With the sun already below the horizon, it was rather hard for Aang to see anything while he was walking through the woods, but that didn't stop him from doing what he said he would. Helping out Chey and the Earth Kingdom fighters would both assure him and the Order of the White Lotus that he was a friend, and would provide him with an opportunity to help weaken Ozai's forces, even if it was just a little fighting group, something that Chey refused to call an army. He knew that he and Katara would be more than capable of using their waterbending to assist the fighters, who had spotted a military camp to the south of where the pair had been attacked earlier that day.
The young Avatar was more than willing to get a little bit of payback for the rocks thrown his way, and was intrigued by the suggestion that the soldiers were repairing war machines they had stolen off of Zuko's forces so they could be used in their campaign to try and conquer the colonies. Of course, there was little chance of that very outcome at present, given how far apart all of Ozai's loyalists seemed to be, spread out across the Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation, but that didn't make the operation any less important. Katara suggested they'd be able to get a better understanding of how to destroy Fire Nation war machines and siege weapons, which they'd already had a little experience with on their way to Avatar Roku's Temple on Crescent Island.
Katara tapped him on the shoulder, Aang turning his gaze back toward her, "Yeah?"
"Are we going to stay with these people long, Aang?" she asked, the young Avatar narrowing his eyes.
"We need to get to Omashu, sooner rather than later." he conceded, "This meeting where Azula's uncle will be might help us. We need to try and make sure... well, I think we both know what Azula wants."
"Preventing a war between her and her brother, when Ozai's the real threat." she acknowledged, before sighing, "I don't know if Sokka's going to help in that regard."
"He doesn't want her to be in danger." Aang recalled, glancing ahead of them, realising where they were heading, "Maybe we're more reckless than him."
"Maybe we are." Katara conceded, "But it's not her being in danger that's the problem. It's the world."
"I know that we'll have to fight to stop Ozai, but... I see what you mean." he conceded; as much as he wanted to support his friend, he knew that Azula's intentions would not help them stop Ozai in the slightest.
"We'll see what she wants to do when we get back, and hopefully, she'll be more worried about the Dai Li than her brother."
"The real bad guys." he acknowledged, "Those guys need to go down if the Earth Kingdom's going to ever be normal again."
"Enough people want to fight for their country. It's just like back home; all we need to do is make sure they fight for freedom, and not for... well, more of the same." Katara acknowledged, the young Avatar nodding, before he eyed ahead of them, through the woods.
"And now, we're going to fight to stop the worst of them all." he acknowledged, "You... you remember what she said when we were going back to New Omashu, right?"
"About her grandfather's death... yeah, that was terrible." she recalled, shaking her head with disgust, "We can't let a man like that have a chance to get what he wants." she explained, turning her eyes away; he guessed she was thinking about what had happened to her people, and to her family personally- people were going to needlessly suffer, all for one man's greed.
"We must be getting close." he deduced, noting the light from the campfires at the encampment they were approaching, before he glanced over toward Chey, who was leading their group, "So, there's a stream by this camp?"
"Yes, there is." he nodded, "So, you'll be able to waterbend no problem." he explained, "The warriors and I will give you two some cover, and you can go find their war machines."
"Do you know what we should be looking for?" Katara asked him, the deserter raising a finger to his chin, which he scratched in thought.
"Well, have you seen a catapult before?" he asked her, the Water Tribe girl nodding.
"Yeah, we have." she confirmed, "So, big metal machines." she simply described what they were to be looking for, "Doesn't sound that hard to find."
Aang glanced ahead of them, eyeing through the woods, trying to look for the light that would be emanating from the campsite; he could see some faint light, but it was still some distance away.
"They might have some people patrolling around, so we'll need to be quiet from here on out." Chey warned, gesturing around, and with that, the Earth Kingdom fighters readied their spears, and crouched down, spreading out, so they could cover and check out the woods ahead of them.
He already had his staff in hand, as was ready to use it, if need be, but certainly preferred if their sabotage went off without a hitch; Katara was looking ahead intently, though he knew she couldn't see any better than he could, so it was just out of caution, and not because they were reaching the encampment. He felt like for once, he was going out of his way to do his duties as an Avatar; he didn't know if Avatars had fought in wars in the past, and though Aang had no intention of harming anyone personally, he knew that he had to do something to stave off Ozai's forces. The threat the former Fire Lord and his gang of supporters posed to the world was already visible enough for him. They had tried to attack New Omashu, and even though they had failed, he could see how dangerously close they were to succeeding; all it would have taken was a few lazy scouts on Bumi's behalf, and the city could have been bombarded by Fire Nation forces, and those inside forced to remain in the cave-like city his friend had constructed.
Suddenly, the fighters stopped, and made some hand signals toward each other, Chey turning back to face the pair, "There's a patrol." he whispered, before gesturing for them to crouch down.
Aang watched intently in the same direction the deserter was looking, and made sight of five Fire Nation soldiers, some of them wielding pikes, while the rest of them were unarmed, which he guessed meant they were firebenders. The five men were quietly chatting amongst themselves, eyeing out into the woods, and upon realising they were going to see him, he dropped down even lower, placing his hands on the ground as he tried his best to remain completely still; he and Katara were wearing cloaks, but that didn't mean they would be indistinguishable from the woods they were travelling through. The patrol moved on past them without ever noticing them, and it took a while longer for them to move far enough away from the group to allow them to start moving again; the Air Nomad boy did not relent to start walking with haste once more, knowing that the quicker they got to the camp, the less there was a chance of them being spotted before they arrived.
Moving as fast as he could, the young Avatar sighed with relief once they reached an outcrop that looked over the campsite, which was located by a river crossing; the bridge itself was made out of metal, suggesting that the original one had been destroyed- that was one of the many tolls of war, from what he could tell. He knelt down, making sure nobody down in the camp could see him, and scanned around, wondering where they would keep their war machines; he noted that a number of areas of the camp were shrouded by large tarps, which made it hard for him to tell what was underneath, especially given how dark it was. Chey strode up beside him, crouching down to avoid being spotted, pointing out the tarps Aang had been eyeing.
"My best guess is they've put them under those tarps. Probably because the rain would ruin all the internal mechanisms." he acknowledged, making Aang snicker, realising what he was about to do.
"Well, they're going to be getting a little more than rain, isn't that right, Katara?" he asked his friend, who nodded with agreement.
"We'll have to get some water first. Enough to properly break them." she explained, pointing down to the stream, "That's the water you were talking about, right?" she asked Chey, who nodded, before pulling something round and metallic out of his robes; the young Avatar had to look at it for a few seconds to realise it was a bomb.
"Ack!" he cried out, covering his mouth, "Is that the... uh- distraction?"
"I used to make bombs for these people." he acknowledged, "Every once in a while, it's good for them to get a taste of their own medicine."
"I know what you mean." Katara agreed with him, before grasping her friend by his arm, "Let's get going." she explained, before turning her eyes to Chey, "Where will we meet you guys?"
"Back by the cave I showed you. If worst comes to bear, we can lose the soldiers by going through there." he explained, "I have some explosives ready to block the entrance, if need be."
Aang nodded, understanding what they'd need to do and where they would need to go; the distance between them and the hills they had set Appa down at meant that it was reasonable to call on his sky-bison, though he didn't want to do that. Given his size, there was a real danger he'd be hit by the flames the soldiers would be wielding.
"Let's go, Aang." Katara pulled on his arm, and he heeded her suggestion, following after her, making their way down along the edge of the woods, eyeing the campsite intently; he didn't want to get accidentally spotted, and kept his head low, focused on making as little noise as possible.
The pair quickly walked around the campsite, keeping themselves hidden behind the tree trunks and bushes, all while they approached the stream, which became louder by the second, before Aang could see it flowing before him, the light from the nearby campfires flickering on the flowing water. He could tell it wasn't moving too fast, but he didn't want to try and jump in as a potential escape route, knowing that despite his waterbending skills, rough water would be a clear danger.
He then began to follow after Katara along the length of the stream, approaching the metal bridge, where he could see a few soldiers idling about; Aang kept his head down, pulling his cloak over his head, and crouching down to seem as inconspicuous as possible. Before he could get any closer, his friend placed a hand on his chest, stopping him from walking; he looked at her, unsure why she had stopped him, before he noticed her moving her left hand toward the water, unsettling it from the stream, and causing droplets to rise up, creating a misty layer which grew by the second, quickly shrouding the entire area; this mist moved along with them as they approached the bridge, almost like a cloud covering them, and Aang looked at his friend with awe, impressed by her ingenuity.
He followed her under the bridge, and watched as the mist covered them, the soldiers none the wiser, though one of them astutely commented on the water vapour coming their way, "Is it just me, or is it getting cold out?" one of the soldiers asked another, who chuckled.
"If you're such a baby, then maybe you should go to bed." his comrade mocked him, Aang struggling to hold back a laugh at his retort, covering his mouth as he and Katara continued onward, moving past the bridge, now easily on the way to the war machines they were out to sabotage.
He kept himself quiet, and glanced back toward the bridge, relieved to see that the mist was covering them, and thus, keeping them out of the sights of the soldiers; he looked at the riverbank, and wondered whether they ought to climb it, or if they should find some place to hide before Chey and the fighters started their intended distraction.
"When are we going to move?" he whispered to Katara, who raised her finger in the direction they had come from.
"Chey had bombs, right?" she asked him, the young Avatar nodding, "Well, they'll make a big bang. That's the signal." she decided, before pointing over to some bushes by the river's edge, "Let's just take cover for the meantime."
She led them over to the bushes, crouching down as she drew out some water from the stream, making a small coil of water which she spun around in her hand; Aang glanced at the water, noting how it glinted from the light of the nearby fires, and took a deep breath as he crouched down beside her.
"It's... calming to look at." he whispered, the Water Tribe girl smiling.
"Yeah, I like just playing with water like this." she admitted, "It reminds me of when I used to sit at the shore outside my village." she acknowledged, the young Avatar nodding, before he reached over to the bush beside them, having something similar in mind to keep himself calm; he picked off a leaf, and held it in my palms.
"When I was little, the monks would tell us to be like the leaf. That was their way of showing us how to think like airbenders." he explained, before letting the leaf into the air, using his fingers to bend the air around it, allowing it to move in a circle slowly, flipping around and rotating randomly, reminding him of the chaotic nature of his element.
"The tides and leaves." she concluded their two ways of understanding their element, at least to begin with, "I wonder... I wonder what firebenders learn."
"Maybe we can ask Azula about that when we see her next." he suggested, before turning his eyes back toward the campsite, "That'll be a while though."
"I wouldn't worry about her, Aang. I think she has things under control." Katara assured him, before she glanced up the riverbank, "I think I hear footsteps, Aang."
He turned his head around, and realised he could hear them too; Aang decided to drop the leaf he had been playing around with in his hands, and moved to get properly under the cover of the bush, hoping none of the soldiers walked over to take a leak in the stream. He focused on his breathing, trying to keep it steady while he heard the footsteps grow louder, not daring to look up and accidentally expose himself.
"What's the deal with the reinforcements coming late?" he heard a soldier complain to another.
"Probably just some destroyed bridges again. You know what the dirt-eaters are like, always getting in the way of our soldiers." another soldier gave his best idea.
"Stupid... why don't they just come here by ship. There's enough of those from the Eastern Fleet to take soldiers this way." another suggested, "That'd save them the trouble of fighting the damn Earth Kingdom."
"Well, the ships probably can't be spared." the first voice spoke up once more, "I'm pretty sure they're being used to blockade the West Lake, so the pretender can't get his soldiers over to Ba Sing Se."
"Wouldn't help him anyway. That place is gone." another voice spoke up, sounding more morbid and concerned than the others, "The damn dirt-eaters are attacking us from all sides."
Aang turned to face Katara, wondering if that was just an exaggeration, or if it was really indicative of the Earth Kingdom actually beating back the Fire Nation; before he could try and ask a question regarding the matter, he heard a sudden boom in the distance, and glanced up to see the bright light that must have come along with the explosion Chey must have set off.
"What in the name of the spirits was that?" one of the soldiers shouted out in fear, before the sound of a weapon being drawn out could be heard.
"Come on!" he heard another soldier order his comrades, and Aang heard the sound of footsteps loudly pattering, getting quieter in the next few moments.
He glanced over the bush, and saw the soldiers running in the direction of the explosion, giving him and Katara an open path to get to the war machines they were set on breaking.
"Well..." he mumbled, before reaching out toward the stream, drawing out a mass of water, which he bent around himself, "Should we get going?"
"Yes, we should." his friend agreed with him, doing the same as he paced up the riverbank, heading right in the direction of the tarps that they had spotted out earlier.
Once he got up the riverbank, he could see a number of tents in front of him, and noted that everybody's attention was drawn in the direction of the explosion, where there was a large smokestack, and from the looks of it, burning tents. With firebenders among them, the soldiers would probably deal with it very quickly meaning that Aang and Katara would need to be quicker; he didn't relent to sprint as he held the water around him, eyeing out for any soldiers that were still around. When he made sight of the tarp covered things, he approached them at once, and kicked his foot up to create a gust with his airbending, flinging the tarps upward, revealing what he guessed to find; a number of steam-powered catapults, from what he could tell, as well as some vehicles he believed to be called tundra tanks, though he'd never faced off against them personally.
He immediately thrust his hands forward, pushing the water into the first catapult he could reach, and twisted his hands around to make sure he got the water through all the gaps and mechanisms he could get the water to touch. Taking a deep breath, he pulled his hands back, cooling the water down rapidly to the point it turned into ice, which itself cooled the machines down drastically. It helped that it was nighttime, and thus there was no sun to heat it back up, meaning he was able to quickly cool it down to temperatures he guessed would only be encountered at the poles during a blizzard.
"Hey you, what are you doing here?!" he heard a voice call out behind him, and Aang's eyes widened, realising that he and Katara had been spotted by some soldiers.
He turned around, and raised his hands up, not having his staff at hand to use; all of the water was inside the catapult, and he didn't want to waste it, "Katara, you break the machines." he advised his friend, "I'll take care of these guys."
"You've got to be... eleven, twelve maybe." one of the soldiers scoffed, "This'll be easy." he declared with a sense of triumph, the young Avatar pursing his lips upward, knowing he was very wrong to feel victorious just yet.
When they firebent towards him, he spun his hands around, dispersing the flames, which flicked around into the tents and grass around him; they looked at him with shocked faces, and realised what element he could bend.
"That's... that's the Avatar!" one of them cried out, clearly afraid of Aang; they had a few reasons to be, and he showed them one of those reasons when he bent the air underneath them, throwing the firebenders off of their feet.
When they all landed flat on their bums, he laughed at their poor stances, and bent the air around him, funneling it into his hands; this caused the flames that had landed on the ground and on a few tents to go out as all the air moved toward his grasp, allowing him to funnel it into a powerful tool. Sending the funnel of air toward them, the firebenders were forced to raise their hands up, and conjure walls of fire to protect themselves, though it didn't help them that much, as Aang's airbending simply pushed their flames back into the tents behind them, setting the camp on fire.
Aang found himself on the defensive quickly enough, forced to keep spinning his hands to push the flames they sent in return away from him and Katara; he glanced back to see that his friend was bending water through the tundra tanks breaking their internal mechanisms audibly. He knew he needed to retrieve and use his water, but that wouldn't be possible as long as they had the firebenders attacking him. He grit his teeth, faced with no other option but to directly fight the firebenders, and do so offensively; just dispersing their flames would do him little good if it didn't knock them out or out of the way.
Keeping his breathing steady, he felt the heat around him increasing, and he knew that he had to act quickly; accidentally activating the Avatar State due to stress would be the worst possible outcome, as it would lead to needless deaths and injuries, and he would not stand for that. There wasn't any other option than for Aang to keep pushing back against the flames, channelling more and more air from behind him, which inadvertently made the flames hotter, even if they were kept at bay for a few moments. He felt something inside of him, something that he hadn't paid much attention to, but knew had to be there; Azula spoke about it like it was the most vital thing in her life- his inner fire. He knew that he had to bend, and he realised, despite knowing nothing about how to do so, that bending might have to be firebending.
He was not able to keep them at bay with his airbending, so he took a deep breath, letting the flames draw closer to him, imagining what Azula had done at Kyoshi Island, what had made him see so much awe in her element to begin with. He knew he had the innate ability to do it, and he wanted to fight back; he had to fight back, and when he let his breath out, he felt his chi connect with the flames in front of him. He made them bow to his very will, and they conducted his one desire- to leave at once.
Without delay, the flames were thrown right back at their wielders, making them cry and shout in fear as they were thrown to the ground, and Aang's eyes widened with amazement, "I just- I just firebent!"
"Wait, seriously?" Katara asked him, before seeing the result of his attack, "That's great and all, but we've got to destroy these machines." she reminded him, and Aang nodded, spinning around before he began to bend the ice he'd frozen inside the catapult; the ice was rigid, but only for so long, until his pulling led to the fractured ice being pulled right out, shattering the insides of the machine in the process, before the water became liquid once more.
Drawing the water back around him, he eyed the next catapult, and pushed the water inside, the same as he had done the first time, and immediately began to cool the water, freezing it inside of the mechanisms of the machine; before he could try and break it, Katara called on him.
"They're getting back up, Aangǃ" she warned him, the young Avatar sighing before he spun around, taking a fighting stance at once, ready to airbend them right back off their feet.
When one of them tried to firebend at him again, he ducked under the attack, before conjuring an air scooter, which he used as a kind of projectile, tossing it right toward the firebenders, who were flung back as the violently spinning ball of air whacked them like how he imagined an earthbender's boulder might. Unlike a boulder, he could move it around and disperse it as he pleased, and he did just that, returning his focus back to the catapult. He pulled on the ice inside of the catapult, slowly but surely breaking the insides of the machine as he tore the ice out, liquifying it once more before he decided to properly go on the offensive; when the firebenders tried to attack him again, they were surprised to see Aang defended by a water shield, before he split the mass of water in two, creating two water whips. He struck one of the firebenders in the chest, and tripped another over, before stepping closer, using the whips like tentacles, wrapping each of them around the legs of the enemy soldiers, before he tripped them over.
"That's the last of them, Aangǃ" Katara spoke up, before she drew out her own water, "Let's get to that cave, right now."
He turned back to face her, and nodded, agreeing that they ought to move with haste to the cave; Aang immediately threw the mass of water around that he had in his hands, whacking the remaining soldiers over, before both them rushed forward past the downed soldiers, heading right back towards the stream. He was sure that if they tried to go straight through the camp, things would end badly for them, and in the sense of the Avatar State coming out kind of bad; he would do everything in his power to avoid that outcome, and as he approached the stream, he could see a few soldiers, presumably the ones who had been standing by the bridge earlier, immediately taking form; the fact they didn't run away was clearly a mistake on their behalf, and they were quickly informed of this mistake by Katara, who bent the water from underneath the bridge, tentacles of water grabbing them and tossing them into the air, throwing them down into the river with ease. She didn't grab all the soldiers, and those ones were left for Aang to whack back with his water whips, before he threw them down to the ground by coiling the whips around their legs, like he was trying to hug the soldiers with them.
