The Return @tubendo
Chapter 19

Azula could feel the sun rising on the horizon beside her, and like on any other day, she awoke, pulling her head up from the sleeping roll and glancing over toward the horizon, where the sun was obscured by a massing of clouds; it was foggy and cold out, though that didn't surprise her, given that they had only been flying for the night. The day prior, she had not had such an uneventful waking; she had been abruptly woken from her sleep by Ty Lee's cries and shouts, as they had been thrown in prison by Zhao. Just thinking about the Admiral made her snarl, and she took a deep breath, wanting to remain calm; she knew that he was imprisoned in the Northern Water Tribe, along with the crew of his ship.

She felt a tinge of guilt over having so many innocent crew members imprisoned, but she knew that that was the price she would have to pay to ensure the Northern Water Tribe didn't just imprison her for being demanding of them when she was clearly the one in the wrong. Her guards were safe however, and had set off around the same time they had on a steamer, though she was sure it would take them a few more days longer to reach the base. She was looking forward to both a spa treatment and getting to work on doing her job, or rather, the role she had assumed for herself. She had an army to command, and a country to liberate; that wasn't even considering the fact that she, Aang and the others were going to head east to Ba Sing Se, and that the young Avatar had to learn earthbending. Due to her actions at the North Pole, his waterbending training had been cut short, but he and Katara had already learnt much from their master, and she was sure that they would be able to continue working on their forms and techniques without his guidance.

She made a little yawn, and covered her mouth when doing so, not wanting to wake up anybody else on the saddle. She had had a fair sleep, the familiarity of Appa's saddle being something that brought her comfort, even if Sokka was turned away from her. His relative coldness and distance made a lot of sense, and she continued to feel guilty over it; she knew what she had done wrong, and no matter how much she tried to prove her worth, she knew that wouldn't really help her. Proving her worth was the whole justification she had used to make her moves on Zhao; they could have just as comfortably left him alone and just hoped that the Northern Water Tribe would tolerate her presence there with Aang. What she had really needed to do was be a good girlfriend, but she'd failed at that, even after all he had done for her.

She looked over toward her boyfriend, and wondered how long it would take for him to accept her again, and to trust her just as he had for all those months. She wished that she didn't want the throne so bad that she was willing to ignore his wishes to get it, but she did; it was at the very core of her being, a desire drilled into her by her father as a young child. There was no getting rid of it, even if she had dispensed with much of his ignorant worldview. Realising that she was a descendant of Avatar Roku didn't really make much of a difference in the end; it made her feel a little more weird about her relationship with Aang, but other than that, it didn't affect how she saw herself or her role to play in the battles to come. The throne would be hers, and she would fix the world; becoming the greatest Fire Lord in history had always been her aspiration, it was simply what that meant that had changed.

She decided that if she was going to be stuck on Appa's saddle for the next few days that she ought to find something to do; she realised that she really didn't have much around, other than perhaps mending her clothes, or even Sokka's, which had been damaged during their fight. Of course, that was his Fire Nation outfit, the one he had originally been given in Ba Sing Se, and not his Water Tribe parka and tunic which he usually wore; she was wearing her own parka, having exchanged it with her armour. Ty Lee was still wearing her warmer, layered robes which she had received before they left for the North Pole, and she understood why she would need them. Azula was only just pulling herself out of the saddle, and yet, she was already feeling chilly. She immediately picked up her parka, and pulled it over her Water Tribe robes, which were well suited for the climate, but not as good as the thick fur parka. She would almost say she missed its warmth and soft touch, having not worn it since just after Kyoshi Island, as the weather in the Earth Kingdom was substantially warmer than anywhere around the poles.

She knew that the first thing she ought to address was breakfast; she was feeling rather hungry, having expended a lot of energy the day prior fighting both the men on Zhao's ship and then the Water Tribe forces that defended the walls of the city. She immediately pulled herself out of the sleeping roll, closing it back up to make sure Sokka didn't get cold from all the cold air coming in; she then turned her gaze over toward the food bag, which sat by the rear of the saddle, which luckily for her, was in arm's reach. She picked it up, dragging it over to her, making sure to do so slowly, as not to make any loud or sudden noises that would wake the others. Reaching inside, she picked out some seal jerky, which she knew might annoy Sokka, but she was hungry, and couldn't be bothered preparing any food, even if it was technically possible with the help of either Aang or Katara's waterbending. She wasn't going to wake them up to go draw some sea water out into their pot, and then sit around and heat the pot up without burning either herself or the saddle. It just seemed like to much of a challenge, so she resigned to taking the jerky, knowing that her boyfriend might grumble at her about it.

She bit into the jerky, crossing her legs as she sat there beside the sleeping roll, eyeing Sokka as he slept there peacefully; Katara's healing had helped him with his injuries sustained from fighting Zhao's men, but they had actually had to go to a proper healer, who wasn't all too pleased about having a Princess of the Fire Nation in her tent. She healed the Water Tribe warrior nonetheless, having no qualms in knowing exactly how hard he and fought, and why he had; the Princess didn't want to tell that many people about the spirits and what Zhao had intended, but Aang decided to go on a speel about it just to assure her that the Water Tribe teen was indeed a 'good guy' as he had called him. She knew that her boyfriend was a good person, far better than herself; if she was really good, then she wouldn't have done what she had. A good person wasn't conceited and lied about their intentions to trick a man into befalling his own doom; if she was any good, she would have attacked him on the spot when she met him at the compound, and declared him a failure for his actions at Yu Dao. That was the fact of the matter, but it would be a little rich of her to call him a failure after what she had done herself.

She sighed, knowing that even if the jerky did actually taste quite nice, it really didn't distract that well from what she had done; her failures as an individual seemed to be mounting up, and she couldn't deny them. She could deny her incompetence when the Water Tribe warriors sunk her ship, because she had not known of their intent, and she could deny her weakness when a few Earth Kingdom deserters nearly killed her and Sokka, because they were both tired and outnumbered. She couldn't as easily deny her failings when it came to Yu Dao, let alone Zhao; it was her choice to try and trick him, and that choice had led to failure. The choice to ignore Sokka's wishes had led to her fears, and perhaps his own, becoming a reality; she hated that it had gone the way it had, but she knew she couldn't change it. She had to move forward, and continue on her march to ultimate goal; if she gave up again because of the pigheaded Admiral's actions, she'd never forgive herself.

Azula heard a yawn, and realised it had come from Ty Lee, who was rolling about in her sleeping roll, obviously just about to wake up; she decided that she'd wait for her to get up, and then perhaps they could have a conversation; she didn't know about what, but the Princess was sure she needed to start speaking or the thoughts she didn't want to speak about were going to come right out of her head like blood from an open wound. She was going crazy thinking just about everything that had happened, and how her actions had led to needless suffering, both for Sokka and for the Northern Water Tribe as a whole. The acrobat pulled herself up from her sleeping roll, and blinked a few times, before she turned her gaze to Azula, immediately realising that her friend was awake.

"Oh, hi, Zula." she addressed her, the Princess raising a finger to her lips, "Oh... sorry." she lowered her voice to a whisper, "We can't speak loud when everybody's asleep."

"Yeah, I thought it'd be obvious." the Princess rolled her eyes, before she took a bite from the jerky.

Her friend wiped the sleep from her eyes, before she shuffled over to sit beside her; Ty Lee was obviously interested in what she was thinking about, but she wasn't going to budge. Her innermost thoughts were going to remain just that, no matter how interested she might be in them. She didn't need a friend to critique her thoughts about herself; she already was criticising her own stupidity, and didn't need any commentary from the acrobat, no matter the angle. She tilted her head slightly, and looked out over the foggy, dim horizon, which obscured the morning sun, the light of which glimmered through the gray haze.

"It's only been a day." she mumbled, "A day." she repeated to stress the point; what they had experienced would not leave their collective consciousness anytime soon.

"And has everything changed?" she asked her, knowing that in some ways it had, although for the most part everything was the same as it had been.

The world still feared and despised Azula for the monster they thought her to be, and she continued to struggle with Sokka over what was right and wise, even though it seemed he was winning that argument, whether she'd openly admit it or not.

"Not really." she noted, almost sounding saddened by that, "Sokka's... not happy."

"I don't blame him. He's afraid. Fear holds people back. It used to hold me back, but I couldn't let it control me. It's my weapon." she explained, her friend's eyes widening.

"Fear... fear of what?"

"It doesn't matter what." she snarled, before crossing her arms, "Plus, you're smart. I'm pretty certain you can figure it out." she added with a snide whisper, Ty Lee turning away, almost in shame.

"Y-yeah... I think I do." she whispered softly, before placing her hands together, "I hope you find another way."

"Why?" she asked her, honestly confused why she'd want that; fear was a weapon, and anger was one too; she couldn't really control either emotion, but fear was something that could be sated by power, while anger seemed to only grow when she lacked it.

"Because you're more than your fears." she argued, raising her chin up, "You're Azula."

"And Azula is afraid of things. I'm a human being; even I can admit that now."

"What, you used to not even think you were human?" she asked her, amused by the suggestion.

"I thought I was above things like fear. My father's 'wisdoms', if you could even call them that, they told me to never be afraid, to always take control and power over every situation I found myself in. I was in denial, really. I'm not afraid of him, not anymore."


"Because he can't take away his love and adoration. I don't need it... and I don't want it. He just wants to control me." she argued, narrowing her eyes, "That's what he probably wanted all along, and I bought into it."

"Because you wanted him to love you?"

"I don't think Father is capable of love." she argued, "I mean, once I thought I wasn't... so maybe he is. But I doubt it. He just thinks strength, power and control can make up for the fact my mother left him. He probably thinks she despised her, and if... well, how she treated me was any indication, she probably did hate his guts."

"Wow..." Ty Lee mumbled, "This is the most you've said about him... ever."

"Because back then, I didn't understand what love was. I didn't know what real strength is." she argued, turning her gaze to Sokka's sleeping body, "And I didn't know pain... I mean, I knew a certain kind, but I never understood it. Zuko did. That's probably why he went back to the capital and nearly killed Father."

"He did burn his face." her friend mumbled, "I'm not saying he should be Fire Lord, but he was... pretty justified to do that. I mean, I'd never do that, even if I was a firebender, but that's because I'm me. I couldn't hate somebody enough to do that to them." she argued, making Azula laugh; she knew that her brother's scarring wasn't a laughing matter, but it was funny, at least in a way.

"You know, it wasn't even about hatred... at least I don't think it was. He thought my brother was weak, and needed to toughen up, but Zuko doubled down and begged. He could have fought, and maybe he still might have been scarred, but Father wouldn't have banished him."

"That might have... turned out for the worse."

"In hindsight, yes, but nobody has the benefit of hindsight." she acknowledged, "If Uncle had just won at Ba Sing Se, then all of this shit could have been avoided." she noted, slightly annoyed that her uncle's cowardice and then his subsequent back-flip on it by supporting Zuko's coup was the ultimate cause of all the crap she had been through- he could have stopped it all by just becoming the Fire Lord in the first place.

"Do you... do you think he should be the Fire Lord?"

"Of course not." she scoffed at her words, "Though, he'd probably be more tolerable than Zuko, if only for his actual political acumen. My uncle isn't incompetent." she argued, before taking another bite from the jerky, "Now can we shut up about Zuzu before I set something on fire?"

"Uh... yep." Ty Lee nodded, obviously nervous about the Princess trying anything of the likes; she didn't want to talk about her brother, not while she could only consider her own failings- she had to be able to trust her own abilities before she could even consider going against him, "Can I have some jerky too?"

The Princess reached over into the bag and pulled out another piece of jerky, "Only have one. Sokka will have a fit if he finds out we've been eating it all." she warned, the acrobat nodding.

"He does love his jerky." she agreed, before turning her gaze over towards the front of the saddle, looking out toward the cloudy sky ahead of them, "How long is this going to take?"

"Days at least." she admitted, "I wish Aang and Katara could have learned for a little longer, but we can't get everything we want, especially after... what I did."

"It was for the right reason, Zula." she assured her, "I mean, it was your fault, but you couldn't predict what Zhao was going to do."

"No, I could have. I was just too cocky, again." she argued, before taking another bite from her jerky.

"People make mistakes, Azula." she whispered, making a small smile, though it was bittersweet, "You think you should be above that, but nobody is."

"I just need to avoid them. I'm meant to be the smart one." she argued, scrunching her lips up, "And yet, here we are."

"We did as well as we could, Azula." she argued, "You can't change it."

"Oh, if I could, things would have gone very differently." she admitted, "But nobody has the benefit of knowing the future. You can only predict." she conceded, before she ran her hand through her hair, deciding that she ought to properly tie it up.

She grasped the hair bands she had sitting in her personal bag, and picked up her tresses, moving from hairline backward to bunch it all up; running the bands through her hair, she tied it all up into a topknot, the end of which flowed out as a ponytail. She then flicked her hair around, making sure she had it out of her face. Suddenly, she heard a mumble on the other side of the saddle, and turned her gaze over to see Aang pulling himself out of his sleeping roll; she would admit that the young Avatar looked rather unusual wearing Water Tribe clothes with his black hair, which was slowly getting longer, though it barely covered his arrow by that point.

"Good morning." he smiled at the pair, "Is somebody going to make breakfast?" he asked her; the Princess reached over into the food bag once more, and tossed a rice cracker his way.

He grabbed the rice cracker with his airbending, spinning it in a ball of air before he dropped it into his hands, "Oh." he mumbled, "I guess it's just rice crackers again."

"That's right, Aang." she nodded, "I cannot be bothered cooking anything." the Princess stressed, making Ty Lee chuckle.

"Well, maybe Katara might want to cook."

"I don't think she's going to be in the mood." Azula argued, "I did ruin her waterbending training."

"She's pretty good, you know." Aang spoke up, the two girls turning to face him.

"Well, I know she's good." the Princess argued, "I always knew she had the potential, and now she's been properly trained by a waterbending master."

"Pakku was a good master." he acknowlegded, before grimacing, "But he's... well, you certainly wouldn't have liked him."

"Why do I have a feeling he was avoiding me?" she rhetorically asked him, raising a finger to her chin, "I assume its because he's just as bigoted as the rest of his people and hates firebenders."

"Uh." Aang's eyes widened, his lips scrunching up, "It's actually... not that."

Ty Lee furrowed a brow, perplexed by his words, "If it's not her being a firebender, then what is it? Does he have a grudge against the royal family or something?"

"Nope." the young Air Nomad shook his head, "He's a member of the White Lotus, like Bumi."

Azula clenched her fists, and snarled with anger; if she'd known of his loyalties, she would have interrogated him about it while she was still at the North Pole, but it seemed that some people, that being Katara and Sokka, decided not to mention that fact.

"Sokka beat him up for it, if you're wondering. He sent a message to your uncle, and that's... well, I don't think that's very good." he noted, "What would he even get out of that? We're always on the move."

"Perhaps my uncle wants to find me. 'Talk it out', as they'd say." she raised a finger to her chin, "I won't have any of that, not while my brother sits on the throne." she decided, before narrowing her eyes, "The organisation must still want to 'deal' with me."

"You're an important person." Aang noted, "And you're my friend. Maybe they think we can all work together to make peace." he suggested, the Princess laughing at his suggestion, before she covered her mouth, knowing she couldn't be too loud.

"Oh that's just brilliant." she sarcastically quipped, "Next they'll want to make me shake hands with Zuzu."

"I mean... this is more important than you and Zuko. It's more important than anybody. The whole world's in danger."

"From your father." Ty Lee spoke up, her voice soft, but clearly afraid, "He's the real danger, even if he's in prison."

"For now." Azula raised a finger, "He'll be out soon enough. I don't want to have to deal with him, and hopefully I won't have to. Maybe Iroh will get the Agni Kai that was always meant to be."

"Always..." her friend mumbled, before her eyes widened, "Why would they want to kill each other?"

"My uncle wants to protect Zuko, and my father wants to get back at him for putting him on the throne." she argued, before placing her hands together, 'They're going to fight, eventually. It's inevitable now."

"And why not Zuko?" Aang asked her, "He fought Ozai before, didn't he?"

"And failed to kill him, despite the fact he had every reason to do so." she clarified, "Uncle, on the other hand, has no qualms about murdering people for the greater good. That's the one thing we do have in common."

The young Avatar cringed at her words and turned away, "Why does... why does everything have to end with people dying?"

"Zhao didn't die." she retorted, before narrowing her eyes, "Even though he was certainly asking for it." she warned him, her gaze turning to Ty Lee, "So they will fight, if my father does ever get out of that prison cell my brother threw him into."

"We broke out of prison easily." she argued, narrowing her eyes in thought, "Maybe he's just waiting for the right time."

"I'd prefer if my brother had broken his will to fight... but I doubt that's the case." she acknowledged, before sighing, "Is there something else we can talk about?"

"Going to the spa." the acrobat pursed her lips upward, making Azula snicker; she certainly was looking forward to relaxing a little after all they had been through.

"Well, there's not much to discuss. We're going to enjoy it, that's for certain." she argued, before laying herself back on top of her side of the sleeping roll, noting that Sokka was still asleep, "Perhaps you'll find yourself another stupid book to read."

"The book wasn't stupid, Zula." Ty Lee retorted, "It was actually really interesting, and tense. I didn't know what was coming next whenever I read it." she explained herself.

"Where'd you get a book?" Aang asked her, making her scrunch her lips up.

"Well, I bought it off a servant after I saw them reading it." she explained, "I told her I was interested, and she explained the idea of the story, and I said I just had to buy it off her."

"Ah, okay." he nodded, before he turned his gaze ahead of them, "I wonder how your people are going to react." he said his thoughts aloud, obviously directed at the Princess.

"Probably badly." she admitted, "But I know they'll accept me as their leader; they don't have much of a choice, and I have a plan that will benefit them. Nobody wants to be ruling over some backwards part of the Earth Kingdom, guarding against people who want them dead; they'd prefer to be protecting their country, their real country."

"Well, that's what we want. Four whole nations, not two." the young Avatar acknowledged their shared opinion, which made Azula cringe, remembering that the boy before her was the last of one of those four nations.

Remembering that was Fire Lord Sozin's fault only made her feel more conflicted, knowing that she herself was both his descendant, and a descendant of Aang's predecessor, Avatar Roku. That fact continued to disturb her, knowing that it must have been a purposeful thing; her blue fire didn't come from nowhere, and to think that it was associated with the power that Aang himself held made her more afraid of the power of the Avatar than anything else.

"I'd say three, given you're the last of one of them." Azula acknowledged, "Though, I guess if people want to become Air Nomads, they can, can't they?"

"Maybe." he shrugged his shoulders, "The spirit of my people can't be gone, even if the temples are empty. There has to be... something. Even without airbending."

"I hope so." Ty Lee acknowledged with a small smile on her lips.

