Toph pursed her lips upward as she sensed around here, noting that she was surrounded on all sides by Jet and his gang of Freedom Fighters; any ordinary earthbender might have just picked up boulders and tossed them at their opponents, but she was anything but ordinary. She wanted to be methodical when she beat their butts, just so she could feel proud of herself for defeating them as intelligently as she would. She also wanted them to get better at fighting, knowing that as long as she was fighting alongside them, they would need to become better at fending off attacks. Even if she couldn't compare to the Fire Nation soldiers they expected to face, sooner or later, she knew that she could at least give them the kind of challenge that would keep them on their toes, perhaps literally, as they tried to work around her seismic sense.
Jet and his friends were moving to attack her all at once, and she had covered her body with stones, and she kept her seismic sense keen to feel where they were. She could sense Pipsqueak moving toward her, probably thinking he could use the log he wielded as a weapon to break her defences. She sent a pillar up from the ground, striking the log by the tip, which flicked it up into the air; the Freedom Fighter gasped out in surprise as he presumably tried to catch the log. She couldn't sense it, but she wasn't worried about it; she was more concerned about Jet stabbing his hook swords into the base of her armour, probably wanting to try and break her footing, which was the root of her bending- without it, she wouldn't stand a chance.
She didn't waste any time to stand still and let him try and break her rock armour, fixing his feet in place with her earthbending, which seemed to surprise him; she had, in other spars, offered to not make such moves, but she decided that with the other three Freedom Fighters to worry about, she would have to do it. She moved herself along the ground, keeping the armour around her body as she sensed Smellerbee rushing to jump onto her; she shot a pillar of earth from the ground, but it failed to hit the agile fighter, who landed on Toph's shoulders. She drew out a machete, or at least, what seemed like one with what she could sense through the girl's body, and leaned forward, using her firm footing to her advantage, while the Freedom Fighter was tossed off of her. She sensed that Jet was coming after her again, and The Duke was too, with what seemed like a rope and a pick; she was confused exactly what he intended to do, but she doubted he would get the chance to restrain her.
Toph immediately turned her attention to Jet, shooting two rocks that covered her hands off at him, striking each into his legs, making him grunt as he was forced down to his knees; that would only slow him down, if she didn't try to bind him to the ground again. The Duke then leapt at her, striking her left hand with the pick, which momentarily shattered the stone covering; he must have had a plan to begin with, specifically considering her abilities. Seeing that he was even younger than her, she was a little impressed to sense him tie the rope around her wrist and then throw the other end of the rope toward somebody else. She sensed forward to realise that Smellerbee had grabbed the rope, and pulled on it hard to force Toph closer, lest she be ripped out of her earthen armour and left practically defenceless.
"Aha, we've got youǃ" she exclaimed, obviously proud that she and her friends had finally grappled the earthbender.
Smellerbee's enthusiasm seemed to wane as Toph took advantage of her stiff stance and hard grip on the rope, by pulling the ground under her feet closer to her with her bending, and then throwing her up into the air by shooting the earth up from under her feet. In the process, she had loosened her grip on the rope, and thus, Toph didn't accidentally get her shoulder dislocated in the process. The Freedom Fighter shouted out with fear, and she could sense Pipsqueak running over to catch her before she fell down to the ground.
Her seismic sense was quickly turned back toward Jet, who was ready to assist The Duke, who probably thought he could get her other hand with the pick he was using. She decided to take out two birds with one stone; she shot the small boy in the behind with a rock, which threw him forward, getting him right in Jet's way, forcing the Freedom Fighter to draw his weapons back. More than that, he was tripped over by hitting The Duke, and fell down to the ground, allowing Toph to ensnare his hands as he tried to pull himself back up.
"Don't move." he warned her, Toph's lips scrunching up as she sensed around, and realised that Longshot was aiming at her arm, "I think we've won, unless you'd like an arrow in your left palm." the Freedom Fighter cockily declared his group's victory, and she sighed, realising that her small mistake of leaving her hand uncovered had cost her the fight.
"I do not." she conceded, before letting go of her grip on Jet; the Freedom Fighter dusted himself off, and before he could tell his friends to stop, Pipsqueak cam back at her with his log once more; she snickered, and shifted the ground beneath his feet, making him fall down face-first, and drop his log down right in front of her.
"Oh, thanks for the seat." she quipped, dropping her bottom down on the log as she raised her toes up from the ground, relaxing her feet for a moment; they were rather tense from all the moves she had been doing.
"Seriously?" she heard Smellerbee ask out, "So that's it?"
"Yeah, that's it." she confirmed, before sensing around, "I think that's sufficient practice for the afternoon. I prefer not getting shot in the hand, anyway."
She swore she heard a huff, perhaps slightly amused, coming from Longshot, though she was unsure, and nobody commented on it; she sensed around, and chuckled, "You know, I think it's kind of dumb I'm still training you when there's actual firebenders here now who you can train against."
"We don't want anything to do with the ash-makers." Smellerbee argued, turning her attention to Jet, "Isn't that right, Jet?"
"We don't. But we're not going to agitate them, because I think Toph will get more angry at me for doing that than they will." he conceded, making her smirk.
"That's right. I hate it when people act like idiots for stupid reasons." she reminded him, "Though... some of those men who came with the General probably have hurt the Earth Kingdom. I know the General has." she acknowledged, recalling the stories she heard about the Six Hundred Day Siege from her parents, though she assumed, in hindsight, she had received the embellished version of events that the Dai Li or the Council of Five wanted everyone to hear.
"Right." Jet nodded, before he stepped closer to her, "Then why can Bumi trust any of them?"
"He trusts the General." she clarified, "They follow him, so I guess he just accepts their loyalty to him as enough of a reason to trust them." she gave her opinion on the matter.
She had realised earlier that she could ask the Fire Nation soldiers and guards who had come along with General Iroh could spar with the rebels, and help them get ready to face their countrymen, though she was sure they would prefer to not assist them anymore than they had already. Even if some of them held the same belief about ending the war as General Iroh did, a lot of them probably didn't like the Earth Kingdom, nor wanted to help them rebuild their country. Most of them would prefer that their country remain in chaos so the Fire Nation could continue their domination.
"I don't trust any of them." the Freedom Fighter spoke up, "Do you?"
"The General seems well-intended enough... though Governor Ukano seems... less so." she admitted, "He probably better fits your assumptions of the Fire Nation."
"Selfish, mean and intent on seeing the 'lesser nations' fall?" he asked her, making Toph chuckle.
"I mean, probably the first two, but I'm unsure on the second. He didn't get asked about that back at the meeting." she noted, before sensing around, realising that she could recognise a heartbeat by the edge of the training yard.
"Wait, is that old guy-" Jet began, Toph stepping past him.
"Yeah, that's the General." she explained, "Azula's uncle, to be specific."
"Ah." he mumbled, before glancing toward him, "So, are you going to go use your skills and find out if he can be trusted?"
"Uh, that's part of it." she admitted, though she kept the part about wanting to talk to him about his niece and their family unspoken; she wanted to learn more about the royal family, which only seemed to be more insane and disturbing with the supposed death of Fire Lord Zuko by the hands of his father, whether directly or indirectly.
"Good luck, I guess." Jet farewelled her, and she turned her attention to the other Freedom Fighters.
"That was a good fight. We'll see if the ash-makers wanna go up against you all... because I'd certainly like to see how that goes." she explained, before snickering, "I mean, sense." she corrected herself, realising that she wouldn't be seeing anything.
It was rather self-evident, given her disability, but she knew that most people would use the word 'see' for many things that really didn't have much to do with seeing- one could observe without eyes, and she was sure others did as well, even if they didn't have seismic sense.
She heard Smellerbee snicker at her comment, and she pointed a finger at her, "What, do you want to fight blindfolded?" she questioned her, the Freedom Fighter shaking her head.
"I don't think so." she admitted, "Though, we should probably learn to rely on our other senses a little more. We'll be better at stopping anybody from sneaking up on us that way." she noted, Toph pursing her lips up.
"Good observation." she commended her, "Maybe you can practice listening out for people when you go on patrol... seeing the Fire Nation might be coming for us... we've got some very useful hostages."
"But I thought they were our guests." Jet commented, sounding a little confused, before he gasped, "Oh... you're even more of a genius than I thought."
"I mean, I have nothing against them personally, but the Governor and the General are pretty useful if we wanted to try and... not get the city shot at by catapults or the tunnels filled with smoke." she conceded, before shaking her head, "I'm sure Bumi will have a strategy to stop that from happening to begin with." she added; though she really didn't care that much about the Fire Nation guests they had, she knew that most of them were innocent, and probably, more than anything, wanted to get home- she knew that sacrificing them for New Omashu's safety would be an extreme course of action, even if it would be effective.
"Have a good time interrogating them." Pipsqueak waved to her, making her snicker as she was reminded that was in part what she'd be doing, though it wasn't because she was necessarily suspicious of General Iroh, even if she held some suspicions toward the others; she just wanted to find out about Azula, seeing that she'd probably have to cooperate with her if Aang really was set on her being his earthbending master.
Sensing around, she realised that Iroh had already left the training yard, which annoyed her slightly; she wanted to speak with him, but now he was probably heading back to Bumi's throne room. Without much choice in the matter, she sighed, knowing she'd have to walk to the throne room, and hope the General was there. She made her way into the tunnel that would lead her back toward the centre of the city, and sensed ahead of herself, noting that she could sense some Fire Nation soldiers who were standing along her path, probably just idling about while they awaited orders from their superiors. She could tell them apart by their distinctive armour, which resonated differently to her seismic sense than that which Bumi's rebels wore; they turned to face her as she made her way along, and it seemed like they were just observing her, rather than seeming suspicious.
She turned her head slightly, and pointed their way, deciding to test them, "What're you looking at?"
"N-nothing." one of them assured her, the nervousness in his voice audible, not even considering his heightened heart rate.
"You're the one who saved Governor Ukano's kid, aren't you?" one of them asked, Toph nodding, and the men turned to face each other.
"Why'd you do that?"
"Because I knew that there was something wrong." she admitted, "I was thinking your Governor had sided with the conspirators, and had ordered his men to attack us."
"He's not our Governor." one of them warned her, "We serve General Mak."
"Who's he?" she asked, the men's heartbeats rising slightly.
"The head of the Fire Lord's military intelligence organisation." one of them gave an answer, which from his heartbeat, seemed like the whole truth, "We should have seen all of this coming."
"I should've too." she admitted, and a moment later, one of the men raised a hand toward her.