His friend grasped him by the arm, and pulled him along past the soldiers they'd just beat, before he turned his eyes behind them, and realised that they were already being chased by some Fire Nation soldiers; they were still some distance from the cave, so that was rather worrying, but he tried to just focus on the path ahead of them, knowing they had to get up into the forest, and after that, make their way to the meeting spot. If they were slow, the Fire Nation soldiers would get there before them, and they'd be unable to escape, at least on foot. They'd need to call on Appa, which he knew was an option, but it would be quite dangerous for his sky-bison to come down when there was so many firebenders who might turn their attacks to him instead.
He sprinted as fast as he could toward the edge of the woods, reaching out to the river to get himself some more water to bend; he pulled a mass of the cool liquid from the stream, and pulled it around Katara and himself, creating a shield which blocked the expected fireballs and fire streams sent their way. He decided to give themselves some more time by thrusting the massive water shield forward, and freezing it solid, creating a wall of ice between them and their pursuers. His friend nodded at him, approving of his idea, before she grabbed some more water from the stream, probably thinking they might need it before they properly escaped.
Making their way up the hill, Aang could hear fire blasts striking their ice wall as the firebenders continued their pursuit; he was sure it would give them a little extra time, and just focused on moving as fast as he could without leaving his friend behind. He knew the firebenders were on their tail, and he could already hear fighting up ahead of them, probably from Chey and his fighters holding off the Fire Nation soldiers that would inevitably be tailing them. He readied the water he had left with him, knowing it might be useful, coiling it around his torso as he eyed around the trees, trying to figure out exactly where the soldiers were. An Air Nomad at heart, he was going to do everything he could to avoid them, but if the others were being attacked, then he was obliged to assist them.
"Get them!" he heard one of the soldiers shout out, the young Avatar ducking under a fire stream that came his way, before he turned around, throwing the water he had coiled around him out in the form of a water whip; the whip was struck by a fireball, and steam spurted out, momentarily creating some mist between him and their pursuers.
He didn't relent to keep running, noticing that he could see some of their allies, who were struggling to keep off the firebenders pursuing them, given they had only spears to defend themselves. Katara reached them quicker than he did, and threw a stream of water into the enemy soldiers, throwing them into the air, and two of them smacked into tree trunks, while another skid across the ground, Aang wincing upon imagining how much that must have hurt. He then moved to beat back the other soldiers who were still moving after the with a blast of wind; it wasn't going to hold them off for long, but he didn't need it to. He looked at their allies, and glanced around, realising Chey was missing; he glanced back in the direction of the camp, and wondered where exactly he'd gone.
"Where's Chey?" Katara asked their allies, who gestured the way Aang was looking.
"Oh no..." he mumbled, before pointing the way they ought to be heading, "Go to the caves. I'll get Chey." he assured them, his friend stepping closer, seeming worried about his decision.
"Aang, you might be in danger." she noted, the young Avatar shrugging his shoulders before he gave her the water he had been bending.
"Protect these guys." he simply told her, "I know what to do."
He reached to the ground beside him, airbending the spear of one of the soldiers Katara had knocked out, before he grasped it, spun it around, and snapped the head of the weapon off, "Go!" he shooed off the others, who began to run back toward the cave.
He turned around, and began to sprint in the opposite direction to the others, knowing he needed to help Chey; he wasn't going to get himself captured while Aang could still help. The young Avatar moved back towards the cliff they had been spotting at earlier, and noted there was a few injured Fire Nation soldiers, trying to get away from something; he realised it was probably the explosive-wielding deserter, and he decided to ignore the injured soldiers, dashing past them as he moved in the direction he guessed Chey would be. When he reached the edge of the campsite once more, he could see the deserter, who was using one of the soldier's swords to defend himself against a spear-wielding soldier, Aang noting how the other soldiers were far more concerned about preventing their campsite from being burnt down. He spun his makeshift staff around, sending an air blast into the soldier Chey had been fighting; he turned to face Aang, and made a relieved face.
"Oh, you're here. Did everyone get away?" he asked, the young Avatar nodding.
"Tes, so let's get out of here." he acknowledged, looking over the burning camp; he didn't regret what they had done, knowing what the soldiers were likely going to do if they didn't stop them, "We've done enough."
"That we have." he agreed before he began to limp on toward Aang, "I hurt my leg." he added, the Air Nomad boy readying his staff.
"I'll stay behind you. Just keep walking." he advised, before spinning his staff around again, creating a vortex which he sent off at the few soldiers who still thought they could take him on.
They were thrown off their feet, and Aang continued to step backwards, keeping his eyes focused on the men who he thought might still try to fight him; another fire stream came his way, and he dispersed it by spinning his staff around. He wondered whether he ought to try and firebend again, and decided it was a bad idea; he had only done so earlier out of pure necessity, rather than because he was truly able to firebend. He guessed that if put in a suitable situation, he could probably earthbend too, but that hadn't happened yet, and he would prefer to avoid nearly getting crushed, seeing as that was likely the context where he'd be forced to earthbend.
He had to airbend once more when another few soldiers charged at him, simultaneously throwing fire streams his way; he ducked under their attacks, before funnelling the air from behind him along his staff, right into his opponents' legs, tripping them all over. Aang didn't waste any more time, and paced on right after Chey, who had already moved on ahead. He realised that his ally was in danger when he spotted a few more soldiers, presumably those that he and Katara had already beaten, coming around to fight him. The deserter was forced to cower behind a tree, and the young Avatar charged in to his aid, kicking his right leg out to create a powerful gust of wind which threw soldiers away to either side of the attack, offering them a direct path to take toward the cave.
"Smart move." Chey complimented his efforts, before pacing on after him, the two of them ducking under more fireballs thrown their way; Aang spun around, and created another vortex with his makeshift staff, dispersing the attacks, and momentarily forcing their attackers back.
He and the deserter proceeded to run as fast as they could through the woods, heading right in the direction of their target, a small cave which opened out of the hillside ahead of them. He could see Katara standing by the entrance of the cave, clearly relieved to see them, and Chey gestured for her to get inside the cave.
"Get the charges ready!" he called on her, "They're coming!"
The young Avatar sighed with relief once he reached the entrance of the cave, noting the long cord that was ready for the explosives-expert to set off; his friend grasped him by the shoulder, and led him into the dark cave, which was suddenly lit up by the light of the cord being sparked.
"Cover your ears!" Chey warned them, and Aang complied covering his ears with his hands, watching as the spark moved down the cord to the entrance of the cave; a moment later, dust and smoke spurt out from the cave walls as the ground shook beneath him.
Quickly enough, the entrance crumbled apart, and boulders fell down, blocking anyone from following them, unless they had more explosives or an earthbender; he doubted there'd be any of those in the Fire Nation Army, especially working for Ozai's loyalists. He turned to face Katara, who he couldn't see anymore, and wondered how long they'd have to walk to get out the other end of the cave. A few moments later, a torch was sparked alight by Chey, and his men did the same, holding the torches amongst themselves to light up the cave, Aang noticing how long it went back, with no light in sight; he guessed that it being nighttime didn't help, but the leader seemed sure that they'd get out alright.
"Follow me." he told them, "There's a stream this way that will lead us back toward our campsite."
Aang felt his gut, and grimaced slightly, "I'm hungry." he noted, before turning to face Katara, "I hope those rations we stole are decent."
"I mean... Fire Nation food is edible, but didn't Azula say rations were bad?" she asked him, the young Avatar cringing at the thought of having to eat bad Fire Nation food- he didn't really like it to begin with, so that just made it a whole lot worse.
"They are." Chey admitted, "But it's better than going hungry."
The young Avatar sighed, not looking forward to eating that, or rice crackers, which had to be the blandest food around, "Well, at least we got it done."
"Thanks for the help. Waterbending's really useful against machines running on hydraulics." he noted, "Maybe you'll be able to use those tactics against whoever you fight next."
"Eh..." Aang mumbled, before remembering what Azula wanted to do, "The Dai Li run everything on earthbending, I'd guess."
"The Dai Li?" one of the fighters looked at him with a surprised face, "Why would you fight those people?"
"Because they're bad people."
"I mean, why else would we be here fighting those guys." Katara piped up, before patting Aang on the shoulder, "Even if Azula isn't right about everything, I'm sure she's right about those guys- the Dai Li have to go down."
"Bad guys are bad guys." Aang noted, "No matter if they're Fire Nation or Earth Kingdom."
Chey nodded at his proposition, "Well, I hope you count me amongst the good guys... despite what happened with the Princess a few months back."
"I don't hold it against you personally." the Water Tribe girl admitted, before she firmly clasped a hand on his shoulder, "But if I hear about the Order of the White Lotus trying to capture Azula again, then I'm going to have something against you."
"I don't know if I'd be able to persuade Master Jeong Jeong against such a course of action." he acknowledged, "I know that the Princess must have changed if she's allies with the Avatar, but I don't know if everybody else has realised that." he added, the Water Tribe girl grimacing as she turned her eyes back toward Aang.
"For better or for worse, everyone sees Azula as the powerful firebender who tried to kill her brother for the throne."
Ty Lee would admit that she thought that shoplifting to draw the attention of Shengchang's guards had to be one of Azula's more mundane plans as of late, but she preferred it to something absurd; straightforward and simple was how she liked it, even if she did enjoy a little mystery from time to time. The market was full of people, which actually had her concerned that they mightn't even get spotted shoplifting; Ty Lee felt like her pride might be tarnished if she stuffed it up on purpose. She mightn't have held the same regard to her skills as the Princess did, but she certainly wanted to do everything to the best of her ability.
On the other hand, Sokka didn't seem like he was very enthused to purposefully steal from people, but he went along with it anyway. As long as her commands weren't putting them all in serious danger, the Water Tribesman seemed to be rather compliant with his girlfriend's wishes. Ty Lee was honestly unsure whether that was a good thing, given that with all the responsibility coming her way, Azula could use some critical voices, and she was not well-versed enough with politics and the military to make the same kinds of judgements her boyfriend could.
The Water Tribesman was eyeing around, probably still deciding on what exactly to steal; she decided to inquire leaning over his shoulder as he was looking at a stall selling steel canisters for liquids, "Whatcha looking for?" she asked him, Sokka flinching slightly, not expecting her so close to his head.
"Argh, I was already stuck on the komodo rhino with you. The very least you could do is just give me the smallest bit of space." he gestured to indicate the gap he wanted between them.
She shrugged her shoulders, and tilted her head toward the stall, "Well, are you getting a canister?"
"Eh, seems useful." he commented, "But I already have a waterskin."
"Maybe you could get a new weapon. You like weapons, right?" she asked rhetorically, the Water Tribe warrior giving her a resolute nod before he tapped his belt, which was hidden under his cloak, covering his soldier's armour, which she would admit looked rather unusual on a Water Tribesman of all people.
"I'd need to know how to use it, or have to learn how to. That's just more time that I could be spending mastering chi-blocking."
"Oh, so you want to one-up me, is that it?" she scoffed, Sokka shaking his head.
"No, I just know I'll need it with where we're going."
"The-" she began, before cutting herself off, knowing she shouldn't mention the group they intended to target once they had gathered enough resources to do so- the Dai Li, "Yeah, chi-blocking might help there."
"It will." he agreed with her, before glancing around the market, "Let's just find something useful to buy. I don't want something that's useless to me."
"I don't either." she nodded, before pacing off to her left, deciding to look at the next stall over.
She eyed the stall, noting that they were selling fresh vegetables and a variety of herbs, what she guessed might go with somebody's dinner or lunch; she was pretty certain Sokka wasn't going to steal herbs, so she decided to turn around and look at the stall on the opposite side of the street. She noted a stall selling what looked like bags, sacks and cloaks, all of them made from fabric; Ty Lee wasn't sure they needed any bags, so she decided to look at the next stall across. She could see a stall selling what looked like meat skewers, and guessed that he might like some of those; they would be a stupid thing to steal, but rather smart to buy. They didn't have much coins on them, however, so she decided that she wasn't going to suggest that, given it just distracted them from their actual goal.
"Ty Lee." she heard him address her, the Fire Nation girl turning around to eye him, noting that he was gesturing down through the market toward another stall, "I think I found something."
She followed after him, watching as he approached another stall, this one selling what looked like hooks; perhaps they were for fishing, but she couldn't be sure. She leaned over toward the Water Tribesman, who was eyeing them intently.
"Uh, so, Sokka, what do you want these for?"
"I have a feeling they might come of use." he simply told her, the acrobat snickering at the thought of him taking Azula fishing, perhaps for sentimentality's sake.
"Oh, are you planning on fishing?" she quipped, the Water Tribe warrior rolling his eyes.
"No, no, not for fishing." he clarified, "For... other things." he explained, spinning his finger around, before he pointed up towards the eaves of a nearby roof.
Her eyes widened as she realised what he was trying to say without specifically uttering it; the hooks could be tied to ropes and used to help them climb onto roofs, which would be useful when having to run away; she guessed they could also be used to grab people by the leg, in the case they had to capture somebody.
"So do you want to use it right now?" she asked, the Water Tribesman shaking his head.
"I wouldn't dare piss her off by disobeying her orders. We'll just have to go meet Kori and Sneers at the sewers." he sighed, obviously not happy about that specific outcome; she too would have preferred avoiding the sewers, but guessed that what he wanted to steal might help in future with avoiding such situations.
"So... are we going to do it?" she asked him, tapping the Water Tribesman in the shoulder.
"I need to grab one." he explained rather simply, before smirking, "Let's have an argument and a little fight, how about that?" he whispered to her.
Ty Lee wondered what they might argue about to incite violence, but she decided to skip the first step, throwing her hand into his face, slapping his right cheek, and hard at that; it got the attention of people around him, and she stepped closer, narrowing her eyes at him sharply.
"You're an idiot, you know that." she imitated what she would imagine Azula to say to him, "You drag me out here... for what? I said we had to get dinner, and now you're just wasting my time." she growled at him, hoping that her fake anger was convincing enough; he raised his hands up, looking as annoyed as he could be from being randomly slapped.
"This is your fault!" he decried her, "You said you wanted to have dinner, but you can't decide what you like." he retorted, the acrobat grappling his cloak to pull him closer.
"I know what I want, you moron, I want some damn roast komodo rhino." she declared, pointing down the street, "So, let's stop standing around, and go get it."
He scoffed at her words, "Yeah, and where are we going to get it?" he retorted, before she snarled at him; momentarily, he made a small smile, telling her that he approved of what she was about to do.
So, without further ado, she pushed him back, ramming Sokka right into the stall, hitting the owner over as he fell over the bench, "Argh!" he cried out, and the stall-owner didn't seem to approve of the situation very much.
"Take your disputes someplace else!" he chided them, dusting himself off as he got back up to his feet.
"I'll be taking these someplace else." the Water Tribesman clarified, the stall-owner looking down at him with a confused face.
She couldn't see him pick up the hooks that he wanted to steal, but she did see him punch the stall-owner in the face, before he jumped over the bench, tossing a hook to Ty Lee, who immediately dashed off away from the stall, knowing the guards would be on them at once, given the scene they'd just made. She ran as fast as she could, weaving around market-goers as she made her way back in the direction they'd came from; Kori and Sneers were waiting at the meeting spot, which would allow them to disappear underground, but the issue was, they needed to reach them without the guards catching them, but gaining enough of a chase that they would be distracted from the cart of weapons Azula and her guards were taking out of the city.
She glanced back over toward Sokka, who was dashing behind her, and quickly enough, she heard the expected shout of, "You two! Stop!" she heard a guard call them out, Ty Lee turning around to smirk at him.
"Well, just try and stop us! I bet you can't!" she prodded him, before she began to run down the street once more, reaching the end of the market, where she turned right; she knew she could go straight for Kori and Sneers, but she'd prefer to get a few more guards on their trail before they escaped.
The two of them made their way down a side street, and she saw three guards chasing them from behind which still wasn't enough; she turned back to face the Water Tribesman, and tied the hook she had been given to her waistband.
"Chi-blocking time?" she asked, the warrior shrugging his shoulders.
"Might as well." he decided, before turning around, taking a fighting stance as the guards ran toward them; they were armed with pikes, though Ty Lee assumed they would use them like batons against two seemingly unarmed teenagers.
"Put your hands up!" she heard one of them demand, "And hand over the stolen goods." he directed them, the two teens glancing at each other, before both of them began to laugh; they hadn't even tried to attack them yet, though when they did, they were in for a surprise.
"What's so funny?" one of the guards quipped in return, approaching them with a cautious glare, "Put your hands up!"
"You see I'm unarmed, right?" Ty Lee gestured to her body, "Other than the hook. But I'm not going to try and use that." she assured him, the guards looking at each other with confusion.
"For spirits sake." one of them snarled, stepping closer to grab her by the right arm; once he grabbed her arm, she immediately pushed herself closer to him, and jabbed him in the gut, making sure his legs wouldn't work.
He stumbled down to the ground, slowly, and with an aghast, confused look on his face, "Wh-what... what is this?" he asked, before Ty Lee raised her right foot up, jabbing him in the shoulders with her toe tips, quickly chi-blocking his arms as well.
Before the other guards could react, Sokka leapt at them, jabbing one in the arms, paralysing them, before he used him as a shield against the other guard, who was trying his best to knock him out with the staff of his pike. He threw the partially paralysed guard into his comrade, disorienting them both, which allowed Ty Lee to quickly chi-block up the former's back, before jabbing the latter in his gut, making his legs go limp. Once he fell down onto his knees, and then face first into the gravel, he groaned with pain, and looked up at her, confused by what had just happened.
"These aren't just pickpockets." he mumbled, making her snicker, before pacing past Sokka, patting him on the shoulder.
"Let's go, hotshot." she told him, making the Water Tribesman roll his eyes, before he ran after her; the two of them got away from the downed guards as quickly as they could, the acrobat sure they'd be getting more attention soon enough.
When they reached another corner, they turned down it, leading them down an alleyway, and she stopped once they were a fair bit of the way down it; Sokka took a deep breath, and glanced back the other way.
"So, how many people are we going to beat up?" he asked, the acrobat shrugging her shoulders.
"You're the tactician. You figure it out." she suggested, making him sigh.
"Doing all the work." he mumbled under his breath, before gesturing to their left, "Let's just loop around a little before we go to Kori and Sneers." he decided, "And try to make sure we don't get actually caught." he suggested, "I don't want to have to climb up onto the rooftops."
