nation ship when I was gliding." he explained, both of them turning to face him with surprised faces.

"Wait, really?" Katara asked him with a panicked tone."

"Yeah. It was pretty far away, though. But it was there." he noted, the Water Tribe warrior sighing.

"Well, let's just hope they don't come after our campfire; I can put it out as soon as we finish cooking, but I don't know if that'll make a difference."

"What if we have to run?" he asked the Water Tribesman, who cringed at the suggestion.

"Then I guess that's what we'll have to do." he sighed, before turning to face the pot of food he and his sister had been preparing, "But in the meantime, let's make dinner. I'm not really that hungry after all that fruit we ate, but if we eat this, maybe we can avoid making a proper breakfast tomorrow." he suggested, before narrowing his eyes, "We mightn't be able to cook for a few days when we're flying."

"We've got enough crackers, right?" he asked Sokka, who nodded along.

"Yeah, yeah, I wouldn't worry about food, though maybe Appa might get hungry." he noted, glancing toward the sky-bison, "He can last a while without food, can't he?" he asked Aang, who smiled.

"Yeah, he can, but he needs his sleep no matter what." he assured him, the Water Tribe warrior nodding.

"Well, that's why he can sleep now." he suggested, before pouring some of the water into the pot, "Now, let's get cookin'." he smirked, raising a finger, "It's vegetarian, Aang, don't worry."

"I guessed. We don't have any meat other than your jerky."

"Which you still refuse to share." Katara added, with a somewhat annoyed tone.

"Hey, you guys can eat as many rice crackers as you want, and I'll even avoid eating them, but the jerky's mine... and maybe Momo's, if he bugs me too much." he acknowledged, making her laugh.

"Wait, you're going to give it to Momo and not us?"

"I can reason with you two, but I can't reason with a flying-lemur." he argued, making the other two roll their eyes; Sokka was trying to sound smart while saying stupid things.

"But what if I want some jerky?" his sister asked him, the Water Tribe warrior crossing his arms, "Then you should have got more for yourself." he suggested, making her groan, barely holding back her anger.

"Now, now, guys, we don't need to argue about this. Just appreciate it. Sokka's going to give Momo some jerky." Aang offered them, the Water Tribe boy raising a finger.

"I might, if he annoys me enough." he stressed, "I'm not just handing out jerky here like I'm making it."

"Yeah, you're right." Katara mumbled, before she yawned, "Arguing is just a waste of energy."

"Yeah, let's just think about the delicious meal we're going to eat." Sokka piped up, licking his lips, "Something something vegetables and rice." he gestured toward the pot; Aang couldn't tell whether he was trying to be sarcastic or not- he really did like food, so there was a chance he wasn't actually joking around.

"So... what do you guys think the North Pole's going to be like?" he asked them, before raising his finger, "Other than being mean to girls." he added, knowing that was something they all understood already; Kanna had explained it to them well enough.

"Lots of ice. Ice buildings, ice walls, ice thrones." Sokka guessed, before chuckling, "I wonder if the seat their chief sits on just melts because of his butt being so warm."

His sister snickered, thinking that to be a funny idea, "Well, yeah, it's just like sitting at the campfire for too long." she nodded, "You'll get a hot butt, and melt the ice and snow around you."

"So, what, there's going to be a guy sitting in a puddle?" the young Air Nomad asked them in clarification.

"Well, he might get whatever waterbenders he has serving him to freeze his seat every once in a while." the Water Tribe boy guessed, "You know, he might even have servants serving his every whim."

"So, what, is the North Pole a knock-off Fire Nation?" Katara asked him, "That's just sad."

"Well, you get enough stuck-up people in a room, you suddenly feel compelled to invade the rest of the world." he joked, making Aang cringe.

He didn't know exactly how Fire Lord Sozin decided to go invade the other nations, but he guessed Sokka couldn't be that far from the truth; one had to be pretty disconnected from the suffering of war to come up with war as a solution to one's problems, or to 'spread prosperity', as Azula had told them.