"What do you mean? Don't you have lie-detection abilities or something?" he asked, "And how would have you known? It's not like you were spying on the Governor and everything going on inside Omashu."
"That's a lot of questions." she commented, before pointing at him in turn, "Are you trying to interrogate me, mister?"
"Uh, no... " he admitted, cringing back, perhaps in fear.
"Good job, Huan, now you've spooked the most powerful bender in the damn city." one of his comrades chided him after smacking him in the back of the head.
"I wasn't spying on him." she admitted; others attended to those matters, though she'd gone on a few scouting operations into the city, mostly to check the defences in the case Bumi wanted them sabotaged, "I did, however, check out a weird abandoned campsite and some tracks. They were leading toward the city, and I didn't consider why anybody would be travelling there in secret. I thought it might have been some Fire Nation soldiers just trying to avoid us." she explained, before shaking her head, "They were probably trying to hide from whatever garrison soldiers were actually loyal to the Governor... so they could try and assassinate everyone at the meeting when we assembled."
"Huh." one of them mumbled, crossing his arms, "Well, it's not like everyone can think of every possible outcome or reasons for something." he conceded, "And now we've got to deal with... all this."
"You do." she clarified, "Not me." she admitted, before continuing to walk along, not really having much reason to continue talking to them; she was just a rebel fighter, protecting a city from the Fire Nation, if they dared to attack it- she wasn't going to concern herself with the Fire Nation's civil war, even if she certainly didn't want the war to continue in the long term.
Toph walked on away from the soldiers, and she could sense them turning to face her as she continued down the tunnel, though once she got far enough away, they seemed to return to whatever discussions they had been having prior to her encounter. She could sense others walking past her as she made her way toward the centre of the underground city, though they were just commoners, not concerned with the war or anything really outside of the city, unless it concerned the goods and food coming into the place
She knew that their supply lines were in danger with Ozai's loyalists taking control over Omashu properly, and that they would need to bolster the protections they already had in place, given the distance between them and free Earth Kingdom towns, outside of either Fire Nation group's control. Those towns themselves would likely be in danger, soon enough, though she was unsure what Bumi would do about it; she understood the King was rather tact and patient when it came to his strategy. He would not waste their resources if it wasn't necessary, and would make the best of opportunities when they arose; she knew, however, that those villages couldn't reasonably be safe when it was likely that with the civil war leaning in Ozai's favour, they might come around and occupy them, preventing them from trading with New Omashu.
She knew that the war was a danger that loomed over them all, and though she wished she could just act like she just had to train the earthbenders, scout the perimeter and harass any Fire Nation soldiers who came their way, she was sure that wouldn't be enough to stop what was coming their way. Her certainty on that matter had be reconfirmed, now that she had heard about what had happened in the Fire Nation capital; it was inevitable that Ozai's forces would come for them, just as they had moved to suppress and control the Earth Kingdom when he was the Fire Lord.
As she reached the doors of Bumi's throne room, she realised that she was going to be uniquely placed to help in that regard; the Fire Nation could be stopped by Aang, and perhaps even by Azula, if she was to take the charge and lead the forces that would have been loyal to her brother to victory. She was about to talk with Iroh, probably the one person she could talk to about his niece, and perhaps, what the Avatar would have to do to stop Ozai.
The guards noticed her as she arrived, and opened the doors for her, not even bothering to ask her why she was there; either they already knew, or just didn't want to resist her potential demands. She wanted to laugh at that, but given the mood around New Omashu ever since they had returned from the disaster of a meeting, she decided that she'd hold herself together. She was meant to be the Blind Bandit, not just a teenage girl who amused herself by intimidating others; she had a job to do, and a responsibility to fulfil, and even if interrogating Iroh wasn't something explicitly requested of her, she knew it would help them all, given that he knew much about the Fire Nation, and presumably, about his brother, who had just seized power.
When she paced inside, she noted that Iroh was sitting with Bumi by the table, drinking tea, though the former seemed solemn, given his posture, which she knew had to do with his nephew's purported demise. The King turned his head toward her, and his heartbeat rose suddenly, though not in shock, but perhaps, mere surprise. He then gestured for her to approach, and she did just that, sensing the General's heartbeat; he wasn't surprised in the slightest, and in fact, seemed very calm, with a slow, regular heartbeat, even if he clearly wasn't in a good mood.
"Toph, would you like some tea?" Bumi asked, before he pushed the ceramic teapot toward her with his bending.
She picked it up as she reached the table, and took a sniff from the pot; she noted that it did smell pretty good, though she wasn't surprised, given the King of Omashu, of all people, was drinking it. She was sure that he wouldn't stand for something as avoidable as a poorly made cup of tea.
"This smells good." she conceded, before striding on over toward the pair, "You don't mind if I... uh, come for chat, do you?" she asked the General, who turned his attention toward her.
"Well, I guessed you'd come here eventually." he admitted, "You're probably curious about me, and what's been going on."
"And your niece." she added, "I didn't really get to talk with her that much... well, at least when she was trying her hardest to pretend to not to be herself."
He let out a huff, seeming a little amused, before he took a sip from his teacup, "Please, sit." he gestured to the seat beside him, and she pulled it out with her earthbending, before sitting herself down on it, pulling it back in so she could pour herself a cup of tea; she did just that, as the General placed a cup down in front of her, and she put his pot back down, realising she had probably been a little forward in snatching it with her bending.
He placed his hands down on the table, once he had sipped down the contents of his cup, as what indicated when she sensed the cup and found it devoid of liquid, which was relatively easy for her to sense, given her seismic sense was effectively blind to it, "What did want to discuss?"
"I... well, I want to know what's going on. I mean, with your family, not us getting attacked by catapults when we were meant to be eating fire flakes."
"Oh, we did miss out on those." Bumi recalled, "Those other ones were far too... intense for my tastes."
"My family..." the General spoke softly, his tone in stark contrast to the upbeat and amused King of Omashu, "You mean about how we ended up in this terrible situation?" he asked her, and she nodded, thinking that was an astute way of putting it, "Well, it's a bit complicated..." he conceded, placing his teacup down onthe table as he took a deep breath.
"To make a long story short, my brother became Fire Lord about seven years ago, after my father died of a sudden illness." he explained, looking down at his cup, "I had been... not in the best place of mind, and decided not to contest my brother's ascension to the throne, thinking that I could help advise my nephew Zuko as how to be a better heir, so that in time, our nation could progress past the horrible situation we had found ourselves in."
"I'm guessing that didn't turn out so well." she assumed, knowing that there had to have been a good reason for Zuko overthrowing his father around a year prior.
"No, it did not." he sighed, "My brother challenged Zuko to Agni Kai for speaking out of turn in a war meeting... for arguing against a general's plan to use new recruits as bait for a division of earthbenders." he explained, shaking his head, obviously finding such a strategy to be reprehensible.
It was rather undignified in her view, given that it was effectively some snotty officer deciding that those men's lives weren't worth anything more than a trick; unlike somebody like Yung, who led his men into the thick of every battle he would order them to fight, she doubted a general advising the Fire Lord had even seen the battlefield in years.
"An Agni Kai is a firebending duel, right?" she asked, only having heard about those from rumours, and not because she actually had any idea of how Fire Nation culture or law worked.
"Yes. A duel of honour to resolve disputes. My nephew, being the loyal son he was at the time, decided to beg for his father's forgiveness, not believing he was going to face him, but rather the general who had angered him with his heinous plan." he explained, before his heartbeat rose, suggesting that he was uneased by his own memories of the duel, "My brother scarred his own son for his alleged cowardice, and then banished him from the Fire Nation, unable to return unless he captured the Avatar, the greatest enemy of the Fire Nation, at least according to the view upheld since Fire Lord Sozin's time."
"Capture the Avatar..." she mumbled, before raising a brow, realising what Azula, Zuko's own sister, had done, "Well, that's... rather ironic."
"In hindsight, yes." he nodded, "At the time, my nephew was at first, aghast and shocked by the news, once he awoke after being burned. I travelled with him across the globe, and he began to become desperate. We looked everywhere he could think the Avatar could be hiding, but we failed to find him... which is obvious enough in hindsight if what Bumi said is true. He was in an iceberg, hidden at the South Pole. There was no realistic chance we could have found him... and my nephew obviously realised this, and after Sozin's Comet passed, he fell into a state of despair." he explained, raising a hand to his cheek, his heartbeat rising once again; the memories mustn't have been good, and Toph could only imagine what must have been going through Zuko's head, stuck away from his home, unable to return, even though he clearly must have wanted to, a stark contrast to herself.
"He began to drink alcohol to the point of throwing up every night and spent most hours of the day in his room. He spent months lost, in his own mind, constantly either depressed or just angry, with either himself or the crew, and then... somehow, he came to the conclusion that I had hoped he would. That he wasn't to blame for what had happened to him- it was my brother, his father, who had scarred him and sent him on an impossible quest."
"I'm guessing he got... angry." she acknowledged, knowing that if he was anything like his sister, from what little she had observed about her temperament, he must have gone on a rampage of revenge.
"That would be an understatement." he conceded, "My nephew dedicated himself to improving his firebending and training for what he understood to now be inevitable. We travelled first to a base on the north coast of the Earth Kingdom, where Admiral Zhao was stationed; you may or may not have heard of him, but he led the Fire Nation's attempts to invade the North Pole."
"Why did you guys go to him? What does he have to do with Zuko's banishment?" Toph asked, a little confused what he would have to do with the revenge that seemed squarely set on Ozai, which she understood ultimately was the case, given that it was claimed for a time that Zuko had murdered him in single combat.
"A few months before Sozin's Comet, he requisited the crew of our ship, and Zuko and I were forced to remain in the Earth Kingdom for a few weeks before the Admiral's fleet returned empty-handed, and then we went on our way. Zuko, however, held a grudge, and realised through the few conversations we had had with him that he was a terrible person, intent on destroying the Water Tribes, which my nephew found to be despicable as well as disturbing." he explained, picking up the teapot, and pouring himself another cup, "Zuko fought him in an Agni Kai, and gave him a scar to match his own, and to remove him from his position as Admiral."
"Ah, there's the revenge bit." she observed, before picking up her own cup of tea, "So, then he went and pretended to kill his father."
"Well, I don't believe Zuko thought that he was going to survive when he actually came to duel him." Iroh admitted, sounding almost a little nerve wracked by the suggestion he'd kill his own father, despite obviously not liking him, "I did not witness the duel itself, only the aftermath, where my brother was taken away in chains, seriously wounded and unconscious. We thought he might die for his injuries, but he did ultimately recover."