"But that'd be fun." she countered, the Water Tribesman looking at her with a blank, slightly disgruntled face.
"Shut up." he simply told her, in a very snappy, Azula-ish fashion, before pacing on down the alleyway, "Let's keep moving."
She followed on after him, knowing that they had to keep their speed up; getting cornered by a bunch of guards would be dangerous, and she assumed that was what Sokka was so worried about. When they reached the next main street, she glanced up its breadth, and realised there were more guards looking their way; they pointed towards them.
"The thieves!" one of them called them out, "Get them!"
There were five guards, and the two closest ones began to run hastily toward the pair, who in turn began running down the street; it would be safer for them both if they dealt with as few guards as possible at any given time, though she was cautious about the fact there could be others coming from other directions to catch them. When they reached a small plot of empty land, where a lot of people had decided to put their trash, Sokka decided to run through it, probably hoping to slow the gaurds down. She whistled at them, wanting to make sure they kept chase, which they did.
She vaulted over a low brick wall into the undeveloped lot, pacing around the puddles that were dispersed around its centre, slowing herself a little to make sure the two fastest guards got to her before she could leave the plot. When they thought they had got her, she skid to a halt, reaching her right hand out, jabbing one of them in his dominant arm, forcing him to drop his pike as it was paralysed, before she pushed him into his comrade, who fell down into one of the puddles. The guard tried to hit her with his fist, but she was able to block his hit with her forearm, before she jabbed him in the gut, paralysing him and forcing him to fall down flat on his face, which to his luck, wasn't into a puddle.
"Come on, let's keep moving!" Sokka prodded her, and she accepted his request, moving on after him, vaulting over the next wall that led her back out onto a street; the other guards, including the one she knocked into the puddle, were still a bit behind, giving them some breathing room to continue their little chase.
The pair made their way down the street, where she could see a few more guards, and she realised that they had looped back toward the market, which wasn't a good thing; they immediately approached the pair with their spears in hand, and Sokka tapped her on the shoulder, gesturing to an alley to their left.
"What if it's a dead-end?" she asked him, the Water Tribesman shrugging his shoulders.
"These guys aren't that hard to beat, Ty Lee." he assured her, before running into the alleyway; she followed after, unsure whether they'd be able to get out other than by climbing up onto the roofs of the factories that were on either side of the alley.
When Sokka reached the seeming end of the alleyway, he glanced up toward the windows of the factory, "Do you think I could lift you up, and you could open the window?" he asked her, the acrobat glancing back to see the guards by the end of the alleyway.
She immediately leapt up onto the Water Tribesman's hands which he held at the right height for her to push herself up to the windows. She was able to whack the lock of one, though it didn't open, and she realised she'd need another plan of attack; she reached her left hand down, and pulled the hook she had stolen off of her belt, using it to hit the lock, forcing the window open. She pulled it up, allowing herself to climb inside, realising that she was on a factory floor, where she could see an assembly line, as well as various pieces of processed and raw goods. She turned around to face the window, unsure if Sokka could pull himself up. To her surprise, she heard a grunt outside, and saw his hands on the windowsill, before he leapt on inside.
He ended up face planting on the floor, and she cringed at the sight, glancing back to the window, realising that the guards were unable to get inside, "How'd you... get in?"
"Off some idiots shoulders." he explained, one of the guards shouting at them.
"I heard that!" he warned them, "Somebody get around and get the exits of that place covered."
Sokka pulled himself off of the ground, and dusted himself off, "Well, that was easier than I thought it'd be." he acknowledged, before pointing to what looked like a way out of the factory, "Let's get out before they swarm us from every side."
She nodded, before glancing around the factory floor, trying to find any way out of the building that might allow them to not have to fight, and thus, force the chase on even longer.
"Or maybe, we should let them run in while thinking we're still inside." she suggested with a whisper, making the Water Tribesman raise a brow.
"Okay." he mumbled, "What's your plan?"
"See that other window up there?" she asked him, pointing up to a window that was accessible by some elevated walkways above the assembly line, "We can get out without them even seeing us."
"Good idea." he nodded, before dashing toward the ladder that would lead them up to the walkway; he began to scale the ladder at once, and she moved on behind him, doing the same; she could hear shouts and footsteps outside, and was certain they had to be fast, lest the guards find them and figure out where they were going to exit from.
When she reached the top of the ladder, she sighed with relief, pacing on after Sokka, who was already moving toward the window; she glanced down below them, and was relieved to see that there was nobody inside yet, before she watched as the Water Tribesman jammed the window open with his own hook. He pushed it out, allowing for him to put his legs through, before climbing out onto the roof below; she followed, stepping open, and glanced about the rooftop, noting that it was a short slope, looking out over another street. She glanced toward the walls of Shengchang, reorienting herself, knowing that they had to head away from them to get back to their meeting spot with Kori and Sneers.
"Well, are we going to jump?" she asked Sokka, who raised a finger, hushing her for a moment; she could hear the guards pushing the doors open below them, and she immediately closed the window, making sure to mask evidence of their departure.
"Now." he told her, before pacing down the slope, leaping down onto the street below; he grunted, sounding like he had hurt his legs from the fall, but he got up, seeming just fine.
Ty Lee, being the skilled acrobat she was, was able to jump straight off of the roof and land on her feet with no problem; she snickered at his pained expression, before he pointed a finger at her.
"Shut up." he snapped at her, before sprinting forwards, obviously not wanting to waste any more time.
She ran on after him, glancing around the streets to check for guards as they ran through a crossroads, before heading to the right, down a reasonably wide street, heading back toward the meeting spot.
"They're here!" she heard a guard call out behind them, and realised that some of the people they were running from had gone another way, thus, avoiding their trick at the factory.
They gave chase, and the pair did not slow down, moving down the street, which Sokka seemed to be counting, probably trying to recall exactly where they'd be meeting Kori and Sneers. He suddenly came to a halt, and pointed down the alleyway to their left, she glanced up, and realised she recognised the roof of the warehouse they had been at earlier in the distance.
"This is it." he explained, before turning around, "We just need to get rid of these guys first." he clarified, Ty Lee smirking as she turned around, taking a fighting stance.
"It'd be my pleasure." she assured him, "I like a little dancing."
"This isn't dancing." he assured her, before taking his own stance beside her, "Do you have to make everything fun?"
"Well, it is fun." she stressed, the Water Tribe warrior rolling his eyes, before he looked ahead of them.
"I mean... it's kinda fun, if only to see their faces afterwards." he noted, before he began to stride forward, the guards still charging right at them with their pikes in hand.
"Put your hands up, thief!" one of them demanded, the Water Tribesman unfazed by his words.
"Uh, and why would I do that?" he retorted, before weaving under the first pike that was swung toward him, aimed to strike him in the side of the head and knock him unconscious.
A pike came toward Ty Lee as well, aimed like a pole sideways, poised to whack her in the chin and knock her out cold; being faster than her opponent, she just ducked under the attack, before grasping her enemy's weapon, making him look at her with confusion. Before he could try and wrestle his pike free, she used his tense arms as a counterweight to her entire lower body swinging up, kicking him in the thighs with her toe tips, which immediately paralysed them. He fell forward, and she landed back on her feet, grabbing the pike he had been using, deciding to use it to defend herself from the next weapon aimed her way.
The guard tried his best to disarm her, but she spun the weapon around, using a kind of trick she'd seen Aang do, before she whcked him in the head with the blunt end of the pike. Momentarily disoriented, she took advantage of the situation by jabbing him in the gut, paralysing his legs, before she jabbed his right forearm, forcing him to drop his pike. Unable to continue standing, he fell down flat on her face, and the next guard who came at her seemed to second-guess whether it was a good idea.
"What's that, you're scared?" she heard Sokka quip to his opponent, before sidestepping him, and jabbing his back, forcing him down to his knees.
Ty Lee turned her attention back to the guard who was yet to hit her, and she gestured with her right hand, prodding him to attack, "Come on, I thought this was a fight, not you standing there checking me out." she mocked her opponent, who was confused by her words, allowing her to rush forward, tossing the pike right at him.
He was forced to pick it up, and now with two unwieldy weapons in hand, found it rather hard to block her jabs toward his extremities, getting both his arms in quick succession, before she weaved around him trying to jump on and restrain her. She knew that was a dumb idea, as she could just continue to move out of the way of his attacks. Suddenly, another guard rushed at her, aiming to whack her in the head, so she immediately ducked, and instead of her head being hit, the guard she'd just moved around was struck by the pike's shaft, and fell down to the ground unconscious.
"Oh shit, sorry man!" he apologised, before trying once more to whack Ty Lee, who grabbed the shaft of his pike.
"That's just clumsy of you. How'd you get hired as a guard anyway?" she quipped, before jabbing him in the gut, paralysing his legs; he stumbled down to his knees, trying once more to hit her with the shaft of his weapon, but he failed, Ty Lee simply stepping back and out of the way.
The guard he'd hit in the head was trying to get back up, but before he could, Sokka jabbed him square in his nape, weakening all of his limbs; it wasn't the best spot to try and paralyse one's limbs, so he made a few more hits on his legs and arms, before he slumped down onto the ground, unable to do anything else.
"Well, that was easier than I thought it'd be." he acknowledged, before smirking, "Chi-blocking is the best, isn't it ?"
"It is." she agreed with his sentiment, before she approached the alleyway, "Let's get out of here, Sokka."
He nodded, agreeing with her idea, and paced on after her as she made her way down the alleyway; she walked past some commoners, who were completely unaware of what was going on, and she smiled at them, just wanting to be polite.
"Good evening." one of them, a young woman, addressed her, and she responded in turn.
"Hi." she simply raised a hand, before gesturing for her friend to hurry up.
He did, and they made their way down toward the warehouse, where she could see Kori and Sneers idly waiting; the couple approached them, glancing behind the pair as they were probably quite reasonably concerned about the guards coming for them.
"Okay, did you lose the guards?" Sneers asked her, Ty Lee nodding in confirmation.
"For the moment." she assured him, before gesturing down in front of them, "We should get underground right now." she stressed, knowing that the quicker they got back down into the sewers, the sooner they'd be back, meeting up with Azula, with their new cart of weapons in tow.
"Yeah, I agree." Sokka added as he approached, "They're going to come around soon enough, at least those guys from the factory."
"Oh, did you trick them?" Kori asked, sounding amused by the idea, the Water Tribesman smirking as he raised a finger.
"Yes, we did." he confirmed, "And it was Ty Lee's idea." he added, giving her credit where it was due, "But, uh, yeah, let's get down into the shit-hole... literally."
The earthbender grimaced for a moment, before she stamped her foot down, a hole appearing in the ground, opening up the sewer once more, before she moved her left hand around, creating the indentations they'd need to climb down; she gestured for them to climb in, the Water Tribesman doing so first, even if he clearly didn't want to go into the sewers. He obviously preferred it to a longer, and more frustrating chase with Shengchang's guards. Once he reached the bottom of the hole, he gestured for Ty Lee to come down; she approached the hole, before turning her eyes to Kori and Sneers, wondering if they were going to come along.
"Are you two staying?"
"We've got our things with us already." Kori acknowledged, "This is where we part ways."
"Good luck." she heard Sokka call up to them, "I hope we see you guys again. You've helped us a lot."
"If we need your help, we'll come back to the base, don't worry." Sneers assured him, Ty Lee turning to face the couple.
"It was nice meeting you two." she simply gave them the pleasantry they deserved, given they were kind people who she did genuinely find to be good company, "The meteor hammer is really cool, by the way." she added, the earthbender smirking at her compliment as she climbed down the hole, "We should spar next time we meet." she suggested, Kori pursing her lips upward as she motioned her hands over the hole.
"We'll see." she simply told her, before closing it shut; Ty Lee realised immediately that she and Sokka were in the dark, and even more dark than it already was on the streets of Shengchang to begin with.
"This place is terrible." he grumbled, before he began to pace along, the acrobat following after his footsteps.
"Don't worry, you'll get to see Azula soon enough."
"She won't want to touch me when I stink after this." he retorted, Ty Lee grimacing as she imagined what they might smell like.
"Well, maybe she should find some place to clean up afterwards."
"I can't be bothered. I just want to sleep once we get out of this damn city." he told her, the exhaustion in his voice audible.
"At least we got those hooks." she reminded him, tapping on the metal hook she had tied to her waistband, "These might come in handy."
"Well, if any walls need scaling, we'll be ready." he acknowledged, though he didn't sound enthusiastic in the slightest.
"No need to be so-" she began, before shaking her head, knowing that the stench of shit all around them was a good enough and clearly understandable reason for Sokka to be in a bad mood, "Okay... fair enough." she conceded, before glancing up ahead, looking toward the dim light that signalled the end of the sewer; it was still some distance away, but she kept pace, trying to keep her feet space apart to avoid walking through the flow of wastewater going down toward the stream.
"This better be worth whatever weapons that Mister Takumi has got for Azula." her friend spoke up, "If it's just a cart full of armour and a few swords, I'm going to be annoyed."
"The Fire Nation has a lot of weapons, Sokka." she warned him, "I even had to memorise the weapons soldiers used at school... it was pretty weird, in hindsight."
"It's not like you were expected to go join the army, right?" he asked her, Ty Lee unsure whether he was looking at her as he spoke, given the darkness.
"Well, no, not really. I'm a noblewoman. Women do join the domestic forces, but it's not a fun job, supposedly."
"What, so, are they just soldiers who watch out for and handle petty crime?" he asked, the acrobat making a positive mumble, given he couldn't see her nod.
"Essentially." she confirmed, "Not that I know anyone in the army... I've just heard about it."
He didn't respond to her comments, and continued pacing ahead down the sewer; she followed after his footsteps, and kept her focus on the light emanating from the end of the tunnel. She could hear the water trickling underneath her feet, but tried not to think about where she was; imagining it as a cave instead of a sewer helped a little, but she couldn't help but cover her mouth with her hand, hoping to block out the smell. When they approached the end of the tunnel, she let out a sigh of relief, and Sokka did as well, increasing his pace as he got toward the exit, running out into the dry streambed.
"Thank the spirits that's over." he proclaimed, before looking down to the barely flowing water below him, "I can't wash myself with this." he realised, before shaking his head, "Ty Lee, hurry up. We need to get back to the others."
She paced on out of the tunnel, and glanced back, glad that she was out, and hoped that she wouldn't ever have to go back inside. Making her way after Sokka, she glanced up around the banks of river, realising it was getting very dark; she found it hard to see without the benefit of street lights guiding their path, and since neither of them could firebend, they would just have to hope they could find Azula and the others by following the path back, as they remembered, to the komodo rhinos, which were tied up by the edge of the woods, past the farms that surrounded the city's outskirts.
The stream did provide them with a good amount of cover, given the trees growing around it, as well as the fact nobody would in their right mind be walking down in a streambed after dark; that was unless they were sneaking about, which they were. Keeping the guards off of their trail wouldn't be hard, assuming they didn't go and look down in such an odd place as a streambed.
"So, are you looking forward to getting out of this city already?" she asked Sokka, who glanced back her way, his expression seeming indifferent.
"I just want to sleep somewhere where I don't have to worry about some guards coming to arrest us." he simply told her, not lessening his pace.
"We could probably beat them anyway." she suggested, the Water Tribe warrior shaking his head.
"That's beside the point. Avoiding unnecessary fights is our aim; we don't need another Yu Dao."
"U-uh... yeah." she nodded, awkwardly looking down as she recalled the story she'd been told; Azula seemed to regret what she had done, mostly because she saw it as foolish, while Sokka seemed to fear a recurrence of that day's events, "Are you afraid of Zuko?"
"No, I'm afraid of Azula doing something she'll regret... again." he stressed, sounding rather nervous thinking about such a scenario, "Zuko's the least of our worries. For the meantime, we're letting him play Fire Lord."
"I mean... he isn't really playing Fire Lord. He is the Fire Lord." she acknowledged, "I know we think Azula should be Fire Lord, but that's kind of beside the point. She's only got one army, and he's got the rest."
"And she could have demanded Aang take her to the Fire Nation Capital as soon as we met him, and she could have fought her brother. Something tells me she wouldn't have fallen for the same trick twice, and then she would have been Fire Lord. Have you wondered why she didn't do that?"
"Because she would have lost?" she asked, the Water Tribesman sighing.
"No." he disagreed, "She doesn't want to just become Fire Lord. She needs the respect of her people; there's no point going to overthrow her brother if everyone thinks she'll be a tyrant."
"The people here seem to disagree she'd be a tyrant." Ty Lee observed, Sokka glancing off into the distance as they continued to pace along the streambed.
"They have their own reasons for supporting her. They know she wants the support of the colonies and give them the assurances of peace that Zuko won't." he simply put it, "Just like how my dad will promise the other villages that he'll destroy the Southern Raiders so he can have their support for his leadership. That's leadership. Tyranny is when you don't care about anything other than ensuring absolute loyalty and power." he explained, before raising his hand up to his head, tapping it, "Does that ring any bells?"
"Ozai was a tyrant." she noted, before narrowing her eyes, "I guess people would think she'd be like him."
"They have a good reason. She was his golden child, the perfect heir. I'm pretty sure everybody in the Fire Nation who knew anything about their Fire Lord wouldn't exactly be looking for to her reign." he explaind something she had already known, though she thought it was pretty stupid to think of Azula as she used to be, given how much she'd changed and all she'd already done that was indicative of her different view of rulership.
"But she's different now."
"Exactly. She is different, but they've got to understand that before Azula can become their ruler." he explained, before glancing back toward the city, "I wonder how much we'll have to do for them to realise."
"Show off Aang?" Ty Lee suggested, "He's the Avatar, after all. If everybody knows they're working together, they'll know she's a good leader, because... well, the Avatar's a good leader."
"Not everybody likes the Avatar in the Fire Nation, right?" he asked in return, the acrobat grimacing; she was told the Avatar was the greatest threat to their nation, and could see why people might think Aang was out to topple the Fire Nation- he obviously wasn't, but their fears probably would have more effect than his intentions.
"Yeah." she mumbled, feeling a little disappointed by that fact; she wished everyone knew him like she did, because if they did, they wouldn't fear him, or think he was just there to help the Water Tribes and Earth Kingdom.
She glanced up ahead of them, noting how the stream was curving, and could see the trees on the hills further ahead, ever so slightly distinguished from the dark sky above them. She wondered how everything had gone with Azula and her guards; she trusted the Princess to protect the cart of weapons, but she was unsure how safe it was to travel on the main roads. There had to be a fair few guards around the city, and not all of them would have been drawn by her and Sokka's distraction. Suddenly, she heard a whistle, and glanced around, unsure where it had come from; she saw a small fire light up ahead of them, on the edge of the riverbank; she realised that it was one of Azula's guards once she took note of the man's frame and thick cloak.