"Hoping won't solve much." the Princess noted, saying something that she knew to be true, even if it was frustrating to think of, "Action is the only way that can be achieved."

The Air Nomads were gone, for no good reason, and it would take a lot more than just hoping for people to reinvigorate the lost nation for it to return; Aang might be able to teach people, and perhaps some would leave their old lives and join some new kind of Air Nomad society. Even without their airbending, there could be something; the Southern Water Tribe didn't cease to exist because they lost waterbending, though they certainly were teetering on the edge. It was very different with only one person to continue the legacy of an entire nation, but she knew it was better than nobody. Before Aang had returned, she thought the Air Nomads were gone for good, but now there was a glimmer of hope; she didn't feel so personally invested in it, but knowing the boy before her, she wanted him to succeed- he had to.

"If people want to help me, then I guess that'll make it easier." he made a small smile, the Princess raising her chin up.

"I believe I might be able to be of some assistance." she admitted, "But, not much assistance can come until I am the Fire Lord."

"I know." he nodded, "You'll be a good one."

"I will." she agreed with him, smiling, proud that the boy thought so; if the pacifist Air Nomad thought she was going to be a good leader for her country, then perhaps she really was on the right path.

"So..." Ty Lee mumbled, "What's next?" she asked, the Princess narrowing her eyes.

She assumed that other than securing her control over her forces, Aang getting Toph to be his earthbending master was an obvious aim. Getting all the way back to New Omashu was going to be a pain, but she knew it could be done, though she was not in the mood to waste more than a month flying back and forth, putting themselves in danger of capture by Zuko's forces.

"Breakfast." she heard Sokka speak up, which almost frightened her, having thought he was fast asleep; it seemed that they had been speaking too loud, after all, "But seriously, are we having breakfast or what?"

"Well, it depends. Are you making it?" Azula asked him, making him narrow his eyes.

"I can't bend the water or fire to make a proper meal, so that's a definite no from me." he argued, making her snicker; he raised a good point,, as he was certainly less capable of making a meal than either her or Katara, purely due to their circumstances of being located on Appa's saddle in the middle of the ocean.

She reached back over into the bag, and pulled out some more seal jerky, tossing it to her boyfriend, who immediately grabbed it as it was thrown his way, "Oh, yeah." he smirked, "I have jerky." he noted, before taking a bite from it.

"Problem solved." the Princess raised her chin up, thinking she had solved his question rather quickly.

"Why are you sitting out, anyway? Isn't it cold?" he asked his girlfriend, who rolled her eyes.

"I wasn't going to eat in the sleeping roll, unlike yourself." she argued, the Water Tribesman scrunching his lips up.

"Well, I don't have a problem with that. You wanna eat in the sleeping roll, you can." he assured her, making her scoff.

"I don't want to do it." she stressed, before rolling her eyes; she turned her gaze toward Ty Lee, who had a somewhat amused look on her face, "What?" she asked her, unsure what was so funny.

"Nothing, Zula." she smiled at her, before turning to face Aang, "Did you want to wake up Katara so we can actually make breakfast?"

"I..." he began to mumble, before his eyes turned down to the Water Tribe girl, who was rolled over, clearly not wanting to be disturbed, "Maybe not yet. She might want to sleep in." he noted, before he slid himself back into his own sleeping roll, "I'm going to sleep for a little longer. If Appa starts to nod off, try and hold the reins so he doesn't just fall and splash into the water."

"I don't want all our things getting ruined, so I'll keep that in mind, Aang." Azula agreed to his proposition, before she turned to face her boyfriend, who was still chewing away at his jerky.

His eyes turned to meet her own, and he scooched over in the sleeping roll, giving her the space she would need to get back in, "Well, are you going to sit out there and freeze your ears off or are you going to get back into bed."

"It's past sunrise." she observed, "I'm a firebender. Do I have to explain it to you for the millionth time, Sokka?"

"No, you explained it well enough that first morning." he acknowledged, making her smirk, remembering how afraid of her he had been when they first were stuck together in the forest, "But, you can just lie down."

"You really want me to lie there, don't you?" she prodded him with a smirk, though part of her knew she really shouldn't have.

"Yeah, yeah I do." he defiantly declared, before scooching over even more, taking another bite out of his jerky, "I'd like to snuggle."

"Could you be any more embarrassing?" she asked him, the Water Tribe warrior smirking.

"Well, I'm not embarrassed, and I don't care what Ty Lee thinks of our relationship." he argued, Azula cringing as she heard her friend giggle behind her.

"Cute." she simply acknowledged, "And tough. Wow, that's the best of both worlds."

"Shut up." she demanded, "I wish you had brought that stupid book with you so you could be reading that instead of listening to every single thing we say to each other.

"Not everything, just some things. The cute and funny things especially." she assured her, the Princess rolling her eyes, before she turned her gaze back toward her boyfriend, who was just lying there, already having turned his gaze away from her.

He was really trying to prod her, and Azula would admit, she wanted to fall for his ploy; she wanted that smidgen of intimacy that she so desired, after all the time they'd spent apart, and after all the wrong she'd done. She slid herself back into the sleeping roll, and pushed her legs back into position, where they ought to be, before she slid the parka off; she then laid herself down on her back, lying down beside Sokka, who didn't do anything; he didn't even say a word, just waiting for her to make a move.

"Is this what playing hard to get looks like?" she asked him, making him snicker.

"I don't know." he simply responded, though she couldn't discern whether he was genuinely uncertain or just playing with her.

She shook her head and turned her head around, placing it down on the cushioned end of the sleeping roll, before she pulled herself closer to her boyfriend, wrapping her arm around his waist; he took a deep breath out and giggled.

"I got you." he told her with an amused voice, "You really do like cuddling."

"Shut up, Sokka." she demanded, "Just let me have this." she asked of him, the Water Tribe teen turning around slightly so he could look her in the eyes.

"You really are a prideful woman, aren't you?"

"That won't change anytime soon, savage." she retorted, making him smirk.

Her insults had reached a point where they were almost endearing, and that confused her; she did originally intend to insult him, but by that point, calling him savage was a way to remind herself of what she had once been, and what she had thought he was.

"Well remember to be humble every once in a while. It'll be sweeter when you don't expect it." he suggested, making her roll her eyes.

"Humility? Who do you take me for?" she scoffed, before she pulled him tighter, nuzzling her head into his shoulder; he chuckled at her words, and turned his head slightly.

"How about a little kindness instead?" he gave another idea, and she pursed her lips upward, turning her eyes up so they locked; she knew he deserved a little kindness after all she had put him through, and she knew that being kind might make her feel a little more human- being a tough, stoic Princess certainly did get old after a while.

"Oh, I could do that, Sokka. I could."

Aang would admit, flying into a Fire Nation military base on Appa probably wasn't the brightest idea they'd had so far, but Azula had assured him that her followers would stay in line as long as they understood her presence; so, she had decided to make herself known by sending a fire stream up into the sky above them before the soldiers present got any ideas and tried to shoot Appa out of the sky. It seemed to do the trick well enough, and when they landed down in a courtyard, the guards present decidedly didn't attack them. The Princess stood tall and proud before her subordinates, and they knelt down toward her in deference, and she jumped off of the saddle, probably looking rather odd in their eyes; she had gotten out of her parka, but she was still dressed otherwise as if she were a Water Tribesman.

"If you haven't figured it out yet, the Avatar is our guest." she clarified, gesturing up to the young Air Nomad, who waved out to those present; their gazes momentarily moved to him, before everyone's eyes turned down, "I require the highest ranking officers to meet me in the chamber inside. I would like to discuss the matters at hand." she explained, one of them standing up.

"Of course, your majesty. They will be called upon." the man explained to her, the Princess smirking.

"Well then, do so. I don't have all day." she added, the man bowing, before he turned his heels; Aang guessed from his attire that he was some kind of officer, and he immediately moved off toward the main compound, where he assumed they would be going.

Azula turned around to face them, and raised her chin up, "Well, then, come on. I'm sure nobody's going to touch Appa." she assured him, the Avatar turning to face his other friends; Ty Lee was completely comfortable with their situation, and immediately climbed off of the saddle, though the two Water Tribe siblings were a fair bit less so.

"This is... new." Katara admitted, her brother placing a hand on her shoulder.

"Don't worry, they're not going to do anything. I hung around these people for ages, and though... they didn't like me, they didn't dare to oppose me." he clarified, making Azula snicker.

"Yes, you got to abuse the authority you were given by association to me." she clarified his statement, making the others laugh, much to the chagrin of the Water Tribe warrior.

"Well, I did. Thanks for the power." he retorted, before climbing off of Appa's saddle; the other two followed on after him, and the Air Nomad kept a keen eye on the soldiers around them, who seemed rather unnerved by his presence.

He wondered if stories of what he'd done to stop the two fleets in the Mo Ce Sea from flying had spread about; it wouldn't surprise him if they thought that he was there to try and disable their weapons and wrest control back of their territories to the Earth Kingdom. He wasn't, knowing that Azula was going to handle the whole Earth Kingdom situation quickly enough; they needed to prepare, but the reinvigoration of the largest of the four nations would come sooner rather than later, and they'd be the ones to help it along.

The people before him, however, probably didn't know much of the Princess's plans, given she probably had to lie a lot to cover her intentions at the North Pole; now that she was going to come clean, things might change, and certainly not for the better- if those at the North Pole were reacting badly to his association with Azula, then he could only imagine the opposite reaction amongst the Fire Nation military. As they approached the doorway of the compound, the guards stepped out of their way, though they cautiously eyed Aang, and he tried his best to ignore their glares; he focused ahead, following after the other three, who were making their way into the centre of the building, down a wide hallway.

Katara leaned over toward him, obviously a little unnerved by all the Fire Nation soldiers, "This isn't safe." she told him, the young Avatar nodding.

"I know. But are they going to betray her?"

"I don't think anybody's going to try that, especially after she explains what happened at the North Pole." she acknowledged, before striding ahead, following the others up a staircase.

They filed on up, and quickly made their way onto the first floor of the building; the Princess was already leading them into the room she had spoken of, which they entered via two painted gold and red metal doors. The whole place seemed rather ornate, though not as much as the temple on Crescent Island; the hall was large, with a table sitting in the middle, lined with wooden chairs upon which they could sit. Azula took her place at the head of the table, and the others sat around her by the end of the table.

He guessed that her subordinates would be arriving soon, and then they'd end up having a proper discussion about their plans. With an army at her disposal, the Fire Nation Princess would be able to act her goals, and hopefully, help a smoother transition to peace occur; the Earth Kingdom needed to be made whole again, and only with the support of her forces could they do that. If they had remained out of her country, they might have run amok and caused even more problems than Ozai's loyalists already were.

"Well, I guess we're here." Sokka spoke up, "And now we've got to figure out what to do with all these soldiers."

"We don't need to do that." his girlfriend clarified, "We're simply giving some orders, and then we're going to plot out our own moves. The Dai Li need to get taken down, and we need Aang to learn earthbending as well."

"Well, we can fly back to New Omashu, can't we?" Katara asked, the Princess scrunching up her lips.

"I'd prefer not to go all the way back there. I need to consolidate my strength here and work on dealing with the various Earth Kingdom rebel groups; without their cooperation, I'm just going to be fighting them instead of getting done what really needs to be done." she acknowledged, "The colonies will be mine, and soon enough, we'll have gathered enough strength between us and Bumi's rebels to make a real move on Ba Sing Se."

"We're not going to invade, are we?" Ty Lee asked, "That just sounds like way too much effort."

"We won't need to invade." she clarified, "But we'll need to pacify the defending forces so we can ensure a smooth transition of power, so our allies can take power over the city, and ensure that the city doesn't fall into utter chaos."

"That would be bad." Aang noted, not wanting to imagine what might happen if the Dai Li was gotten rid of, only for the city to turn into a lawless anarchy; even if he didn't personally like rules, laws and tough governments, they needed to have something in Ba Sing Se- hopefully something a lot fairer than what he guessed the Dai Li government was like.

"Wait, so how are we going to get Toph if we don't got to New Omashu?" Sokka asked, the Princess turning her gaze to the young Avatar.

"You can fly by yourself, can't you?"

"Fly? Yes." he confirmed, "Appa might actually go faster with less people on his back." he noted, before cringing, "But I don't know if I'll be... safe. The Fire Nation... I mean, the other Fire Nation, they'll want to throw me prison after Crescent Island. I don't want to fight them alone."

"We're not all going." Azula declared, "I have a job to do, so if you all want to go with him, you can, but I'm going to make sure my men do what I need them to."

"We don't all need to go." Katara spoke up, "I can go with Aang." she offered, "I know how to cook, hunt and gather food, so we can avoid Fire Nation occupied settlements along the way. If we really have to go inside, we have our disguises."

"We do." Aang noted, glad they had bought those in the first place; if they hadn't bought their disguises, he had a feeling they would have a lot more of a dangerous journey ahead of them.

"And you can keep Aang practicing his waterbending while you're at it." Sokka spoke up, "It's actually a good idea. You two can handle your waterbending and Toph, and we'll do the... politics." he noted with a rather disenchanted tone, making the young Avatar raise a brow; other than Azula, he imagined that he'd be the most inclined of them to deal with politics, given he was a guy into 'big ideas' and 'big plans', as he had once phrased it.

"I thought you liked politics." he noted, the Water Tribe teen cringing.

"I never said I liked it. I like doing what's best for my tribe and for the world. At the moment, that's a hard question to answer at the moment." he admitted, "There's a lot of dangerous stuff going on, and we shouldn't make any mistakes."

"Was... me coming here a mistake?" he asked them, the Princess shaking her head.

"It was not. I need to tell my supporters what I'm doing; I want them to trust me, and I can't have them trust me if I'm not explaining to them the strengths I wield- our alliance being one of them."

"Our friendship." he corrected her, the Princess twitching an eyebrow.

"You're great at making friends now." Ty Lee observed with a rather smug smile, patting her friend on the forearm, "Maybe we can woo the Fire Nation colonies into making you their Fire Lord."

"I'm not exactly a people pleaser, Ty Lee." she argued against her idea, "I need to show them my power. I intend for a peaceful process, even if it is coercive." she acknowledged.

"I mean, Ty Lee has a good point." Aang spoke up, "Being the nicest, most likeable leader might win you some more friends."

"Being the nicest never won anybody shit, ever." she argued, "Sokka, what'd you tell me you told the Northerners who wanted to infringe on the sovereignty of your people." she raised her hand toward her boyfriend, whose expression darkened upon being reminded of that specific event.

"That Aang would kick their arses if they tried shit." he clarified, making the young Avatar's eyes widen.

"Wait I'm doing what?" he asked, the Water Tribe warrior raising a hand up.

"If they came south and started to 'help' our tribe, and then demanded control over our affairs, that you would intervene and ensure our independence." he explained his intentions, the Air Nomad boy sitting there, with his mouth ajar, unsure exactly what to say to that.

"I mean... I am meant to ensure peace and balance between the nations, but... that's... well, I don't even know what that is."

"Doing the right thing." Katara clarified, "Those people who claim they want to 'help' us just want to abuse our tribe for our poor state to enrich themselves." she argued, saying something rather similar to what Sokka had said after that meeting; it seemed that the siblings were in agreement on the matter, and it wouldn't be a massive stretch to assume that the rest of the Southern Water Tribe would agree with them.

"Don't worry about that." Sokka assured him, "It's not like anything's happening yet. I doubt Pakku's even organised anybody to leave the Northern Water Tribe yet." he noted, before turning his gaze to Azula, "So, we're staying here."

"There's work to be done, Sokka, and I'm sure you might be able to assist me." she noted the Water tribe warrior laughing off her words, scratching the back of his head.

"Well, I'm not really that well versed in all of this. I mean, there was Ba Sing Se, but you were the one doing most of the work."

"Don't act like you weren't helpful." she argued, crossing her arms, "You made sure the city didn't unravel into utter chaos." she argued, before turning her gaze to Aang, "And now, together, we've got to make sure order can be restored to the Earth Kingdom."

"There's a lot of things we need to do." Katara observed, "But, we'll do it together."

"You just need to take your little trip south first, that's all." the Princess clarified, her eyes darting up the table; the Avatar turned his gaze around, realising that some officers were entering the room, all of them bowing toward Azula in respect.

"Your majesty." they all spoke to her with the kind of deference that made sense for her position; she was their Fire Lord, even if she hadn't been crowned, nor did she have a palace to preside over.

"Please, sit. I believe it is time for us to discuss the matters that face us." she directed the men, who strode along and sat down on the table.

Aang leaned over toward the Princess and whispered, unsure how he ought to be acting, "Is this going to be a serious talk?"

"Yes." she clarified, "So, don't saying anything stupid. We're here to explain and alleviate the worries of my subordinates." she clarified, speaking quietly enough that it was unlikely the officers would hear her, given they had sat themselves away from them.

He nodded, and waited as more men filed into the room; Azula didn't need to direct them, given they could already see the others sitting down. The Air Nomad boy awkwardly sat there, placing his arms onto the table and resting his chin on his open palms, glancing over to Sokka and Ty Lee, who were silently sitting there, both of them looking to make an effort to seem serious and composed in front of the guests. Once they had all sat down, or at least, what he assumed to be all of them, Azula rose up from her chair, and all of them did the same; Aang and the others did the same, and she rolled her eyes before gesturing for them all to sit. They did, and the officers followed soon after. A few moments later the Princess addressed the table, her voice cold and distant-sounding, a far cry from her hopeful tone that she had spoken with when considering their desires to fix the Earth Kingdom, and the world as a whole.

"If you cannot deduce it from the fact I have arrived here on a sky-bison and not on the ship which I left it, let me spell it out for you: Admiral Zhao has committed the heinous crime of treason of the highest order- imprisoning my associates and I with no basis other than his maddened fear." she explained, her words a misrepresentation of what had really gone on at the North Pole; she had always intended to betray Zhao, and now the young Air Nomad was unnerved by the suggestion she had always intended to lie- it was a blatantly fabricated lie for the greater good, but a lie nonetheless.

"Now, in his stead, I will be taking full control of all operations at this base, as well as any ships formerly under the Admiral's command." she explained her intentions, "The battleship that was sent north was lost in the battle that occurred as I tried to stop the Admiral from committing further acts that would tarnish any goodwill I hope to establish with the world. That is what I have brought you here to say." she explained, before dropping down into her seat, and with that, a deathly silence fell upon the table.

The word 'goodwill' obviously caught the officers by surprise, and Azula seemed to notice this; Sokka looked at her, obviously nervous that she might react badly, or even backtrack on her words because of the reaction. She didn't do either, and raised her chin up, calmly eyeing the men before her.