"And can I ask... what does this have to do with Azula... and Sokka?" she asked, knowing that their relationship, and her ending up with the Avatar of all people was something she wanted to understand.
"From the best of my knowledge, Azula left the Fire Nation capital over a year ago on an assignment from her father. She was, under the pretenses of a diplomatic venture to better integrate Ba Sing Se into the Fire Nation's empire, to investigate a supposed conspiracy against the Fire Nation rule there, which I understand had been the work of the Dai Li." he explained, "Before she could reach Ba Sing Se, her royal barge was attacked by a group of Water Tribe warriors hired by a member of the Order of the White Lotus, who believed that capturing my niece would prevent her from getting in the way of Zuko's moves to defeat his father and become Fire Lord." he explained, Toph scrunching her lips up before she took a sip from her tea cup.
"Well, that certainly went to plan." she sarcastically quipped.
"I never approved of the operation, and only learned of it after the fact." he admitted, "Sokka was one of the warriors in the operation, and when the Water Tribe sunk the ship, they were washed ashore after being forced to swim away from the wreck." he explained, "That was how they met, properly, according to Sokka."
"So, you've spoken with him about all this?"
"Well, only briefly, over a cup of tea, before my nephew and niece had their Agni Kai." he explained, "Azula and Sokka travelled through the wilderness, and eventually reached Fire Nation occupied territory, and the two of them, along with my niece's guards, travelled to Ba Sing Se to undertake the task her father had assigned to her. She must have uncovered whatever machinations the Dai Li had in play, and I believe she captured their leader." he explained, placing his hands together, "This was about the time Zuko and I had reached the capital, and once my niece realised what had happened, she travelled westward on a ship she had been given, and with the support of an army she had gathered, intended to take the Fire Nation colonies, and after that, the homeland."
"Well, she obviously didn't succeed."
"That was because Zuko had travelled to the colonies to sure up his authority and help with the transition. He wanted to smoothly remove Fire Nation rule from the colonies, but my niece's agitation prevented that from happening." he told her why that plan had failed, "They faced off in an Agni Kai, which I'm sure everybody has heard about by now, and she was defeated. Sokka incapicitated Zuko, and he fled with her while she was unconscious. I later heard that Sokka showed up at Pohuai Fortress, and stole some supplies." he continued on, "That was the last I heard of them until she fought against General Zhang, and sent that 'message' to Zuko."
"A message?" she raised a brow, before recalling she had gone to interrogate the soldiers, and presumably had told them something, which might have travelled up the chain of command after they gave the prisoners to Governor Ukano a few months prior.
"Oh, she said something rather rude." he admitted, "I won't say what it was."
"Aw... now I'm kinda interested." she conceded, before placing her hands down on the table, "So, that's what happened." she observed, "But why did Azula come to fight Zuko in the first place?"
"Well, she, like everyone else in the world, believed Ozai was dead." he admitted, "She thought she was going to fight and avenge her father... but that wasn't the reality of the situation."
"So... now Ozai's gone and done... well... yeah." she mumbled, not wanting to actually utter what had occurred; it wasn't because she really held much care for the Fire Lord- she didn't know him at all, but she understood the pain that the General must have been going through over what had happened.
"I should have seen this coming." he growled, sounding angry with himself, "This was avoidable."
"You can't see every possibility, Iroh. And we've only heard one side of the story." Bumi assured him, "Your brother could just be tricking us, like how your nephew tricked the world into thinking he was dead."
"A cruel twist of fate." he murmured under his breath, "Zuko didn't deserve this... even if he isn't dead... this isn't how things should have gone."
"Well, I agree with Bumi. It's not like we can believe everything that comes out of the palace." Toph argued, "I don't think your nephew is dead, if he's really how you describe him."
"I hope he isn't... but that might just be wishful thinking." he acknowledged, before sighing, "How was she?"
"Azula?" she raised a brow, the General giving her and nod, and she furrowed a brow, trying to think how she could describe the Princess, from what she had understood in their short time together, "I don't really know her that well. She was trying to hide her identity, which didn't help. She's not... well, she doesn't seem like a bad person. She wanted to help us, and she did, despite being from the Fire Nation. She tricked those soldiers by disguising herself as one of them, which made a lot more sense in hindsight, and then she fought alongside us, with the Avatar."
"Bumi, is he how you remember him?" Iroh turned to the King of Omashu, who nodded.
"He hasn't aged a day." he admitted, "Really, he isn't any different to what he was like when we were both twelve. Just a giddy airbender with a big heart. He will be a good Avatar, as long as he's trained, and knows what fights to pick."
It was weird to think that Aang, who appeared to be younger than her, was actually the same as the elderly King of Omashu, and that the two of them had been good friends, before the Avatar disappeared for a century.
"I'm sure his friends will help him." the General acknowledged, "I trust that boy to look out for both of them."
"Sokka's the only non-bender I've met who I can say is actually intimidating." Toph admitted, and upon hearing that, Iroh turned to face her.
"Oh, did you threaten my niece?" he asked, and she nodded, "Well, that's why. He beat Zuko just on the mere suggestion he'd imprison her."
"How'd he even manage that?"
"Neither of us saw it coming." he conceded, "His boomerang whacked my nephew in the back of the head, and then he warned me to not get in his way. Though I could have easily stopped him with my firebending, I relented."
"Because you trust him." she realised, remembering what he had said.
"I had a short conversation with the boy, but I know he has a good heart. He's somebody I can trust to look out for my niece and make sure she doesn't do anything too foolish." he admitted, before sighing, "But now, everything's different."
"What are you going to do, Iroh?" Bumi asked, "Will we need to assemble the Order to deal with your brother?"
"If worst comes to bare, then yes, but I would rather avoid such a flagrant political move. It would expose our organisation and that... that would not be good for any of our innocent members who have nothing to do with the feud between my family." he explained, before turning his posture toward Toph, "The Avatar is the only one who can stop my brother without any reasonable repercussions. He is the bringer of justice for our misdeeds, as they have always been."
"There hasn't been an Avatar in a hundred years." Toph admitted, "How do you know people will respect whatever Aang does?"
"Because the only person who stopped an Avatar was my grandfather, and that was because he betrayed Avatar Roku, his good friend." he explained, sounding rather regretful about that.
"Wait, that's how the last Avatar died?"
"Yes." he confirmed, "And now... this young Avatar needs people he can trust by his side. I know my niece might have different intentions to him, and that might not help in the long term." he admitted, "Repeating history is the gravest mistake anyone can make, especially considering what has happened to the world since Avatar Roku's demise."
"Sokka can stop that from happening." Toph concluded, the General sighing as he put his teacup down on the table; his heartbeat told her that he wasn't as sure about that as she was.
"We can only hope."
"I wouldn't be so confident." she heard a voice that she didn't recognise, and sensed to where she had heard it from; a man was approaching the table, wearing what seemed like a thick cloak and drab robes- she was sure it was a member of the Order of the White Lotus, though she hadn't sensed him before, so she assumed he had only arrived recently.
"And who's this guy?" she asked Bumi, who rose up to his feet.
"This is an associate of ours, Jeong Jeong."
"He's the one who sent the Water Tribes on that operation, actually." Iroh clarified, making her furrow a brow.
"So what, this is all your fault?" she asked, realising that because of that ship being sunk, Azula had been delayed in arriving in Ba Sing Se, and effectively prevented her from returning to the Fire Nation Capital sooner, and thus, could have let their conflict play out in only an Agni Kai, rather than the massive civil war that had spilled over from the dispute between the members of the Royal Family.
"Wrong." he retorted, "I simply made sure the civil war was delayed. Would have you preferred that Princess Azula arrived at the capital without having met that Water Tribesman?" he asked, "What if she had won, and freed her father?"
"Then we'd be in an even worse situation." Iroh simply answered that question for them, "We are lucky that those two met, but I still believe we ought to avoid doing anything like that again." he admitted, "Azula may be our only hope."
"The Avatar is." he corrected the General, "We should be mindful of any undue influence she has on him. Would it be in the best interest of the world if the Avatar began to think the Fire Nation's control over the western Earth Kingdom was all fair and acceptable?" he asked, the General sighing.
"I doubt he agrees with her on that." Iroh argued, "He comes from a time before the war, so he'd probably, like anyone else from that time, think they were an aberration."
"But, what if she does become the Fire Lord?" Toph spoke up, "I don't know much about Fire Nation politics, but I'm pretty sure that most of your country doesn't exactly want to give up everything they won in the war they've been fighting for a hundred years."
"That is also true." Jeong Jeong agreed with her, "Many people in the Fire Nation believe the war is just, and they would not agree to giving up all the gains the Fire Nation has made from it." he acknowledged, "They cannot be persuaded, but I know that you, Iroh, were going to deal with that issue."
"I wanted to have as peaceful a transition as possible. It's clear that's not going to happen, and Zuko establishing martial law in some of the colonies hasn't helped." he admitted, placing his hands together on the table, "There is no easy way out of the conflict that exists there."
"The Earth Kingdom, as it was, no longer exists." Bumi clarified, "The easiest way out of the conflict is ignoring it, at least at the moment. I know that once a new government is formed, it may become a contentious issue, but I am sure that they will understand that our nations cannot afford a continuation of what has gone on for the past hundred years."
"A lack of action is sometimes the best strategy, but I am sure that some in the Fire Nation might see that as forestalling what is inevitable." Jeong Jeong suggested, pulling out a seat to sit down beside Toph, "By the way, I don't believe we've been introduced. I'm Jeong Jeong, and you are?"
"Toph... also known as the Blind Bandit, and the greatest earthbender in this city." she proclaimed, making Bumi snicker.
"If you keep saying that, we're going to have to duel." he warned her, the blind earthbender cocking a smirk.
"I will face you one day, old man." she warned him, "But first, I think we've got to deal with the bunch of Fire Nation soldiers occupying that city that want us dead."
"Oh, that's true." he agreed with her, before placing his hands on the table, "Now, Jeong Jeong, would you like some tea too?"
"Yes. My journey here was quite tiring." he admitted, "I would have taken a boat, but Ozai's ships might have caught me along the way." he noted, Toph raising a brow.
"You walked all the way here. Why?"
"To meet General Iroh." he clarified, "We have some business to attend to."
"That wouldn't also have to do with Azula, would it."
"Not just her. The Fire Nation is tearing itself apart, and this latest news... it proves that we need to act, sooner rather than later."