"Come on you two. Everyone else is waiting up at the meeting spot." he called on them, the pair pacing up to the river bank, which they walked up with haste; the guard gestured up the road they were standing beside, up back toward the reeline, where she knew there komodo rhinos were waiting.
"So, did the cart get away alright?" Sokka asked, the guard nodding.
"Yeah, there was no issue. All the guards around that part of the city were drawn in by your thievery." he explained, before raising a brow, "What did you steal, anyway?"
"Just some hooks. In case we need to climb into some place in future." the Water Tribe teen explained, the guard nodding before he began to pace back toward the road.
"Well, sounds useful, but we've got to go. The Princess is going to be furious if we don't get ready to camp soon." he explained, Sokka glancing toward Ty Lee with a slightly relieved look.
"Well, at least she's got the same priorities as me."
"Of course she does. You're telepathically connected." the acrobat joked, making motions with her fingers at the sides of her head.
"No, no, I'd prefer to think I just know her so well that I imitate how she would act." he suggested, making her snicker.
"So, is that what relationships are really like?"
"I can't be sure." he acknowledged, before nervously eyeing the guard; Ty Lee realised her mistake a little too late.
"Sorry, Sokka." she mumbled, the Water Tribesman shaking his head.
"No, no, it's fine. She said this is normal for you. Can't filter your thoughts." he noted, making her chuckle.
"Well, I just say things as they come to me. I'm not dumb, so I don't say dumb things." she argued, the Water Tribesman nodding.
"Dumb and foolish are two different things. A lack of intelligence and a lack of foresight." he warned her, the acrobat narrowing her eyes at him.
"Now you really sound like Azula. Chiding me like I'm at school or something." she lamented, really wishing she could leave that part of her life behind her; she wanted to be an adult, and her friend's near-parenting of her didn't help in that regard- it was both annoying and endearing, one more than the other depending on her mood.
"What, so you don't like be treated like Aang?" he asked rather plainly, making her snicker.
"Uh, yeah, that's about right." she agreed with his phrasing of the matter; she glanced up ahead of them, noting that the road was leading them right up toward the edge of the woods, where she was sure Azula would be waiting for them.
She couldn't see the cart yet, nor could she see any flames that would be indicative of the party of guards moving around through the woods; as they continued up the road, she squinted, and realised that she could see the cart of weapons, sitting near the top of the slope, where some men were standing, presumably those who were driving the cart. The only reason she could tell that it was their cart rather than any other was because of the tarp draped over the carts contents, which was a rather uncommon thing for open-air carts, at least when the weather didn't require it.
"Well, there it is." Sokka pointed out the cart, "Where are Azula and the guards, though?" he asked, the guard beside them pointing to the woods.
"Retrieving the komodo rhinos. It'd be best if you went got your own quickly; nobody's going to drag your ones out for you." he warned, the acrobat narrowing her eyes at the guard.
"What about yours?" she asked him, the guard simply nodding.
"I'm going to go get it." he simply told them, "I already know where it is."
"Race you there for it?" Ty Lee asked the Water Tribesman, deciding that if they were going to do it quickly, she'd need an incentive.
"I'm faster." he stressed, "You might be better at acrobatics, but I can run faster." he warned her, the acrobat beginning to dash up the road without any warning.
"We'll see!" she mocked Sokka, whose face contorted in rage; he didn't like getting tricked like that, and as he began to run after her, she couldn't help but giggle.
"Hey!" he decried her, charging after her as she made her way up towards the treeline.
The pair ran up the slope, and made their way off the road as they neared the cart; Ty Lee could already see some light in the distance, presumably from the flames the guards were wielding to see around, given how dark it was out. She was finding it a struggle to practically jump around, dodging fallen branches and logs as she approached the light source. She could hear Sokka right behind her, panting as his feet slammed into the ground one after another, like a drum that was constantly getting louder. When she made sight of the actual komodo rhinos, noticing their frames amongst the trees, she smiled brightly, realising she was about to win their race; she dashed on toward them, and suddenly, a fireball was thrown toward her, the acrobat forced to duck.
"Guys! It's just me!" she warned the guards, realising they must have thought she was an intruder.
"For spirits sake!" one of them chided her, "Don't just run in here like that."
She could hear the Water Tribe warrior breathing heavily as he caught up to her, coming to a halt soon after she did, "O-okay... you won. But you definitely cheated."
"I outsmarted you." she rephrased his claim in a way that sounded better to her ears, making him raise a hand, wanting to contend her argument, but he didn't; he knew she was right, and she laughed, proud in her victory.
"What are you all screaming about?" she heard Azula speak up, the acrobat turning around to see her friend, who was leading her komodo rhino, "Did Ty Lee scare you?" she asked the guards, who shook their heads.
"We could hear the footsteps, so we thought it was some of the city guards coming to fight us." one of the guards explained, "Turns out these two decided to run here."
"How punctual." she commented, before gesturing toward the komodo rhinos, "Ty Lee, you'll be taking Kori and Sneers' komodo rhino."
"Got it." she nodded, before pacing on over toward Sokka's komodo rhino, where all her things were.
"I really shouldn't have lost that." she heard the Water Tribesman mumble behind her.
"Well, I'm just smarter." she quipped at him, before she reached the komodo rhino, grabbing her bag, and slinging it over her shoulder, "Don't worry. I'm sure you'll have another chance to impress her highness." she joked, making the Water Tribe teen giver her a death stare.
"That had nothing to do with her." he retorted, before grabbing the lead of his komodo rhino, "You better get to yours, or you'll be left behind.
"Oh, so you don't want to chat? Not even a little?"
"No, not really." he refused her, "We need to get out of here. Do you want those guards finding us?"
"Nope." she gave her opinion, before pacing off in the direction of Kori and Sneer's komodo rhino, which was now hers; she was glad she had her own to ride on, given it would make it easier for her to rest on it while they were riding back to the base.
She made her way past a few of the guards, who were leading their own komodo rhinos along, heading back toward the road; when she reached her new komodo rhino, she immediately put her things down on it, and leaded over onto the saddle, just resting for a moment. Finally, after all the work she'd done in distracting those guards, they could leave Shengchang. Ty Lee had come to realise that she didn't really like cities; they were full of people who might want to capture them, and they smelled, and that was when she was outside of the sewers.
"Thank the spirits that's over." she exclaimed, before she heard Azula nearby, clearing her throat.
"It's not over until we get back to base."
"Then we'll go to the spa, right?" she asked her, friend, who looked back her way with a thoughtful look.
"Yeah, that sounds about right." she agreed to her proposition, the acrobat grinning at the thought.
"Finally, something decent to look forward to."
Toph didn't like feeling like a servant, and at times, given how much errands and work she did for King Bumi personally, it seemed that she was a bit like one; after her experiences with her controlling and rather stupid parents, she had had enough of being bossed around. Unlike her parents, the King of Omashu could at the very least garner her respect; he was a good earthbender, and a wise, well-learned man, more so than most. For his age, he certainly wasn't senile in the slightest, even if he tried to play of being so when unfamiliar people were around. Her respecting him didn't mean she was any more tolerant of being called on by him, preferring to stick to what she knew best: kicking butts, specifically that of firebenders, and training his soldiers to make sure they were capable of doing what she was.
So, as she walked down one of the streets of New Omashu, following one of the King's guards, she wondered what he wanted her for; she was a skilled earthbender who could read if people were lying, so obviously she was useful for dealing with prisoners or visitors to the city, to gauge whether they had foul intentions or not. There were other things he used her for, such as spying in the old city of Omashu, which she'd done a few times; mostly just to gauge their defences, in the worst case scenario that they had to fight the occupiers of the city. She'd done so without question, knowing the advantage that knowledge would bring to any future plans they made, given the affinity for strategy the King seemed to have.
"Does he want to drink tea with me, or is this something serious?" she asked the guard, who turned back toward her, which made her assume he was looking at her, though she couldn't be sure, being unable to see his eyes, even if she could sense how he walked and turned himself upon hearing her question.
"He simply said he required the Blind Bandit, so I came to retrieve you." he explained himself rather simply.
"Y'know, he could have picked a better time. I was just in the middle of eating my breakfast." she acknowledged, "If he's calling on me this early, it has to be serious."
"I'd presume so." the guard agreed with her, "Not that his majesty likes to be forward with his intentions. He's a man who keeps his Pai Sho moves to himself, and himself along." he explained, metaphorically, obviously, even if the old king did like to play Pai Sho; being blind, and thus, unable to distinguish the tiles well enough, she refused to play the game with him, though he explained he could have them marked with cuts so she'd find them easier to detect and distinguish.
"Maybe he did make that set." she mumbled to herself, before turning her attention ahead of her; she could already sense into the King's throne room, and could sense him sitting there on his table, presumably eating his own breakfast, a few servants standing by, ready to serve him.
She guessed maybe he'd give her some breakfast, and then a task, as she would expect; when the doors were opened up, she immediately strode into the throne room, not bothering to address the guards, before she raised a hand toward the King, "Your majesty, what do you need the Blind Bandit for?" she asked him with a sarcastic tone of deference.
"Oh, good morning, Toph, I see you got here quickly." he observed, before gesturing to the table he was sitting at, "Please, sit. Would you like some jook? It's quite well done."
"Jook?" she raised a brow, knowing that was the kind of food she'd associate with a peasant's breakfast, not a king's, "You're not the kind of guy I'd expect to eat jook." she acknowledged, before shrugging her shoulders, "But you are pretty unusual, so it shouldn't be that surprising, really." she added, before she pulled out the stone chair she wanted to sit on with her earthbending, sitting herself on it, before she pulled the chair in closer to the table.
"So, will you have it, or is it unpalatable to your noblewoman tastebuds?" he jokingly asked her, making her shake her head, not wanting to be reminded of the life she had left behind.
"No, it's fine." she lied, not really liking jook, but willing to eat it because it would fill her stomach and was better than the reheated rice dish she was eating for breakfast before the guard came to her apartment.
A servant shuffled around beside her, and she heard a thump down on the table in front of her, which from what her seismic sense told her, the servant had placed a bowl in front of her, and a moment later he turned to face her, "How much would you like, ma'am?"
"Ma'am." she snickered to herself, before feeling the bowl, getting a good idea of how large it was, "Just to the top." she decided, and with that, the servant plopped some of the jook it, the mushy liquid making the expected splash-like sound she guessed it would when it dropped into the ceramic bowl.
She pulled the bowl closer to her, before she picked up the spoon that was placed down beside her; she was only able to sense it because the table was made out of stone, like everything else in the room. She knew it probably wasn't intended to help her on Bumi's behalf, but she was grateful of the great use of earthen materials, given it made her seismic sense all the more useful. Putting the spoon into the bowl, she took some of the jook into her mouth, and swallowed it; it didn't taste that bad, and the King obviously had some kind of spice with it, though nothing compared to what she guessed Fire Nation food tasted like.
"So... I assume there's an actual reason you requested me here."
"There is." he nodded, "I have been speaking with the Governor of Omashu via messenger hawk, and we have organised a turnover of the city to my hands." he explained, making Toph scrunch her lips up; she wasn't well versed in politics, but what he just told her sounded like a really dumb trap.
"Are you sure it isn't a trap?" she asked him, the King chuckling at her suggestion.
"If this had come straight from him, I might have come to the same conclusion, but I have been given an assurance that my old friend, General Iroh, is going to oversee our meeting and the turnover of the colony back to my rule." he explained, "However, as a precaution, I believe it would be useful to have you come along with me. Assassinations are still a threat, even if I trust Iroh with my life; your seismic sense would be invaluable in such a situation."
"Huh, so I get to meet General Iroh, the Dragon of the West." she realised, recalling when she had heard about the defeat of the General at Ba Sing Se; it had been a great cause for celebration, back in the day, though in hindsight, she thought everyone was extremely foolish to be as optimistic as they had been, "He's the Fire Lord's uncle, right?"
"And Azula's." he added, "He'll probably want to know about our meetings with her." he acknowledged, "Something tells me that he and the young Princess might come into conflict, sooner rather than later."
"She's pretty temperamental." Toph conceded, "And Sokka too. He's the one we should be worrying about."
"He's not a bender." Bumi assured her, "It's not like he could fight us."
"Well, chi-blocking is still dangerous, and I doubt that he'd try and fight us. It's the others I'd be worried about... if I didn't already think they had it coming for them." she acknowledged, making the King cackle at her.
"And what makes you think they have it coming? Aren't they as loyal to the cause as you are?"
"It's not about loyalty, it's about stupidly going after the Princess because she's 'one of the bad ones'." she acknowledged, "She told me that morning that he would do anything to defend her... and I think he's not using 'anything' lightly."
"Well, a loyal man is better than a shifty one." Bumi noted, "That makes them easier to predict." he acknowledged, "Anyway, Sokka and Azula are not what we need to concern ourselves with. It's Ozai's supporters."
She took another spoonful of the jook into her mouth, and nodded to confirm she understood what he was saying; once she swallowed the food, she narrowed her eyes in the thought, wondering how much danger they'd be in.
"Those guys are a threat, but as long as your 'friend' has enough guards, I'm sure it won't be a problem." she guessed, emphasising the word friend just to remind him how unusual it was for him to have a Fire Nation friend, especially one who had tried to conquer Ba Sing Se, "When is this happening?"
"In two days, when he arrives in Omashu." he clarified, before gesturing toward her, "That's enough forewarning, isn't it?"
"I guess." she shrugged her shoulders, before taking another spoonful of jook into her mouth.
"How are you, Toph?" he decided to make a little small talk, which she didn't really mind, given the King was a reasonably likeable conversation partner, "Has the training regime been tolerable?"
"They're learning, that's what counts." she stressed, knowing that the soldiers she was training were improving, even if it took quite some time for them to understand the principles by which she earthbent; in learning from the badger moles, her bending style was unique to herself, and she didn't bother to learn many forms associated with 'conventional' earthbending, unless she was needed to use them in group formations.
"Your earthbending is rather unique." he acknowledged, "I'd like to see you come around to my sparring ground more often." he suggested, the young earthbender chuckling; she was well aware of how skilled he was, and knew that sparring him wouldn't be a casual fight in the slightest.
"No thanks." she raised a hand up, "I'm more than comfortable sticking to training your soldiers." she assured him, the king chuckling as she took some more jook into her mouth.
"Oh, if you say so." he responded slyly, obviously seeing that she didn't want to fight him, "You're not afraid of fighting an old man, are you?"
She scoffed at his words, shaking her head as she chewed down the jook, "I don't know, your majesty, are you scared of me?"
"Not scared. Merely interested. You're an interesting person."
"Thanks, but I'd prefer to gain your attention for being a great earthbender. I'm not throwing rocks to get people to think I'm mysterious." she retorted, making him tap his fingers down on the table.
"Oh, so who are you trying to impress, specifically?" he asked her, the blind earthbender glad she was so, as she didn't have to worry about whatever smug face he had to be pulling at that moment.
She knew people who could see loved to put all their emotions into their expressions, which was part of the reason why she found it hard to gauge people's emotions off of their voices alone; her seismic sense ended up solving that problem for her, as people's heartbeats were just as indicative of people's emotions as expressions, if not more so. Nobody was as good at reading people as her, and she had grown to enjoy toying with people, trying to figure out what their secrets and silent grievances were. That did have unintended negative consequences, such as the starkly serious threats she received from Sokka, who if it weren't for the cold, vicious demeanour he put up, she might have simply thought him an idiot who got captured by the Dai Li with his pants down. But, no, it seemed that was more than met the eye when it came to the Avatar and his friends, and she knew it was just the same with the old king.
"Nobody." she assured him, half a lie; she wanted to impress people generally, because she knew that with their respect, came the power of freedom she desired.
"Well, I'm sure that General Iroh will be impressed when he sees your skills." he acknowledged, "He's been interested in odd bending techniques as long as I've known him."
"You don't need me to interrogate him, do you?" she asked, unsure whether that was part of her task.
"I think that would be a rather rude way to treat a guest, but seeing that we will be the guests of the Fire Nation, who are occupying my own city, I guess it can be excused."
"Thank you for the permission, your majesty." she smirked at him; she hadn't wanted his permission to begin with, but now that she had it, she was more than happy to use her abilities around the mighty General Iroh and their entourage, to see if they were really as well-intended as Bumi made them out to be.
She continued to eat the bowl of jook that had been given to her, and she wondered what would come of Omashu returning to Earth Kingdom hands; for one, they'd have more resources at hand to work toward the ultimate goal of restoring their country. She didn't think it would take that long to reunite the Earth Kingdom, but in considering how long it had taken the Fire Nation to defeat them, it seemed like it could take some time.
Toph wasn't a politician or a general; she was just a girl with a knack for earthbending and tactics. She could fight, and she would fight, because she knew she was good at it, and because of that, she would earn people's respect. She'd already earned the Avatar's respect, and perhaps, he'd come back soon enough to plead to become her student. She chuckled at the thought of it, though she doubted he'd come back soon; she guessed he was still working away at the North Pole learning waterbending.
"So, are you going back to train those slackers?" he asked Toph, who pursed her lips up in thought of how she'd get the fighters into shape; perhaps it would be more than necessary if fighting did come out of the upcoming turnover that Bumi spoke of.
"Of course, your majesty. It would be my pleasure." she assured him, making him snicker.
"Pleased from their growth or from their weakness?" he asked in clarification, the young earthbending raising a finger to her chin, wondering which response was more suitable.
"I think you'd want me to say the former." she guessed, "But I am just pleased to see that I am the best around here."
"As always, I'm open to challenge that claim." the King suggested, Toph placing her hands down onto the table in front of her.
"I just might accept that if you keep bugging me about it." she acknowledged, "Let's just wait until we return to the city. Maybe we can fight and demolish that stupid statue of Fire Lord Ozai at the same time." she suggested, making the King of Omashu cackle.
"Oh, oh! That's a good one. The Fire Lord would most certainly approve of our artistic works." he suggested, "Whack off his nose or perhaps his whole face."
"That guy must really dislike his Dad." she noted, before huffing realising she was practically on the same boat, "Well, I can sympathise."
"Ah, I wonder how your father would feel seeing you a drill-sergeant instead of a noblewoman." the King suggested, "You must be quite approving of the cringed reaction."
"Just a little." she admitted, "Proving that old fart wrong is something I've always wanted to do."
"You're calling him old... he can't be a year older than forty-five."
"He isn't." she confirmed, "Senility and its stupidity don't really seem to correlate with age. Or maybe, some people just age terribly."
"I think I've aged quite well." he declared, "Other than losing all my nice hair, that is."
"Oh, you're bald." she realised, not having bothered to sense around the King's head enough to realise there was no hair under the crowns he wore, "You're still a young man at heart, I guess."
"Of course I am." he assured her, "That's why I could face off Aang as well as I did. He's fast, but he's not that tact."