"Is there a problem?" she asked them, the officers shaking their heads, "I will fulfill my promise that I made in Ba Sing Se." she admitted, "I will liberate the colonies from my brother's reign, and then after that, the homeland. However I have decided, after much consideration of the danger a prolonged occupation would pose to our forces, that a peace treaty with the remaining forces of the Earth Kingdom is in order."

"A peace treaty, your majesty?" one of them asked her, sounding surprised by the idea, "What do you desire to gain from peace with those dirt-eating savages? We won the war. They ought to be grovelling at your feet." he asked her, Aang wincing at his insult toward the Earth Kingdom; he was very glad that they hadn't recruited Toph any earlier- she likely would have made some heads roll after hearing those words.

"Security, Colonel." she narrowed her eyes at the man who had addressed her, "We need security if we are to face off against my brother and all those who stand in the way of my glorious reign. Thus, we need to make peace with the Earth Kingdom and focus on our real opponents. The people of this country will continue to resist us and sap our strength as long as we try to conquer them; I simply suggest that we stop this, and focus our strength where it ought to be applied."

The young Air Nomad made a small smile, thinking that at the very least, the Princess's words sounded convincing; he thought it sounded a little wishy-washy, but most political things did, including the whole argument about the balance between the four nations. She was trying to persuade a bunch of people who would rather reconquer the Earth Kingdom that such an idea was a terrible one; she was giving a very different reason to what Aang would give, but it made sense, given their circumstances- they wanted to fix their country, so she was betting on that argument to get them to support her plans.

"Your proposition is wise, your majesty." another officer spoke up, "We have lost many good men fighting the Earth Kingdom. We have lost time and resources fending them off; peace would at the very least give us the breathing room to gather our strength, and make the right move at the right time."

"That is precisely what I desire." she pursed her lips upward, "The colonies will be ours soon enough, but patience is our best friend here. My brother obviously, from what military reports I've already looked over, has bolstered the garrisons of the colonial settlements and established a formal border between his forces and mine." she explained, before narrowing her eyes, "Do any of you have reports to inform me of the state of affairs across the country. I have been gone for over a week; there must be some reports that have come in."

"Our informants have learned from military chatter in the colonies that an uprising has occurred; your father's loyalists." the same Colonel who she had addressed before spoke up, "There is word that forces are being redirected from the frontier with the Earth Kingdom to subdue it. It's caused quite an uproar in the colonies, and perhaps, in the homeland as well."

"My father is making his moves." Azula acknowledged, placing her hands together as she rested her elbows on the table; her eyes momentarily moved to Sokka, before they returned to her subordinates, "These wouldn't happen to be friends of General Zhang, would they?"

"We don't know all too much about the inner workings of the loyalist forces; we have made contact with them, but they have been more than hostile. They made attempts before your arrival to try and get our forces to join them."

"But they failed." she observed, narrowing her eyes, "I wonder why." she noted; perhaps Zhao, who seemed to be a rather feared figure, had intimidated those potential defectors into holding the line.

If the story of Yu Dao was any indication, he was not above sacrificing the lives of his own men for his victories, something that disturbed but didn't surprise Aang in the slightest; there was many men like the Admiral, who had led the Fire Nation's war effort, and probably had partaken in the original destruction of his people. Those people were those he could almost say he despised; he didn't approve of killing, not under any circumstances, but he could see why people would want to see those people die. People like the man who had killed Katara and Sokka's mother.

"We have the respect of our men, and we have provided collective security for our forces. We have weathered the onslaught, and now, we stand ready to retaliate."

"We are not here for revenge. Although I will be blunt, though I despise my brother with every fibre of my body, this is not about getting back at our enemies. We will crush them, decisively, but with consideration that we are not here to destroy our nation, but to reunite it. We mustn't lose sight of our aims. You all know what happened in Yu Dao."

"A travesty." one of the men spoke up, "I..." he mumbled, before turning his eyes to the Princess, "Perhaps he had already committed treason then."

"Perhaps." Azula pursed her lips upward, obviously approving that somebody agreed with her mentality on that matter.

The Avatar's eyes widened, remembering that had been the whole justification against Zhao to begin with, and though he might say the Princess was making cruel use of the suffering of those people, it was a righteous justice in the end. They had suffered for no gain other than the Admiral's pride; the antithesis of all Aang stood for, and with that, he could smile, glad that he would spend the rest of his days in a Water Tribe prison.

"Revenge or not." the Colonel spoke up once more, "We will destroy our enemies, and our nation will be strong once more."

"Yes, yes it will be." the Princess agreed with him, before she narrowed her eyes, "May I ask, is there any news from the environs of Omashu?"

"The latest we have heard is that your father's loyalists are still in control of a number of colonial towns in the region. They might be poised to seize the city itself from your brother's rule." one of the soldiers explained, Aang grimacing slightly.

"Well, that can't be good." he noted, "Hopefully New Omashu is still there when we get back." he turned his gaze to the Princess who nodded.

"You two best be quick. I'm sure Hakoda's fleet will be moving north by now. The time has come for us to consolidate our strength- our collective strength." she explained, before dropping her hands down flat on the table, "The Southern Water Tribe are formally allies of all our forces. Navy ships must be informed to treat them with respect and dignity; if a single ship attacks any of their forces, then their ranking officers will be demoted by my order." she explained, the officers nodding, "Once we have secured the Mo Ce Sea, I also have a request. The vessels of the Southern Raiders are to be acquiesced and mobilised for our land invasion of the homeland." she explained, "This is of course, a long term consideration, but I believe that the longer my father's loyalists divide the strength of my brother's forces, the better a chance we will have to move in."

"Of course, your majesty." one of the men bowed toward her in respect, "The fleet will be informed of our alliance at once."

"There is something else." she added, "Once peace has been established with the Earth Kingdom forces, we are to assist them with mobilising and seizing control of Ba Sing Se from the Dai Li."

"Again." one of them mumbled, before turning his eyes up toward the Princess, "Sorry, I mean no disrespect, your majesty."

"No, I share your frustrations. The Dai Li ought to have been dealt with when I was there a few months ago, but I failed to annihilate them due to the political circumstances." she explained, "The Earth Kingdom is to be reorganised into a new state; this will be led by those who I can trust to be our steadfast allies, and they will help us deal any remaining Fire Nation forces loyal to my father from the continent; they will be given two choices- surrender to my command, or die."

"As it should be. You are their rightful Fire Lord." one of them acknowledged.

Aang was disturbed by the idea that thousands of men might die because of the very words she had just uttered, but he knew that wisdom would prevail; those who supported Ozai might change their minds once they saw what they were doing, once the Earth Kingdom was made whole again and Azula was in a position to reunite her country.

"Well, I believe that was all I needed to explain to you. I want troop and scouting reports brought to be as soon as they are received." she explained, narrowing her eyes in thought, "I want to understand the entire strategic situation so I can best judge our course of action. If any of you believe there are opportunities before you, do not relent to send a messenger hawk to me; your success is our nation's success, and our nation's success is my success."

They all rose up to their feet and bowed toward her in respect, "It will be done, your majesty." before she gestured toward the doorway; with that, they began to file on out, and Aang looked at his friends- they all seemed a little bewildered after what they had heard, though Ty Lee seemed to be the least unnerved by it.

When the officers left the room and closed the doors behind themselves, the acrobat giggled and turned to look at her friend, "The old Azula lives."

"Don't get too hopeful yet. I haven't derisively punished anybody other than Zhao... yet." she warned, before rising up to her feet, "I really need that spa treatment."

"Me too." she noted, before turning her eyes to Katara, "Wanna join in? I'm sure you'll like it."

"I recommend you do so." the Princess admitted, "You're going to need to take a little break before you and Aang head back off toward New Omashu."

"Well, if you say it like that..." she noted, before rising up to her feet, "Let's go to the spa."

"And what are we going to do while you have your girl time?" Sokka asked his girlfriend, leaning back in his chair and placing his feet up onto the table; she obviously didn't approve of that as she immediately pushed his feet back.

"I don't know... not agitate the soldiers in this base?" she asked him, the young Avatar's eyes widening.

"Wait a second! I've got an idea." he explained with a wide grin, "Remember how I said we needed to get a Pai Sho set?"

"Urgh, not Pai Sho." the Princess grimaced, covering her face with her right hand.

"No, no, it'll be fun. I can teach Sokka how to play. Monk Gyatso and I used to do it all the time, and I'm sure with all his brains he'll be pretty good at it." he explained, the Water Tribe teen obviously interested, Aang's encouraging words helping him to his side.

"Yeah, we can do that." he agreed, before scrunching his lips, "But where are we going to find a Pai Sho set."

"Zhao's office, perhaps." Azula suggested, "I'm not saying he plays it, but anything in there is yours to take."

"I mean, that's a start. We could just ask some soldiers if they have a set. I'm sure we could repay them."

"Ah, what, you want me to give you some bribe money?" she scoffed, before shaking her head, "I don't exactly have much. I just have the support and power of an army." she explained, before narrowing her eyes, "Perhaps if you ask politely to borrow them, you might have some luck. Maybe change into your uniform, just to stress the point."

"Oh, yeah." he pursed his lips upward, "Time to put on that disguise for a reason that isn't to trick people." he decided, rising up to his feet, "You coming, Aang?" he asked the young Avatar, who nodded; he knew he ought to leave the others to go do their spa treatment.

"Yep." he confirmed, before eyeing the others, "I hope the spa's nice."

"It will be." Ty Lee grinned, "Katara, you're gonna love it, trust me."

"I believe you." she raised a hand, before turning her eyes to the Princess, "So I assume you like spas?"

"Of course I do, I have standards for my hygiene. I'm Princess Azula, not a peasant."

"Huh, and here I was thinking you spent six-" Katara began to speak up, before her brother raised a hand, and his voice.

"Don't you start! Could you two be decent towards each other for one day?"

"You can't boss me around." she defied her brother, making the Princess scoff.

"You can also have a little wit. Angering me something you don't want to try, Katara." she warned her, creating some dancing flames in her right palm, "Got it?"

She raised her chin up, and refused to respond, making Aang snicker, before he followed Sokka over toward the door.

"Girls, am I right?" he elbowed the young Air Nomad, who chuckled at his words, before they were interrupted by Azula's voice.

"I'm not deaf, savage!"

"Yeah, but I'm not calling you a peasant. Katara is, however." he clarified, the two girls glaring each other down as the boys left the room.

"We'll just let Ty Lee deal with that one, how about it?" the Water Tribe teen suggested, making him smile.

"She's nice. She'll handle it, and then they'll all relax at the spa." he noted, before turning his gaze ahead toward the staircase, "I feel like we're going to have a good day."

"If you say it, it mightn't become true." the Water Tribesman warned Aang, who grimaced, not liking the idea of ruining their day because he openly stated he thought it might be good.

"I just don't want to fight anybody." he simply told him what he desired, "A day without fighting is all I need."

"A humble request." Sokka observed, "Well, we'll keep our mouths shut and ours heads up, be polite to the Fire Nation soldiers who may or may not want to throw you in chains, and hopefully, Azula won't have to throw any of them in prison."

"She would do that." he noted, making the Water Tribe teen chuckle.

"What can I say, she's an overprotective girlfriend."

"She mightn't like to hear you say that." he warned his friend, who raised a finger.

"She'd double down and say 'I have to protect him because he's an idiot'." he imitated his girlfriend's snarky, cold voice, which made him giggle.

"That's a good impression." he commended his efforts, which seemed to earn the Water Tribeman's approval.

"Really?" he beamed at him, "Maybe I should use it on her if she annoys me later."

"She'll set your pants on fire." he warned him once more.

"And then I'll chi-block her." he declared, making the young Avatar scrunch his lips up, thinking what he might do after that.

"And kiss her?" he asked, the Water Tribesman blushing and turning away.

"U-uh, I'm not- uh, going to answer that question." he stammered, making Aang grin.

"That's a definite yes from Sokka." he raised a finger, "Now, Ty Lee just needs to question her." he noted with a devious grin; perhaps the acrobat's suggestion was coming to fruition.

"Don't tell me you two are conspiring to make us make up for the North Pole." he crossed his arms, the young Avatar tilting his head slightly; though they were trying to find out if they wanted to do something romantic, and then perhaps guide them toward it, he knew that it would take their volition for anything to happen- after all they'd been through, he knew they deserved it.

"Well, it's not like anybody's forcing you. You're the one who's going to kiss her."

Katara would admit that the spa treatment she had had with Ty Lee and Azula was pretty good; she hadn't known what she was missing until she had received it, and she almost felt annoyed that she'd be going off with Aang. She wanted to go back to the spa again, but she knew that their goals were more important that her desire to get a little more pampering. Sitting in the spa room with the other two girls, she was just fixing up her hair, when the acrobat decided to speak to her, obviously thinking to include here in the one-way conversation she'd been having with the Princess.

"Katara, what do you think?" she asked her, the Water Tribe girl narrowing her eyes slightly, unsure what exactly they were talking about.

"About what?" she asked the other girl, who grinned at her.

"Should we get a proper place built for us to live in? You know, like a miniature palace?"

"Why would we need a palace?" she asked her, confused by the absurd suggestion, "Why would we need any of that if Azula is wanting to go... uh, 'liberate' the colonies?"

"I can hear the disbelief in your voice, Katara." the Princess narrowed her eyes at her, "Could you at least trust me for a moment? I'm not planning to set up a prison for all my political opponents or anything like that."

"Oh, so you're not doing that?" she raised a finger to her chin, "So, what are you going to do when somebody tries to attack you for taking all that Earth Kingdom land?"

"Well, that's what we want to avoid, right?" Ty Lee spoke up, standing up between the two girls, probably predicting that a heated argument was about to begin.

"We do, Ty Lee." Azula clarified, narrowing her eyes at the Water Tribe girl, not hiding her offence in her cold glare, "I am trying to make sure that these conflicts come to an end. Expelling the colonies, though solving one problem, would just create resentment in the Fire Nation. Somebody would overthrow me, and they'd be a lot less considerate than even Sozin was. He desired to bring prosperity- they'd want revenge. Imagine what you want to do to the Southern Raiders, except, it's all those colonial citizens who have lost their homes to the Earth Kingdom." she warned Katara, whose eyes widened with surprise; she was actually pretty well convinced by her words, which proved to her one thing at least- causing more suffering, even if not through the brutality of war, would beget more suffering.

"So... how do we keep the peace?" she asked her, the Princess sighing, raising a hand to her face; she was not exhausted, but rather facing the weight of the responsibility that lay before her.

"That's the thing I'll probably spend the rest of my life worried about." she conceded, before turning her gaze toward the door, "We ought to get out and find the other two." she noted, her eyes meeting the Water Tribe girl's, "Finish braiding your hair."

She rolled her eyes, not appreciating the demand, but she understood that she ought to hasten herself; she quickly finished off the braid, before tying her hair bands around the end. She picked up her hair loopies off of the table, and strung them through two strings of hair, which she tied into her braid, before glancing around, wondering if she'd done them right; she usually wouldn't worry, but that was because she wasn't doing her hair in front of people.

"Do they look right?" she asked the girls, who glanced her way, Ty Lee nodding with a smile.

"They're perfect." she grinned at her, "I'm kind of jealous of your hairstyle. It's so intricate." she noted, the Water Tribe girl laughing off her words.

"Oh, it's not the most intricate Water Tribe hairstyle around. Some of those girls at the Northern Water Tribe had far more complex ones than me." she noted, before stepping closer to them, the Princess seeming no less annoyed than she had been before, "Did I really get you in a mood?"

"No." she narrowed her eyes, turning them toward the door, "You piss me off all the time, Katara. I've gotten used to it."

"Your honesty never fails to surprise me."

"That's a new Azula thing." Ty Lee raised a finger, "Though, I guess you did like to reprimand people a lot when you were young." she observed, making the Princess chuckle.

"I lie just as much as I used to. The difference is, I try to be honest with you all." she noted, before grimacing slightly, though she forced her lips straight a moment later.

She was obviously thinking about Sokka, and what had happened between Ty Lee chi-blocking him and Zhao nearly killing the moon spirit; Katara wasn't going to blame her for the course of events, given how hard she had fought, and the fact they had won, in the end, but she seemed to be blaming herself, despite that victory. Her brother cold shouldering his girlfriend obviously wasn't going to end well.

"Let's just go." the Princess raised her voice, her obviously forced, serious tone catching both Katara and Ty Lee's attention, though neither of them commented on it as she moved toward the front door, opening it up.

The three girls made their way down the hallway, and the Water Tribe girl immediately had a question come to mind; even if she and Aang were going to leave that afternoon, she had no idea where he and Sokka had gone, if they had actually found a Pai Sho set to play with.

"Where are they even going to be?" she asked Azula, who scrunched her lips up, obviously not having a definite answer for that question.

"We ought to check Appa's saddle first." she argued, "I have a feeling Aang mightn't like sitting around a bunch of soldiers inside the compound."

Katara nodded, agreeing with her assumption; the young Avatar was the kind of person who would want to avoid his fears, especially when it came to the Fire Nation. Even if none of them were going to attack them if they had half a brain, that wouldn't soothe his unease entirely. She herself was looking forward more than anything to leave the base and the Fire Nation soldiers behind; that desire came not from hatred, at least not anymore, but from simple mistrust. The three of them continued down the hallway, reaching a doorway, which Azula opened at once; it led them out into a wider hallway, where she could see a few on-duty soldiers coming by. Unsurprisingly, they bowed to the Princess, who didn't seem to care for their deference; she probably got it a lot, just like Aang did, at least when they had met friendly groups.

The trio made their way toward the front door of the compound, where some guards stood ready to bar anyone unwanted from entering; they immediately stepped out of their way, and stood tall, not even acknowledging Azula in any way other than their serious postures, a stark contrast to the soldiers they'd just walked by. Katara had a feeling that the Princess had demanded they not bow to her, presumably to save her time as she entered and exited the compound; she was amused by the idea that she wanted to avoid deference, after all her posturing about authority and her rightful place as the Fire Lord. When they got outside, they all turned their gazes to their right, toward Appa's saddle, where they could see Sokka and Aang, the former in his Fire Nation outfit, the both of them playing what she assumed to be Pai Sho. They turned their way, and her brother immediately smirked, suggesting that he had been going well in their game.

"So, you're all finished with your spa treatment." he observed, before turning his eyes to the boy across from him, "Aang's just figured out how fast a learner I am." he explained, making Azula snicker.

"Oh, so you already beat him?" she asked, the Water Tribe warrior scrunching his lips up.

"Well, I haven't won." he admitted, before grinning ear to ear, "I'm about to, though." he declared, the young Avatar crossing his arms.

"You're not." he stressed, "I can still win this game."

"And are you a reputable Pai Sho player, Aang?" Azula asked him as she approached, making him cringe.

"Well, uh- huh- I don't really know. I know how to play." he explained, making her scoff.