The plans Sokka was looking at were impressive, and he realised with a little examination why Azula had harnessed such a craft in the first place; the airship was the ultimate military technology, that could supercede the need for a navy, or even land forces, if one had enough of them. Major Chui wasn't too well-versed with the design of the craft, nor how to construct it, though his engineers had provided a general overview of the process. Their first craft had required the use of a steamer's engine, which was a frustrating use of resources, in the Major's eyes, because it effectively made every airship that they constructed eliminate a steamer, which were commonly used by the Fire Navy in their sea-based assaults on settlements and military bases. He understood that they would be getting a new source of materials and machinery in Shengchang to build more airships, but until then, the prototype would be just that, because they lacked the means to quickly reproduce them, nor make engines at their base.
"So, sir, what do you advise?" Chui asked him, making the Water Tribe warrior raise a brow.
Being referred to as sir by a man far older than himself was a little weird, but he understood that he was Azula's deputy, and thus, outranked everyone at the base except her. That became more amusing to think about, considering that if she was the Fire Lord, he'd effectively be able to boss powerful generals and admirals around with little repercussions. Turning his attention from the oddity of the Major's deference, and back to the matter at hand, he traced his finger along the plans.
"What kind of protection does this craft have against projectiles or firebending?" he asked, knowing that was likely to be the main threat that would face the crafts if they were used to invade the homeland.
"The fabric it is made with is similar to that which soldier's uniforms are made of. It is infused with retardant to make sure it cannot be set alight. The balloon itself is really just a metal frame with bags of hot gas."
"But the gas can explode?" he asked, the Major furrowing a brow.
"I assume so." he admitted, "The gas we use is the same used in ships for heating. It isn't burnt, but rather heated up to create buoyancy." he explained, the Water Tribe teen raising a brow.
"Huh, that's pretty smart." he noted, "How'd they figure to do that?"
"They didn't." the Major shook his head, "The designer of the original war balloon used natural gas from the Northern Air Temple to create a prototype balloon lifted by gas alone." he explained, Sokka scrunching his lips up.
"It's a disappointment that guy got kicked out by Zhao." he admitted, "I would have liked to meet him. Sounds like a smart man if he designed all this stuff."
"Well, not all of it." one of the engineers clarified, "We made it battle-worthy. The original design could have been shot down and all the gas inside exploded with ease."
"So, the retardant is meant to prevent that, I assume." he guessed, the engineers nodding along to confirm his suspicions, "I think you need more ranged weapon capabilities." he decided, "If there's one way to make sure a unit of firebenders doesn't make your craft explode, its to make sure they can hit them first."
"Firebenders could be placed on the exterior of the craft to fire down, but that would pose its own problems. They could get knocked off or slip." the Major noted, making the Water Tribe warrior's eyes widen as he realised what they could do to prevent that.
"Just tie ropes- no, chains to their chests, and hook them up to the frame of the airship. Even if they slip, they won't fall over, even if they lose their balance for a little" he suggested, the engineers nodding along.
"That would work." one of them agreed, and Sokka turned his gaze back toward the plans.
'You'll need to make the gondola a lot bigger. Like a lot." he stressed, "At least enough space to house thirty men."
"That'll require a bigger engine and bigger frame."
"Precisely." he agreed, "But more men means more firepower." he explained his reasoning, "And if these are used to assault a city, you'll only need maybe two of them, and you get lower a few men down to open the gates and harass the local garrison." he explained, "There's no need for trickery when you can just go over the walls."
"That's true." the Major noted, seeming amused by his ideas, "This craft, if made, will be a fine addition to the armaments of the Fire Nation."
"And it could be used for things other than fighting. A quick way of transporting people and goods across the world. A bit like a sky-bison, only bigger and it runs on coal." he explained, making the engineers nod along.
"That could make us a lot of money, if we're the ones producing them."
"That's true." he confirmed, "And all that money, we're going to need it after the war ends."
"So, we're going to be rebuilding the Earth Kingdom." Chui noted, crossing his arms, "That's... a change, but I guess there's some benefit to our businesses and trade." he admitted, at least acknowledging the benefits that came from the change in the Fire Nation's attitude toward their long time enemy.
"There will be benefits for both sides." he assured him, "Though, honestly, I don't really care about that."
"Wait, really?" Chui asked, obviously confused by his comment.
"Yeah, I want my tribe rebuilt." he clarified, "Which won't be that hard once we can start trading and building our own things once more. The whole world will benefit from our victory, and these airships will be able to help the world, when they're not being used to bomb the Fire Nation Capital."
"Uh... yeah." Chui nodded, turning to face the engineers, who seemed a little uneased by that fact.
"The capital." one of them murmured, "I haven't been there in years." he admitted.
"I haven't been there ever." Sokka clarified his own position, "Though, I hold nothing against the people there. We've just got to deal with Ozai and his goons."
"There's a lot of them, if the rumours are close to the truth." the Major warned him.
"Well, luckily we've got smart men like yourselves ready to find better ways to fight them. If it was just a bunch of firebenders, catapults and guys on komodo rhinos, who do you think would win?"
"They would." Chui admitted, his tone dark, and suggested the fear he held; he was sure that all of the officers were afraid if they had any sense about themselves, but they knew that they had the chance to win, if they played the right moves, and took advantage of the chaos Ozai had sown, "This machine will allow us to win when we wouldn't have otherwise." he acknowledged, "And our fleet will be unopposed if we can bomb our opponent's ships." he added with a smirk, presumably finding the potential assurance of dominance to be enticing.
"That's how we'll win against Ozai." he declared, "With a little help from my tribe and the Earth Kingdom too." he added, "We might not have big ships and weapons, but we can provide earthbenders and the ability to sabotage." he noted, the Major nodding.
"There are some benefits to cooperation." he noted, "It has been good to talk with you, sir. Will you be going to explain these matters to her majesty?"
"Yes." he confirmed, "Azula will want to hear about these improved plans. Hopefully we can start building it soon enough."
"We?" one of the engineers questioned, "Are you going to be assisting us?"
"Where I can, I will." he confirmed, "I have been told that my help may speed up the process... and with news of what's happened in the capital, I want to help as much as I can."
"Well, thank you... uh, what do we call you?" he asked, the Water Tribe warrior chuckling.
"Just Sokka. I don't have a title." he admitted, before glancing toward the door of the workshop, "I'll- uh- leave now." he awkwardly excused himself, "I've got to have lunch."
"Oh yeah, our lunch break." one of the engineers noted, "Sir, are we allowed to go eat now?"
"Sure. I think we've gone over enough planning for the morning." he decided, before gesturing to Sokka a curt wave as he left the workshop, pushing the door open as he made his way out into the large warehouse where they were to construct the prototype airship; already, there were parts for the metal frame, and what looked like a disassembled engine ready to be built for the new craft.
He was ready to help in whatever way he could, but he knew that until they actually started building, there was little he could actually do. He paced on toward the entrance of the warehouse, which was a large metal sliding door, which he was able to pull slightly open so he could step on out, before shutting the door behind him. It was a little heavy, but he hadn't done too much exercise that morning, so he wasn't fazed by the task.
As he turned around, Sokka was forced to close his eyes from the glare of the midday sun, and blinked a few times before he glanced around the area; he took note of a few men doing their firebending sets in the distance, and beyond that, the sight of soldiers pacing on patrol around the palisade. He turned his attention back toward the compound, knowing that was where he was going to go meet Ty Lee and Azula for lunch.
He knew they were working on some tasks, mostly dealing with organising the naval operations that their fleet would be undertaking in the next few weeks. He understood that their role was to draw out Ozai's forces and prod them into attacking them, as this would allow them to trap and utterly destroy them, in Azula's words. he didn't exactly like the idea of a massacre, though he was sure it wouldn't be a literal one, given that their intention was to either capture or rout the enemy force and seize their armaments for themselves.
He preferred to be dealing with the whole airship issue, given that seemed a lot more straightforward than strategising how to prod someone into making a move that would be in any other case too extreme or simply foolish. He doubted that Ozai's generals were fools, and though not all of them would be aware of Azula's wit and intent, they would all understand the danger she posed to them, and perhaps that alone would give them reason to attack. He preferred that Ozai's men stay as far away from them as possible, but he knew that an attack was inevitable, so, it occurring at a time when the usurper Fire Lord's forces were at their least organised and most arrogant would be clearly the best time for Azula to 'teach them a lesson', as she would say.
As he paced on over toward the compound, he hastened himself, not wanting to waste any time, as if there was anything he loved, it was food, and he knew that Azula wouldn't want him to be tardy, though he was sure that if he was early, she'd make fun of him and call him obsessed with food. He would wear that with pride, though, as he knew that loving food was far more healthy than loving power and revenge, which seemed to be Azula's main desires, outside of achieving justice and making the world she desired for them both. He knew that she would mock him for his own obsessions when hers were just as bad, and though at times, he felt like doing the same, he knew that would incur much more harm than her own mockery.
She didn't want her plans undermined by him of all people, and even if they weren't intending to face off Zuko anymore, he was clearly less headstrong and ruthless in his own ideas about how they should go about defeating Ozai. He just hoped that Aang, and perhaps, Bumi, if he was offering the young Avatar advice, would have some ideas of how to better deal with the situation, and provide some alternatives to outright rushing into the capital and murdering Ozai, which he doubted Azula even wanted to do, even if she saw it as the only option. Sokka was sure that things could go better than that, better than repeating what she originally intended with Zuko; he knew that part of her wanted to destroy her father, but she was probably equally afraid of him. The former Fire Lord was willing to kill his own son, and probably would try and kill her too if she stood in his way.
He knew he couldn't mull over it too much, at least while they were so far from that inevitable fight, and turned his attention back to pacing back into the compound; the soldiers present saluted him as he walked in, and Sokka glanced around to see that Azula had actually done what she said she would. Instead of eating in the large meeting hall where they usually would, she decided to have a small dining table and some cushions set up outside, under the shade of an open tent which was made from some light fabric, allowing the sun to shine on through, though its shine was dulled by the covering. Ty Lee and Azula were already sitting there waiting for him, and the former gestured for him to come over; they were drinking tea, presumably waiting to be served their lunch, and he paced on over toward them, sitting himself down across from the pair, looking at the teapot with interest.
"What kind of tea are we drinking?" he asked, the Princess pushing the pot closer to him.
"Just green tea." she explained, and Sokka grabbed the pot, and poured some for himself into the cup in front of him, "Did the planning session go well?" she asked, sounding less casual and more concerned about the actual turn of events.