"He's twelve." she retorted, before scrunching her lips up, remembering that when she was twelve, she was fighting in Earth Rumble VI, so perhaps she couldn't just put that down to age, "Or maybe it's just being an airbender. They like to dodge and weave, and not really fight directly, right?"
"That is correct." Bumi nodded, before he tapped his hands on the table, "But you'll teach him how to face his opponents head on, won't you?"
"It can't be that hard." she acknowledged, "All the people I've been training figure things out quickly enough."
"Earthbending ought to come to him naturally, once he's in the right mindset." Bumi acknowledged, before she scooped up what she guessed to be the last of the jook.
She quickly chewed it down and swallowed the gruel, before she placed the spoon down on the table, "Thanks for the breakfast. I've got to get over to the training yard. If I'm not there to shout everybody down as they arrive, they won't take me as seriously." she explained her intentions, the old king letting out a snicker.
"Whatever you say, Blind Bandit." he quipped, making Toph sigh, thinking that his sarcasm wasn't appreciated; she needed to be taken seriously- a relatively short, blind girl wasn't going to be well respected as an earthbending master unless she showed her trainees exactly how tough and serious she was.
She pushed the chair she was sitting on back with earthbending, before she dropped her two feet onto the ground, firmly appreciating the feel of her feet making contact with the earth. Sitting on the chair with her toes above the ground, she could still sense things through the chair, but it was harder to distinguish things clearly. She wondered if that was what it was like for people who could see, but not very well; in her mind, that sounded terrible, and she was glad that she had her bending to assist her. If she had had poor sight instead of blindness, but without her bending, she would have certainly been worse off.
"I guess... call on me when you need me to go to Old Omashu." she farewelled the King, who remained silent for a few moments.
"Perhaps if I shake the ground, you'll sense it. and know to come over. That's faster than sending somebody to your quarters." he realised, the Blind Bandit smirking as she realised that was a more effective way to communicate with her.
"Earthbending is better than language. I knew it all along." she declared, making Bumi cackle.
"Oh, that's a good one." he agreed with her, "Have a good day." he presumably waved to her, and she raised a hand to acknowledge that she was leaving, before she turned herself around, moving at once to approach the door; she noticed that she could sense somebody outside, but they were too far away for her to identify.
When she got close enough to the door, she recognised the heartbeat of the individual, as well as their clothing, and their shoes, which were easy things for her to remember when trying to figure out who was who; it was Jet, the leader of the Freedom Fighters, who must have decided to go meet her, as he liked to, as if he thought that would make them friends. She didn't despise him, not really having a good reason to, but that didn't mean she liked him; he was annoying, and he had been rather spiteful toward both Sokka and Azula, and without a very good reason to do so. Of course, after the group had left on Appa, he'd calmed down, and apologised to her, like any sane person would; he had been a dick, and it seemed that he still wanted to make up for it.
The doors were opened up, and she pointed towards him, "What are you doing here Jet? I don't need somebody to escort me around the damn place."
"Uh... I just wanted... uh, to talk." he excused himself, making her scoff.
"Oh, okay, talk, I can talk." she agreed to his proposition, "Are you looking forward to getting beaten up?"
"At training?" he asked, Toph nodding, after which he chuckled, stepping back, "I can hold my own." he assured her.
"No, you can't really. You still can't counter earthbending. Longshot's actually decent, but that's because arrows are hard for me to sense. I bet The Duke would have a better chance beating me than you."
"Well, he would probably have Pipsqueak throw him at you like a projectile with fists." the Freedom Fighter acknowledged, "Which... he has done before."
"Getting kicked in the head by a kid gets old pretty quickly. I've figured out all your moves already." she warned him, "But... you can always try and get smarter. That might have helped you to begin with."
"What is that supposed to mean?" he questioned her, the earthbender raising a finger as she strode past him.
"Remember how I can always figure out when people are lying?" she asked, the boy nodding before he began to follow her, "Well, Smellerbee seemed very uncomfortable about a specific topic: sabotage." she recalled, "You wouldn't know why she's so traumatised about that, would you?"
"I'm not going to comment." he decided, making her snicker.
"Well, that is a smarter choice than trying to lie." she decided, before crossing her arms, "So, was there anything specific you wanted to get from me, Jet?"
"Get from you? I don't get it."
"Nice wordplay, but seriously, don't play dumb." she retorted, "I know you're a very goal-oriented person. You want to get revenge, you do it. You want to shame someone, you do it."
"Are you talking about... uh, Sokka?" he asked her, the earthbender scoffing.
"Well, that's who I saw you get all antsy about." she confirmed, "So, what is it? Does the Blind Bandit need to solve everybody's problems, is that it?"
"Well... no, but I did find something." he admitted, Toph scrunching her lips up.
"Like a new way of cooking or a dead body?" she asked him, the Freedom Fighter coming to a halt as he tried to comprehend her two options.
"Neither! Why- that was a stupid question." he snarled at her, making Toph snicker.
"Wrong. It would have been stupid if I didn't get any reaction out of you." she clarified, the Freedom Fighter making an exasperated sigh, obviously finding her not to be the most enticing conversation partner; she found him just fine when he didn't overreact and boil over like a pot left over the fire for too long, "So what was it, seriously?"
"We came across what I thought was an abandoned campsite of some of the fighters here, but Smellerbee noticed something weird. The tracks didn't lead back or to New Omashu- they led to the city."
"What?" she narrowed her eyes, "But if it was the Fire Nation Army, we would have noticed it, right?" she asked, the Freedom Fighter nodding.
"That's what I thought. So, I asked other people who had been scouting around that area, and they said no soldiers had come out of the city on patrol. Supply convoys and trade caravans... that's it."
"So, somebody's snuck into the city right under our noses." she deduced, "Why are you telling me about this? Why not Yung, or any other people who can handle this?"
"Because there might be some evidence around that campsite that could help explain it, but we don't have your abilities. That seismic sense you have sounds really useful for feeling around the area." he explained his reasoning, and she nodded, knowing he was right; she was the earthbender best suited for such an investigation.
"Fine." she nodded, accepting his request, "After training, we can go out to this campsite, and I'll see what I can find." she decided, before raising a finger, "On one condition."
"What is it?"
"That whenever they show up again, you aren't a dick to Sokka and the others. He clearly doesn't deserve it, and you're just putting whatever happened to you and your friends onto his girlfriend." she gave him an ultimatum she'd been hoping to achieve, just for the sake of peace of mind, given she expected the Avatar's group to show up sooner or later.
"Uh... I guess I can agree to that." he nodded, "I'm not going to be nice... but I won't try and fight them again."
She nodded, pleased that he had accepted her ultimatum of sorts, and continued to pace on ahead, before turning back to face him, realising that he had stopped walking, "Are you coming to training, or what?"
He must have been blankly looking at her, as she didn't sense much change in his heartbeat, before he began to stride toward her, "Yeah, I'm coming." he confirmed, the skilled earthbender turning her heels, pacing on down the street, heading straight in the direction of the training yards, which really were large, tall-roofed caverns where they could all earthbend and fight without much worry of damaging the tunnels, and thus, making parts of the city structurally unstable. Toph didn't know much about architecture, but she knew how her element worked, and was certain that the stresses that training made when one bent would clearly be dangerous in a cave, no matter if it were man-made, created by badger-moles or naturally formed.
"Thanks again... for giving your help." Jet spoke up, "I'm just... really worried things might be going on right underneath our noses."
"We wouldn't be very good guerrilla fighters if we let the Fire Nation trick us into an unwinnable situation." she conceded, "You weren't stupid to come to me with that information." she acknowledged, "If it turns out being any good, I might hold an inch of respect toward you."
"I... I am sorry if I annoyed you."
"Well, being sorry isn't going to fix much, Jet." she warned him, "You're a catapult being directed by a blind-man- and not one with seismic sense. Getting angry over whatever suits your fancy isn't going to win battles."
"We all have our motivations, I'm sure you have your own." he acknowledged, Toph scrunching her lips up as she remembered what had happened in Gaoling; she wasn't there because she despised the Fire Nation.
She certainly didn't like them, like anybody in the Earth Kingdom, and going to fight them was a good excuse to leave home and hone her skills. Being a rebel was the one kind of job she could do where being judged for her disability would be less likely, and respect from her bending prowess would shower down on her like a summer rainstorm.
"To prove myself." she told him her honest intentions, "This isn't about the Fire Nation for me... though I definitely don't like them."
"So, we're not that similar... really." he realised, before shrugging his shoulders, "I guess you're lucky then."
"I'm not lucky. Yeah, I'm a great earthbender, but let's just say... my home life was less than nice."
"People don't treat blind people well." Jet acknowledged, "The only ones I've met other than you were... well, they were beggars." he added, Toph grimacing as she realised perhaps he was right; she had been lucky, born as a noblewoman instead of a commoner, in which case she likely would have ended up a street urchin, disgraced from her home as a burden- instead, her family was her burden, treating her like a little doll, and not like a human being.
"Y-yeah..." she mumbled, before shaking her head, "I'm not like other blind people."
"I figured that out quickly enough." he agreed with her, "You must really like your earthbending... seeing how helpful it is."
"It's a part of me." she declared, grimacing at the thought of what she'd be like without it; she would be as incapable of her parents thought she already was- the very thought of it was disturbing to her core.
"What training is going on today?" he asked her, obviously figuring that the topic wasn't the best one to talk about; she pursed her lips up in thought of what she'd be putting the fighters through.
"Oh, well, for the earthbenders, they'll have to try and escape my trap."
"Crashing the cavern roof?" he guessed, the earthbender shaking her head, having something far more dastardly in mind.
"Oh, better. I'm going to sink them into the ground like it was water. Imagine drowning in dirt. Sounds bad, doesn't it?" she asked him, the Freedom Fighter's heartbeat increasing considerably in pace, "Hmph, did I scare you?" she prodded him with a cocky grin, Jet shaking his head, and waving his hands, despite the fact she couldn't see; she could sense them, but such gestures were kind of pointless in her opinion.
"Of course not. You said you were going to do that to the earthbenders, not the non-benders." he retorted, making her chuckle.
"Oh, I have something better in mind for the non-benders." she assured him, the Freedom Fighter tensing up noticeably, "Ever faced a Fire Nation catapult barrage?" she asked him.
"No, I haven't." he acknowledged, sounding relieved that he hadn't, "So, you'll throw massive boulders at us?"
"Into the air." she clarified, "I'll let gravity do the rest for me."
"Huh, that's probably going to be a little easier, and cause more damage." he realised, "That's a good tactic to use against the Fire Nation."
"No. Sinking them into the ground is better." she stressed, "They won't be able to fight back that way. Then you crush them with boulders afterwards."
"Uh... yeah, I can see why." he agreed with her tactic, the blind earthbender grinning at his response.
"So, you see, I can get people's respect when it comes to tactics." she acknowledged, "If only everybody could see... heheheh..." she snickered, realising the pun she'd just made unintentionally, "If everyone understood how good I am at fighting, maybe they'd take me more seriously, even though I can't see like they can."
"Well, I think your skill is neat." he acknowledged, making her chuckle.
"No, you're just a toe-kisser." she retorted, "You want people to like you."
"I... well, I want people to like me." he acknowledged, "But I think doing what is right is more important than that."
"Ah... calling people traitors to their own people because they actually have a girlfriend is important to you." she recalled his spat with Sokka, "Wow, great priorities right there." she sarcastically quipped.
"I- well- urgh." he groaned, obviously not having a response to that, "What does me not having a girlfriend have to do with that/"
"You're the one who pointed that out, not me." she quipped, "Are you a little jealous, Jet?" she asked him with a babying voice.
"I'm not jealous. I hate the Fire Nation." he retorted sharply, making her raise a finger up toward him.
"Now, now, don't be so harsh, Jet. Remember what I told you?"
"Yeah... yeah, I got it." he dejectedly acknowledged his agreement, "I don't have time for anything like that. I'm a fighter."
"Hit your soft underbelly, didn't I?" she quipped once more, "I won't keep at it, but you know, you've got to make that little 'I'm strong so I don't need people' speech a little more believable."
"I do need people. My Freedom Fighters." he reminded her, the stout earthbender nodding, realising that he did have those bonds, even if he wasn't one for romance.
"Fair enough." she conceded, before sensing ahead, "Seems like there's a few people waiting at the training yards already."
"Are you going to shout at them?" he asked Toph, who pursed her lips upward, realising she had a good idea on how to get their training started.
"No, I've got something better than that." she acknowledged, before pacing ahead, wanting him inside the training yards before she made a little example for the others.
"What's your idea?" he asked her once more, and she raised a hand up, creating a stone panel from the ground behind Jet, before she thrust it forward into him, throwing the Freedom Fighter across the yard, skidding before he face-planted on the ground.
She sensed everybody turning her way, and she smirked, "Listen up! It's training time!" she called on everyone in the yards, "So, earthbenders, gather around. I'm going to show you how to beat a cocky non-bender." she called on her 'students' of sorts, who did indeed approach, eyeing off Jet, who groaned with pain as he pulled himself up from the ground.
"That hurt." he mumbled under his breath, before turning his attention her way, "So you're gonna beat me up?"
"Wrong." she corrected him, "You're going to try and beat me up. Just you, and to make it fair I won't bend the ground beneath your feet."
"You can still bend all the other earth though." he realised, Toph raising her hands up into the air.
"Of course I can." she told him with a wide grin, "Now, come at me!"
Jet was still tensed up, and she was unsure whether he was going to man up and attack her, so she decided to call him out, "Are you a little pig-chicken? Come onǃ" she pointed at him accusingly, the Freedom Fighter's heartbeat rising before he drew out his hook swords, taking them off his back and slashing the ground beside him, before he charged right at her.
He remained deathly silent as he ran toward her, Toph thrusting her left hand forward, shooting a stone pillar out of the ground; it seemed Jet had seen it coming, because he jumped onto the pillar, before he left contact with the ground entirely, leaving her unable to sense his position. In precaution, she raised another wall of stone in front of her, before pushing it forward. It moved toward his former position, before she sensed him touching the wall, landing on top of it; she stopped moving the wall forward, and flicked her right hand up, creating a smaller pillar which shot up right behind the wall, knowing Jet would jump down to the other side. She cringed silently as she heard him grunt, the pillar whacking him seemingly in the gut, before he rolled onto the ground. Keeping with her promise, she wasn't going to bend the ground right underneath him, just to give him a fighting chance.
"I admire your guts, but you might throw them up all over the ground." she observed with a smug grin, the Freedom Fighter groaning as he tried to pull himself back up to his feet.
She shot a boulder out from the ground below her, holding it in her right hand, and she gestured for him to approach with her left. She shot the pillar out toward him as soon as he stood up, and he was able to side-step the attack, slashing the boulder with one of his hook swords, throwing it off into the air above him. She shifted her stance as he moved toward her once more, creating two pillars to either side of him, firing them out to try and sandwich him right in the middle. He was fast enough to duck under the pillars, sliding along the ground, now only a few strides away from her.
Toph then reached forward, deciding that if she couldn't ruin the ground beneath his feet or try to ensnare him, she'd make a trap instead. She bent the ground between them, ripping it apart internally, making it more like a slush of mud than solid ground; it worked exactly how she assumed it would, as Jet slipped on trying to approach her, falling flat on his butt, kicking up much of the near-liquid dirt as he did so. She chuckled, and bent a small rock, about the size of a her thumb, raising it up to his eye-level in front of him; he was too slow, and it smacked him square in the forehead, throwing the Freedom Fighter back down into the dirt.
"And that, my students," she addressed the other earthbenders, "is how you beat a cocky non-bender." she explained, before looking down at the freedom Fighter, who was grasping his forehead in pain.
"Could have you hit me somewhere else?" he asked her, sounding annoyed that she'd got him in the head.
"Well, I could have gone for somewhere even more painful." she warned him, "You're just lucky I find you a tolerable sparring partner."
He chuckled, before pulling himself up, "So you do like me." he concluded; Toph scoffed, not wanting to go as far to say he was her friend- she certainly found him tolerable when he wasn't acting out, and she would admit that if he learned to restrain himself, he might garner a bit more respect.
"If you don't act like a moron, maybe more people will."
The morning sun shone down over the valley before Azula, who felt relieved to be away from civilisation again; part of her had liked being close to walls, streets and markets again, but another part of her simply spited the entire experience of being in Shengchang because she had had to walk through the sewers. She was, however, quite pleased that they now had a cart of weapons in tow, driven by some of the members of the very group who had set out to support her; those weapons mightn't do much, but a resupply was something that would assist her troops. They could only get so much from the meagre taxes they exerted out of the local Earth Kingdom population, who Azula had set out to help, out of pragmatism rather than out of a desire to see them happy. She wanted to appease them, and that would be the first call of order when she returned to her base of operations; she didn't forget that she was intent on having a long spa session with Ty Lee so she could try to remove and forget the filth she associated with the journey they'd undertaken.
Sokka was riding his komodo rhino beside her, and seemed rather more interested in a piece of wood he had been carving away at than actually making conversation; of course, Azula was never the greatest conversationalist, and would prefer to be silent that have an awkward conversation, though she knew that he, of all people, seemed to come up with the right mixture of absurd and enjoyable arguments. He realised that she had been eyeing him quickly enough, and put the wooden figurine back into his komodo rhino's saddle bag.
"Sorry, did you want something, your highness?" he made a fake, exaggerated bow toward her, the Princess rolling her eyes.
"Not that." she retorted, "Did you have anything stupid or interesting to say? Sometimes I know you have both."
"Uh... no random commentary coming from me. That's usually Ty Lee." he explained, the acrobat calling out from behind them.
"Hey, I heard that!" she pointed at him accusingly, the Princess snickering at her friend's reaction.
"So, really nothing?" she asked, "Not even a compliment?" she prodded him, making the Water Tribesman snicker.
"Oh, I could, but then she'd just make fun of me, and you'd call me a bootlicker." he explained the situation where he might potentially compliment her.
"Okay, you raise a fair point, Sokka. Speaking kindly of me is only going to get you made fun of."
"So, I just have to insult you instead." he decided, before smirking, "I preferred you with the full bangs." he pointed to her head, the Princess self-consciously touching her forehead.
"Excuse me? You liked that ugly haircut?" she scoffed, "My hairstyle should remain as it is."
"I mean... I do like that one. I just like the bangs better." he explained, the Princess rolling her eyes.
"Next you'll say you prefer me wearing Water Tribe robes."
"Well... they do go well with your flames." he added offhandedly, the Princess looking at him with a slightly flushed face, though she covered it up by feigning annoyance.
"That's not an insult. Try again." she snapped at him, realising he was going back to complimenting her.
"Urgh, right, right." he nodded with a slightly dejected look on his face, scratching his chin in thought as he tried to come up with another well-suited personal insult, "You smell."