"If you're no good then no wonder Sokka might win. That's a little unfair of him; perhaps he ought to go up against someone like myself." she suggested, making her boyfriend raise his head up, seemingly confused by her words.

"Wait, so you can play it?" he asked, narrowing his eyes at her suspiciously, "So what, you just hating on your uncle is the only reason you never taught me how to play this?"

"I have better things to do than Pai Sho." she argued, before raising a finger to her chin, "But I certainly could spare some time to prove to you that you aren't as skilled as you think you are."

"Everything's a competition with you two, isn't it?" Katara noted, elbowing the Princess, who pursed her lips upward.

"Well, it is. Competitiveness makes us stronger." she argued, before turning her gaze to Sokka, "And before you ask, Pai Sho is not a suitable replacement for sparring. I'm still going to kick your arse."

"But my burns." he cringed, making her roll her eyes.

"Katara and then some of the best healers in the Northern Water Tribe attended to your burns, Sokka. I don't think that's a reasonable excuse anymore." she argued, before her eyes turned back toward Aang, "Are you two going to finish up the game, or what? I assume you actually want to get to New Omashu at some point in the next hundred years."

"Ah-ha, very funny." he sarcastically acknowledged her jab about his one hundred years frozen in ice, "And yes, we will." he stressed, "You'll just have to wait a little longer."

"Hmph." she crossed her arms, "Well, I'm in no mood to watch." she decided, before turning her gaze to Katara, "Do you want to go get some supplies for your journey. I'm sure you could use some extra food so you can avoid going down into Fire Nation occupied towns."

"That'd be very helpful, Azula." she smiled at her, appreciative of her offer, "Where do we have to go for that?"

"To get some rations?" she raised a brow, glancing across the empty courtyard where Appa sat, before she gestured toward the gates of the compound, "I assume that I might be able to get you something from the storehouses. You don't want food that's going to spoil quickly like fresh vegetables." she suggested, the Water Tribe girl nodding.

"Uh, yeah." she agreed, before scrunching up her lips, "Maybe we should have lunch before we go." she suggested, the Princess pursing her lips upward; it seems she already had an idea on that front.

"Oh, you're lucky I already thought of that." she noted, before turning her eyes up to Aang and Sokka, "You two better come back to the meeting room once you're done. I've got a meal getting made for us." she explained, "Both meat and vegetables, if either of you were concerned." she added, the two boys nodding.

"Uh-huh." the Water Tribe teen nodded, before turning his eyes down to the Pai Sho board, "Lemme think about that part later."

"Well, I assume Aang's going to want to eat before he leaves." she crossed her arms, the young Avatar nodding.

"I'll win quicker, and then we'll be there." he assured her, the Princess turning around.

"Lee, are you coming to help us carry some rations?"

"Of course I'll help. Katara and Aang aren't going to go hungry on our watch." she assured her, smiling at Katara, who nodded, simply acknowledging the help she'd provide.

The trio began to pace off again, approaching the gates, where the guards stationed immediately moved out of the way, saluting Azula as she stepped past, allowing them straight out to the outside of the compound. The Fire Nation base was a multi-layered fortress of sorts, though the defences didn't seem like they'd hold up in an actual battle. Not that Katara had seen many of those herself, but if the fight near New Omashu was any indication, the Earth Kingdom probably could take the very base in which they stood, if they had the manpower and supplies to undertake such an attack.

"How much money did you guys have left?" the Princess asked her, the Water Tribe girl cringing.

"Oh... not much." she admitted, "I hope Bumi gives us some more so we can get food on the trip back."

"Well, I don't know how exactly to get money from my subordinates here. The local forces here mostly tax food and commodities, not money. Perhaps some of them are scrounging it up to barter with the locals, but I'm unsure if there's any of it stored around, let alone mine to use."

"I wouldn't worry about it." she assured her, before narrowing her eyes, the word 'tax' reminding her of a certain story she'd heard, "Uh... actually, can I ask a question?" she made an uneasy face, remembering the refugees they'd met before they got to the North Pole.

"What is it?" she asked her, the Water Tribe girl turning away, "Do you know where the prisoners are here?"

"Prisoners?" she furrowed a brow, "Like, Earth Kingdom prisoners?" she asked Katara, who nodded, "Well, I mean, yes. There's a few labour camps under Fire Nation control, most of them working on recycling scrap metal into weapons, armour and parts for my new airship fleet." she explained, the Water Tribe girl's eyes widening at the last thing she mentioned.

"Sorry, fleet?" she looked at her with surprise, Azula pursing her lips upward.

"Indeed. I commissioned War Minister Qin to gather the resources to undertake such an operation. We have a slight issue in that he's among the prisoners on the ship. He didn't try to oppose me, but like everyone else, he's stuck in a Water Tribe prison at the moment." she explained, before narrowing her eyes, "What about the prisoners do you want to know? Did you want me to free them?"

"Yes, actually." she confirmed, "I met a- well, we all met some Earth Kingdom refugees, whose village was destroyed by your supporters. Two parents have lost their son and two boys lost their mother; they're not dead, I assume, but prisoners..." she explained, before her eyes widened, realising there was a more foreboding interpretation which reminded her why the Southern Raiders came south again, "or slaves."

"Oh." she turned her gaze around; she almost seemed ashamed, or even disgusted by what she had just realised, "I'm a hypocrite, aren't I?"

"Yes, you are, Azula." she agreed with her words; after what had happened with the Southern Raiders she thought the Princess might immediately try to have the prisoners freed, but with a little more consideration, the Water Tribe girl realised that the danger of antagonising her officers, especially Zhao, was probably too dangerous at the time, "No, I shouldn't have said that." she corrected herself, "I assume you'll do something about that now that Zhao's out of the way."

"That I will." she confirmed, "I'm... sorry for not doing anything yet. I really ought to address things like indenturement." she acknowledged, "I will try to have those people resettled in their villages, and hopefully, I can get the refugees who fled back to their homes. If they do that, then the Earth Kingdom will be able to have some actual people to rule around this area. I'd prefer them to actually have a government here instead of my men upping and leaving it to literal bandits."

"That would probably be worse." she conceded, before narrowing her eyes, "What are you going to do about the whole resources problem, though?"

"Inciting a revolt in the colonies to declare me the Fire Lord is my best bet at this moment. Without the resources of the local population here, I'll have nothing more than a big army on a limited supply of food." the Princess noted with a slight grimace, "We have a limited time-frame, especially if the locals get eager to... assert themselves." she warned, the Water Tribe girl awkwardly turning her eyes away; she felt conflicted over the idea that Azula might unintentionally lose her feud for the throne, because she felt inclined to do the right thing.

"That would be unfair." she noted, before narrowing her eyes, "What about the reparations to the Northern Water Tribe?" she asked her, the Princess chuckling.

"Greedy bastards." she sighed, before glancing ahead of them, toward the storehouses they were approaching, "I'll send some things north as soon as I can spare them. I'd prefer to at least get those men back; I'd be a terrible Fire Lord if I left all of them imprisoned- serving Zhao is their only crime."

"He's a terrible person. I can understand why people would want his cronies in cells." she conceded, Ty Lee making an audible sigh.

"That just sounds... a little unfair." she admitted, "If the circumstances had been different, they would have been fine." she argued, the Princess chuckling.

"What can I say? Zhao doomed himself, and with him, all his men." she argued, before striding ahead of the pair, toward the doors of the storehouse; she pulled on some kind of mechanism, unlocking the door, before she slid it open.

She turned around and gestured for the other two girls to follow her; they did, and made their way inside the storehouse, which was full of shelves, themselves covered with boxes and packages of dried food and other supplies.

"Now, what would you like to eat, Katara?" Azula asked her, the Water Tribe girl raising a finger to her chin.

"It doesn't really matter, honestly. Just something that is going to last us." she decided, the Princess nodding, before she turned around, eyeing about the shelves.

"Rice crackers it is." she concluded, before running her hands across the various packages; she picked up one box, about the size of either of their heads, and she tossed it over into Ty Lee's hands; she took the package, raising it up and down, with a perplexed look on her face.

"Huh, this isn't very heavy." she noted, the Princess nodding.

"Precisely. We'll need to take a fair bit if they're going to last the few weeks it'll take." she argued, her friend smiling.

"Well, we better get some more." she concluded, before Azula turned around and grabbed another package, giving the next one to Katara.

"Maybe we should take some other than rice crackers." she argued, "I mean, a little variety won't hurt." she noted, the Princess rolling her eyes.

"Okay, how about some pig-cow jerky? Or komodo rhino?"

"I don't like the komodo rhino stuff." she admitted, "Remember the-" she began to ask her, the Princess raising her hand up.

"Yes, you made me breakfast that one time."

"I've made you breakfast at least two dozen times over the past two months." she argued, the Princess cringing.

"Well, I'm giving you all this free food, so don't complain." she retorted, before striding down the aisle, picking up a few boxes into her hands, "I know Aang won't eat this." she observed, "Is there anything he'll like?"

"Dried fruit?" she guessed, the Princess nodding, before gesturing down the aisle.

"I think there might be some further down. I'm going to get another package of rice crackers and take all this back to Appa." she decided, the Water Tribe girl nodding, before she strode on past her to go find some dried fruit.

She glanced around the shelves, reading the various markings on the boxes and packages; it took a few moments, but she did find a box that had 'dried fruit' on it, and she picked it up, before realising there was another box behind it on the shelf that was marked the same. She picked that box up as well, before turning around to see Ty Lee, who had picked up more packages of rice crackers, stacking them in her arms. The Princess had already left the storehouse, and Karara realised she ought to get moving; they had to have lunch, and then they'd be leaving.

"You got all you need?" Ty Lee asked her, the Water Tribe girl nodding.

"Yeah, I do." she confirmed, "Hopefully we'll be able to scrounge up some more stuff on our trip south. I don't know if this is going to last us the whole time."

The other girl smiled and turned her heels to pace toward the doorway, "Well, you might be able to get some more food. You can always steal, if you have to."

"I'd rather beg." she admitted, "But honestly, I don't want to do that. Relying on people's goodwill just seems a little... unfair." she added the acrobat scrunching her lips up.

"Well, that's what we've done so far." she acknowledged, before narrowing her eyes, "Are you worried they might get fed up with you? Or with Aang?"

"People don't like thieving and donating, especially when they're not in a good place themselves." she acknowledged, "I don't want to earn the ire of the Earth Kingdom, and I'm sure Aang doesn't either."

"We're going to help them. That's what Azula says, anyway." Ty Lee assured her, before her smile faltered, "She's... well, she's been in a bit of a mood."

"I can tell." Katara admitted, "She's been off ever since I met her at the North Pole." she noted, "I know she's worried about what Sokka thinks of her, and I don't blame her. She stuffed up."

"She knows that." the acrobat spoke up, glancing up ahead of them toward Azula, who was almost back at the compound gates by that point, "I'm sure they'll make up."

"Most of their fights have been over very petty things." she acknowledged a thing she had observed over the few months she'd known Azula, "If she's really made him angry, or distrusting, it's going to take a lot of work to fix that."

"Azula always likes a job to do." the other girl observed, chuckling lightly, before she raised her chin up, "Are you okay with leaving your brother?"

"I think he can handle whatever Azula wants him to do." she spoke her mind, before grimacing, "It's her that I'm worried about."

"Wait, really?" she asked, the Water Tribe girl nodding, "Why?"

"Because she's got a lot of expectations and people counting on her. I think Aang's probably feeling about the same."

"Sokka's got expectations too." Ty Lee argued, "I'm sure he's wondering what your dad thinks of all you've done."

"Our dad... how do you even-" she began to ask, confused by how the other girl even knew about Sokka's relationship with their father, before her eyes widened, "Azula. So, she knows Sokka's worried about Dad?"

"Well, that's what she said." she clarified, "I don't think she has much hard evidence, but I trust her to be able to figure out what he's thinking, of all people."

"I hadn't even thought about Dad." Katara admitted, "I think he'd be proud of what Sokka's done. I hope he's proud of me."

"You've been trained by a master waterbender. That's something to be proud of, isn't it?" she asked, the Water Tribe girl nodding.

"I think I'm... actually pretty good." she admitted, "I guess Azula was right about that."

"She's got a knack for bending." Ty Lee noted, before smiling, "And it's good you're a great bender; now Aang has a master, and you have an excuse to practice."

"That's true." she smiled, "I wish I'd just learned earlier. I wish that there were other waterbenders."

"Maybe there are." Ty Lee noted, "Maybe little kids, who aren't old enough to realise it, or to have been targeted by those Southern Raider guys."

"I hope there are." she admitted, "I just don't want to be the last one."

"And they can be your students. You could even start a waterbending school. Wouldn't that be great?" she asked her, the Water Tribe girl imagining herself teaching some children waterbending forms, and all of them perhaps not being the best students- rowdy, impatient and bored, which amusingly enough, reminded her of how Sokka had trained the young boys in their village to be warriors.

"That would be great, Ty Lee." she smiled at her, knowing that even if she didn't have the best students, she could surely teach others to continue their waterbending art in the South Pole, as it ought to be, "Thanks for the idea."

"No problem." she grinned at her brightly, "I'm more than happy to give advice."

The pair continued on toward the gates of the compound, which were waiting open for them, the guards already having moved back out of the way for Azula; the pair strode on through, and Katara immediately noted that the saddle was empty, suggesting Sokka and Aang had gone inside already, given the Princess had told them about lunch. The Water Tribe girl knew then that she ought to just get the supplies up onto the saddle, before they all went off to have some lunch; she'd certainly prefer to be eating than carrying things around, and that was certainly a better way to spend her last bit of time with her brother, who she wouldn't be seeing for a few good weeks.

The three of them strode over to Appa, and each put their boxes up on the saddle, each of them having to climb up and place the boxes and packages up by the rear of the saddle, along with the other supplies. Azula, being the fastest, was done first, but decided to wait for the other two, crossing her arms and putting on a discontent face. It was almost like she wanted to be annoyed; that amused Katara somewhat, but she didn't comment on it. She jumped off of the saddle, and looked at the Fire Nation girl, wondering if she ought to say anything.

"What?" she simply asked her, responding to her idle stare; Katara shrugged her shoulders, before chuckling.

"Are you really in that bad a mood?" she asked her, knowing that having an argument was better than standing there awkwardly.

"Do you expect me to be in a good one?" she asked her in return, the Water Tribe girl's rather carefree mood faltering.

She realised that there was one reason that the Princess would be in a bad mood and that was Sokka; she obviously knew he wasn't going to be trusting her, after what she had pulled, and they hadn't seemed to be that intimate. They had slept in the same sleeping roll again, but for the most part, she thought her brother might have been a little on edge, given their circumstances.

Azula was now going to be a real leader, and with that, she had responsibilities; whether she would run off from him again for 'his safety', Katara didn't know, but she certainly wouldn't recommend it. She knew that was a surefire way to get her brother to give up on her; he was dedicated to the Princess, but he certainly wasn't that much of a fool- he asked for, and obviously deserved some mutual respect.

Once Ty Lee climbed down from the saddle, Azula gestured toward the front door of the compound, "Let's go get some lunch." she told them, her tone uncaring and rather snide; the acrobat obviously noticed that her friend's mood had shifted, and she looked to Katara, leaning over to whisper at her.

"What did you say?" she asked her, and her shoulders slumped down, realising the situation was out of her control.

"It doesn't matter." she admitted, "I just... they're not out for a good time." she simply told her, before following after the Princess; lunch might distract her from the very fact she had observed.

An unraveling of the bond between her brother had consequences, and she certainly didn't want it influencing her decision-making. Azula was far too powerful and important to be making any more mistakes, based on faulty thinking and ideas she had about solving her problems, whether that problem was her rivals or her relationship with Sokka.

"She should be happy." Ty Lee mumbled as she followed behind, before grimacing, "This... this is my fault." she concluded, clenching her fists as she looked up to the sky above her, "I shouldn't have listened. Sokka should have come with us."

"And then..." the Water Tribe girl began, before shaking her head, knowing all too well what Zhao might have done if he'd been there, "No. I prefer this over having a dead brother." she decided, knowing that the situation they'd been dealt, though annoying and frustrating for all parties, was clearly better than that scenario; she preferred her brother being a little cautious and mistrustful of his girlfriend than him being dead.

They made their way into the compound, following after Azula, who was already winding down the hall, out of sight; she tried to keep her pace, and heard her footsteps going up the stairs. She obviously didn't want to continue any conversation with Katara that would simply agitate her; she didn;'t either, and kept her distance, making her way up the stairs slowly, Ty Lee striding up beside her.

"This could have all gone so much better." she decided, "And... and it still can be better." she added, with a more hopeful face.

"What do you mean?"

"Zuko doesn't need to die." she spoke her mind, addressing the matter very bluntly; though she had no skin in the game, she knew from what little she knew of Azula's brother that he probably wasn't as bad as she made him out to be, and undeserving of what might be coming his way, "Azula's going to fight him, and after all that's happened, she won't hesitate. But that doesn't need to happen. We can find a way."

She remembered what Pakku had told her, and she narrowed her eyes, wondering whether that confrontation was truly inevitable; there was another way, but she didn't know if she was brave enough to dare suggest it.

"We can't... we can't betray her trust. If we even suggested something else, she'd think we were conspiring against her." she decided, "And if we said that, I think Sokka would choose her over me. Her over everyone. He was there."

"I know." Ty Lee acknowledged, "If that stupid fight hadn't have happened, then maybe they could have made up."

"I don't think that was going to happen." the Water Tribe girl admitted, "Sokka told me exactly how she reacted when she found out about her father's 'death'. She decided it then and there."

The acrobat's eyes widened, almost looking sad at the suggestion, "Why?" she mumbled, "Urgh, this family frustrates me."

"Well, we just have to work with it." Katara conceded the fact of the matter, before she strode over to the door leading into the meeting room; she pushed it open, and saw Aang and Sokka already eating their lunch, and Azula was just sitting herself down.

The two boys looked their way, and the young Avatar grinned with his mouth full of food, "You guys have got to-" he began, before chewing, "try some of this."

Her brother didn't even address them, just getting into his meal; the two girls sat back down where they had at the earlier meeting, where there were plates waiting ready for them. The Water Tribe girl got a spoonful of rice and placed it on her plate, before taking some of the fried vegetables and putting them alongside; they were well cooked and slathered in some kind of spicy sauce, which didn't surprise her. All Fire Nation food was seemingly fried and topped with an assortment of spices.

"This does look good." Ty Lee admitted, before sniffing one of the meat dishes, "Mhmm... are we going to eat food like this all the time?" she asked her friend, who furrowed a brow.

"Perhaps not all the time. It's not like there's a plethora of supplies to go around, let alone spices and fine meats. If this were the palace, I'd be more inclined to say yes." she noted, reaching over to take a spoonful of rice onto her plate.