"Everything's fine. The airship plans they've got ready are good, and though there's a little danger with the whole flammable gas inside, I assume that they'll make sure that the coverings are good enough to stop some witty firebender from blowing it up with a single fire stream." he explained, before furrowing a brow, "I'm unsure how long it will take them to make this prototype though. It's bigger than your first design."
"I know that." she nodded, picking up her tea cup, "With any luck, they'll have it working before Aang and Katara get back here, and we can use it to fly troops around to help speed up the process of dealing with the Earth Kingdom rebels."
He sipped from his own teacup, and smiled, finding the taste to be calming, as well as refreshing, making him feel like he was long past the stuffy and dark workshop where he had been assisting the engineers; the Water Tribesman glanced around, wondering how long their meal would take to arrive.
"What are we eating, anyway?" he asked, the Princess furrowing a brow.
"Roast komodo rhino, noodles, rice, and some dumplings, with rice cakes for dessert." she listed off the things they'd be eating, and Sokka, enticed by what he was hearing, licked his lips.
"Mhmm... great." he smiled, intent on eating all of those things.
"It does sound pretty good." Ty Lee agreed with him, before she gestured to his chest, "Is there any reason to be walking around in that armour?"
"Eh, I mean, it makes me look more proper and serious when I'm dealing with Fire Nation soldiers." he explained his reasoning, "I mean, I prefer my ordinary clothes, but this armour isn't bad either. It's not too heavy, and it keeps me fireproof when Azula and I train."
"Speaking of which, did you want to spar after lunch?" she asked, and he nodded, making her smirk, "Good. I've been meaning to test my forms on you. If my father's men do come here for us, then I want to be in perfect condition to beat them."
"You're not going to just stand at the front of the compound and fight them off, are you, Zula?" Ty Lee asked, "That'd just be exhausting, not to mention really dangerous."
"I won't be alone, and I will position myself to ensure my own safety." she assured her, "I'm not going to open myself up to attack when I can help it, Ty Lee."
"We shouldn't be worrying about all that." Sokka suggested, "That's way off into the future, and we've still got other stuff to do... like dealing with the rebels and see if Zuko's forces are willing to cooperate."
"Not all of them are going to be that loyal to him personally." Azula conceded, before narrowing her eyes, "Sooner or later, we're going to be dealing with Shinu, that treacherous snake."
"Oh, yeah, him." he recalled the General, and then smiled at the memory of beating him up, "I did whack him for you."
"Well, we're going to need to do more than whack him to deal with his forces. He occupies one of the most important army bases in the entire Earth Kingdom." she noted, "And even if he is willing to cooperate with us, I will not accept his offers." she stressed, "I will take his Yuyuan Archers from him and burn that metal monstrosity to the ground."
"You sound like you hate him even more than you did Zuko." Ty Lee noted, a little uneased by the tone Azula was using, and the intense hatred she held toward him.
"Zuko never betrayed me personally... Shinu, however, certainly did." she stressed, before shaking her head, "We'll deal with him when the time comes." she admitted, before raising a brow, "Oh, here comes a servant. They must have the noodles." she noted, Sokka turning around to see that a servant was indeed coming their way with a tray carrying three bowls of noodles.
They placed the bowls down in front of them on the table, and the Water Tribesman nodded to acknowledge their work, before they bowed toward Azula, "Enjoy your meal, your majesty."
"How long until the main meal comes here?" she asked, the servant gesturing down to the noodles.
"As soon as you are finished with your starters."
She nodded, and raised her hand to dismiss him, and with that, he walked away from them; she turned her eyes to Sokka, and pointed down to his bowl, "So, are you going to start eating, or has something gone terribly wrong with you?"
"Oh, yeah, I will." he confirmed, picking up the chopsticks that sat beside him, before quickly digging into the bowl, scooping up noodles and the meat interspersed within and taking a bite.
He chewed it down and licked his lips, finding the spicy flavour of the noodles to be quite nice, not to even mention the softness of the meat. It seemed like it had been cooked for quite some time, and melted in his mouth.
"Delicious." he simply gave his opinion, "You've gotta try it."
"Well, it's not like I'm going to let a good meal go to waste when it's given to me." Ty Lee admitted, before scooping up some of the noodles with her own chopsticks and taking a bite; she remained silent for a few moments as she chewed, and both Sokka and Azula eyed her as she did, before she swallowed and nodded, "Yep it's good. Go on, Zula." she suggested for her to start, and she did, though with a moment of hesitation.
Sokka continued eating his meal, scooping up more of the meat and noodles, and chewed it down; he found the starter to actually be quite filling, though he certainly knew he could fit a lot of food in his gut.
Once he finished chewing that little portion, he turned his eyes up to his girlfriend, "So, other than sparring, was there anything else on the agenda today? Any activities?" he asked her, making her narrow her eyes at him, slightly confused by what he was saying, though that confusion itself was a bit of mystery to him- he didn't think there was anything odd asking her what they were going to be doing for the rest of the day.
"Are you saying you want to go on a date?" she asked him, making the Water Tribe warrior blink a few times as he considered what she had just said; he cringed as he realised that he did in fact refer to dates as activities, given that doing activities together with a little romantic intent constituted a date.
"That's not what I meant." he corrected her, "I mean, you're a person for planning out the day, Azula... so, what are we doing?" he asked her, before an awkward silence fell over the table, and Ty Lee looking toward her friend with confusion as Sokka decided to add a final bit to his question, "Unless you do want to go on a date?"
"Smooth." the acrobat complimented his efforts, which just made him cringe even more than he had before.
"We'll see." the Princess gave a vague answer, which he interpreted as being playful or purposefully frustrating, depending on whether she actually wanted to go on a date or not, "But I do have some plans for the afternoon. We need to plan something important." she admitted, Ty Lee nodding with a straight face, telling him that they'd talked about something serious while he was off in the workshop.
"What?" Sokka asked after a few moments of impatient silence, picking up some more of the noodles with his chopsticks, "I'd like to know about this important planning."
"Well, it's also... secret." Ty Lee admitted, and Sokka rolled his eyes as he chewed down on the next bit of noodles; once he was done chewing he pointed the chopsticks at her, sure that she was covering up something trivial just to play with him.
"Urgh, so, is it like a secret party or something for somebody's birthday?" he asked, the two of them looking at him with blank expressions.
"You seriously didn't mention anything to him about this?" the acrobat turned to face her friend, who shrugged her shoulders, not seeming concerned by her question, which certainly concerned Sokka, given it was telling him that there was something going on that he didn't know about.
"Well, I'm sure he's got his own plans. Sokka's no idiot." she retorted, before turning to eye her boyfriend; she leaned across the table, eyeing the nearby guards at the door of the compound before she whispered, "Do you have a plan to get out of here if we have to flee?"
"Hijack a steamer." he simply gave her the first thing he could think of; he hadn't thought about it that much, but it had been in the back of his mind at times, especially considering things after the bounty hunters came after them, "Of course, we might get chased by bigger ships, so that really only works if we're being stealthy about it."
"How can one be stealthy with a steamer, might I ask?" his girlfriend questioned, obviously finding his plan to be flawed.
"Urgh." he rolled his eyes, "I'm all ears, your majesty. What's your master plan?" he raised his hands up to offer her the time to speak about her own ideas of an escape plan.
"Well, I wouldn't use a steamer. I would get a steamer, and set it off, to distract whoever's after us, and then we'd run into the woods, and head for the closest Earth Kingdom rebel base. Unlike the Fire Nation, they have no reason to betray us to Ozai, and then, we'd be safe, even if they decided to take us prisoner." she explained her plan quietly, with a calm and collected tone, before she raised a brow, "So, does that work, Sokka?"
"I don't like the idea of being hostages of the Earth Kingdom. It's not that I don't like them, but our experience with Toph and Jet tells me it'd be better to just keep running until we find some way to contact Dad or Aang and Katara." he admitted, before sighing, "I really don't want to do that. I'd prefer if we just stayed here."
"Me too." Ty Lee agreed with him, "I don't want to get anywhere near him." she explained, her words vague, but the meaning behind them clear.
"Y-yeah." Sokka nodded, picking up some more of his noodles with his chopsticks, "I don't want to either." he agreed with her, before chewing down the noodles.
Azula's expression became clearly more serious upon comprehending her friend's words, and an eerie silence fell over the table; he knew he could say something, to try and assure them that the worst wouldn't occur, but he couldn't be sure of what would happen next. He loved his girlfriend, and he knew that the fact she was thinking about escaping proved that she couldn't be that set in her plans; she had to understand the weakness of their position to even contend an escape plan to begin with.
"We will have to." Azula admitted, picking up her cup of tea, "We can run, and we can hide, but the only way I become the Fire Lord is if I kill him." she bluntly stated her opinion, and Sokka cringed; he knew that she couldn't hate her father that much, at least nowhere near as much as he assumed Zuko did, and that was what made her words all the more chilling.
"Well, you don't need to... uh, you know, shoot him with lightning." he admitted, "I'm pretty sure if these airships are as effective as I think they might be, we'll be able to..." he trailed off, realising that Azula might not want to bomb her childhood home to the ground, "Uh, how much do you want that Royal Spa?"
"It can be rebuilt." she countered his point, telling him that she cared far more about victory than any pittance of luxury she would gain from a clean seizure of the capital, "If it comes to that, then I guess you are right, Sokka. We'll have to destroy the palace."
"Let's- uh- talk about something else." Ty Lee suggested, "Like, getting some earthbenders here to help us."
"Oh, that is a goal I have in mind." the Princess confirmed, "If we can persuade them to side with us, then we will be in a far better position. If there's anything I've learned from being with Aang and Katara, it's that with other bending arts by our side, we will be far stronger than whatever goons my father sends our way."
"Wow, so you do think waterbending is useful." Sokka gasped, feigning surprise; it was clear that she had come to understand, if not appreciate the other bending arts, and although Sokka personally had little care for them, she took great interest in making herself, and anyone around her, as capable as they could be, even in their own 'lesser' bending arts.
"Well, water's everywhere, Sokka." she raised a finger to stress, "It's used to make food, so it's in that. People drink it, so it's in people. Plants rely on it to grow, so it's in them too." she listed off a few things, "With a little ingenuity, the bending arts can be extended beyond whatever pittances the orthodox masters would teach you."
"So, I guess it's good Toph might be Aang's master. If she can see with her bending, she has to be much better than those guys." he realised, making her chuckle.