"So do you." she quipped in return, making him smirk.
"But you're a Princess and I'm a peasant. You're expected not to smell." he retorted, the Princess narrowing her eyes.
"Good point." she acknowledged, before she shot a small fire bolt out of her finger tips, narrowly missing his forehead.
"Ack!" he cried out, grasping onto the reins as he almost fell off of the komodo rhino "What was that for?!"
"You actually offended me." she narrowed her eyes at him, "Good job, I guess." he added afterwards, awkwardly giving him a thumbs up before she turned her eyes back ahead to focus on directing her komodo rhino.
"Are you telling me you like being insulted?" Sokka quipped in return, the Princess sighing as she shook her head.
"No, but I'm impressed when you can manipulate the emotions of others." she explained, "The better you are at it, the better a leader you'll be."
"I personally disagree, but... thanks." he accepted her words as a compliment, which they weren't meant to be; that was more so an observation on how she believed a leader ought to act- they ought to be the most calm and cool person in the room, able to persuade others to whatever response they desired.
Azula pulled on the reins of her komodo rhino, making sure it stayed in the middle of the road and didn't stray off course; she was frustrated by the boring nature of their journey, but knew that she couldn't do anything about it other than by interacting with Sokka and Ty Lee, who unlike her guards, were good conversationalists. The acrobat was far more inclined to embarrass her with intrusive questions, and her boyfriend was more into arguing with her than actually discussing serious matters, though she wouldn't deny that she liked arguments.
"What are we going to do all day?" Sokka asked her after a rather long and awkward silence.
"Play a game." Ty Lee piped up, the couple both glancing back her way.
"No." Azula immediately refused her, though her boyfriend seemed more inclined to her idea.
"Well, what kind?"
"I don't know." she admitted bluntly, "Uh, do you know any good games, Sokka?"
"Remember that laughing game we did back on Appa's saddle?" he asked, the acrobat nodding intently.
"Oh, that was funǃ I remember Katara said you-" she began, before the Water Tribesman drew out his boomerang.
"Don't you dare talk about that." he warned her, "I don't want the whole world knowing what happened."
Azula snickered, recalling what Katara had said to try and make Aang laugh; she had told them all about Sokka accidentally sitting in a puddle of urine, which was really his fault, given that he was the one ordering little boys around to go take guard shifts.
"What, that you sat in a puddle-" she began, before her boyfriend turned his hand to her, indicating he might throw his boomerang, "Are you going to throw that at me?"
"Uh..." he glanced toward the boomerang, before sighing, "No. Just shut up about the stupid puddle." he requested, the Princess scoffing at his words.
"Alright." she accepted his request, "So, I assume you do want to play the laughing game.
"I mean, it might improve everybody's moods." he suggested, Ty Lee prodding her komodo rhino so it got close.
"I think it will." she agreed with him, "So, who's going to laugh first?"
"Azula." Sokka decided, staring her down intently, "I want to see her laugh."
"Fall off your komodo rhino by accident, and then you'll win." she suggested, the Water Tribesman rolling his eyes.
"I'm not going- that's a stupid idea, Azula." he retorted, making her smirk.
"No it's not, it'd be funny." she argued, Ty Lee clapping her hands together.
"Hey, hey, I have an idea to make you laugh." she decided, Azula glancing back her way.
"And what would that be?"
"Well... I'm wondering what really makes you laugh. Winning... maybe." she guessed, the Princess shrugging her shoulders.
"I am not amused by victory." she clarified, "I am amused by others failing miserably."
"Things going the wrong way for others." Sokka observed her thought-pattern, "I can see why."
"What's that supposed to mean, savage?" she retorted, not liking his commentary; she could find humour in things just for the sake of them being funny, without there needing to be some reason why.
"Well, you've experienced some pretty bad failures yourself. When others stuff up, it's funny." he acknowledged, before smirking, "Oh, I know what you'll laugh at." he explained, before squinting his left eye shut, "Well, Princess, I think our victory will be great. All those savages, they think their wall will save them... I have something more powerful than anything they have." he imitated Zhao, using a pompous voice that certainly didn't sound much like him, but the tone of arrogance fit the Admiral like a charm.
She held back a laugh, "Okay, that's a decent imitation, I'll give you that."
"So, let me just tell you a little about what happened a few weeks ago at the North Pole." he decided, "I had decided to hide in a pantry while I awaited Zhao and his men, knowing they'd come for the Spirit Oasis." he explained something she'd already learned on the day, "When they arrived, there was some waterbender who froze the entrance of the Spirit Oasis shut. And obviously, Mister Big Admiral wasn't in a very good mood, after you shot his airship out of the sky."
He cleared his throat, "And it went something like this:" he prefaced his speech, before he flared his teeth and raised his hands up, "Oh, so you think that will stop me?!" he declared loudly, which seemed to confuse the guards, who turned around to watch his speech, "Nobody can stop me! Not any other you dirty savages, nor the Princess. I'm going to achieve my destiny!" he proclaimed, taking a moment to breathe, before he continued his pompous speech, "And after I've killed the moon, I'll go for the Fire Lord next. That little bastard will pay for what he did to my eye!" he pointed to his closed eye, the Princess trying her hardest to keep a straight face, given how well his imitation was going; it was rather ironic given what had happened to Zhao after all that.
"And then what happened?" Ty Lee asked, the Water Tribe warrior smirking.
"Oh, well, he and his men set out to melt the ice blocking the doorway, but they didn't realise I was there. Wearing my armour, I stepped out, and pretended to be one of Zhao's subordinates, injured in the fighting." he explained, before making a pained face, "Urgh... Admiral, the Avatar's already at the palace doors." he used a deeper voice, presumably what he had when he was actually pretending to be a soldier, "And then, of all the things the idiot could have said:" he prefaced the next thing the Admiral said, "We need to melt this stupid ice quicker! Are you ready to fight?"
Azula scoffed at his words realising what had to come next; Sokka raised his fist into the air, "Aha! I win!"
"Okay, fair enough. I assume you punched him right in face after he said that."
"In the throat specifically. He looked like was going to shit himself when he saw my face." he explained, before making a panicked, fearful face, "Like this." he pointed to his expression, the Princess snickering; she wished she could have seen that in person, as it might have made her feel all the more superior to her opponent, who had failed at the last chance he had to attain his victory and kill the moon spirit.
"I'm disappointed I missed seeing that myself." she acknowledged, "Now you're just making me feel jealous."
The Water Tribesman smirked at her, obviously proud that he had got her to laugh, "See, I told you. I got you to laugh."
"That you did... I bet I can make you laugh in five seconds." she declared, thinking of something that her boyfriend would find amusing.
"Oh, really?" he quipped, raising his hands up toward her, gesturing for her to begin, "Go ahead, your highness."
"Well... I just realised I've been craving something." she admitted, the Water Tribe teen furrowing a brow.
"Sea prunes. Gran-Gran's sea prunes." she simply told him, and as she expected, his lips scrunched up as he struggled to hold back a laugh.
"O-oh... really?" he asked her, almost nervous to hear what she had to say next; she was sure that he would break after what she had to say.
"Yeah, I've suddenly got the craving to be your igloo-wife." she joked, though with a straight, dead-serious expression, and he snorted, cackling at her declaration.
"Bawahahahaǃ" he bellowed at her joke, "Oh, oh, that's a good one, Azula."
Ty Lee was looking her way with a concerned look on her face, "Uh, Azula, you're not being serious, are you?"
"I'm Azula. Does that sound like something I'd ever do?" she asked, the acrobat narrowing her eyes at her.
"I mean... I don't know." she admitted, making the Princess look at her, concerned that she could even think that would be a reasonable outcome; she was a Princess, not a peasant, no matter how long she had stayed at the South Pole for.
Sokka looked at her confused face and snorted, "Ohǃ You hear that, Azula?" he quipped, making her cover her face with embarrassment.
"I don't actually want to do that, Sokka. I'm the rightful Fire Lordǃ" she retorted, perhaps a little more angry than she ought to have reasonably been; her overreaction caught neither of them by surprise, Ty Lee pointing to her with a suspicious look.
"Why so defensive?"
"Shut up, you." she snarled, "It was just a joke. It worked... but clearly you took it the wrong way."
"I didn't take it the wrong way... you're just saying things that make a little too much sense." Ty Lee argued in return, Sokka trying to hold back a laugh.
"Uh, Ty Lee, she will firebend at you. I'm warning you." he stressed, obviously not wanting the two of them to start a fight.
"You ought to listen to him, Ty." she narrowed her eyes at her friend, "I'm willing to go to great lengths to protect my dignity." she warned her friend, who didn't seem fazed in the slightest.
"Okay..." the Water Tribesman mumbled, glancing back and forth at both of them, "Are we going to not throw fists? I mean, I have no problem sparring, but we're in the middle of riding down the road."
"You raise a good point, Sokka." she agreed with him, "We can't fight." she conceded, "So, Ty Lee, how about you shut up, unless it's your turn to laugh... which it is." she reminded her friend, who made a smug grin.
"Oh, okay. Try your best." she told her, the Princess narrowing her eyes in thought; she didn't want to take the game that seriously, but winning was her aim, in the end.
Ty Lee was humoured by things any other person would be; that meaning, her sense of humour was rather wide, which meant it would be easy for Azula to get her to laugh, if she could only figure out something undoubtedly funny. She tried to imagine a scenario where her friend would laugh, and most of them happened to be physical humour, where something unfortunate happened to somebody else. Azula had said that she herself would be amused by Sokka falling off his saddle, and she guessed that Ty Lee would laugh at things like that too, though she was more inclined to innocent, harmless humour; thinking of that made her think of when Mai and Zuko had fallen into the fountain on top of each other- that was rather funny, though they didn't think so, given they clearly liked each other.
"So, do you have any ideas?" Sokka leaned over toward her, whispering as he asked her, the Princess rolling her eyes.
"Come up with your own." she suggested, before she glanced back ahead, trying to think of something.
Suddenly, out of the nowhere, she heard the sound of a horn being blown; she knew that she had guards on either end of the group armed with them after what had happened with the earthbenders, so she immediately knew something was wrong. She could tell that the horn was blown behind her, so Azula immediately pulled on the reins of her komodo rhino, turning her gaze to Sokka.
"Well, something's gone wrong." she concluded, "If the damn army has tailed us out of Shengchang, then we're in for a fight."
"That would just ruin my day, honestly." he simply gave his opinion on the matter, before he pulled his boomerang out of its holster, glancing back behind them, "Should we get off our komodo rhinos?"
"No. We don't need to." she decided, "If it's not earthbenders, then we shouldn't have an issue."
Suddenly, she heard a shout, and she saw flames soaring up into the air in the distance; the fight had begun, and she had no idea who they were facing. Azula pulled on the reins of her komodo rhino, forcing it to turn around; it growled and seemed annoyed by her prodding, but accepted her command nonetheless. She then readied her right hand, creating a blue torch under her fist, while holding the reins with her left hand; though she couldn't see the enemy yet, she had a feeling they were coming for her. There were only two reasons, in her opinion, they could be followed and attacked for, which was to be robbed, or to capture her, and seeing that the cart of weapons was at the front of their convoy of komodo rhinos, in either case, they'd have to come toward her.
"Everyone, take formationsǃ" she called on her guards, who did the same as she had, turning their komodo rhinos around and readying some flames in hand.
Sokka and Ty Lee both seemed concerned about what might come their way, but they didn't relent to follow her as she prodded her komodo rhino to move forward. She suddenly heard what sounded like a small explosion, and she turned her gaze to her boyfriend, who was equally concerned about it.
"What kind of people are going to have bombs?" he asked her, the Princess narrowing her eyes in thought.
"Elite soldiers... or perhaps, bounty hunters." she guessed, the look on his face shifting to one of annoyance.
"Nobody's taking anybody's bounty today." he declared, already deciding that victory was necessary; she appreciated his resolve, and turned her gaze ahead, feeling confident that whoever they were about to face, they would be victorious.
There were more small explosions after the one she heard first, and shouts and cries, though it was hard to discern if it was her guards being hurt or the enemy. She watched as she saw the flames spurting into the air get closer, and watched her guards who were presently being attacked turn themselves around, though many of them were forced from their komodo rhinos as their steeds had presumably been startled by the explosions she had heard. Some of them moved back toward her and the others, as she saw that they seemed rather panicked in their stances.
"Your highnessǃ It's bounty huntersǃ" one of them warned her, the Princess spinning her right hand around, charging some flames in her open palm.
"At least two dozen of them." he warned, the Princess narrowing her eyes; that was quite a few, given she had only ten guards with her, and the enemy was likely going to be a varied threat with multiple types of weapons, not to mention firebenders.
"They will regret trying to take me." she declared with confidence, knowing that bounty hunters would be little threat to her, though clearly their numbers might pose a danger to the group as a whole, given they and their komodo rhinos could be injured, which would slow down their march back east to her base of operations.
She watched as a bomb went off, frightening a komodo whino, which threw its rider off of the saddle; he shouted out, and grunted as he hit the gravel road, Azula's attention turning to the bounty hunters who were rushing toward them on foot. A few firebenders immediately took form, moving in synchronisation to send fire streams toward Azula and her guards, who all bent their own flames toward the enemy in return. The flames crashed together, creating a swirling mass of flames that exploded upward into the sky above them, as well as to the sides, catching a few nearby trees and bushes alight.
"Move forward, take out the benders first. Then we'll clean the rest up." she ordered Sokka and Ty Lee, who both jumped off of their komodo rhinos, given it would be impossible to chi-block when they couldn't reach their opponents.
They both dashed forward, and when the flames dissipated they were able to aim right at the firebenders, who clearly hadn't been expecting the attacks; the pair easily chi-blocked the enemy, and though some of them tried to firebend at them, they were agile enough to move around them and block their bending before they had a chance to hit them. Another few firebenders rushed forward to attack them, and Sokka distracted them with his boomerang for a moment; that was all the guards and Azula needed to conjure more fire streams, which soared all toward the same targets, crashing together to create a massive explosion of flames, forcing the firebenders back,a dnc resting a temporary wall of flames between her forces and the bounty hunters.
The few guards who had been injured or forced to dismount all moved back to stand in formation with the two chi-blockers, who were ready to take down the enemy as soon as the flames cleared up. When they did, Azula was surprised to see a number of men charging forward right at the group, some of them wielding pikes, while the others were armed with swords; the attacking party rushed toward them, and lunged at the guards and two friends, who were able to hold them off, though they were forced to take defensive formations. The two chi-blockers defended themselves from the weapons, and Sokka was able to use his club effectively as a defence against the enemy, who didn't seem to be push-overs when it came to using weapons. The weapon-wielders were backed up by the firebenders, who created fire whips, which caught the pair by surprise, though Azula's guards were more than capable of dissipating their attacks.
She charged a fireball in her hand, and commanded her men to follow in suit, "Fire!"
Each of them conjured their own fireballs, which grew to massive sizes as they readied them to be launched at the enemy; a few moments later, they let their attacks loose, shooting the fireballs across their allies, and right at the enemy firebenders, who struggled to hold back the attacks. Azula pursed her lips upwards, confident that she was already winning; she raised her right hand up once more, and decided to call on her guards once more, knowing that they couldn't give up until the enemy was on the run.
"Again!" she commanded, charging another fireball in her hand; she kept her gaze focused upon Ty Lee and Sokka, standing in the middle of the group ahead of her, holding back the enemy fighters, who they were able to pick off and chi-block one by one.
She sent her attack at the enemy once more, and so did her men; the enemy seemed more than intimidated by her firebending, and the firebenders raised up a wall of flames to protect themselves and their comrades, though she was sure it wouldn't hold back her guards for long. Once the wall of flames was parted by her guards' firebending, she was confused to see that the enemy had drawn back, not even trying to defend themselves from her guards' fire streams, which soared ahead, striking the enemy as they tried to get away.
"What a bunch of cowards." she scoffed at their willingness to flee already, given there was no real suggestion the enemy were losing the fight yet; she was sure she would come out victorious, but that didn't excuse the enemy's cowardice.
She glanced up ahead, and noted that there were a few men standing ready behind the fleeing soldiers, and assumed that they were about to come in and fight instead of their comrades; Azula readied her hand once more, aiming it so she would hit them once they came forward to fight. Suddenly, however, they all tossed what she knew had to be explosives, and she only had a split second to give out a command.
"Wall of flames!" she commanded her guards ahead of her, who moved into stance as the explosives were tossed their way; the wall of flames came up just as the explosives went off, hitting the ground just before they were set off, spurting up dirt and smoke into the air.
Azula was confused, realising that the explosives hadn't seemed to have made much of an effect in terms of damage, but clearly caused a lot of smoke and dust to spread around, obscuring Sokka, Ty Lee and her guards from view. She grit her teeth, knowing that she could assist them, but she knew that she was safer commanding from afar; part of her knew that victory could only be attained by her hand, and another part knew she was obliged to help her comrades. For once, it seemed that her father's teachings about strength and her understandings of camaraderie and respect that she had learned from Sokka had coincided; without any further deliberation, she leapt off of her komodo rhino, and turned her gaze to her guards behind her for a moment.
"Cover me!" she commanded them, before sprinting on into the cloud of smoke.
Her vision quickly became constrained, and the smoke caused her eyes to hurt, making her want to force them shut, so she compromised by closing her left. She could hear shouts and cries ahead of her, and the sound of flames moving around, like a violent wind gust; Azula saw a few of her guards, who were moving back toward her, though not because they were thinking she could defend them. There were a number of men running in wearing masks, presumably to hold off the smoke, some of them armed with axes, others with blades, while some were unarmed, throwing fireballs at the guards.
The Princess immediately threw her hands forward, creating two fire streams, which burst from her palms and flew right into the enemy; once she had knocked them back, she was forced to stop bending, coughing as she covered her mouth. The fumes from the smoke obviously weren't good for her, and she knew she'd have to deal with them while she fought off and defeated the bounty hunters. Her guards were struggling to bend effectively with all the smoke, but they were holding their own. She didn't know where Sokka and Ty Lee were, but she couldn't imagine they were facing any better chances than herself.
She glanced up toward the enemy, and decided to aim for one of them, knowing if she could steal one of their masks, she could keep the smoke out of her lungs; she reached forward, forming a fire whip which grappled him by the arm, before she intensified her flames, causing the whip to burn through his sleeve, making the bounty hunter cry out with pain. Another bounty hunter came at her with an axe, and she moved out of the way of his swing, though he decided to put his axe back onto his belt; they obviously didn't want to hurt their prize, but she would make it as hard as possible for them to capture her.
He reached out and grabbed her by the arm, and she reflexively threw her fist forward into his gut, winding him and throwing him down to the ground. She turned her attention to the bounty hunter she'd already hurt, and spun her hands around, creating a narrow arc of flames which she used to cut through the man's robes, making him lurch as he struggled with the pain. She had little care for his suffering, knowing that he stood in the way of her victory, which would require the mask on his face.