Katara picked up some chopsticks that had been set out beside her plate, and took some of the meat into her mouth; she would admit, despite the spiciness, that it tasted pretty good. She smiled, and began to eat her meal properly, wanting to enjoy it and get going. She knew that the sooner she and Aang left, the quicker they'd be heading south. She knew above all else that the young Avatar mastering the elements was vital for their plans.

"So, what are you going to do while we're gone?" Aang asked the others, Sokka turning his gaze up from his plate, revealing his cheeks to be stuffed full of meat.

He made a mumbling noise, and turned his eyes to Azula, who wiped her lips clean with a cloth, before speaking up, "We'll make sure our alliance is not under-utilised. The local Earth Kingdom rebels will be very useful in our plans, so I hope that we can get some of them here to discuss the future of these lands."

"Well, I hope I get back quickly. I know they might want me to assure them you're trustworthy." he conceded, and after a few moments of silence, he raised a hand, "You are." he stressed, the Princess chuckling.

"Thanks, Aang." she simply replied, before returning to eating her meal.

"And we'll have more delicious food while you're away." Sokka added, making the young Avatar scrunch up his lips.

"Are you trying to make me jealous?"

"Well, are you? This stuff is delicious."

"We've only got rice crackers and dried fruit." the Water Tribe girl noted, making her friend grimace.

"Urgh..." he sighed, disappointed by the suggestion, "I guess I better eat a lot, then." he noted, reaching over toward the bowl of fried vegetables, which the Princess grasped, moving out of his grasp, which amused Katara greatly.

"Don't be foolish. You'll get yourself a stomach ache." Azula warned him, making him laugh.

"Why are you telling me what to eat? You're acting like you're my... uh..." he trailed off, awkwardly looking away as he laughed off his own words; he was probably going to call her out for acting like his mother, though he obviously hadn't known his own mother, which made it a rather odd comparison.

"Ahaha..." Sokka snickered to himself, before pointing to the young Air Nomad, and then toward his girlfriend, with a smug, shit-eating grin.

"Well, looks like you've been adopted."

The last thing Sokka expected Azula to do was invite a bunch of Earth Kingdom commoners to her compound, but that was exactly what she had done; he had stood with Ty Lee, watching as they walked through the gates, the on-duty soldiers standing on duty, eyeing them with an unhealthy amount of suspicion. The messages to the villages had only been sent out two days prior, but they were heeded at once; perhaps Azula name-dropping Aang on the messages she sent out had a lot to do with it, despite the fact that he wasn't there to partake in the meeting that was about to happen. The Princess herself was sitting on a makeshift throne, set up in the courtyard, allowing her to receive the commoners in the open instead of forcing them into a small and stuffy room.

The acrobat leaned over toward Sokka, awkwardly watching as the numerous men and women filed past, "This is... going better than expected."

"I guess they might have thought they'd get to meet Aang." he guessed, before scrunching his lips up, "That's not happening, though." he noted the fact of the matter, before turning his gaze up toward his girlfriend; he would admit she was looking rather regal, at least compared to how she had tended to more humbly dress herself, even when they had been staying in the compound.

She was wearing her gold lined armour, the closest thing he'd seen her wearing to what she had worn the night they met on her Royal Barge since the day itself. Her golden headpiece signified her rank and assumed title; he guessed it wasn't as ornate and massive as the Fire Lord's, though he couldn't be sure, seeing that Zuko wasn't wearing the headpiece at the Agni Kai. She was wearing a fair bit of make-up too, but that wasn't surprising; she wasn't trying to look normal, but rather, supernatural and above those who stood before her. He didn't think that was the best way to earn their trust, but he understood she had a very different idea in mind to achieve that very aim; some trimming of the military tree was in order, and she had a great excuse and reason to do it- war crimes, ever numerous in the Fire Nation military, and her forces were no exception. Of course, they weren't as bad as the Southern Raiders, but they were by no means clean of the sins that had been committed in the Hundred Year War.

Ty Lee elbowed him, catching his attention, gesturing over toward the Princess, who was flanked by her guards; they had arrived only a day prior, but they were back to work, and they stood imposingly around Azula, ready to protect her, if need be. The security probably wasn't really necessary, given her firebending skills, but he could understand their use as a threat of force rather than being practically necessary. He knew that they were obviously a little on edge, especially after what had happened on Zhao's battleship; they had been duped by the Admiral, gassed and thrown in prison cells, while he went to kill the moon spirit. The danger she could have been in, especially if they'd been facing a more ruthless opponent than the Admiral, was something they couldn't ignore- especially the Captain. Though he couldn't see Renshu's face, his posture said everything; he was unwilling to make the same mistake again, and would do everything he could to protect the Princess.

The two of them made their way along the side of the crowd, moving to file up past the guards and standing at either flank of the Princess, ready to give her advice if need be; he was unsure if Azula wanted his advice, especially when she was trying so hard to reassert her authority, despite the rather conflicting decisions she'd made. Openly telling her subordinates about her intention to withdraw had obviously stirred them up, even if nobody was publicly complaining. None of them were present, though he was sure that the soldiers standing around on guard might spread word of whatever was uttered by his girlfriend in the next few minutes.

"I see that there's a lot of you here." she spoke up, earning the attention of the commoners, whose gazes turned to focus on her instead of all the soldiers that surrounded them, "I thank you for coming here, and I understand that this is a dangerous place for you all to be. I apologise for the fact that the Avatar is not here to help mediate this discussion, but we will have to do this without him."

Sokka eyed the commoners, noting their uneasy, if not outright afraid expressions; the Princess waited out their silence, before she became impatient, raising her hand up, "Please, I'd like to hear whatever you have to say. Your grievances against my people are as important to me as they are to you; as long as I rule these lands, you are my subjects, and as such, I seek to rule in your interests." she stressed, which seemed to soothe their unease, even if only a bit.

It was weird to hear her say something like that in public, which made him realise how much times had changed; the Princess was no longer living in the South Pole, hiding from the world- she was a real contender for the throne of the Fire Nation.

One of the commoners stepped forward, an older man, who seemed unfazed by the Princess, unlike most of his fellow compatriots, "Why... why do you have our people in chains?"

"I have already ordered my men to organise the freeing of any Earth Kingdom prisoners who are labouring under their control. I assure you, they will be back in their villages soon enough, if they continue to exist."

"Many people have fled. They are afraid of the Fire Nation, and rightfully so." the man warned her, "How can you say you are any different to those who came before you?"

"Well, I'm really not that different." She admitted the blunt fact of the matter, "I am here to become the Fire Lord, and the only difference that exists between me and the men who controlled this compound before me is that I desire to ensure peace between the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom once I withdraw and reunite my country." she explained, "That peace can only be achieved when there is trust between our peoples, and I will attain that."

"The refugees aren't going to come back until you all leave." another of the commoners spoke up, "The Fire Nation killed our soldiers, and stole their land and homes. We're the lucky ones."

"We will be going to meet with the local warlords... those who protect the refugees who fled these lands. They will be able to return to and rebuild their homes, and I will personally ensure that they are safe in doing so. Our military resources will be refocused to liberating the Fire Nation colonies, those lands where many people, loyal to my country, are more than willing to serve me, unlike yourselves." she continued to explain her intentions, which Sokka already understood well enough; he knew that she would have to do much, and they'd have to do it all together, and he knew that the danger of conflict was still high.

"They need to be punished." one of the commoners, a young woman, spoke up, "They've stolen our wealth, and attacked innocents. There can't be peace until there's justice."

Azula raised a brow, before she looked the woman in the eye, "I understand your anger. I know somebody who feels rather similar." she noted, momentarily eyeing her boyfriend- she was talking about Katara, of course, "The perpetrators of the crimes against your people will be punished accordingly. Demotions and hard labour are in order, and your villages will be paid back for the taxes my predecessors enforced upon you." she explained, "You are in need of better housing, textiles, tools, crops, materials, and the technologies my people can provide. Of course, I don't expect to just give all of these away for free, but simply at highly reduced prices. These resources will give you all the opportunity to rebuild, and ensure that there is no ill will between myself and the people I expect to succeed me."

"Do you want us to... make a government?" one of the men asked her, "We haven't had a governor in decades."

"I understand that, and I believe that you could make use of some new ideas. The age of the Earth Kingdom as you might have known it is gone. Governance ought to be in the hands of those who understand the lives you live on the land here; I desire to see you elect some of your own to form a council of sorts. One that could represent the villages under my occupation, and in future, undertake diplomacy with rebels and warlords in the region, to ensure that this popular sovereignty is not eroded and forgotten after we inevitably part ways."

"That sounds... better." the old man, who had spoken first, acknowledged with a small smile on his lips, "Where did you get this idea? You Fire Nation folks don't seem to have much... discourse."

"The Southern Water Tribe." she admitted, making Sokka smugly smirk; he knew that his people had some good ideas that could be applied elsewhere- dignity and respect was one of them, but the idea of elder councils could clearly be applied in other parts of the world, especially on a more local level like in the province they were occupying, "I have learnt much in my months with them. There is much the Four Nations can learn from each other- that is something everyone ought to appreciate." she added, before grimacing slightly; the Water Tribesman was a little confused as to what was bad about what she had just said, but she seemed to have taken her own judgement in a bad light.

"You're... not what we were expecting." one of the men spoke up, stepping closer to her throne, "We were told you were a merciless fighter who tried to kill the Fire Lord."

"I am." she raised her chin up, narrowing her eyes at the man, "But I am not just that. Fighting, however good I am at it, is not the only way to solve problems." she spoke up, before she momentarily turned her gaze away; Sokka could tell she was trying her hardest not to look his way- she was obviously referring to the fact of what had happened with Zhao, and how it was completely unnecessary, "So, do you accept my proposition?"

"For a council?" one of the commoners asked in clarification, the Princess nodding, a silence falling upon the crowd; soon enough however, they began to nod, looking amongst themselves to confirm their opinions- there was a clear majority of those present who wanted to at least try and work with her, and that was good enough, in Sokka's eyes.

"Brilliant." she smirked, before placing her hands together, "Now, I know there are more specific grievances that you all must have, and I will have all of them transcribed, and I will personally deal with them. That is what I offer to you... and in exchange, I hope that there can be peace amongst us all."

Sokka saw the brightening of their expressions- the hope that was in their eyes; he was glad that they could see Azula's words as genuine. They were not empty, but considered, after all she had been through, and all she knew. He had told her about the refugees they had taken to Gaochao, and she had already assured him that she would be dealing with the matter of forced removals and labour as harshly as she could. The Fire Nation military needed to learn that they couldn't just push people around and get away with it, and weirdly enough, it seemed to be the future Fire Lord who would be doing it, not Aang, the one person the world might expect to have the authority to do so.

"Your soldiers destroyed a shrine to one of the local spirits a few months ago." one of the commoners spoke up, an elderly woman, who seemed about as old as his grandmother, but just as lively, "There's been disappearances, and my friends and family have spoken of unusual things going on in the woods. We need to have this shrine rebuilt, and... we need the Avatar to commune with the spirits, so those that have disappeared might return."

"I see." the Princess raised her fingers to her chin, "Write that down. I need to speak to Aang about any spiritual matters once he returns." she acknowledged, before furrowing a brow, "And what village are you from?" she asked, the old woman's eyes narrowing.

"Chunxi." she explained, the Princess nodding.

"Well then, I will have the Avatar sent to your village to investigate that matter as soon as he returns." she assured her, before raising her hand, "Do you know who destroyed the shrine?"

"Um... the man with the scar." she explained, making her chuckle; Sokka was not surprised in the slightest by the idea that Zhao would have purposefully destroyed a local shrine- angering the spirits might have actually been part of his plan, to strike fear into the hearts of the locals.

"Well, you're in luck then. He's already being punished." she assured her, "I can't imagine what labours the Northern Water Tribe are forcing him through, but I can't imagine them to be pretty."

"That's assuming he can walk." Ty Lee spoke up, making the Princess raise a brow, "You shot him with lightning, remember?"

"Fair point." she conceded, before turning her eyes toward the commoners, "Who has anything else to tell me?"

"Some soldiers from... well, I think they were from the colonies. They fought with your soldiers around my village." one man spoke up, "Many houses were burnt down, and though we were able to save most of our things, many men and women are without work, and are going hungry."

"Which village?" she asked, the man looking down, seeming saddened and frustrated by what had happened.


"Oh." the Princess's eyes widened, as did Ty Lee's and Sokka's; that was the village Azula's men had been staying in- something told the Water Tribesman that their presence there may have had something to do with Fire Nation forces attacking.

"Mister Deng." one of Azula's guards stepped forward, catching the Princess's attention, as well as that of all the commoners; he drew his helmet off, "I apologise for what happened to the village. We should have been there to help you. Do you know why they attacked you?"

"Sh-Shan." the man's eyes widened, "You're a... wait..." he mumbled, before shaking his head, "Was the Princess in the village? Is that why you left?"

"Yes." Azula answered his question for him, her guard stepping back as she decided to take charge of the response for him, "I was looking for my guards, who had been living in your village, working as labourers." she explained, before narrowing her eyes, "Do you know why Hungu was attacked? Did those soldiers indicate what they were looking for?"

"The Avatar, I think. They were showing posters of him... and you... and you, and you." Deng explained, gesturing to each of the group, before his eyes widened, "W-w-wait a minute. That kid with the headband. That had to be him."

"Yep." Sokka nodded with a snicker, "I guess the disguises weren't that effective." he commented, his girlfriend rolling her eyes.

"Shut up, Sokka." she demanded of him with a terse voice, "They wanted the Avatar?" she asked, Deng nodding, "So, this is my fault." she conceded, "I'll have some men sent in non-combat roles to help rebuild your destroyed houses and structures. That's the least I can afford you all."

"Thank you, your highness." he smiled at her, bowing in respect before he stepped back.

"What else?" she turned her gaze to the commoners, one of them stepping forward, a middle-aged man with a long moustache and graying hair.

"Your highness, ever since the Fire Nation started fighting amongst themselves, we've been unable to travel very easily to towns nearby, because they're under occupation. The tariffs are inordinate, and we can't do any business. It's hard enough to feed ourselves, and when we can't buy the goods we're missing, it makes life a struggle."

"Good news, that specific issue is going to be solved very quickly." she assured him, "My forces will be moving to overthrow the garrisons of border towns with as little violence as possible. Once these forces are captured or expelled, any tariffs in place will be removed, and free movement between here and the frontier colonies will be possible. I see little need for such avenues of funding. Taxation, of course, is something I intend to enact upon my subjects, but only upon those who can afford to lose the money." she explained, the man bowing toward her in respect.

"Thank you, your highness." he dropped himself down, the Princess pursing her lips upward, before he stepped back.

Another woman stepped forward, this one a little younger than the last, with an uneasy look on her face, "Your highness... I, uh... didn't really want to ask this of you, but, I feel that you are honourable enough that you might consider it."

"What is it?" Azula narrowed her eyes at the woman, "Did my soldiers do something to your village?"

"My husband owns a tavern." she explained, "And my daughters work there, along with myself. We have been mistreated by the soldiers, and they have made advances on my daughters. I wish that they might be reprimanded and know the dignity my children ought to be deserved." she explained, the Princess raising her chin up.

"Which soldiers do this? What's the group occupying your village?"

"They're men from the twenty second division. That's what I've heard. I don't know their names." she explained, the Princess nodding.

"Hmph." she raised a finger to her chin, "Well, I'll see if that matter can be dealt with. Of course, I'd need to find those responsible, and see if their... unhelpful behaviours can be corrected." she explained her intentions, the woman's expression brightening.

"Thank you." she bowed toward her, the Princess shaking her head, annoyed by her deference.

"There's no need to thank me yet." she stressed, arrowing her eyes in thought, "And your village?" she asked, the woman's expression shifting.

"Oh, Lanshiku is its name. It's just to the south of this base, in the valley." she explained, the Princess nodding, before raising her hand.

"Please, who else has something to ask of me?"

One of the commoners stepped forward, "Uh, when will we have access to these goods and resources you spoke of?" he asked her, the Princess raising a brow.

"Well, as soon as I can enact the price-fixing and procure the goods. I assume that our expedition into the frontier colonies will allow us to buy such things, which will be available for you all to buy once we have procured the resources necessary for our own campaign." she explained, the commoners nodding, "Is that it?" she asked, nobody daring to speak up; Sokka was unsure whether she'd just scared them into shutting up, or they were appeased with what she had already offered them, "Well, if that is all that you wanted to discuss, I direct you to go eat, rest and drink before you leave on your journeys back home. If you have any more issues arise after this, speak with any of my soldiers. The messages will come back to me, and then I will deal with them accordingly." she gestured behind them, the commoners nodding, before they all began to move back on out toward the gates.

She turned her gaze over to Sokka, and then to Ty Lee, "Well, I think that went rather well."

"We've got some problems to solve." the acrobat noted, "But they don't seem that bad... other than the spirit one. That sounds bad."

"Well, we'll let Aang deal with that." the Water Tribesman spoke up, before a silence fell upon them; he glanced at the pair, before eyeing the Princess's guards, "Are we going to stand here like a bunch of idiots or are we going to do something?"

"Oh... that's bold of you to say, Sokka." his girlfriend prodded him, almost sounding amused by his words, though her expression showed that she was clearly not, "I believe we were going to do some training once all of this was wrapped up."

"Oh, yeah." Sokka's expression faltered, "Back to kicking my butt, it seems." he noted, before scrunching his lips up, "Could we at least have some tea or something before that?" he asked her, the Princess nodding.

"I'll allow that." she conceded, before turning around to face her guards, "I want you all to get changed into your sparring gear." she explained, "You may rest for a short time, but I want to be back out here as soon as this is all packed up."

"Of course, your highness." Renshu bowed, before glancing around at his subordinates, "You heard her, men. If you want to actually kick your legs back for a bit, you've got to get changed."

"Yes, sir!" the men saluted him, before they all began to file on back toward the front door of the compound; Sokka turned his gaze back around to his girlfriend, who continued to sit on her rather simple-looking wooden throne.

"What is it, savage?" she asked him, as blunt as ever, "Did you have some comments on my handling of the commoners?"

"No, actually, I thought you did it pretty well." he noted, the Princess rolling her eyes.

"That's still a comment, dummy." she chided him, before chuckling, "Seriously though, did I say anything weird?"

"Nope." Ty Lee assured her, "You were a little intimidating at times, but you've got to be intimidating if you want to be the Fire Lord." she noted, "And your aura was good."

"I'm pretty sure nobody else can see or cares about those." Sokka argued, making the Fire Nation girl cross her arms, seeming offended by his words.

"Auras matter, Sokka, whether you like it or not. If you have a bad aura, you're not going to be likeable." she argued, the Water Tribesman rolling his eyes; she obviously was deluded when it came to things like that, but of all things, he didn't want to have an argument about it.