"Precisely." she nodded, "And I hope that your sister can learn to utilise her element in a similar manner. Of course, she has a lot of catching up to do, but I don't doubt her inherent skill."
"We don't need bending to win every battle, though." he argued, before smirking, "We can use traps."
"Traps?" Ty Lee raised a brow, "Ooh... you want to make some?"
"I dunno, I bet we could. It's not that hard, you just need to make something dangerous, cover it up, and let your enemies walk right into it. Like hidden pits, or even smoke bombs, like what those bounty hunters used."
"You know, Sokka, using smoke bombs would be a very-" she began, before her eyes widened, "You genius."
"Why thank you." he placed a hand on his chest as he bowed forward in an exaggerated fashion, "I know smoke bombs are useful. You know that my dad invented some stink bombs to use-" he began, Azula shaking her head.
"No, no, not about traps." she clarified her intentions, before raising a finger, "The palace."
"You want to..." his eyes widened, realising her intentions, and he smirked, "Oh, that's a good one."
"Gassing out the palace, knocking everyone unconscious. If my father's there, we could just take him captive and embarrass him in front of his entire clique of supporters." she explained, "Oh, that's... diabolical." she admitted with a cocky smirk, before turning to face Ty Lee, "Trust me, Ty Lee, the only kind of benders that could stop smoke bombs are airbenders, and the only one in the world is our friend."
"Okay, I trust you." her friend nodded, "That's a good idea." she agreed, before grimacing, "Though... getting to the palace is probably going to be hard."
"That's why we can't..." he began, before raising a finger to his chin, "Actually, I'll just think on this one." he admitted, knowing that he had some thoughts about trickery, in fooling Ozai's forces into thinking their strengths were somewhere else, so the airships and gassing would come as a surprise.
"And eat your starter, so we can get onto the main." Azula suggested, "You'll have plenty of time to come with a plan between now and when we actually have the airship fleet to do anything about it."
"Fair point." he agreed with her, before scooping up as much noodles and meat as he could with his chopsticks, and shoved it into his mouth, just to remind her that she had told him explicitly to eat, and thus, he was going to abuse the situation to be as grubby as possible.
Momentarily, she seemed disgusted by what he was doing, but she shook her head, covered her face from view with her left hand, "I need to be more careful with my words." she simply conceded her mistake, before she too began to eat, though far slower and more neatly than he was.
Once he swallowed what was in his mouth, he raised his right hand up, "I'll slow down." he assured her, not wanting to needlessly agitate his girlfriend, as humorous as it would be.
He continued to eat his noodles, and once he finished chewing down on the food in his mouth, he swallowed it and picked up his cup of tea, taking a sip from it. It washed out his mouth, and he let out a breath before returning to his meal. His eyes darted up to Azula, who was calmly eating her meal, though he could tell she had things on her mind. He guessed it had something to do with the potential of assassins and other dangers coming for them; though he was concerned himself, Sokka was much more focused on being ready for the fight to come, whether it be with the Dai Li or Ozai.
He knew that she had good reason for her paranoia, but that didn't mean he agreed that she ought to let her mind be dominated by thoughts and plans of how to escape unknown threats that at present seemed to be far from likely. His noodles were a good distraction for his own concerns about his girlfriend; he knew that his thoughts must have been in parallel to her own, with the caveat that Sokka lacked much self-preservation. He was only really concerned about her, and making sure their group was safe; seeing that he couldn't worry about Katara, or at least, act on his worries, he was left single mindedly focusing on his girlfriend's well-being and safety.
Once he had finished his bowl of noodles, which he got through quite quickly, given it was only a small bowl, he decided to pour himself some more tea, knowing that it would help wash down the mild spice of the noodles. He knew that the main would probably be worse, and he cringed at the thought of having to ask Azula if he could go to the toilet; it was probably the most embarrassing thing that could happen at a meal, and he was sure it could happen. Ty Lee finished around the same time as he did, and she pointed her finger toward the teapot; without having to tell him, he pushed the pot over, and she smiled before she poured herself some more tea.
"Did you want to do some chi-blocking practice at some point?" she asked him, before smirking, "I could show you how to do it with your feet." she suggested, making Sokka snicker at the thought of beating people by jabbing them with his toes.
"Uh, I guess it would help." he admitted, "Though, I have no idea when I'd be fighting without boots on." he added, unsure even when he'd be able to apply such a skill.
"Assassins come into the bedroom to kill us." the Princess gave an answer to his question, and the Water Tribesman cringed upon noting Ty Lee's posture shrinking back as she glanced over her shoulder.
"Maybe having the guards around wouldn't hurt." she suggested, making Azula shake her head.
"You're even more paranoid than me, and that's saying something." she warned her, before picking up her some noodles with her chopsticks, "There's men patrolling this base at all times. The only place that'd be safer than this would be the palace or a blocked up cave."
"Unless the Dai Li send some people after us... in which case a cave is not so safe." Sokka warned her, and the Princess cringed.
"Oh... good point, Sokka. They might be wanting to get back at us, even before we try to get back at them." she conceded the threat that faced them, "I think that's why it's imperative we get some earthbenders on side. They will be able to provide the kind of protection that even my guards would be unable to give."
"Or just Toph. I'm pretty sure she could handle the Dai Li better than anyone with her crazy abilities." he suggested, making Ty Lee smile.
"Well, that's good to hear, if she's coming to join us." she noted, before scrunching her lips up, "What's she like?"
"Annoying, snarky, and too observant for her own good." Azula described her succinctly.
"But isn't that you?" the acrobat asked, making the Princess's expression shift to one of bewilderment; she probably wasn't expecting that comment from Ty Lee of all people.
"Excuse me?" she asked, sounding like she was ready to start a fight over her comment.
"Okay, you're not annoying, other than with the training regime." she corrected herself, making Sokka cackle as he saw his girlfriend's expression shift to one of embarrassment.
"Both of you, shut it!" she demanded, the Water Tribe warrior raising his hands up.
"I'll just drink the tea. Maybe it'll help you calm down."
"I am only annoyed because somebody doesn't know how to keep their trap shut."
"You just don't like getting compared to a blind earthbender." he corrected her, "I mean, it's not that much of an insult. You know she's the kind of 'powerful bender' you want on our team."
"She is." Azula conceded, before narrowing her eyes at him, "But I am not like anyone. Do you think a girl like that could be a ruler?" she asked her boyfriend, who raised his teacup up to acknowledge her point.
"Nowhere as good as you, your majesty." he assured her, and she narrowed her eyes at him, seemingly confused by his comment.
"I am the Fire Lord." she realised, "I just haven't gotten my headpiece yet." she noted, self-consciously touching the small red headpiece hat she had placed in front of her topknot.
"That's not what makes you the Fire Lord." Ty Lee turned her head to face her friend, her expression far more serious than usual.
"Then what does?"
"Honour. You have more honour than he'd ever have."
When he arrived at one of the entrances to New Omashu, Aang didn't know what to expect, but he certainly hadn't expected getting rocks thrown at Appa; he would admit, it wasn't the best arrival he could have had to the city, though the rocks were held back as soon as the earthbenders wielding them realised that it was the Avatar who had arrived, and not some Fire Nation soldiers. When he set the sky-bison down, he was feeling calm and assured that things were going well, but that calmness was shattered when he heard from the guards that the meeting he had heard about from Chey, where Omashu was to be turned back over to Bumi's control, had ended up with a bunch of soldiers mutinying and attempting to kill the Governor, Bumi and General Iroh, who he recalled as being Azula's uncle.
He had a feeling that the turn of events at that meeting must have been connected with whatever had happened in the Fire Nation Capital. Katara was just as unnerved by the news as he was, and she didn't seem like she was feeling comfortable as they strode into the tunnels of the city. Though the people who had started that fight were likely still in Old Omashu, some distance away from the underground city, that didn't mean that the danger wasn't looming over them. He felt that they should leave the city as quickly as they possibly could, knowing that if a bunch of Ozai's loyalists learned Aang had arrived in the city, then they would be in serious danger, and would be putting the people of the city in danger as well.
Though he had been excited to see Toph, and ask her to be his earthbending master, he knew those emotions and thoughts were drowned out by thinking once again about what was going on in the Fire Nation. He didn't know Zuko, but that wasn't who he was thinking about when he heard Ozai had had him killed; Azula was who he was thinking about, and as her friend, he felt more than a little worried assassins might be coming her way. Once she learned about what had happened in the capital, he guessed it would only be a matter of time before she acted; what those actions would comprise, he was unsure, not being the most versed in politics as a twelve year old boy, who until a few months prior, had known nothing about a hundred year war and the complex politics of the Fire Nation.
Aang realised that they had a great opportunity in New Omashu. Azula's uncle, who now, due to the circumstances, had a good reason to work with her, was in the city, perhaps with Bumi at that very moment. Despite the Princess's less than appealing comments about him, Aang knew he had let Sokka take her away from the Agni Kai after she had been hit by lightning, and from that, he could see that he was somebody that could be trusted. Even if he wasn't there with them, he was sure that Sokka would argue to cooperate with him.
Katara stepped closer to him as they made their way down the tunnel, Momo sitting on his shoulder as he eyed ahead, wondering exactly what they'd be doing first, "So, to the throne room?" he asked her, and she nodded; nobody had called for them, even if the guards had explained what had happened in Old Omashu, so he decided that was the best course of action.
"We could go try and find Toph." she suggested, "But she might be out scouting." she added, not sounding very sure of herself.
"Bumi has to be here, unless he's decided he really is going to go take back the city himself." he noted, before chuckling, knowing that he'd like to see his friend to do, "I'd be annoyed if we missed that."
"What, you wanna see him kick the Fire Nation's butt?"
"Do I?" he grinned at her, "It's not because it's the Fire Nation, it's because it's Bumi."
"He is a good bender." she acknowledged, "Maybe he should be your master instead."
"He might not want to leave Omashu... he's the king, I don't think he can just get up and leave just because he thinks he'd like to train me." he noted, "And we can't stay here for that long. Azula would be angry, and Sokka might get sad because he can't see you."
"I'm sure Sokka isn't that worried about me." she assured him, the young Air Nomad blinking a few times.
"I mean, he shouldn't be that worried. You're a great waterbender now." he agreed with her, before eyeing up ahead, noting that they were approaching the proper entrance of the city, where a few men stood on duty, their expressions shifting to ones of surprise as they realised who they were.
"Avatar Aang." one of them addressed him with a salute, "It is good to see you back in our city once again. The King told us to tell you if you returned that you should come to see him at once." he explained, rather enthusiastically, before pointing down the path into the city proper.