"Give up." she decided to warn him, before he tried to firebend at her, the Princess catching his flame covered fist with her palm left; because of the smoke, she found it harder than usual to dissipate his flames, and stomached the pain from the burn she had just received, uppercutting him with her right fist.
With her opponent in a daze, she grabbed him by the neck, allowing her to rip the mask off of his face; he coughed and cringed from inhaling the smoke as he slumped down to the ground, clearly pained from the beating he had received. As she moved to put the mask over her own face, she was struck by a fireball in the side; given her armour was designed, like most Fire Nation armour, to be non-flammable, it didn't worry her, though the force of the hit threw her down to the ground, and forced the mask out of her hands.
The smoke was draining her energy, as she found it harder to breath, with a near burning sensation all down her throat; Azula knew that she had to get the mask on, but the enemy was her first priority. She snarled, kicking her left foot up to send a fireball out of her sole, hitting her attacker square in the chest. Another bounty hunter, armed with a chain, which she assumed to be for ensnaring her came her way, and she almost wanted to laugh; she could cut through steel with her firebending, though she assumed that wasn't the only precaution they had in mind.
"Try it." she prodded him, the man throwing his chain, which was looped in the middle, right toward her, and she pulled her arm through the loop, allowing him to tighten the chain and hold her arm in place; he looked rather proud of himself as he shunted on the chain, pulling her closer- he didn't realise, however, her intent was to make sure she was close enough to beat him in one hit.
She lunged forward, punching him in the head, before she grabbed him by the neck, forcing his nose right down into her knee; in the few moments he spent dazed from the hit, she cut his mask off making him cough as he struggled to breathe due to the fumes. She formed a bright blue torch in her left hand, and though she was a little dazed from the smoke, she didn't miss when she swung her fist across his face, her torch burning his eyes, making him scream out in pain; as he dropped to the ground, writhing in agony, she moved the torch across the chain around her arm, cutting herself loose.
The other bounty hunters didn't seem discouraged by her small victory, and rushed at her, intent on doing what they had yet failed to. Azula swung her right leg up, and with her foot, bent a small wall of flames, narrow enough to conserve her energy, but strong enough to block her opponents while she moved to grab the mask she had dropped a few moments earlier. She picked it up, and pulled it over her face, before tying the bands around the back of her scalp; when the enemy got to her, she didn't relent to swing her right arm up, the metal chain that was still bound to it whipping the enemy in the jaw, audibly breaking it, before she let flames course down her arm, and onto the chain, setting it alight.
"You made a big mistake." she warned them through the mask she was wearing, taking a long, deep breath as she realised she could breathe normally again; she felt her inner fire grow brighter, and smiled under the mask, knowing that she was now capable of destroying her opponents thoroughly.
She spun the flame covered chain around, smacking a sword out of one of the bounty hunters hands, before she moved forward charging flames in her left palm before she threw her flame covered fist into one of the enemy. Her guards were taking advantage of Azula's beatdown by moving to surround the remaining bounty hunters who were trying their hardest to capture her. She saw one of them draw out another bomb, and she didn't know whether it was a smoke bomb or an actual explosive, so she hit its wielder with the chain in the leg, forcing him down to his knee. She then grabbed the bomb out of his hands, before tossing it away into the woods to her right. It exploded, and it made a clear booming noise; realising the man intended to kill them, she immediately spun around, ripping the mask off of his face. He coughed and sputtered as he inhaled the fumes, before she kicked him down, leaving him for her guards to deal with.
"Get her!" one of the bounty hunters pointed her way, and she shot a fire stream out of her hand, striking said bounty hunter square in the chest, throwing him down onto the gravel road; she glanced back and saw that her other guards were moving into the smoke as well, intent on taking down the enemy.
"Take their masks." she pointed down to a few of the men she'd already beaten, before she spun her right leg around, flames coursing out in an arc which forced the enemy to duck down.
She then threw the chain forward once more, hitting one of the men in the shoulder before she reignited the flames on the chain, tossing it across the other bounty hunters who had to jump back, lest they find themselves set alight. Without any more time to spare, she swung her left hand down onto the chain bound on her forearm, cutting it, and allowing herself to run on past the bounty hunters, who were rather preoccupied with her guards, who were using firebending to cage them into a fight they clearly wouldn't win. She, however, was less concerned about beating them, and more so focused on finding Sokka and Ty Lee, who she still hadn't seen yet.
The Princess charged forward into the smoke, toward the sound of fighting; she didn't know what state the pair would be in, but she had to assume the worst. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a bounty hunter came rushing toward her, though he clearly wasn't running to her, but rather, away from somebody else. She tripped him over with a fireball to his shin, before jabbing him in the back of the head, knocking him out cold. She glanced around, and noted that there were no enemies coming her way just yet. She continued pace ahead, cautiously listening out for the sound of fighting, and noted an eerie silence. When she made sight of a few downed bounty hunters, she smirked, seeing proof that the other two had fought the enemy off; Azula knelt down, grabbing one of the soldier's by the neck, noting that his mask had been taken off.
"Where are they?" she asked the bounty hunter, who coughed, and failed to cover his mouth, as his arm was still limp, presumably due to chi-blocking, "Answer me, or I'll burn your face off." she threatened him, before she heard a shout in the distance.
"Azula, is that you?" she heard Sokka calling out toward her, the Princess glancing over her shoulder to see that the Water Tribesman was standing nearby, with a mask over his face, "Thank the spirits you're here."
"Something's wrong." she deduced, before eyeing past him, "Where's Ty Lee?" she asked her boyfriend, who looked around in all directions.
"I can't find her. I think one of them got her. The smoke was really getting to her." he explained, the Princess narrowing her eyes at the man she had been threatening.
"You took his mask." she realised, before standing up tall, knowing that her priority was to ensure that Ty Lee was safe; she would be a terrible leader and a dishonourable friend if she didn't come to her aid, wherever she was, "Let's find Ty Lee."
He nodded, and with that, the two of them began to pace on down the road, Azula keeping her focus ahead of them, where she could hear footsteps; suddenly, she heard a whole lot more footsteps, on all sides. She thought for a moment that it was her guards catching up, and she did hear one of them shout out, sounding clearly concerned.
"Princess?! What do you do with her?!" she could hear her guards accusing the enemy, which confused he, given there were no bounty hunters dbehind her, from the best of her knowledge; she didn't know how many bounty hunters had looped around her, and felt frustrated at herself for letting it happen- the smoke was a perfect cover for their flanking.
Five men came rushing at her and Sokka from all directions, and a few fireballs were tossed their way, the Princess deflecting them while her boyfriend drew out his boomerang, quickly tossing it into the head of one of their attackers. More men joined the five who had appeared out of the smoke, and Azula began to realise that there was a reason Ty Lee had been taken; it was so the enemy could surround her and trap her. They probably didn't realise she would be wearing a mask, however, which made their little smoke trick worthless, as she could bend effortlessly, though the mask did force her to take swallower breaths, limiting the amount of fire she could conjure in a single breath. That didn't worry her as she and Sokka stood back to back, holding off the enemy together; although she wouldn't admit it, given the circumstances, but fighting with him was something she truly enjoyed.
Despite their numbers, the bounty hunters' swords and axes were no match for his chi-blocking skills, as well as his club, which shielded both of them from firebending. She kept up her offensive, knowing that she couldn't relent, lest the enemy get close enough to try and trap her with chains again; she kept her left hand up, creating a fire shield which coiled around her whole left arm, allowing her to block weapons and firebending alike, while she used her right hand to create fireballs which she fired off in quick succession, hitting her opponents' extremities. One of the bounty hunters charged at her, ducking under her attacks, attempting to tackle her, though she grasped Sokka by the shoulder, switching their positions, so her boyfriend could jab the man in the gut, blocking his chi before he whacked him in the head with his club.
"Aha, take that!" he proclaimed, proud of their fighting so far, before he began to move forward, weaving around the fireballs that came his way, before he disarmed one of the sword-wielding enemies.
Azula noted in the corner of her eye as he used the sword in his left hand, while wielding his club in his right, using both to defend himself, while she raised a wall of flames in front of herself to block the enemy from reaching her. She turned to face her boyfriend, and grasped his left hand, sending flames up the blade of the sword.
"Make a good show." she simply requested, the Water Tribesman smirking as he turned around, ducking under a fireball before he swung the flame-covered sword at one of the bounty hunters, who lunged back in fear.
With Sokka providing a useful distraction for the enemy, she turned her attention back the way they had been walking earlier, and decided she needed to find her friend before she could help her, "Ty Lee!" she called out her friend's name, "Where are you?!"
A few moments later, after having raised her hands up to create two walls of fire, giving her a clear path ahead, she heard her friend's voice, "Zula! I'm h-" she shouted out, before suddenly her voice was muffled' her assumptions were proved correct- Ty lee was being held captive by the enemy, and it was up to her to go assist her friend.
"Keep them occupied, Sokka." she simply requested of her boyfriend who nodded, a slightly worried look on his face.
"Go be the hero." he simply told her, before turning around, readying his club in hand to fight off the bounty hunters; usually when he'd say something like that, he was usually mocking her, but at that very moment, that was quite obviously what he wanted her to do- Ty Lee was his friend too, even if she was annoying at times and too flirty for her own good.
She charged in the direction of her friend's voice, trusting Sokka to do what was necessary while she did what she had to help her friend. Quickly enough, she reached what seemed like the edge of the cloud of smoke, which had been spreading and slowly getting thinner over time, and made sight of Ty Lee, who was being held down by a bounty hunter who held a knife against her throat. Another man had some flames charged in his right palm, aiming it right over her face, ensuring that even if she chi-blocked him, he would burn her face, and from the looks of how bright the flames were, it would not be a grazing burn.
"Don't step any closer, or I'll cut her throat!" the bounty hunter warned her, edging his hand closer to her neck, "Finally, we've fucking got you!"
"Oh, is that what you think this is?" she scoffed at his words, raising her hands up, indicating that she wouldn't attack, "I recommend you let her go." she warned them, the two bounty hunters looking at each other with skeptical faces.
"And why would we do that?" the firebender asked her, Azula keepibng as straight face as she responded to his rather stupid retort.
"Because I will kill you if you even get a drop of blood from her neck." she warned them, "And if you do kill her, I will kill every single one of your comrades, and send their mutilated bodies back to Shengchang, so my brother can go look at them and realise how much of an idiot he is." she explained her intentions as clearly as she could.
"Really?" the one holding a knife against her friend's neck looked at her with a surprised face, "Well that makes this a whole easier. You're going to come with us. If you don't, we'll kill your friend."
"I don't negotiate with anyone." she retorted, pointing her right hand toward him, "Drop the knife, and I'll make this easier for you."
"No." he retorted, before glancing behind himself, "Get the chains! She won't move. Turns out Princess Azula has a conscience." he assured his comrades, a few of which began to approach Azula, who sighed, knowing she couldn't reasonably attack yet; she decided that to ensure her friend didn't get her throat slit, she would play along with the demands she was receiving.
"To your knees!" one of the bounty hunters demanded, the one with the knife looking at her with a cold, serious glare, to assure her that he wasn't joking around as he held the blade to her friend's neck.
The Princess dropped down to her knees, and eyed Ty Lee, who was looking at her intently, clearly afraid, though that did not mean she lacked determination; she made a slight nod, understanding that Azula was going to provide her 'capture' as a distraction. It was the only way the enemy would become calm and careless enough for her friend to defeat them; it wouldn't be that hard- she only needed two seconds, and she would have chi-blocked them both.
"Don't you dare move." one of the bounty hunters warned, covering his hands with flames, "Or I'll singe your eyebrows off."
"Careful there. I'm sure your reward will be reduced if there's a scratch on me." she warned them, making the bounty hunters look at each other with slightly concerned faces, before one of them put shackles on her hands, before a chain was tied around her torso, forcing her hands closer to her torso, the chain wrapped around her, all the way to her feet, where it was looped over itself.
The man holding a knife smirked, and pulled Ty Lee up to her feet, "Ah, now she can't attack us." he declared, "Good luck bending when you can't move your arms and legs."
The bounty hunters lifted her up, and she let herself smile, knowing that with Ty Lee now on her own two feet, she could attack them, even if her own hands were bound. One of them pulled the mask Azula had on her face off, tossing it to the ground. She could still smell the fumes, but they were a lot less potent than they had been earlier; she wanted to laugh, knowing they'd just doomed themselves by freeing her mouth.
"Did you all forget your firebending basics?" she asked them, their eyes looking toward her, some of them taking firebending forms.
"Of course we didn't." one of them retorted, "You can't even move. It would be pointless to try."
"You obviously did forget. Firebending doesn't come from your muscles, but from your breath." she explained, before opening her jaw wide, letting a fire stream course out, firing it right into the man who had been holding Ty Lee captive; he was thrown to the ground, and before the firebender beside him could attack her friend, she flicked her right foot up, jabbing him in the gut, disabling his bending before he could land a hit.
Azula gleefully grinned for a moment, before she fell back-first to the ground, raising her bound legs up to shoot a fire stream out of her heels, hitting the men to tried to go and restrain her friend, who was quickly dodging about, aiming to reach her friend. When she got close enough, she raised her bound hands up into the air, and the Princess shot a thin stream of flames into the metal bindings; she seemed to be pained from the heat, but the bindings shattered open, and she immediately chi-blocked the men who tried to tackle her. Azula didn't even need to fight, and simply watched as her friend gave them a well-deserved beat down.
"Get them!" she heard the Captain shout out behind her, and she leaned her head back to see him and Sokka leading the guards right towards them, clearly intent on taking the remaining bounty huners down.
One of them was confident, or perhaps simply desperate, and leapt at Azula, holding a blade toward her chest, "Call them off!" he demanded, before he was struck in the head by Sokka's boomerang, knocked out cold.
She snickered at the turn of events, and watched as her guards approached, surrounding her as they attacked the bounty hunters, burning them and throwing them to the ground, preventing whatever escape they might have had in mind. Her guards then sent flames down onto the chain that was tied around her body, shattering it in multiple positions, allowing her to pull herself off of the ground, confident that they were victorious. The last part came with a few desperate bounty hunters charging at her, sending fire streams into her guards, probably hoping to beat them back so they could restrain her again. They never got the chance, as she let out a fire stream out of her bound palms, and created a wall of flames between her and the bounty hunters, the mixture of orange and blue flames coursing up into the sky above them. A moment later, one of her guards grasped her by the left hand, and though she usually would reflexively tell them to not touch her, she was simply pleased to see them cut her bindings with their firebending.
"I feel like we've been here before, your highness." he commented, the Princess recalling his name to be Shan.
"Yes. That was when we took over a whole battleship." she recalled, making Shan smirk, obviously understanding that they had won the fight, just as they had that one, despite the best efforts of Zhao's loyalists
She then thrust her hands forward, dissipating all the flames between her group and the bounty hunters, and she saw Ty Lee, who had one of the bounty hunters grappled by the neck, with his face bruised and bloodied.
"That's enough, Ty Lee." she simply told her friend as she approached the remaining bounty hunters, who cowered in fear as her guards stood around them; her friend stood to the side, letting the man fall to the ground.
"What did I say I was going to do to you all?" she asked them rhetorically before she grabbed the man she had beaten by the shoulders, glancing back momentarily toward Sokka, wanting a feel for his opinion on what she was about to do- he simply nodded, and she glanced down at the man, "Eh, I don't even need to kill you all. I prefer lessons." she explained, before creating a bright blue torch in her right hand, glancing down at the man, who had been the one to hold her friend with a knife by her neck, "You're all so weak and pitiful." she looked at him, disappointed that anyone would try to oppose her in such a fashion- they didn't even give up when they should have, which was immediately.
"You're the weak one." he scoffed, "You lost your spine." he chided her, the Princess snarling slightly before she ran the torch on her fist over his left eye, burning his face, and blinding him in that eye; his screams of agony did not bring her pleasure, but she was willing to do what she had to prove her point; those who came for her, and for her friends, would suffer a fate unlike any other.
"Burn out one eye each. That should be enough of a warning to the rest." she explained, before raising a finger up into the air to specify her request, "Always the left."
"Wait." Sokka stepped forward, a look of suspicion on his face, "Is this your idea of a joke?" he asked; he had seen her brother's face, after all.
"This is my idea of showing my brother that he's a weak little coward. If he had any guts, he'd come here and fight me himself." she decided, before slamming her fist into the man's face, shutting up his cries and whimpers.
The other bounty hunters seemed clearly seemed intimidated by her order, and those that weren't paralysed from Sokka's chi-blocking tried their best to get away; she shot one of them with a fire blast in the chest, keeping him down, before she turned around to face her guards.
"Did I stutter?!" she questioned them, the men moving forward at once; she then turned around to face Ty Lee, who had cuts on her arms, and blood coming out of her mouth.
"Th-thanks, Zula." she acknowledged her help, before glancing behind her toward the men who were about to be maimed, "I guess you're still yourself." she acknowledged, "Thank the spirits."
"Princess Azula didn't die at Yu Dao." she assured her, before turning her gaze to her boyfriend, who seemed rather uneased by what she had just ordered her men to do, "She simply decided to hold back against those who did not deserve her fury."
"And what happens to Zuko? Or Ozai?" he asked her bluntly, the Princess crossing her arms; the answer had not changed, and she had non intention to do so- her brother was the reason the bounty hunters were there in the first place, and thus, the reason they'd be losing their left eyes.
"If they come anywhere near you." she stepped closer to him, grasping him by the shoulder, "They'll wish you drowned in the Eastern Sea, Sokka." she assured him, the Water Tribesman making a nervous laugh, before looked at her with a slightly confused face.
"I'm pretty sure your father thinks that already."
The shaking caused by the engine and rapid motion of the tank-train around Iroh was quite frustrating, to say the least; he was struggling to enjoy a simple cup of tea, the kind of thing that he found to be most frustrating. Tea was meant to be simple, but when one was in a machine that had no care for the natural movements expected of any living creature, then it came as no surprise it conflicted with his most regular of activities, barring sleeping and eating. The former General would have preferred to have been taking a nap instead of sitting down to discuss actual matters relating to his trip, but given he wasn't the Fire Lord, it wasn't his choice to make; Zuko wanted him to go to Omashu, so, being the loyal and considerate uncle he was, he did just that. He didn't want to interrupt his nephew's honeymoon, after all, as he had gone to Ember Island with Lady Mai.