"Urgh." he raised his hands up, "Whatever, just don't mention mine." he asked her, the Princess chuckling, before she rose up from her throne; she patted him on the shoulder, and leaned over to whisper to him.

"Something, something, gray." she joked, the Water Tribe warrior clenching his fists; she was mocking him, and he didn't enjoy it in the slightest.

"Hey, come on!" he growled, "I thought you were meant to take my side with this stuff." he argued, the Princess shrugging her shoulders as she strode on over toward the door, turning around and smugly looking his way.

"Well, I just take any opportunity I can to frustrate you."

"Good one, Azula." her friend grinned at her, raising both her thumbs up at her, "You actually read it right." she clarified, making Sokka roll his eyes.

"Yeah, that's because it's made-up." he argued, before pacing after his girlfriend, "We're getting changed, right?"

"Well, I don't expect you to be sparring in full armour, Sokka." she noted, before raising her chin up, "Unless you'd like to be a punching bag, that is."

"No, I'm going to chi-block Ty Lee's back so hard she won't be able to walk for a week." he argued his own idea of what he was going to do, making the acrobat tense up.

"Ha-ha..." she made a nervous laugh, "Really funny, Sokka." she sarcastically noted his intentions.

"Don't expect to get away with tricking me this time." he warned her, just wanting to stress his desire to get back at her, before he eyed his girlfriend, who was clearly unnerved by the conversation; of course, she wasn't afraid of Sokka, but of what she had done- that was right of her, in the end, after what had happened with Zhao.

She immediately moved toward the doors of the compound without another word, which didn't surprise him in the slightest; he and Ty Lee walked on after her, and the acrobat nervously looked at him. When they walked through the doorway of the compound, she grasped him by the shoulder, stopping him from continuing on in toward their quarters.

"Was that necessary?" she asked him, the Water Tribesman raising his chin up.

"Azula might be good, but she's not always right. I think she ought to remember that." he argued, before sighing, "And I might piss her off, but that's the price I'm willing to pay."

"I guess... you're a good boyfriend." she noted, "A bad one wouldn't even care."

"Y-yeah." he straightened his back, wishing that he could be as confident in his actions as she was in her belief of his righteousness; for somebody who chi-blocked him and left him splayed next to a campfire, she seemed to hold a lot of respect for his resolve, "Can we go now? I need to get out of this stuffy armour.

"Didn't you wear it for like a month straight?" she asked him, the Water Tribe warrior rolling his eyes.

"I never said I liked it." he argued, before pacing on into the compound, walking by some on-duty soldiers, who saluted Sokka, presumably because his armour indicated a non-existent rank; unless, future Fire Consort was a rank, then he would continue to simply be Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe, warrior and friend of the Avatar.

He momentarily glanced back toward the acrobat, wondering why she might be so willing to respect him, given how much she already respected his girlfriend. He guessed it may have had something to do with the fight with Zhao, given how badly he'd got himself hurt, not to mention that he had fought most of his men off alone. He had done exactly what Azula wanted him to, even if she didn't want him to get hurt; it was ironic, he noted, that after all the effort she had made in trying to get him away from danger, that she had inadvertently set him on a course to face the Admiral head on.

He had wanted to fight the cruel, callous man, but he honestly would have preferred if they'd come to the compound together the first time, and stripped him of his authority at once. That would have saved them all a lot of anguish; perhaps he wouldn't have even had to go to the North Pole and meet on the pig-headed pricks there. The one thing he was proud of was beating up Pakku, if only because his grandmother was deserving of the vengeance he had handed to her former betrothed. He hoped to soon enough see his grandmother, and his father too; he didn't know when he'd be returning to the South Pole, but he'd like to do it sooner rather than later- he missed them, and he was sure they'd miss him and Katara too.

He and Ty Lee continued on down the hallway, and he noted that Azula must have already headed off to the bedroom; he decided that even if he ought to address things with her, given how uneasy she'd gotten after his comments, he should get changed first. She would be getting changed herself, but she had a closet area separate from the sleeping area where she'd be doing her things. When he reached the door of the room, he unlocked it, and momentarily eyed the acrobat, who was looking at him as well; she looked like she wanted to say something, but was holding her tongue.

"Just spit it out." he prodded her, "Are you afraid I'm actually going to hurt you in sparring or something?"

"You might." she admitted, before shaking her head, "That's not what is important. Azula is."

"Ah, I see we have a common interest." he smirked, before glancing over toward his door, "I'll handle it. Don't worry, Ty Lee." he assured her; she seemed almost a little suspicious of him, but she nodded, and made a small smile.

"Thanks, Sokka. I- I think you know what you're doing." she noted, her nervous tone noticeable; she didn't want Sokka to ruin his relationship with Azula, or vice versa.

"I sure hope I do. Being an idiot at this point would make me a hypocrite." he noted, slightly amused by the possibility, even if he seriously wanted to avoid it; he didn't think he was in the right all the time, but when it came to his stance on what had happened, he wasn't going to budge, or as he had come to understand such a position- he was going to 'Katara' it.

He pushed the door open, and stepped into the bedroom; he could see some of Azula's armour pieces sitting on the bed, and the curtains in front of the closet hid her from his view, but he could hear her moving around. He didn't address her yet, knowing he ought to at least get dressed before he even said anything. If he was lucky, she'd shout at him for being a dickhead, and that'd start an argument where he could get his point across rather easily; in Sokka's opinion, that was easier than blunt and getting straight to the point himself. He stepped over toward his bag, which sat nearby the bed, with his clothes waiting inside; he was going to change into his ordinary Water Tribe tunic and pants, knowing that that was a better outfit to spar in than full armour. Though the armour did provide good protection against firebending, he knew that it was straining to wear, and when he really wasn't in much danger, it was pretty pointless to leave on.

Grasping his sides, he untied the chest plate, and once it was loose enough, he was able to pull it up and off of his shoulders. After that, he took his thigh guards off, placing them down beside his chest plate, before he knelt over, needing to loosen his boots before he could slide them off. He untied the bands that held them in place, before sliding each of his boots off. Sokka then reached into his bag, taking out his tunic; he realised that he really didn't need to change out of his undergarments- burning his actual clothes sounded like a terrible idea, which he certainly wanted to avoid. He decided to keep the undergarments on, but exchanged his heavy, layered boots for his usual fur lined ones, which were much lighter, and allowed him to stay agile and, if need be, kick his opponents with ease.

Sokka quickly slid his boots on, and tightened the bands at the top to make sure they'd stay firmly on his feet; he then picked up his boomerang, which he had had in his bag, and slung it over his shoulder; he then stepped over to the rather expansive double bed, and sat down on the end of it, knowing that Azula would be dressed soon enough. He wondered what she was thinking, after he'd perhaps annoyed or scared her with his words earlier on; he only wanted to stress the point that tricking him was no longer an option- he would not stand for any lies, or any kind of arrogance from her. He expected the usual cocky Azula, but he didn't want her cockiness to extend to the point at which she might believe she knew everything right for him and their relationship.

He had to have a say in it as well; that was what made it a real bond, and not a relationship of servant and master, which is certainly not what he desired it to be. In fact, it had be the one thing he had stressed when they first became acquainted, knowing that she might want to abuse their partnership to her own ends; she had, but he didn't blame her for her prior actions, and at the very least, she had worked with him, instead of undermining his well-placed desire to fight by her side and protect her from those who sought to harm her.

"Why am I not surprised?" he heard his girlfriend rhetorically quipped, "You're just sitting there, waiting for me to say something? I'm right, aren't I?"

"Yeah, you are." he noted, moving his eyes up to meet her own, momentarily scanning her attire.

He was wearing her usual sparring outfit, which was rather similar to the other Fire Nation garbs she had been wearing since they arrived at the compound, barring the fact that she lacked the armour and fancy golden tips to everything; the only fancy thing about her current attire was the headpiece, which he assumed she wasn't going to stop wearing just because she wasn't receiving people in her formal duties as Princess.

"Well, are you going to tell me why you think I'm going to have you killed or something absurd like that?" she narrowed her eyes at him, "You're acting far more paranoid than usual."

"I'm always paranoid, Azula." he retorted, before chuckling, realising they had in common, "Well, I guess we're both paranoid." he added, before straightening his expression, "I don't think you're going to do anything that absurd."

"Of course I won't." she assured him, "I'm not insane, Sokka." she stressed, before narrowing her eyes, "Unless... you think I've gone crazy. Honestly, I don't know what would have cinched that."

"Maybe the fact you went off and tried to trick a man into becoming a prisoner of the Northern Water Tribe, with nothing but your charm and wits." he decided to be blunt, given that would stop her walking around the issue and make him look like he was the one in the wrong; she tensed up, not stepping any closer to her boyfriend, who narrowed his eyes at her, "Huh, so are we going to talk about that, or what?"

"You know I don't like talking."

"No, you do like talking, just not about things that make you uncomfortable. I know you're as awkward as anybody else when it comes to things that really matter to you."

"Fixing the world matters to me, Sokka." she argued, making him chuckle; that was a bit of a false equivalency, given she had little personal care or connection with the people whose lives would be affected by her actions.

"Okay, Azula, let's be honest. That isn't for altruistic reasons. It's a means to an end, and yeah, I think you'd be a great Fire Lord, but let's not act like you're here to be the nicest, kindest, most helpful FIre Lord who ever graced the earth."

"Wow, you sound like Ty-" she began, before rolling her eyes, "Ah-ha... always one for jokes." she noted with a sarcastic voice, realising that he had been mocking Ty Lee and her at the same time.

"That wasn't a joke Azula. I'm trying to be honest, because I know honesty is better than tip-toeing around the fact you left me there in that campsite. Yeah, you kissed me, and yeah I know why you did it, but that doesn't make it right or fair."

She looked at him with a nearly solemn face, clenching her fists, before she turned around, "What, are you trying to make me feel guilty about this? Everything's fine, Sokka. I don't know why you're making such a big deal out of this."

"And now you're lying to yourself. I saw your face when you got to the Spirit Pool. You know it's not fine." he argued, hoping she'd just address the fact of the matter; she was smart enough to know that hindsight proved her to be in the wrong.

"Urgh." she snarled, before turning around, pointing at him accusingly, "Why do I have to love you so much, huh?! You're making everything so much harder."

"That's the trade-off, Azula." he simply acknowledged it for what it was; their bond made things harder, but he wouldn't give it up because of that, "I love you too, but you've got to actually... stand by it. I'm not going to follow you around the world if you're just going to kick me off and go kill Zuko, just because you think I'm not capable of making my own mind about things."

"I know you're smart, Sokka." she told him, nearly chidingly, "You're too damn smart. If you weren't smart, maybe you wouldn't have seen all that stupid shit coming. If you were smarter, you would have come and killed Zhao before any of this happened, and I would be even more grateful to you. I wish I could have done it differently... but I didn't."

"So yeah, you made a stupid mistake." he admitted, "Another one, but this time, it was really in your control." he stressed, "But I don't want you to make it again. Please." he asked of her, rising up from the bed, stepping closer to her, "I don't want to lose you, Azula."

"I..." she stared him down, lost for words, averting her eyes from his own, "That's why I did everything I did."

"I know." he assured her; he wasn't going to ignore that she had gone after Zhao in the way she had with the intention of ensuring Sokka's safety, even if in the end, her methods had led to him facing the Admiral and his men off by his lonesome.

He reached out, and placed his right hand firmly on her shoulder, "Please, don't go again." he asked her, clenching his grip, "I can't... if he'd killed you... I never would have forgiven myself." he admitted, trying to hold the tears back from his eyes.

He had nearly lost her, and the story of her ending up in a prison cell, completely unaware until she woke on the cold metal ground told him that it could have happened; if Zhao was feeling just a little bit more assertive and afraid of Azula, then he might have just thrown her and her men overboard and let them drown.

"And if he had killed you, then I would have been right, Sokka." she narrowed her eyes at him, "I- I failed, but... you're still alive, aren't you?"

"I know I am, but that's not what's important here. You went off and did all that stupid shit... for what? To have to pay reparation to those Northern bastards. They don't even deserve it... but I guess they're entitled to something after you destroyed their wall." he admitted, making her chuckle lightly.

"I know they don't deserve it, but I prefer to have my guards here than in a Northern Water tribe prison." she noted, before grimacing, "I put their lives, Ty Lee's life and my own life in danger because of my own arrogance." she addressed the fact he had wanted her to spell out, "I'm... I'm sorry, Sokka. I'm not worthy... I've never been worthy, and it took me being a selfish bitch to realise that."

"You are selfish, Azula, but that's not so bad." he admitted, making a small smile, "That makes every act of generosity you make all the more genuine. You do what you think is right, and you give what you need to, to those that deserve it." he admitted, "And I'm thankful. You actually liked a guy like me. You didn't kill me back on the ship, or in the forest."

"I don't even... I don't even know why. I guess I just wanted to get back at you and prove that I could civilise a savage like you."

He pursed his lips upward, realising that the opposite had occurred, in the end, "And you failed. I made you into a savage. Tribal democracy and all." he proclaimed proudly, the Princess rolling her eyes.

"Now, now, I'm just willing to acknowledge good ideas when I see them." she raised a hand up to stress her point, Sokka crossing his arms, thinking that contradicted how she had viewed the Southern Water Tribe, and by extension, the rest of the world outside of the Fire Nation.

"You barely thought my people were people."

"Barely a civilisation." she corrected him, "You were always people, but I never cared for people."

"Only those who could serve you." he noted, before chuckling, "I guess that part didn't change."

"At the South Pole, we serve each other." she noted, "I... well, I see the merit in it."

"Thanks, Azula, for not being stubborn as I thought you'd be." he conceded something he thought he ought to have earlier; she really had taken things better than he thought she would.

"You're acting like I didn't complain. I did... almost every day." she reminded him, making him laugh.

"That you did." he conceded, "I wished you'd shut up, but then again, if you did, you wouldn't Azula. Can't pass a day without a good argument."

"I will agree to that." she nodded, before eyeing him intently, "So, are you still angry with me, or am I going to go beat you up?"

"I was never angry, Azula." he argued, "I'm just... frustrated... and afraid."

"You..." she mumbled, before smirking, "You'll never have to be afraid by my side. I promise."

"That's the kind of promise I like to hear." he smiled at her, before leaping in to hug her tightly; she obviously hadn't expected it, but she clasped her own arms around him.

After a few moments of silence, he felt her chin touch his shoulder, and her breath on his neck, slow and calm, "I... I missed this." she admitted, making him smile, feeling just the same way.

"Me too." he told her, and leaned his own head on her shoulder, not breaking their hug just yet; he wanted to trust her, and he knew that she understood her mistakes- he couldn't be absolutely certain, but he was certain enough that he wasn't afraid.

Needless fear was going to get in the way of them working together, which is what he had always wanted to do; hugging her wasn't really cooperation, not in the sense that he understood it, but he knew that the embrace was a step toward reaffirming their bond. She had grasped his back, and pulled on it tightly, holding him from breaking off the hug, which he hadn't intended in the first place.

"Am I... am I going to be able to do it?" she questioned, her tone sounding not nervous, but simply doubtful- she was not omnipotent, and really didn't know if what she was intending was going to give her the outcome she desired.

Sokka didn't need the context for her question, and smiled at her in reassurance, "Of course you will be able to, Azula. You're Azula. You can do anything you set your mind to. The thing is, we've gotta take the plan that ends with us winning, not making a fool of ourselves." he explained his thoughts on the matter, knowing that he couldn't lie about it; if they were set on a plan that was flawed, they would suffer from it, just as she had with her plan to trick Zhao.

"What's winning to you Sokka?" she asked him with a more serious voice.

"Your victories lead to my victories." he argued, "Peace will make my nation stronger. It will make the world stronger."

"I'm going to betray everything my father taught me to do." she admitted bluntly, which didn't surprise him; they both knew she was going against him, that much was obvious after she had chosen to help Aang to begin with, but now she was acknowledging that she wasn't even following his teachings anymore.

"And is there anything wrong with that? Bad ideals make bad plans, and they make bad Fire Lords. That's why you're going to be a great one. You can make the big decisions for yourself."

She pulled back from their hug slightly and cleared her thought, "He taught me that, actually." she noted with a slightly nervous look on her face, "Of course, he thought that after a long reign, I'd be succeeding him, and not know anything but his ideology, and do exactly what he would."

"Well, that was very stupid of him." he observed, "If he was smart, he would have told you to grovel to his every whim."

"That'd make me Zuko." she argued, the anger in her voice immediately appearing upon mentioning her brother's name, "And he got his face burned for that."

"I don't think that's the same Zuko you fought at Yu Dao." he noted, before chuckling, "I guess that proves everybody changes."

"No, not really." she shook her head, "Am I really that different to the girl who decried you as a savage and a coward?"

"Not really." he agreed with her, "You're just wiser." he decided before grinning, "And cuter."

"I'm not cute. I'm a Fire Lord in the making." she argued, making him snicker.

"Sorry? You're not cute? What do you call putting on all the armour to make yourself look tough? You're definitely cute."

"Shut up, Sokka." she snarled, "You think I want to be a dainty little girl?" she asked him rhetorically.

"No, you want to be a powerful Fire Lord." he noted, before pursing his lips up, "My Fire Lord."

She dropped her mouth slightly ajar, "You know, you really know how to improve my mood." she noted, sounding almost amused by his words.

"Genuine flattery." he stated what he had just done, "Because you know I mean it."

"And I mean it when I say I love you, savage." she argued, making him grin.

"I love you too." he assured her, before smugly smiling, "Ah, that feels much better than the tent."

"Oh, really? And you think a heart-to-heart conversation is better than what we do in our sleeping roll?" she asked him, placing her hands on his shoulders; he had a feeling her suggestiveness was leading somewhere, so he decided to defuse it with a joke.

"You know I love sleeping too, Azula." he quipped, making her roll her eyes.

"If I'm your Fire Lord, then you're my idiot." she argued, making him grin at her; being called stupid by her side was a lot better than believing himself a genius by his lonesome.

"Being the most useful idiot in the world is better than being a smart nobody." he proclaimed, before grasping her by the waist and kissing her once more; she almost pre-empted him, but he got the upper hand, and pushed deeply into their embrace.

"You want so little, Sokka." she admitted, panting slightly after their make-out, before pursing her lips upward, "I ought to reward you for your humility."

"Oh, I like the sound of that... but I know what you'd like even more than that." he noted, remembering what she had intended for them to do before they started their conversation.

"To beat the shit out of you?" she guessed correctly, the Water Tribesman gesturing to the door.

"Precisely, your majesty. I'm gonna chi-block Ty Lee and show your guards who's boss." he proclaimed, making her roll her eyes.