"Uh, okay, that's what we were going to do." he clarified, before striding past them and waving, "Thanks!"
Momo chittered and jumped off of his shoulder, before he began to glide down through the tunnel; knowing the flying lemur, he was probably going to find some of the stalls in the city's market and go steal some fruits. He just hoped he could do so without getting caught; he didn't want some angry stall owners going after the little lemur.
"And there goes Momo." Katara observed, before she furrowed a brow, "I wonder if people think about us differently because of... uh, you know." she reminded him of how badly things had turned out last time; it wasn't Azula's fault, even if she certainly wasn't liked by many people due to her position as Princess of the Fire Nation, and her actions before Yu Dao, which Aang understood as not helping her case for earning the trust of the Earth Kingdom.
"Let's just avoid Jet." he decided, "He's... well, he's not very nice."
"Yeah, that's a way of saying it." she acknowledged, suggesting she had a more rude way of referring to his behaviour, though he was glad she didn't say it, knowing that Katara wasn't one to be angry and use hateful words, at least not when it came to people she really didn't have a good reason to despise, like the Southern Raiders.
They continued down through the main tunnel of the city, allowing them to see all the way down toward the throne room already, though it was still quite some distance away, with a market in between them and it. Aang wondered how the city had been faring since he was there last, not considering the recent events in the Fire Nation; the place didn't seem like it was feeling solemn, though as he saw people walking by, he could notice a certain edge to their expressions. Everyone was tense, and he guessed it might have had to do with the Fire Nation people in their city. He knew that General Iroh was in the city, but he must have had some kind of entourage, similar to what Admiral Zhao had had when he went to the Northern Water Tribe.
Katara averted her eyes from the glances of onlookers, who must have come to recognise them, with Aang's tattoos now showing, despite the hair that he had covering his head. He didn't know if she was as easily noticeable, though her Water Tribe colours were pretty distinct, at least compared to the drab colours that people wore in the Earth Kingdom. She gestured ahead, and he noticed that he could recognise a few of the people at the market; it was some of Jet's friends, the Freedom Fighters, though the boy himself was distinctly missing from the group. They quickly realised that the young Avatar was approaching, and turned to wave to him; he cringed slightly, realising that he had said they should avoid Jet, when in fact, they were running right into his friends.
"Oh, hi. Are you guys back from the North Pole?" Pipsqueak asked them, the pair nodding.
"Yep." Aang confirmed, before glancing around, finding no sign of Jet, "Where's Jet?"
"Uh, he's talking with some of the leaders about an operation to go take back Omashu." Smellerbee explained, "It's only just in the works. I guess you guys have heard what happened now."
"Yeah, we did." Katara nodded, "Have you seen the Fire Nation people yet?"
"Yeah." The Duke stressed, his tone sounding a little agitated, "They're just walking around freely. We're not the only ones unhappy about it." he admitted, the young Avatar nervously scratching the back of his scalp.
"Uh, well, at least they're on our side." he admitted, "I mean... not working for Ozai."
"Who's Ozai?" Smellerbee asked, the young Avatar cringing slightly as he considered whether he should explain.
"Azula's Dad. He's a pretty terrible person, and we're going to stop him, somehow." the Water Tribe girl stressed, before she eyed the Freedom Fighters, "These other people are loyal to Zuko, so they aren't really your enemies."
"Loyalty to a dead guy isn't really helping their case." Smellerbee argued, before furrowing a brow, "Where is uh... her highness and Sokka?"
"Very far from here." Katara clarified, "They couldn't come because... well, they're doing politics."
"Politics." the Freedom Fighter repeated her last word, crossing her arms as she made a skeptical expression, "So, is your brother a politician now?"
"Uh, kinda." Aang commented, Katara looking at him with confusion.
"Well, you remember what happened at the North Pole with that meeting, right? The one where he got all angry with those Northern Water Tribe people." he asked her, the Water Tribe girl nodding.
"I guess he does try to vouch for the interests of our tribe... and he probably does want to become Chief one day." she conceded, before glancing back over in the direction of the throne room, "Speaking of which... we've got to go talk politics now, I'm guessing."
"Are you here to see the king?" The Duke asked them, the pair both nodding.
"We are." Aang confirmed, before beginning to walk that direction, "So sorry, we can't- uh, chat, we need to go see Bumi."
"Uh, yeah, of course." the young boy replied, understanding his reasoning, and with that, the pair began to pace on over toward the throne room.
"They really don't seem to trust these other Fire Nation people." Katara noted with a near whisper, "Maybe everyone else feels the same."
"I hope not." Aang admitted, "I mean, I don't know everyone thinks... but they all can't be thinking the worst of each other."
"That's what the world is like Aang... take this from somebody who thought about the Fire Nation the same way they did for a long time... for most of my life, really." she warned him, before sighing, "I wish people could understand they're not all that bad, but even then... we can't just think the best of everyone. They did invade the world, and even if they're not... bad people, doesn't mean they won't agree to it. From the sounds of what Azula says, nearly everyone must have gone along with it."
"Kuzon wouldn't've." he declared defiantly, making her raise a brow.
"I've heard you mention that name before. Is he one of your friends from before the war?"
"Yeah." he nodded, "He's from the Fire Nation, and he's a good guy... was a good guy." he corrected himself, grimacing at the thought of what his friend's fate might have been; he doubted he'd be as lucky to see him still alive, unlike Bumi, who was despite his age, still alive and kicking in the most bombastic way possible, as he saw from their duel a few months prior.
Katara didn't respond to his comment with words, simply placing a hand on his shoulder, her face telling him that she understood; he missed his old life so much, and there was no way of getting it back. Bumi was one of the only people he knew that were left, and he was glad that he would be seeing his friend once more. The pair made their way on toward the throne room, where a pair of guards stood; the guards opened the doors quite early, and got out of their way, something Aang saw as a sign of respect. He smiled at the guards, and bowed toward them in respect, before he paced on into the throne room, where he could see Bumi, who was sitting across from another man; he was old, though nowhere near as old as the king, and a little portly.
Aang realised from the colour of his clothes and his eyes who he was, even if he hadn't received a very detailed description of the figure before him- it was General Iroh, Azula's uncle, and from what he understood, Zuko's right-hand man. He might have felt a little concerned about walking into a room where he sat if it weren't for the turn of events concerning the young Fire Lord; Iroh wasn't going to do anything that his niece might have imagined he would have, at least when his nephew was still alive.
The two men turned to face them, and Bumi's eyes widened, before he grinned from ear to ear, "Aangǃ" he exclaimed, rising up to his feet, "You've finally come back."
"Yeah, I have." he confirmed, striding toward the table that they were sitting at, "And, uh, you're Iroh, right?"
"Yes, that's me." he confirmed, before furrowing a brow, "I assume my niece has spoken about me."
"Ranted." Katara corrected him, before cringing slightly, "But... uh, she's not that bad." she assured him, "Not that I think you hate her or anything... you saved her life."
"So..." he narrowed his eyes at her, "Are you Sokka's sister?"
"Yes." she confirmed, before gesturing to Aang, "And this is the Avatar, Aang, though I assume you already knew that."
"I did." he admitted, "I've been waiting for you, young Avatar."
He cringed slightly, wondering whether he ought to sit down and talk with him, but he knew he didn't really have much of a choice; he didn't just have Azula to worry about, but the fate of the whole world.
"So... do you want me to beat up your... uh, brother, and overthrow him?" he simply asked, guessing that was what he wanted him to do.
The General's eyes widened, surprised that he had said that of all things, and turned to face Bumi, "Well, he knows more than I expected."
"Avatar Roku told me he was a danger when I went to the temple." he explained, "I've known... we've all known he was a danger."
"Well, I'm glad we're all on the same page." he smiled at him, before furrowing a brow, "May I ask, does my niece know about... her ancestry?" he asked, the young Avatar nodding.
"Yep." he confirmed, "Roku told me that she was his great granddaughter, and that she would be able to teach me firebending." he explained, "She knows too."
"Oh, good." he smiled, before reaching into his robes, "Would you mind doing me a favour?"
"I need to give Azula something... though... given what has been said about Zuko, perhaps it won't be going to her." he admitted with a dark voice.
He pulled out of his robes a headpiece, in the shape of two flames with a stick going between them, and Aang immediately recognised it; he pointed at it, "Th-that's mine." he declared, the General letting out a little laugh.
"Well, I guess it is." he conceded, before placing it down on the table, "I want you to give that to my niece."
"Because it's Roku's." he realised, "So, it's hers."
"Not exactly." he admitted, "It's the headpiece of the Crown Prince or Princess of the Fire Nation. Fire Lord Sozin, back when he was a Prince, gave it to his best friend, Roku, just after he found out he was the Avatar." he explained, the Avatar's eyes widening.
"Wh-what?" he gasped, "You mean... Sozin was Roku's best friend?"
"Long ago." he confirmed, "But now, it should return to its rightful owner... or, if my nephew is really dead..." he explained his expression becoming pained; he looked like he wanted to cry, but he kept his face straight, turning to face Aang, "It should be given to whatever child they have."
"Child?" Katara raised a brow, before her eyes widened, "W-wait... you're saying that's for Azula's kid?"
"Yes." he confirmed, "Well... if she has one."
The Water Tribe girl raised a hand to her cheek, realising that one day, she might be an aunt to the future Fire Lord, which Aang thought was a crazy thing, but that was just the fact of the matter.
"And if they're a waterbender, I guess you and I will have a lot in common." he turned his eyes to Katara, who's mouth fell slightly ajar.
"Can a waterbender be the Fire Lord?"
"I don't think there's anything that makes that illegal." he conceded, "Though, I assume my niece would change the laws if that was the case." he noted, before shaking his head, "But that's nothing for us to worry about. Azula has to fulfil her destiny... her real destiny."
"That's not being the Fire Lord, I assume." the Water Tribe girl conceded, "That's... oh." her eyes widened, "What... what exactly happened to Avatar Roku?"
"Sozin left him for dead at the volcano that was consuming his home island." he clarified, Aang's eyes widening.
"Wh-what?" he gasped, "That's terrible... and they were friends?"
"Yes." he agreed, "I believe he regretted his actions, but... he can't have regretted them that much."
"Because he..." he began, before clenching his fists, Katara placing a hand on his shoulder.
"Aang, don't get angry. There's nothing we can do."
"No, there is." he retorted, knowing what Roku had told him was necessary, "I have to fight Ozai."