"Well, they can't have that many stuck-up people, seeing that they haven't tried to invade the rest of the world." the Water Tribe girl deduced, "Though, that probably has to do with the fact the Water Tribes have a lot less people than the other nations."

"Yeah, I doubt we could muster an army in the South Pole to conquer a city, let alone the Earth Kingdom." her brother added, making the young Avatar nervously cough.

"Uh... we were talking about the Northern Water Tribe, not... whatever you're talking about." he told him, the Water Tribe teen cringing, glancing toward his sister for a few moments before he turned back to face him.

"Sorry." he apologised, "But yeah, the Northern Water Tribe is going to be just like our tribe, just with more people and buildings." he explained, before Katara coughed, muttering under her breath.

"And more sexism."

"Our tribe's already pretty sexist." he conceded, "I mean, I used to be pretty bad. Katara beat me up a few times with her waterbending because of it." he added, making Aang raise a brow; he was surprised by that suggestion, though how he spoke about sewing suggested he thought girls should be doing it, even though he could probably try and do it himself.

"So just what you used to be like, but way worse." the Water Tribe girl deduced, sighing with frustration, "It's going to be a pain, isn't it?"

"For them." Sokka argued, "When I chi-block their butts." he smirked, before raising a finger, "I'm not actually going to jab their butts. I'll be hitting their torsos to paralyse them." he added, just to clarify he wasn't going to inappropriately assault the leaders of the Northern Water Tribe.

"But what if you did?" Aang snickered, "They'd just all be sitting on the floor, while you make fun of them and their dumb traditions."

"You bring up a good idea, young Avatar." he scratched at his chin, pretending to be some wisened philosopher or guru, thinking over ideas for living, "I'll consider it for when we get there."

"Don't get them too angry, though." Katara warned, "We might get chased out of the North Pole, and then how will Azula sway them to help us?"

"Okay, good point." Sokka nodded, before sniffing the pot he was sitting beside, "This is smelling pretty good."

"It's okay." the young Avatar mumbled, before remembering that soon enough, they'd be eating food at the Northern Water Tribe, something he was feeling a little cautious of, after all the Princess had said about Water Tribe food.

"Is Water Tribe food as bad as Azula says it is?"

"Well, I feel like I'm a bit biased in that area." the Water Tribe warrior conceded, "But, I can see why you wouldn't like it. There's a lot of meat, and the non-meat parts aren't exactly that normal, at least compared to Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation cuisine."

"Seaweed stew isn't bad." he acknowledged, "As long as they have enough of that, I think I'll be good."

"You're the Avatar." Katara gestured toward him, "If anyone's going to be able to get the food they ask for, it's you."

"Oh, yeah, just like Kyoshi Island." he remembered how well treated, especially in terms of food, he had been there.

"Well, let's just hope the Fire Nation doesn't chase us out from there too." the Water Tribe girl acknowledged.

"That can't happen." Sokka assured her, "When the Fire Nation works for us."

"You mean Azula." Aang corrected him, the Water Tribe warrior shaking his head.

"It was cooler when I said us." he argued, the young Air Nomad nodding along, seeing his point; it did sound cool to say that their enemies were actually working for them, even if they were really working for, or at least, loyal to Azula.

"It's a bit weird." the Water Tribe girl spoke up, "Sometimes I forget she's a Princess. That she was meant to be the Fire Lord."

"Yeah." Sokka mumbled, glancing over idly into the distance, "She has some big shoes to fill. Or, should I say, big robes." he raised a finger, the other two snickering at his jokes; the Fire Lord supposedly wore big and unwieldy, though fancy-looking, robes, according to their resident informant on the Fire Nation.

"So, is dinner done?" Aang asked him, licking his lips, "I'm kinda hungry, and I want to go to bed." he explained, the Water Tribesman moving the pot away from the fire.

"Just let it cool down for a bit, then we can dig in." he explained, before reaching his arms up to stretch; his eyes widened as he looked over their campsite, "I haven't even set up my tent." he noted, before shrugging his shoulders, "I'll get around to it."