He wished the very best for the couple, but couldn't help but wish they'd chosen a different time for their wedding. He and his nephew had already discussed numerous times the threats that were posing his regime, and it was becoming apparent that they'd have to take decisive action sooner or later. General Mak, who was the attache coming with Iroh to provide advice on military affairs, was presently sitting with him, enjoying a cup of tea, just to break up the monotony of discussing the present affairs that were facing their forces in the Earth Kingdom, and that was before they considered the meeting in Omashu.
He hadn't seen King Bumi in many years, but was sure the old king had the support necessary to facilitate a peaceful turnover of the city, which was in the best interests of all parties. Iroh knew that Governor Ukano wasn't happy about losing his job, but Zuko had already sent him assurances that he had a ministerial position awaiting him in the capital, providing him with good reason to cooperate, not even considering the fact his daughter was now the Fire Lady.
"This is very good tea, General." Mak acknowledged the cup of jasmine he had been drinking, "Might I ask, how did you become so skilled at making tea? It doesn't seem like something your tutors would have taught you when you were young."
"It was a hobby at first. Tea is very calming, and was a good way to bond with my subordinates while on campaign."
"Oh..." he the General's eyes widened, before chuckling, "So, are you going to bond with me?"
"Well, I'm always willing to make new friends, General." he acknowledged, before narrowing his eyes, "So, back to the matter at hand. You were mentioning the colonial garrisons."
"Ah, yes. The Fire Lord's martial law order in Yu Dao has remained in place, and the populace seem content with the reconstruction project after battle a few months ago." he explained, "It has cost the government much, I assume, but there is a firm control over the city and its environs."
"So, General Shinu's men have been able to handle that well, I assume." he guessed, "There hasn't been any attacks from my brother's loyalists?"
"No. They've mostly cleared out of the area, given the amount of soldiers we have there." he assured him, "Ozai's loyalists do, however, have a presence to the south, in the Hu Xin provinces."
"So, perhaps we ought to head there after the meeting, and see what can be done about them." he acknowledged, the younger General nodding.
"I believe that would be a good idea, General." he agreed, "Our forces still have firm control over the southern provinces of the Earth Kingdom, and the coastal colonies in this region. Inland is a different story."
"I assume Bumi's forces have posed some issue."
"Patrols have been kicked back when trying to go any further east than Omashu, and I've heard reports of sandbender tribes raiding convoys moving to the southern provinces. The sea routes, however, are even more contentious. The Southern Raiders have captured five ships in the past two months." he explained with an uneasy face, "Impressing our sailors into their ranks, and forcing them on their 'expeditions'."
"The Fire Lord voiced his disgust on those matters to me." he explained, recalling how furious Zuko had been when he had learned of their enslavement of Earth Kingdom and Water Tribe commoners to build weapons and infrastructure for Ozai's loyalists in the region, "Admiral Liang's forces are being refocused to deal with them as we speak."
"And, with any luck, the Southern Raider fleet will be sunk to the bottom of the Southern Sea by spring's end." he explained, "However, Admiral Zhao's fleet has continued to pose a threat to our naval blockade. They haven't been able to reach the colonies yet, but they continue to harass the northern wing of Liang's fleet, and threaten our supply runs to the northernmost colonies."
"Well, it is good news that the Fire Lord is planning to have those colonists withdrawn to Garsai Province." he acknowledged, "They will be safe there, from Earth Kingdom renegades and Zhao's goons alike." he explained, before narrowing his eyes, "Well, they're technically not Zhao's anymore. Have you been informed of what occurred at the North Pole?"
"Just rumours, General." he acknowledged, "I heard the Avatar and your niece fought the Admiral there."
"He has been made a prisoner of the Northern Water Tribe, according to my contacts, and... supposedly, my niece has been intervening in Water Tribe politics."
"By forcing the Chief to relinquish control over the Southern Water Tribe." he recalled what Pakku had told him his latest message, "Which makes sense, given the fact they've had little to no contact for the past sixty years."
"That'd be our fault, wouldn't it?" Mak grimaced, the former General nodding.
"My father's specifically, but yes." he acknowledged, before sipping from his teacup, realising what his niece was doing, whether intentionally or not; righting the wrongs of their family was something that he had tried to do himself, but Azula seemed to be achieving such an aspiration, far quicker and more effectively than he ever had, "I won't say my niece was wrong to do that."
"Well, a divided Water Tribe is probably better for the Fire Nation in the long run, isn't it?" the younger General asked him, "They would pose less of a threat to us, and we could earn the respect of the South by taking out the Southern Raiders. They're their biggest threat, after all."
"I am sure my nephew has something in mind for that group, and I assume his thinking is similar to yours on the matter." Iroh acknowledged, before placing his hands together, "You've heard about the Avatar's encounter at Crescent Island with some of Admiral Liang's forces, haven't you?"
"Yes, I have." Mak confirmed, "That probably ran counter to the Fire Lord's official policy, but he did attack them."
"That he did." the retired general nodded, "I assume that may have partly been my niece's doing, given she likely wants the Avatar as an ally against my nephew, and against me."
"But the Avatar is probably the only one who could... well, quickly clean up all this mess." he acknowledged, "Ozai's loyalists and a fractured Earth Kingdom are making a rather combustible situation; Omashu itself was under threat just under two months ago from some of Ozai's forces encroaching on the region."
"General Zhang." he recalled who had been leading that force, "He and his men were captured by King Bumi's forces along with the Avatar." he explained, before looking down, "My niece's rather unsavoury message wasn't taken very well in the palace."
"Sorry?" the young General raised a brow, "I'm confused. What message did she send?"
"She expressly suggested my nephew do indecent things to himself." he recalled, not wanting to repeat the message word-for-war, "He was not amused, to say the least."
"Well, he might be pleased to learn that the bounty we've held for her is still in place, and there are men looking for her across the Northern Earth Kingdom. She was last reported to have arrived along with the Avatar, according to our spies."
"How many men do we have in that base?"
"Only three." he clarified, "They're not in danger, because they've been sending their messages indirectly, through private messenger hawks."
"Well, I hope they don't do anything foolish. Aggravating my niece any further would not help us in the slightest." he acknowledged, "Even if we could capture her, I doubt the Avatar or any of her other allies would take it well. They might go after us in retaliation."
"Specifically, as in the high command and Fire Lord's cabinet?"
"Well, I'm sure they're not fools. If they wanted to overthrow the Fire Nation government, they'd know who to aim for." he admitted, knowing that his niece's knowledge of their nation's politics likely didn't merely remain in her head, but probably was explained to her allies, such as Sokka and the young Air Nomad Avatar she was travelling with.
"Do you know much about the Avatar, sir?" Mak asked, "Obviously... he seems to be closely associated with the people we're going to be speaking with."
"That he is. King Bumi informs me that the Avatar is a good friend of his, from before the war."
"Sorry... from before the war? But isn't he a child?"
"Supposedly he hasn't aged since then." he recalled the message he'd received from his old friend, "A young man of peaceful temperament and good humour. In the past month, he has mastered, or at least effectively learned waterbending." he explained what he had learned from Bumi and Pakku about the Avatar, whose name he recalled to be Aang.
"He sounds like a threat." Mak acknowledged, "How will we deal with him?"
"Diplomatically, I hope. My nephew explains that he would prefer to meet the boy and help strike out some kind of partnership, though... I personally doubt that's going to work with his friendship with Azula."
"Perhaps a truce with the Princess and her forces may be in order, at least for the sake of stopping Ozai's supporters from gaining any more ground."
"As much as I'd like that to happen, I doubt she'd trust us." Iroh conceded, "She has some good reasons to mistrust us, and we have good reason to believe she'll stop at nothing to get the throne. My nephew, her brother, could have killed her during their Agni Kai."
"Well, that is how duels can go." Mak noted, before grimacing, "Though between siblings... that is a bit extreme, I will admit."
"It was." he nodded, "The duel the Fire Lord had with his father was shorter, but similar in results. We're just luckier we were able to restrain and capture my brother before he had a chance to escape."
Mak looked away, perhaps just wondering how it all could have come to what it did; a son coming to fight his father, potentially to the death. It was a shocking fact of Zuko's life, and now a fact of Fire Nation history; he had become the Fire Lord, and his grip on the throne, though clear, was threatened in multiple directions. Iroh wished things could have gone more smoothly; if Azula had been in the capital instead of out on her mission to Ba Sing Se, perhaps they would have been able to defeat her then and there and stifle opposition to Zuko, instead of letting it fester and explode, causing chaos in the Earth Kingdom and instability across the homeland. Kidnappings and murders were not unheard of, and Iroh feared that his brother was orchestrating some of it, though perhaps not directly, given his position in a dark, gloomy cell under the palace.
"Ozai's loyalists are still a serious threat." Iroh acknowledged, placing his teacup down in front of him, "More so than my niece's." he added, before narrowing his eyes at Mak, "Do you have any reports of recent activity they've made in this area?"
"No, not really." he shook his head, "After General Zhang's army was shattered by the Avatar, there's been little activity around Omashu. I assume they're reorganising themselves before they try anything again." he noted, "I believe we should be safe. The Governor has a large number of men protecting his palace, and we have convoys ready to help the colonists withdraw."
"Well, if everything goes according to plan, it should only take us a few days to get everyone on the move. Disassembling the factories and allowing those refugees who fled to return will be handled by our transitional government." he explained simply what he knew was about to occur, "I hope that Governor Ukano and King Bumi can set aside their differences so the process goes along smoothly."
"That would be best for all parties involved." the young General agreed with his proposition, "We don't want a repeat of Ba Sing Se."
"Do we have any spies there?" he asked, curious if they had any recent intelligence from the city.
"Some spies amongst your niece's loyalists there have reported back about their circumstances. It's not looking very good for them- they only control the Outer Wall, as the city has fallen back to Dai Li control." he explained, "I know that is not our place to deal with such things, given we have no interest in maintaining control over the city, but I do believe they pose a threat to our withdrawals from the Earth Kingdom."
"I concur." the Dragon of the West nodded, finding Mak's judgement to be reasonable, "The Dai Li have a similar aspiration to my nephew when it comes to the Earth Kingdom, however, they clearly want to make sure they are on top at the end of this conflict... which wouldn't be good for the Earth Kingdom in the long-term."
"Perhaps sending some support to the Outer Wall to try and appease those men might work in our favour. They might see that working with us can help stop the Dai Li's plans, whatever they might be." the younger general suggested, "We may succeed in getting their support, and stymieing the Dai Li in one move. That's what my teachers at the academy would call playing Pai Sho well."
Iroh let out a little chuckle, "Oh, they were right to say that." he acknowledged, "It's my proverb, after all."
"Wait, seriously?" the General asked him, "I thought that was from some old military scholar."
"Well, I am an old military scholar." he gestured to himself, "When I visited the Capital Officer's Academy many years ago to help inspire the students, that was one of the things I told them- a little advice from an avid Pai Sho player."
"Well, uh, I guess we could play at some point." Mak suggested, "I'm not that good. People say I'm always too quick to make my moves."
"It's not about speed. You can be fast and effective, but only when your intentions are disguised. If your opponent knows exactly what you're doing then you're at a clear disadvantage." he explained, "At the moment, we have the advantage of the Fire Nation's intelligence apparatus against my brother and niece, but it has to remain secret for it to be effective."
"I assure you, sir, our agents take the greatest caution in reporting their findings." he assured him.
"I don't doubt that. You simply shouldn't underestimate my niece's intelligence and perceptiveness. She will be cautious to trust anyone and everyone with her plans." he acknowledged, "Or perhaps, she has changed."
"Whatever she may think, our operatives will remain on task." he stressed, "Just as we will. Even if Princess Azula has built rapport with King Bumi's entourage, that doesn't mean they will refuse to work with us." he acknowledged, "They have a goal, and we are the only ones who can provide them with their victory."
"That is quite true, General." Iroh nodded, thinking his judgement to be rather astute; he could see why Zuko had assigned him, given that any military man could have done the job- he chose someone who could complement his uncle intellectually, "We have more pieces than anyone else... that does not make us invulnerable, however."
"If there is danger coming our way, we will see it before it arrives." he stressed, picking up his teacup, "The Fire Lord has hundreds of operatives across the world reporting on every movement that could be of note to our operations."
"And I assume my brother has the same. If we act like he and his supporters knows what we are doing, then we will be less surprised when they make their move." he acknowledged, "My associates in the Order of the White Lotus have been unable thus far to determine who exactly has been leading the loyalists while my brother has been imprisoned."
"There are dozens of high-ranking officers who defected... or rather, remained loyal to Ozai." Mak observed, "Any one of them could be the leader. Perhaps it's a collective leadership... like a war council without the Fire Lord."
"That may be the case." he nodded, "But I can't be so sure of that."
"Because my brother wouldn't trust so many men to do his bidding. He must have somebody he trusts enacting his plans." he explained what he thought to be most likely, knowing his brother well enough, "And I have a feeling this person is in the Fire Lord's government. If they were openly against Zuko, there would be no way for them to possibly reach Ozai and directly communicate with him."
"This is just a hunch, General." the younger general observed, "We need concrete evidence of this individual and their activities before we can make a move on them."
"Hopefully, my associates turn up some intelligence soon, or I fear my brother's loyalists might try and sabotage our government and operations." he acknowledged, "For all we know, they could have compromised the very operatives you trust for your intelligence."
"I... well, I surely hope that isn't the case." he admitted, grimacing slightly as he looked off to his left, "They could be anywhere." he added offhandedly.
"That is why stopping them is vital. My brother is a very useful hostage, given that we could... well, get rid of him if they were to try and murder the Fire Lord, or do something of that same degree of damage to our nation." he admitted, not taking the idea of having his own brother exuected very lightly, though he had a feeling his nephew would have less qualms about it, after what had happened to him in the Agni Kai chamber, and those five years at sea.
"Is that why the Fire Lord didn't kill him?" Mak asked, rather bluntly, and unexpectedly.
"Uh, he simply failed to do so. He was using a technique that I invented, and I assume that the power of my brother's attack, which was deflected back at him, was weakened in the process." he acknowledged, before placing his hands down on the table, "Believe me when I say my nephew was willing and is able to kill his father. I don't think I have to tell you why."
"No, you do not." he conceded, seeming uneased by the thought; patricide was a terrible thing, but when terrible people faced justice, it could be tolerated, if only for the benefit it might bring to the world, "I think I need to go stretch my legs." he decided, seemingly unnerved by the topic their conversation had ended on, rising up to his feet, "It was good to speak with you, General Iroh."
"Oh, it is fine. You are quite a knowledgeable man, General Mak." he conceded, before pursing his lips upward, "So, when you feel like that Pai Sho game, just tell me. I'm looking forward to it."
"Of course." he nodded, before bowing toward him; he then paced out of the room, closing the door behind him, leaving Iroh in his relatively small quarters by himself.
He sighed, and glanced back toward his desk, remembering that he had received a letter from Zuko earlier in the day, just before they set off in the tank train for Omashu. He rose to his feet, and picked up the still bound scroll of paper; he pulled the letter opener off of the desk, and cracked the letter open, letting it unfurl by itself. He then sat back down and laid the scroll on the table, looking over its contents slowly, trying to imagine what his nephew might have been doing while he wrote it.
"Good day, Uncle, I hope this letter comes to you when you are able to read it. If not, I apologise for interrupting whatever you were doing." he read out the beginning of the letter, a simple formality given by his nephew, given it was a proper letter- he wasn't just sending him a letter for the sake of it.
"I have received some news from the colonies that might be of interest to you." he read out the next line, Iroh raising a brow before he continued, "A garrison of soldiers in the colonial town of Huangcha had to attend to an Earth Kingdom attack on the town hall. We don't know their motives, but what we do know is that the Avatar and a waterbender were there, and they tried to heal the commoners who were hurt in the attack." he continued to read down, "It seems that the Avatar is interested in protecting civilians, Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom alike."
Iroh smiled at the thought, knowing that was good news; if the young Avatar held similar concerns for all innocents, that would make it rather unlikely that he would try to fight the Fire Nation directly. He knew that there was a danger of his niece inciting the Avatar to fighting them, but it didn't seem very likely at the moment.
"I have rescinded any order for the Avatar to be dealt with as a hostile in response to his actions, as I believe it would be foolish for us to make him our enemy when it is clearly not the case." he continued to read Zuko's words, the Dragon of the West pursing his lips up, happy to see how much his nephew had grown.
The young Fire Lord was a lot wiser than he had been even a year prior, and was learning how to make decisions that Iroh knew would be hard. The Avatar had been an enemy of the Fire Nation, but now, his nephew was willing to take the steps necessary to reconcile the conflict that Sozin had incited by killing the Avatar's people.
"I hope that you are travelling well Uncle, and I wish you the very best for your meeting with King Bumi and my father-in-law." he continued to read, another formality, in Iroh's eyes, "I miss you, and hope that you come back home soon. I am looking forward to seeing how we can further ensure that my father's machinations don't come to fruition. We will not let our work be in vain, after all we have done, and the suffering I have inadvertently caused. Your loyal nephew, Zuko." he finished reading, smiling at his nephew's words; he truly had grown as a person- two years prior, he would be shocked to see his nephew be so reflective and warm toward him, even through text.
"You are a good man, my nephew." he whispered to himself, knowing that even if Zuko couldn't hear him, he deserved to have it told to him; he had grown paranoid and near manic due to the fear of assassination attempts, and though his wedding to Mai had perhaps lessened these fears, it was probably to be a momentary distraction.
Zuko had a very good reason to be afraid, and Iroh had reasons to be afraid for both his own life, and the life of his nephew, though he doubted that anyone would try to attack either of them. They both had the support of Imperial Firebenders, not to mention personal connections with the Order of the White Lotus, in the case of the need to hide and escape from assassins or any other kind of serious threat to their lives.
Going to Omashu was probably one of the more dangerous things Iroh could have set out to do, given that he was going out away from the security of the Fire Nation Capital, where he would be threatened by potential attackers. His tank train was already being led by some mounted troops, and followed by more of them, to ensure that he wasn't attacked, and that if he was, those soldiers would be able to deal with the situation before it grew out of hand.
He trusted General Mak's judgement and intelligence, which told him that after General Zhang's encounter with the young Avatar, Ozai's loyalists had been trying their best to avoid going anywhere near King Bumi's forces, nor the city of Omashu itself. He was as safe as he could be, given the wider circumstances his nation was facing, and as he rose back up to his feet, he decided that he would have a nap, and sleep off his breakfast; he needed to be ready for the meeting in Omashu, which he'd be reaching within two days.
"A man needs his rest." he recalled the phrase he always told his nephew, and felt that it was still as applicable to the young man as it was when he was a frustrated, lost and confused exile; Zuko was always worried, and Iroh wanted to do the best could to assist him, but sometimes, just taking a rest was the best he could do. He chuckled at the thought that the Fire Lord and his new wife were off on their own holiday while he was on his own, though his was clearly more dangerous and would be a lot less fun.
"I hope his holiday is better than mine."