"Well, the other part can come after. Depending on how well you fight, I might consider my strategies." she explained, making him raise a brow.

He was a little confused by what she meant by strategies, before he realised she was referring to their other kind of 'fighting'; it was a battle that was a lot less painful than the stuff he was used to. He smirked, looking forward to seeing what she might do after he had a good spar with the everybody; ever since that last time they all sparred, he hadn't had a good fight against his girlfriend, and thought he ought to give her all he could, just to make what followed be all the more satisfying.

"Oh, those strategies."

Ty Lee loved the spa so much that she was actually concerned that they might eventually leave the compound to go do their jobs, which had somehow turned into being the pallbearers of justice and liberation for the world, which her amused quite a lot, given Azula's former disdain toward such wistful thinking. She was sure they'd be doing great things, but until they started, she was more than willing to train and spar with her friend, and then enjoy every moment she could be pampered. Big, filling meals and long spa sessions had been great for the few days they had already been at the compound, and she was sure that it could only get better once Azula got in a better mood.

She could tell when they sparred last that she and Sokka must have resolved some things, because she was far more enthusiastic, or to put it bluntly, vicious, when it came to their sparring. With any other person she might think it was because she was angry, but Azula fought with suave confidence when she was in a good mood. It was when she was uneasy or worried that she would falter and restrain herself. Sparring however, was pretty far from her mind as she felt her back get massaged by the servant who had been attending to her; she turned her gaze over to the Princess, who seemed rather relaxed, with her long black hair flowing down past her shoulders in front of her, while she lay down on her chest, a servant rubbing a herbal ointment into her skin.

"This is great." she simply commented, the Princess making a slight nod, before she sighed, taking a deep breath out.

"I will say, they've gotten better over time." she conceded, the servant who was rubbing her back looking heart-warmed by the usually snarky Princess's comment.

"Thank you, your highness." she acknowledged her words, which seemed to surprise Azula; she probably just wasn't used to servants actually speaking to her.

"It's just an observation." she clarified, obviously not wanting to ruin her image of aloof stoicism, "Continue." she commanded the servant, who did just that.

"What's Sokka doing if we're here?" she asked her friend, wondering what her boyfriend might be up to; he obviously had his own hobbies, the primary one being the consumption of food, though she understood that he was more inclined to intellectual activities than she had expected him to be- it made sense, of course, given that if he and Azula were in a relationship, she expected them to have some things in common.

"Probably annoying the Captain and the guards with his new passion for Pai Sho." she noted, before rolling her eyes, "You know he wanted to play it with me this morning. That was a good way to start a fight."

"A waste of time?" she asked, the Princess shaking her head.

"No, actually, it's just a really easy way to remind me of my annoying uncle who ruined my life." she clarified, before shaking her head, "Or was it Zuko... I'm unsure who's really to blame."

"Ozai?" she dared to suggest, making the Princess snicker.

"Oh, he played a part, but he wasn't the one who shot me with my own lightning." she reminded her; even if her father's actions had ultimately led to Zuko's rebellion and later, his duel with his sister, he was the one who decided to shoot the lightning back at her, not Ozai.

"I can see why you don't like either of them." she admitted, knowing that even if her anger towards her brother was a little blown out of proportion, it was reasoned and justified; he might have accidentally killed her if the attack had been any more effective.

Azula didn't respond to her words, which left an awkward silence between the pair as they both got their backs massaged; she wondered if she ought to say something, just to draw her friend's mind away from her family, given how much anguish it gave her, both physical and emotional.

"Have you got any news from those Earth Kingdom rebels you wanted to meet with?" she decided to ask her about her work, given that it was the one thing she seemed to be constantly focused on- a good distraction, if anything.

"Nothing yet." she tilted her head up slightly, her eyebrows furrowing, "I'm unsure if they're going to be that receptive to my message. I believe Aang might be necessary to bring them to the table."

"Well he and Katara won't be back for a bit." she noted, "That doesn't help."

"It certainly doesn't." she agreed with her point, "I'll go talk with Sokka. Perhaps we can take a short trip to the rebels he met with before they got to the North Pole. They might be willing to trust him after he helped them out." she noted, reminding Ty Lee of the story the Water Tribe warrior had told them when they had been flying south on Appa, explaining exactly what they'd done since they split up.

There were refugees, fights with the Fire Nation, and random muggers; not to mention they were trying their best to hide from the Zhao's fleet, which they seemed to do so successfully. She wondered if perhaps the Admiral had known about Aang flying north, and had considered that in his plan; that unnerved her, the idea that they were played from the very beginning, and that the betrayal he made on the ship was inevitable.

"That's a good idea." she smiled at her friend, before glancing ahead of herself, toward the windows, through which the afternoon sun shone into the room, "The last thing we need is to fight people. I mean, we will be fighting, but your plans won't go very well if your men are fighting the Earth Kingdom, your father's loyalists and Zuko's forces all at once." she noted, the Princess chuckling.

"Yeah, that's the whole plan, Ty Lee. This base, no matter how safe it might seem, won't be so for long if we're facing enemies on all sides." she argued, before her voice became more serious, "We need to solve the colonies problem, sooner rather than later."

"You aren't going to repeat what you did last time, are you?"

"My plan was actually quite good. I just didn't anticipate Zuko showing up in person. I doubt he'll be doing that if he's going off to get married to Mai." she noted, making Ty Lee smile; the thought of one of her best friends getting married was something that made her think the world wasn't as bad as it seemed sometimes, though the fact she had no chance to see it happen was greatly disappointing.

"We're going to sneak in there, aren't we?"

"I'd prefer to avoid doing the dirty work myself this time. I'll plan those operations, and make sure they are foolproof. Without Zhao to come in and ruin things, there's less things we have to worry about."

"Oh... what about the reparations?" she asked her, remembering that after what they had done at the North Pole, the Chief was expecting some compensation for the damages they incurred on his tribe.

"I'll get onto that quickly enough. We can't do much until we secure our borders and make peace with the rebels." she argued, before sighing, "There's much to be done, Ty Lee."

"That sounds like you don't want to be here in the spa." she spoke her mind, "This is great. Just relax a little, and don't worry about it. I'm... I should just stop talking, shouldn't I?"

"Hmph." the Princess mumbled, before turning her gaze away from her friend, "I'd like the massage to wrap up so my hair can be done." she told the servant, who nodded.

"Of course, your highness. I'll get right to it." she assured her, moving to grab a towel from the nearby table to wipe her back down, before she would presumably turn over and begin cleaning the Princess's hair.

Ty Lee felt a little guilty in that by making conversation, she had brought the stresses of leadership to the forefront of her friend's mind; she just wanted to have a lighthearted chat, so they weren't worrying about the struggles they were facing, or were going to face in future. She wondered what better things they could talk about; there wasn't much going on at that very moment that they could discuss, so she decided to pull something out of thin air.

"What do you Aang and Katara are doing right now?"

"If they're not on Appa, they better have a good reason to be so." she narrowed her eyes, "I can imagine them getting into trouble, like the day we came to your circus."

"Oh... robbing a store, and getting chased out of town by the guards." she recalled that rather unusual afternoon; there had been a mixture of emotions and generally, just confusion abound- Sokka pretending to recruit her to fight Zuko was a little funny in hindsight, but it was utterly confusing at the time.

"We're just lucky we have a sky-bison." she piped up, "I can't imagine we'd have done very well running out of there." she noted, before narrowing her eyes, "Do you... miss your sisters?"

"They're pretty annoying." she bluntly acknowledged, which amused her friend; whenever Ty Lee wasn't cheery and nice, Azula found amusement, though she always had good reason to not be happy about something, "I love them, I really do, but it's like being stuck with a bunch of myself. I swear they were driving me crazy."

"I can't imagine what it would have been like having a twin, let alone six sisters." the Princess admitted, "But I can see from your experience... you had good reason to run off to the circus."

"We all did, really." she noted, knowing that her sisters were just as desperate as she was to stand out, and be their own people, "I just wish they had gone their separate ways and found their own things to do instead of just going after me, honestly."

"You're not that lucky, Ty Lee." the Princess acknowledged, "But now you're here, and you can be whoever you want to be."

"Your bodyguard and relationship therapist." she argued, making the Princess roll her eyes.

"I don't want your advice with Sokka. I can easily ruin my relationship without you having to do it for me." she argued, making the acrobat wince; perhaps the feelings of fear were still raw in her mind, thinking that Sokka mightn't trust her any longer, and that it had cut their relationship to pieces.

"You didn't ruin it, Zula." she assured her, "You two actually look like you were getting along." she smiled, truly believing what she had said; she wasn't just trying to make Azula feel better about herself, but acknowledging the dedication they held for each other, "And by getting along, I mean trying to beat the crap out of each other."

"I'm Azula." she simply told her, "That's what I do. Fighting is the best way to bond."

"Sounds like that tactic took a while with Katara." she noted, making the Princess roll her eyes.

"Well, she didn't make it easier, and I, for one, didn't want to be friends with her." she proclaimed, before glancing back over toward the servant who had been cleaning her back, "Do I roll over now?" she asked, the servant reaching over and showing the Princess the gown she had been wearing for their spa session.

"Here's your gown." she simply told her, Azula accepting it and wrapping it around her body as she turned herself over, covering her otherwise naked upper body with it; Ty Lee made a concerted effort to not look her way, not desiring to make her feel uncomfortable with any unwanted gazes.

Once Azula had her gown back on, she lay herself on her back, letting her hair flow down off of the end of the massage table, down toward a steel pot that had been filled with water; that's what her hair would be cleaned with. Ty Lee glanced over toward the servant who had been attending to her, and raised a brow, wondering if she ought to get her to move onto the hair so she could finish up around the same time as her friend.

"Could you do my hair now?" she asked, the servant nodding and reaching over toward her own gown.

She handed it to Ty Lee, and she immediately pulled it over her shoulders, before wrapping it underneath her; she rolled around, and noticed in the corner of her eye that Azula was looking at her, though she immediately averted her gaze. She tied the gown up before laying her head back, deciding not to comment on what the Princess had done; it was rather innocent anyway, and she wasn't going to make fun of her for perhaps unintentionally leering at her. She let her hair fall down behind her, ready for the servant to wash; she waited patiently, but quickly enough, the servant had moved around behind her head, and began to wash her hair with the water and some herbal product, which fluffed up in her hair, and made it feel a little lighter, despite the heaviness that came from the water.

She then glanced back over toward her friend, recalling what they had been talking about before they had moved to get their hair washed, "So, I guess you did make friends with Katara in the end."

"Well, I taught her the very basics of bending, and after that, she seemed to tolerate me." she acknowledged, "Waterbending is very different to firebending, but the core principles are rather similar."

"Huh, so I wonder what it'll be like when you teach Aang firebending."

"Hopefully he's still set on learning the elements when he gets around to it. I'd prefer a poor student over a disinterested one." she noted, before chuckling, "But of course, even he can see the power of firebending. It's the best element for offense, and given we're going to be fighting people, sooner or later, he'll need all the offensive capabilities he can get."

"Aang's a pacifist." Ty Lee observed the fact of the matter, "Do you expect him to become like Sokka and be really violent?"

"Sokka isn't that violent." she assured her, "He has resolve. Some people aren't willing to fight with their all, because they think they'll hurt somebody."

"Like Aang." she brought up the same point once more; they couldn't change his mindset, but at the very least, they could show him the merits of using his strength- if he wasted it, then that'd be negligence that could ultimately affect the fate of the war.

"He'll see. I think he already knows it, even if he's unwilling to act." she admitted, before narrowing her eyes, "Anyone can grow."

"You're right." Ty Lee smiled at her, making the Princess smugly scoff.

"Of course I'm right, Ty Lee." she stressed her infallibility; even if she seemed to have learned her lesson when it came to the debacle with Zhao, her arrogance was one thing that didn't seem to fade easily; the Princess let out a deep breath as she had her hair washed, "I know he's just a child... but so was I. I became a firebending master out of necessity."

The acrobat furrowed a brow, remembering how her friend had talked about her firebending training when they were younger, "Impressing your father was a necessity?"

"Yes. I didn't want to end up like Zuko."

She chuckled, realising that all of Ozai's mistreatment toward his son had ultimately made him stronger, and obviously allowed him to become the Fire Lord; without that struggle, she couldn't have imagined someone like the Zuko she knew becoming a firebending master, and capable of defeating his sister a duel, "In hindsight, that must seem a little stupid."

"Well, I didn't know I was going to meet Sokka, let alone help the Avatar." she admitted, "My life took a turn for the unexpected." she simply observed, before raising her hand up to her face, "This was not what I wanted."

"But you're not unhappy, are you?" she asked her, actually concerned her friend might be having second thoughts about everything she had done; it wasn't like she had much of a choice in her path ahead, but regret was something she didn't want to weigh on her friend's soul, "You haven't betrayed anyone, Azula."

"Well, I did." she simply retorted, before narrowing her eyes, "And I'm unhappy with how stupid I can act at times. I mean, I shouldn't be surprised. I fell for Sokka of all people."

"You just need to let us help you a little bit more." she suggested, "Things go better when you have people you can trust by your side."

"I can agree to that." she nodded, before glancing over toward her, "Thanks for coming with me, Ty Lee."

"It's no problem, Zula." she grinned at her, "I knew you would need help, even with Sokka by your side. Zhao was a mistake, but we can grow past that. I'm sure he'll forgive you."

"I think he has." she admitted, "But forgiveness doesn't mean he'll forget." she added with a tense voice, "He thinks I might go off again without him."

"You won't, won't you?" she asked, nervous that she might be headstrong enough to try that again.

"There's only one circumstance I'll let that happen, and I think you might know what that would be." she vaguely worded herself, which confused Ty Lee; she seemed to be referring to a potential Agni Kai duel with Zuko, but given his skills, she doubted that he wouldn't be useful, in the case the fight became dirty.

"Sokka could help against Zuko, you know? He's not incompetent. He's actually a-" she began to argue in the Water Tribesman's favour, before her friend raised her hand up to silence her.

"No, I'm not talking about Zuko." she stressed, her voice sounding less angry and more afraid, "I'm talking about Father."

"You... you don't think he'd-" she began, before cutting herself off, knowing that she shouldn't say it out loud.

"Yes, Ty Lee. I think he would. If there's one thing I don't want, it's that happening. That's why if I do face him, I want Aang with me instead."

"I mean, he is the Avatar, so I can see why you'd think that." she noted, "Restoring balance and all that."

"It will be the poetic comeuppance Avatar Roku never would have been able to predict." she smirked, "My ancestors have become one in me, and I will end the conflict that Sozin started." she assured her, before narrowing her eyes, "And I've got to figure out that stupid technique Zuko used on me."

"Shooting your own lightning back at you?" she asked, the Princess nodding.

"I don't know how it works. Given firebending and lightning generation both come from the manipulation of one's chi, I assume that it has something to do with chi pathways, but I can't be sure. All I know is that my brother wasn't harmed by my lightning, and that's important. If I could take a lightning bolt to the chest from my father, then I'd be unstoppable... if Aang could do that... well, he'd just be all the more stronger." she acknowledged, narrowing her eyes in thought, "Perhaps you could help me with that."

"You don't have any lightning to redirect, though." she observed, before scrunching her lips up, wondering if anybody in her group of guards had the power to wield lightning, "Can any of your guards generate it?"

"I don't believe so. It's a rare skill, and requires a lot of training to master. If you aren't in the right state of mind, your lightning will falter and hurt you in the process." she explained as she raised a hand up, "I've never had that problem, but I have a feeling that it could arise... avoiding that is my aim."

"I wonder if..." she began, before considering if the potential scenario if Sokka had joined them might have made her feel so anxious about Zhao that when push came to shove, she mightn't have even been able to generate lightning.

Before she could suggest her point to Azula, a knock on the door interrupted them, and the Princess raised her head slightly, "Urgh, this better be important." she grumbled to herself, before cleaning her throat, "What is it?" she spoke loudly enough that whoever was behind the door could clearly hear her.

"It's me." she heard Sokka's voice, making Ty Lee's eyes widen, curious as to why he had shown up.

"Come in." the Princess allowed him, and with that the door opened, "What's happened that's so pressing you had to interrupt our spa session... unless you wanted to join us, of course."

"Uh, no, I don't." he assured her, before straightening his posture, "It's Kori and Sneers."

"Wait, what?" Azula rose up to a seated position, making Ty Lee cringe, noticing that her wet hair was getting on her gown.

"Yeah, I know, it's a bit of a surprise, but they're here. The gate guards stopped them from coming into the compound because they didn't have any documentation or reason to be here. I told them it was alright and let them inside." he explained, before glancing at both of the girls, "Uh, so, did you want to speak with them?"

"Why are they here, Sokka?" Azula stressed with a rather serious tone, "They can't have just come all the way from Yu Dao to meet me. That'd be absurd."

"They didn't." he clarified, "They fled Yu Dao a few months ago, after the military cracked down on their group, who were agitating for a dropping of martial law and installation of a new government. The colonies sound like they've been in a really shit situation as of late."

"My brother's trying to retain a stranglehold on power." the Princess deduced, before shrugging her shoulders, "Of course, I don't blame him. I'd do the same thing if half the country wanted me dead."

"Uh, your highness, your hair is... uh..." the servant behind her tried to warn her, Azula's eyes widening as she noticed the wet patch on her back made by her hair.

"Urgh, this is the worst time for an interruption." she growled.

"Well, when you were topless would have been worse." Ty Lee corrected her, making the Princess blush, and her boyfriend turned his eyes away, obviously a little embarrassed by the suggestion.

"Shut up, Ty Lee." her friend snapped at her, before sighing, "Dry my hair so I can leave." she asked the servant behind her, who nodded, stepping over to grab a towel.

"Of course, your highness." she accepted her command with no complaint, and got to work on drying her hair, while Azula's eyes moved to meet Sokka's.

"You didn't properly answer my question, Sokka. Why are they here?"

"They heard about your arrival a few weeks ago, and decided to come and travel here, to ask for your help."

"Well, I believe it's going to go the other way around, Sokka." she clarified, "We're going to need their help to secure Yu Dao, at some point. Their movement might be of great use to us, if they're still associated with it."

"They didn't say." he admitted, before turning around, "I left them in the meeting room. Is that alright?"

"It's fine." she assured the Water Tribesman, before glancing over to Ty Lee, "I told you about Kori and Sneers, right?"

"They were there in Yu Dao, and they helped you and Sokka escape after the duel." she recalled what the Princess had told her.

"Yes, they did. I will admit, Zhao's insane move did provide us with some great cover, but the whole fiasco has probably irreversibly damaged our reputation in the city. If I could have better controlled him, none of that would have occurred, and Admiral Liang's forces couldn't have reached Pohuai before Sokka and I could return." she noted, before shrugging her shoulders, "Not that it really matters now. What matters is that we utilise whatever means possible to secure the colonies.. I want to avoid a violent confrontation. If there's any way I can get them to support my brother over me, it would be that."