"You better do it quickly." Katara warned him, "It's going to get dark soon."

"I will. I just have to eat dinner first." he assured her, "We'll have a good sleep, then we'll get up early and start flying."

"We're so close." Aang mumbled, "I didn't think we'd get here this quickly."

"Of course you didn't. You had a million detours planned." he argued, making him cringe; he did have a few things planned that ended up falling through as he realised their priorities.

"Sorry about that." he acknowledged, running his hand through his short, fuzzy hair, "I know we need to stay focused. We won't be able to stop all the fighting if we don't." he concluded, Katara smiling at him brightly, placing a hand on his shoulder.

"That's right, Aang." she grinned at him, "You have a big job to do, but we'll be here every step of the way."

"Making sure you make smart decisions." Sokka added, before pulling out a spoon, which he plopped into the pot, "Like having dinner at a reasonable time every day." he suggested, taking a spoonful of the stew and putting it into one of the bowls he had ready; when it was full, he handed it over to Aang, who gratefully accepted the meal into his hands.

He blew on the bowl, to make sure the meal wasn't too hot, before he took out some chopsticks, quickly getting into the meal, which had an interesting flavour which must have resulted from the mixture of vegetables present. He licked his lips after taking his first few bites, and turned to face Sokka, thankful for the effort he'd put in.

"Thanks for dinner, Sokka."

"Don't mention it." he assured him, before gesturing toward his sister, "Plus, Katara helped me out, and you got the water. This was a group effort."

They continued to eat their meal, mostly in silence, other the sounds of them chewing and swallowing the food; Sokka finished first, unsurprisingly, before he gestured to the pot, "Uh, can I have seconds?"

"I mean, you made it." Aang noted, "Go ahead." he smiled at him reassuringly, before returning to eating his own meal.

He continued to chew down on the mixture of rice and vegetables, and once he had licked his bowl clean, he turned to face Katara, thinking they'd had a good meal, "That was pretty good. I'm not hungry at all."

"Me either." she noted, before turning her eyes toward her brother, "I guess that means you'll be able to have thirds, Sokka."

"Fine by me." he acknowledged, 'If you're not eating then..." he trailed off, rising up to his feet, "Momo!" he called out to the flying lemur, "You want some food?"

The flying-lemur clearly was stirred from his slumber by having his name called, and he chittered, before jumping off of the saddle, flying over toward them, landing right down by the pot, sniffing it, obviously knowing that it was food.

"You want some?" Aang asked him, the lemur reaching in, as if he was about to start licking the pot.

Sokka grasped him by the nape, stopping him from doing so, "Now, now, buddy, that's just rude. I'll get you a bowl." he clarified, doing just that, plopping the spoon into the pot and readying a bowl, which would usually be used by Azula, for the lemur, who was eager to eat their dinner.

"You know, that was pretty nice of you, Sokka." Katara observed, her brother shrugging his shoulders.

"Eh, he was going to lick the pot clean no matter what. Now he can do it with a little manners." he suggested, gesturing down to the flying-lemur, who was eating from the bowl rather slowly, instead of stuffing his face- after all the fruit he'd eaten, it made sense he didn't want to go all out.

"I wonder if Nice Sokka is going to stop being around when her majesty returns." the Water Tribe girl narrowed her eyes at her brother, who raised his hands defensively.

"Hey, I'm being nice because I am nice. Azula doesn't make me mean or anything."

"She kinda makes you act like a tough guy." Aang commented, "Do you not like being nice when she's around?''

"I-" he mumbled, before turning his eyes down to his bowl, "I don't know. Maybe... maybe I just do it without thinking."

"Well, I hope you act like this after she comes back. You don't have to be the tough guy." he assured the Water Tribesman, "You're the smart guy."

He smiled at him, still looking a little uneasy, but appreciative of his words; he couldn't tell him to be nice, but he sure hoped he stayed so once his girlfriend and her sometimes unhelpful influences returned.

"Thanks, Aang."

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