"That's true." Sokka nodded, before sighing, "Sorry for interrupting your spa session. I know you're probably as worn out as I am after sparring."

"It has been quite relaxing, but work comes before pleasure here. I will speak with our friends, and hopefully, we can gather some intelligence from them. It would be helpful to learn more precisely what is going on in the areas under my brother's rule."

"I wish this just could have come up a little later in the day." the acrobat dejectedly mumbled, before sighing, "Could you dry my hair too?"

"I'll get right to it, my lady." the servant assured her, before she turned her eyes over to her friend.

"This is good news, I guess."

"Well, we can actually do something productive instead of just waiting to hear if the Earth Kingdom rebels attack my men on sight." Azula admitted, before glancing over toward her boyfriend, "We might be a while."

"I can wait, it's okay." he assured them, the Princess rolling her eyes.

"Perhaps he wants a massage too." she joked to Ty Lee, who giggled.

"Yeah, Sokka, do you want one or not?" she asked the Water Tribesman, who shook his head.

"I don't have any time to get a massage." he argued, before crossing his arms, "I'm focused on making sure we actually get somewhere."

"And by somewhere, he means in control of the colonies." Azula added, making her boyfriend smirk.

"That's right." he agreed with her, before glancing at the two of them, watching as they had their hair dried, "So, what have you two been talking about?"

"How did you know-" the acrobat began to question, before she realised that there was a rather obvious answer to her question, "Nevermind." she mumbled, and as she remained silent thereafter, the Princess decided to answer his question.

"We just talked about what's ahead of us." she simply explained, not mentioning the fact they had a discussion of her very concerns about Sokka and facing her father; she obviously didn't want to bring that up with him, lest it bring about needless anguish and fear, "I need to do some things before we face our enemies."

"Like what?" he scrunched his lips up, confused by her vague wording.

"Learn how to redirect lightning." she clarified, making his eyes widen.

"Sorry?" he asked her, sounding more than a little concerned by the idea of her learning such a skill, as it entailed that she might actually have to use it.

"It's a precaution. I'm not going out of my way to fight my brother or father, but I know it's a possibility, and sooner or later, we're going to be heading to the capital." she clarified.

"It doesn't help that we don't have any idea how your uncle invented that technique."

"Well, what did it look like to you, Sokka?" she asked her; usually Azula would be rhetorical in asking such questions, being as self-assured as she was in her knowledge, but she did seem to actually want to hear his opinion.

"Well..." he mumbled, raising a finger to his chin, "I guess it was kind of similar to the forms Aang and Katara learned from Master Pakku."

"Waterbending?" Ty Lee raised a brow, "What does lightning have to do with waterbending?"

"Lightning is a purer manipulation of one's chi than ordinary firebending." Azula spoke up, "Waterbending seems to mostly involve the flow and redirection of strength and energy."

"Like the Kyoshi Warriors." Sokka observed, making the Princess narrow her eyes.

"Huh, I guess their fighting style was somewhat similar in mindset." she noted, before shaking her head, "That's beside the point, Sokka. If lightning redirection is somehow related to waterbending forms, then perhaps... well, I can't believe I'm saying this, but maybe Katara can teach me."

"Oh, how the tables have turned." he smugly grinned at her, "Well, I guess the master does eventually become the student."

"You haven't beat me yet, Sokka." Ty Lee piped up, "Though... you're getting better." she conceded his skills when it came to chi-blocking, "And honestly, you've got some cool moves."

"Water Tribe style." he raised a hand toward her, "It's something you've just gotta get enculturated with."

"Like Azula." Ty Lee noted, making the Princess look at her with slight confusion, "What? Tell me the last Fire Lord who could probably kill their own food?"

"I don't think that's anything to brag about, Ty Lee." she retorted, "I'd prefer not to be a peasant. Plus, don't you remember dragon hunting? I'm certain my grandfather knew how to kill them."

"But people didn't eat dragons, Azula." she argued in return, before grimacing slightly, "They didn't, right?"

"Of course not." she stressed, assuring her that they didn't actually eat them, "That'd be absurd."

"Anyway... the point is, if you learn to 'waterbend' fire, you might be able to redirect lightning." Sokka drilled down to the point that they were actually trying to discuss.

"Precisely." she nodded, "As much as I would hate to degrade my element by learning the forms of another, this is a necessity." she stressed, the Water Tribesman making a small smile.

"Well, hey, it's an excuse for you and Katara to bond some more and not hate each other's guts."

"We don't hate each other's guts." the Princess retorted, before turning her head slightly to glance at the servant who was drying her hair with a towel, "Is it dry?"

"I will tie it up at once, your highness." the servant assured her, and began to do just that.

The Princess turned back to face her boyfriend, "I think I've earned her respect."

"Well, it took a while to do that." he noted rather bluntly, before making a small smile, "I have a feeling you and Toph will get along well though... whenever she gets here, that is."

"What's this Toph like, anyway?" Ty Lee asked them, not knowing much about her other than the fact she was intended to be Aang's earthbending master.

"Short, blind, and really snarky." the Princess summarised her character, making Ty Lee giggle; she seemed like a person she'd like to meet.

"Great at bending too." Sokka added, "She beat up the Freedom Fighters so bad it wasn't even funny." he noted, before smirking, "And she kicked the butts of those Fire Nation soldiers."

"And she's a human lie detector." Azula added, "Which, given I was trying to hide my identity, was not helpful in the slightest, though I guess when it's being used against my opponents, it'd be rather useful." she smiled, obviously wanting every advantage she could make out of the potential addition to their group.

"Well, everybody's going to get along fine, assuming that they get back here." he noted, before the Princess rose up from the table she'd be lying on, as her hair was done.

She immediately climbed off of the table, standing barefoot on the floor. She then turned her eyes to the assemblage of clothing that sat in the corner of the room; she had to get into her actual clothes, but to her luck there was a small changing room, which had been converted from a closet, that she could use.

"I'm going to get changed. Ty Lee, hurry up, and once you're dressed, we'll go speak with Kori and Sneers." she explained, the acrobat nodding.

"Gotcha. Sokka and I can hang out and have a little chat." she suggested, the Princess scoffing, before she approached her clothes and boots, taking them into her arms, before she turned her gaze to her boyfriend.

"If she hits on you, you have my permission to chi-block her, Sokka." she explained, making him snicker.

"Alright then." he nodded, the acrobat sighing with frustration, not wanting to be accused of something that she wasn't going to do.

"I'm not going to." Ty Lee stressed, the Princess smugly looking at her, pointing a finger her way to warn her, despite her denial.

When she went off into the change room, Ty Lee turned her eyes over to the Water Tribesman, who decided to sit himself on the table which his girlfriend had been laying on., "So, Ty Lee, how are you going?"

"Uh, fine. I wish this spa session could have gone a little longer. It's okay though. We have to tomorrow to do that." she argued, before glancing back behind her, noting that the servant had started to do her hair.

"Don't worry, I can braid it myself. It's a ritual at this point." she assured the servant, who smiled at her, handing her the bands which she would use to tie up her braid.

She sat herself up, and turned to face Sokka as she grasped her hair, pulling the first of the bands through to leave her with a high ponytail, which she was about to braid, "What about you? Azula thought you might have been giving the guards strife."

"Oh, well, I guess I kind of was." he acknowledged with a humoured face, telling her that their was a story to be revealed.

"How?" she asked, knowing where the question might lead.

"Well, they were gambling, and I decided to join in on their game."

"Did you do any good?" she asked, not knowing if Sokka was skilled at such things.

"Well, of course I did. It's all probabilities, but they weren't very happy that I was going so well, so I promptly left their game. That's when I went out and found out that Kori and Sneers were here." he explained, the acrobat nodding as she began to braid her hair.

"I found another book today."

"Ah, was it anything like the one Azula was complaining about?"

"No, this one's very different. Supposedly it's based on a real story about a man who moved to colonies many years ago, and became a merchant... but not a very nice or fair one."

"A pirate?" he asked, sounding very interested at that idea; she felt sad to disappoint him, but it wasn't that kind of story.

"Not really. Just very... underhanded." she clarified, "It's an interesting story though."

"Find any interesting ways to swindle people?"

She snickered at his suggestion and shook her head, "I'm not going to swindle anyone. I already have my charms."

"Ah, yes, flirtation. That must be a tried and tested skill by this point for you." he noted, before narrowing his eyes, "I don't know if I'm very good at that."

"What, is Azula the only girl you've ever wooed?"

"Uh, yeah." he nodded, making an awkward face, "I mean, I've tried before, it doesn't mean I've succeeded, though."

"Oh, I'm sure you might have had some luck if you weren't... well, I don;'t imagine there's much people at the South Pole."

'Not really. There's sometimes feasts between villages, and that was the only time I'd ever see girls my age." he admitted, before making a cringed face, "I'm such a loser sometimes, honestly." he raised a hand to his cheek, "I can say really dumb things."

"Well, I can understand how you feel. I just got a lot of practice though. With the circus, we were always going to new places, meeting new and interesting people." she noted, "I guess it's similar to what we've been doing since I joined you, except we didn't have anything like a sky-bison."

She glanced down, noting that she had finished her braid, and slid the bands into place before tightening them; she then turned around, facing the door of the change room, "Zula, are you nearly done?" she called out to her friend.

"Give me a second." she responded with a slightly annoyed voice, the acrobat glancing back around at the servants who had been attending to them.

"I think you two can go now. Thanks for the spa session."

"It's not a worry, my lady." the girl who had served her bowed toward her, "We are more than willing to serve the Princess and her friends." she made a conciliatory smile, before she and the other servant girl strode over to the door and exited the room, leaving them alone.

"I don't think I'll be getting any practice." Sokka noted with an amused expression, "For Azula, fighting is flirting."

"I heard that, savage." the Princess spoke up, making both of them snicker at her snarky reaction.

"I'm not wrong." he argued in return, Azula stepping out of the change room a few moments later, wearing her usual robes.

"Fighting is about being productive, not about... that." she argued, not sounding very confident in her claim.

"Yeah, that face proves I'm right." he smugly proclaimed, the Princess pointing toward him accusingly.

"Do you want me to beat your arse right here, right now?" she growled at him, Ty Lee getting off the table, standing between the two of them.

"Now, now, we don't need to fight. We've got to speak with your friends, remember?"

"I'm not a forgetful idiot, Ty Lee." the Princess turned her gaze toward her, "Go get changed."

"That's what I'm going to do." she assured her, leaning over to pick up her own clothes before she paced over to the change rooms with everything she needed.

She strode over, and opened to the door, glancing back toward the other two, wondering what they might talk about while she was inside; perhaps they'd get all romantic and make out. That made her giggle, and she closed the door behind her, hoping that they could enjoy themselves a little. She knew they deserved as much time as they could ask for, after all the time they'd spent away, and all the struggle they experienced against Zhao.

She immediately untied her gown, before dropping it down on the ground below her; she then took her chest band from her pile of clothes, and tied it around her bust. Once that was secured in place, she quickly pulled her top over her arms and head, and then stepped into her skirt, pulling it up to her then took her wrist bands and slung them on, before she took her shoes and slipped her toes into them. Twisting them around a little, she got them snugly inside, and then glanced around at her attire, finding that she looked just as she was supposed to.

She preferred to comfort wearing the same clothes as often as she could, mostly because she liked that one little bit of stability in her life. She had another set of clothes which she could exchange for the outfit she was presently wearing, which was currently being washed by somebody; it honestly was great to have somebody do her laundry for her, after spending three whole years doing it herself, or with only her sisters to help, or even worse, doing their washing for them.

She picked the gown up off of the ground and stepped out of the doorway, noting that the others were ready and waiting for her; the Princess nodded, acknowledging that she was done, "Well, you were quick, Ty Lee."

"It's the same clothes every time. I've gotten pretty quick." she explained her speed, gesturing to the door, "Are we going?"

"Yes. Let's get to Kori and Sneers. I'm sure they're bored out of their brains." she noted, "Unless some servants decided to feed them, in which case they might be occupied."

"They don't just go around giving out free food to your guests, do they?" Sokka asked her, the Princess shrugging her shoulders.

"They might just assume they are important because you let them in. Servants are very good with inferences. It's a big part of their job." she clarified, being a good source on servants after having spent most of her life around them.

The trio then left the spa room, and immediately headed down the hallway, all of them knowing where to go; Sokka had quickly learned his way around the place, though it wasn't that hard, given that he only really needed to go to a few places- where they ate, where they slept and where they trained. They moved hastily, led by the Princess, who must have been a little self-conscious in leaving guests unattended for so long; despite her arrogant cockiness, she could still understand the norms and expectations of etiquette, even though she was probably the one person who could forgo it due to her rank. Their path to the stairs was unimpeded, as no servants or guards were patrolling the halls.

"Wait, so Kori and Sneers are a couple, right?" Ty Lee asked, having assumed that from what her friend had told her without any explicit confirmation.

"Yes." Sokka confirmed, "They're a bit like us actually."

"The only thing in common we have with them is that we're from different nations." Azula argued, "Though I guess we both have political aspirations." she noted, "There's a few similarities."

They paced on up the stairs, and quickly bee-lined right to the meeting room, the Princess opening the doors at once. Before them, sat two teenagers, one of them a lithe girl of Fire Nation appearance with tied up brown hair and bangs, and a stocky Earth Kingdom boy who had shaggy hair and straight-cut bangs; she assumed that Kori was the girl and Sneers the boy, given she couldn't imagine the names going the other way around. The two of them looked toward the Princess and her boyfriend with surprised, and clearly happy faces.

"Azula! You're alright!" Kori beamed at her, "It's good to see you again." she approached with wide arms, suggesting that she wanted to hug her.

The Princess raised a hand, suggesting that she didn't want to hug her, "It's good to see you too, Kori. I see you are healthy and well. Sokka told me you were forced out of Yu Dao."

"Yeah." Sneers nodded, his expression suggesting that it wasn't a very nice experience, "The Fire Nation Army got a little more intense after that whole battle."

"We thought you might have got caught, but when we heard about the Princess fighting with Avatar near New Omashu, we couldn't believe it." Kori added, scrunching her lips up, "So it's true, you're friends with the Avatar?"

"Yeah, we are." Sokka nodded, "His name is Aang, and he's a good kid." he explained, before turning his gaze toward Sneers, "he's gone with my sister back to New Omashu... speaking of which, oh, I forgot to mention I saw your friends again. They're in New Omashu, fighting with the other rebels."

"Ah." Sneers raised his chin up, "Did Jet react to... uh, you know." he gestured to the Princess and the warrior, both of them cringing at his suggestion.

"Yeah, I had to beat the shit out of him." Sokka clarified, "Which is actually a good thing, because I'm pretty sure if Azula was there she might have tried to kill him." he noted, the boy making a cringed expression.

"People never change... well, actually, Jet never changes." he admitted, Ty Lee furrowing a brow.

"Who's this Jet guy? You've mentioned him before, Azula."

"Oh... you'd definitely try to flirt with him, and he'd probably try to stab you, because you're Fire Nation." the Princess deduced, making Sokka cringe.

"Urgh, that's both disturbing to think of and very realistic."

"Anyway, uh, we heard you were here, and we had to come and see you." Kori spoke up, before narrowing her eyes, "You weren't happening to want to liberate the colonies still, were you?"

"Oh I certainly intend to." she confirmed, "Is my brother becoming more hard-line on dissent?"

"Yeah, he is." she nodded, before scrunching her lips up, "Oh, and I'm pretty sure he's gotten married."

"Ah yeah." Sokka nodded, "I guess you missed out on that, Ty Lee."

She pouted slightly, wishing she could have been there for Mai, "Well, I guess I should have seen that coming."

"Oh, yeah, this is Ty Lee." the Princess gestured to her friend, Kori's eyes widening.

"Wait, you're the girl Mai mentioned." she noted, with a smile, suggesting that she was on friendly terms with Mai.

"You know Mai?" she asked, "She's one of my best friends... and I guess the Fire Lady, now."

"Well, my father, the Mayor, housed her and the Fire Lord when he came to Yu Dao. It also happened that I was helping out Azula." she explained, before glancing toward Sneers, "She helped us out. By that I mean she knocked out an Imperial Firebender." she clarified, the acrobat grinning; that did sound like something Mai would do.

"Yeah, that's Mai." she beamed, glad to be able to hear of her friend from somebody else, even if she hadn't seen her for nearly three years.

"So... now we've acquainted ourselves, maybe we can talk about what actually matters." Azula suggested, Kori crossing her arms.

"Overthrowing your brother?"

"Not too fast. How about we get your city back for you first?" she suggested, making the other girl smile brightly.

"Well, that's what I'm here for."

Sokka stepped between Ty Lee and Azula, placing his hands on their shoulders and pulling them closer, "Ah, the power of friendship. Isn't it great?"

"You know what's more powerful?" Sneers asked them, the Princess narrowing her eyes.

"Lightning redirection?" she asked, making him step back, a little confused by her words.

"Uh, no. I was going to say making a good impression." he noted, before he pulled a scroll off of his belt, and unfurled it, "And the Blue Dragon has made one hell of an impression." he told them, Ty Lee's eyes widening as she read the scroll; it was obviously some kind of poster, which essentially called on the people of the colonies to overthrow their local governments to instate rule under their rightful Fire Lord Azula.

The Water Tribesman reached forward and took the scroll out of his hands, allowing the two girls to get a closer look at it. Obviously somebody wanted her in power, and what was more interesting was a drawing of Zuko, in his regal glory, at the base of the poster, which had a number of small incisions and burn marks on it; they were obviously made by the people who supported the manifesto, publicly marking their approval by 'killing' the effigy of the Fire Lord.

"Did you-" Sokka asked, before Kori cut him off.

"No." she answered his question before he even had a chance to ask it, before she smirked "That's the best part. We didn't have anything to do with this. But we know who does." she revealed, the three of them looking at each other with similar expressions.

They were all sure that whoever had gathered this popular support for Azula was an ally just waiting to be utilised. Ty Lee was not surprised in the slightest when the Princess pursed her lips upward, placing her hands together as she eyed the couple.

"Oh, I'm listening."

I apologise for taking so long to finish this chapter. My schoolwork as been a draining exercise, and I took a temporary hiatus in early August to recollect my writing, given that I had just finished the first arc of this story. Since the start of August, I have stopped mandating word counts for each day, due to the stress imposed on me, and thus it has taken longer than expected to finish this chapter. Expect updates to be heading back toward regularity from here on out, though perhaps not as fast as I was in the past. By the end of October, I will be returning to a normal pace of writing, so after that point expect a chapter every two weeks at the latest (dependent on the actual length of the chapters).

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