"Not yet." Iroh warned him, "My brother is a master firebender... and he is ferocious. Without all the elements at your disposal, he might destroy you."
"Imagine if I fought you without going easy, Aang." Bumi suggested, "But with fire." he added, making him consider what that would be like.
"Oh." his eyes widened, the comparison making him shudder with fear; he could barely face off against his friend when he was going easy on him, but to imagine such skill and power in a firebender only made him think of one thing, "But she could beat him. She's everything I should be."
"Azula is a different kind of person to you, Aang." Katara stressed to him, "It's not like you should have to become like her to beat her father."
"Your friend is right." Iroh agreed with her, "My niece is powerful, that is true, but she is driven for different reasons than you. She wants to fight to take what she believes is hers, while you fight because you have to."
"Not exactly." his friend corrected him, the General's eyes widening.
"What do you... please, explain. I want to hear how she has changed." he explained his thoughts, the Water Tribe girl nodding.
"She fights for justice... what she thinks is justice, at least. She stopped Zhao, because he was evil and insane, and he had caused the deaths of innocents in Yu Dao." she explained, the General nodding, presumably agreeing with Azula's judgement, "And she will fight her father, because of what he has done to her."
"He is a terrible parent." Iroh conceded, before looking down, solemnly, "But I'm not much better."
"You're a father?" Aang asked, the General turning his eyes up toward him, making what seemed like a bittersweet smile.
"I once was." he clarified, "I failed my son, and now, I have failed the boy I swore to protect, again. And if I fail to persevere and stop my brother, then my niece might suffer the same fate, just because she decided to step out of his shadow."
"She has." Katara agreed with him, her confident expression shifting; Aang could tell she regretted how she had treated the Princess for all those months, and in seeing all the effort Azula had gone through to prove herself, he understood that regret had perhaps only grown, "I... I wasn't nice to her, for no good reason. I mistrusted her because I believed she was evil- I thought everyone from your country was."
"And I believed it was righteous to destroy the Earth Kingdom once, so my country could bring about a prosperous new age." Iroh admitted, "People change... I see that my niece has shown you that we are not as you might have believed... though, in all honesty, I am surprised it was her of all people."
"She's not nice." Katara conceded, though Aang didn't doubt her honesty; she wasn't going to deny she still conflicted with the Princess, or that her attitudes and behaviours could be excused, "But she is so much better than whatever she was like before, or what her father is like... I assume."
"Fighting for justice and not for herself... that warms my heart." he admitted, "I would have thought it would have taken more for her to really see the flaws in our nation's way of seeing the world, but I guess love makes possible."
"It's really sweet." Aang smiled, glad that Sokka and her romance had made her see the world in such a drastically different way; the reactions he had seen from Ty Lee in how she acted proved that it wasn't just his assumptions- she really did change because of their experiences together.
"I think it is good that she has grown." Iroh acknowledged, "I just wish this meeting could have happened under better circumstances."
"We do too." Katara agreed with him, before wincing slightly, "So... is there anything else you wanted to know about her?"
"What did she want to do?" he asked, "Obviously... things will be different now, but I think it's worth asking what she wanted."
"Azula wanted to make the Fire Nation see her as a more favourable Fire Lord." the Water Tribe girl explained, "What exactly that entailed... I don't know."
"So, she wants to prove herself to the whole country." he raised a finger to his goatee, "That is an admirable goal."
"Well, she did want to beat Zuko." Aang added, knowing it couldn't be ignored; the Princess had voiced her intent to face down her brother multiple times, "I don't know how she would have done it." he added, knowing his own uncertainty as to how she would attain victory; he didn't even know if Azula or Sokka knew how she might be able to win in such a fight.
"By believing her path to be righteous." the General gave him an answer which made a lot of sense; Azula was the kind of person who seemed to need a justification to do things that were otherwise pretty mean or just outright ruthless.
Perhaps it was because she wanted a way to explain it to Sokka, so she wouldn't lose his trust and support. Aang knew that if he was in his position, he would more than likely conflict over those things, but he was glad he wasn't; those fights were for them to have alone, and for the Water Tribe boy to make sure she kept her head level.
"I guess that makes sense." he noted, "How'd you know that?"
"Because my niece and I are more similar than she'd like to admit." he clarified, making the young Avatar blink a few times, perplexed by his suggestion.
"Similar?" he asked, "You don't seem anything like her."
"Now." he raised a finger, "Is Bumi the same as he was when he was twelve?"
"Kind of." he turned to face his friend, knowing that the same boy he knew was old and wrinkled, but he was still the same person, with the same wit and grin, "He's still Bumi."
"And I am still the Dragon of the West, the man who tried to conquer Ba Sing Se." he explained, placing his hands together, "We should not let our pasts define us, and not forget our mistakes. My niece seems to have taken that mindset to heart... as I did, when I faced my ultimate failure."
"So... you weren't always so nice." Katara guessed, the General nodding.
"I am ashamed for some of the things I did, or let happen... but I have grown past who I once was, and the lies I believed." he explained himself, "Azula has grown, and I feel she may grow further to face what stands before her."
"I guess we'll all need to grow." the Water Tribe girl agreed, "You've already mastered waterbending, Aang."
"Well, I wouldn't say I've mastered it." he refused to agree with her compliment, "I still have a lot to learn."
"An open mind is a pathway to strengths you might not have known you had." Iroh clarified, the young Avatar smiling at his proverb.
"That's a good saying."
"Thank you." he grinned at him, "People either love or hate my proverbs. I'm glad you like them."
Katara furrowed a brow, and placed her hands together, "Uh... General Iroh, did you have any advice about what Aang should do to learn the elements?"
"Advice?" he raised a brow, before smiling, "Oh, I do have some."
"I'm all ears." Aang smiled at him, sure he had something wise to say, and the General stroked his goatee.
"The four elements are different and unique in their own ways, but you should not ignore the similarities between them." he explained, "If you simply think about waterbending, or earthbending, just by themselves, then you are restricting yourself. With access to all the elements, you are best placed to utilise ideas from all bending arts and use them to your advantage."
"Huh." his eyes widened, considering the point he just raised, "I guess that's a good idea. Bending is just bending, after all. But... I don't want to try and airbend earth... I don't think that will work."
"No, it probably won't, at least to begin with." Iroh agreed with him, "You can, once you understand it well enough, try to see how you can take your thinking from the other elements you know and see how they can work together." he explained, the young Avatar nodding.
"I will." he confirmed, Katara furrowing a brow, before she turned to face Iroh.
"Uh... you know, when I was first trying to learn waterbending, before we got a scroll, Azula was saying something similar to that." she admitted, making the General's eyes widen.
"Oh, was she? Did she try to apply her firebending knowledge to help you learn?" he asked, the waterbender nodding, "That's... well, smart of her."
"Yeah, that's what I thought at the time." she agreed with him, "Well, at least we're all on the same page. Azula will be a good firebending master."
"Well..." the General trailed off, glancing toward his teacup, before he nodded, "I believe you'll be a better judge of her character than myself, given I haven't had a proper interaction with her in the past five and a half years." he admitted, making Aang's eyes widen.
"Oh... that's how long he was exiled for." he recalled what he had been told by Azula months prior, concerning her brother's banishment, and the rather disturbing thing their father did to him.
"In hindsight, I wish that I had tried harder to guide my niece." he admitted, his expression becoming saddened; he was unsure whether his distraught was over the fate of his nephew, or really just over his inability to help Azula as Aang knew Sokka had, "But... we don't get second chances very often in life."
"I get what you mean." Aang acknowledged, "Second chances are rare," he noted, turning his eyes to Bumi, "and I got one." he noted, the old king chuckling.
"That you did. And you had a lot of luck getting yourself found by a master firebender... one that didn't decide to attack you because of who you are." he reminded him, the young Avatar cringing.
"I can't imagine what I'd be doing if I'd been found earlier. I don't know who I could have found to train me." he admitted, the general letting out a little chuckle.
"Oh, I'm sure that if the time had been suitable, I might have provided my assistance."
"Really?" he raised a brow, "Even back when... uh, you were fighting in the war?"
"Well, for the greater good of the world, I would have had to cooperate." he admitted, "I doubt that once you had been trained, my father would have posed much of a threat. He was a great bender, but he was only one man."
"So is Ozai." Aang noted something obvious about the situation they were facing, "I guess it won't be that hard."
"As long as you have the full use of the elements and a strategy to beat him, then you will be victorious." he assured him, the young Avatar smiling at him, glad for his comforting words; he realised that, despite her grating behaviours and somewhat amoral tendencies, Azula was more similar to the man before her than she'd like to admit.
"I'm glad I could come here and meet you, General Iroh."
"I feel the same, Avatar Aang." he nodded in return, before raising a brow, "You weren't just here to meet us, were you?"
"Oh, yes, Toph." Bumi's expression brightened, answering Iroh's question before he had a chance to, "She'll probably be at her apartment or beating up some men in the training yards."
"Well, I do want to go ask her if she wants to train me." Aang explained himself, before rising back up to his feet, "Are you coming, Katara?"
"Of course." she assured him, "It was good to meet you." she turned to Iroh, "We'll probably be back soon enough." she admitted, the King of Omashu stroking his beard.
"Well, there's a war to fight. You're here to lend a hand, right?" he asked, the Water Tribe girl laughing off his suggestion, scratching the back of her head awkwardly.
"Uh, yeah, we're here to help... if it's necessary." she agreed to his proposition, before tapping Aang on the shoulder, "Let's go find her."
He paced on back toward the doors of the throne room, which were opened up for them as they approached; Aang waved back to the two men sitting by the table, knowing that he'd be back to talk with Bumi about things, to try and get his advice on what he might be facing in future. Out of all people, he was sure he could trust him for some wise and well-reasoned advice, and he might provide tactics, strategies or plans that he mightn't have even considered alone. When they stepped back out into the tunnels of the city, Aang glanced around, and tried to recall where Toph's apartment was; he'd only been there once before, but he was sure they could find it if they just asked around. He was sure that people knew who she was, given how much she liked to show off, and the abilities which gave her good reason to do so.
He and Katara began making their way down back toward the market that ran through the centre of the underground city, and he glanced around, noting that the Freedom Fighters were now gone, presumably either off to go on patrol, or to rest in their quarters. He narrowed his eyes, trying to remember where Toph's apartment was, and looked down the tunnels that ran off away from the main one, unable to recall which path he would have to take to reach it. He turned his gaze to Katara, hoping that she had a better idea than he did.
"Can you remember where her place is?" he asked, the Water Tribe girl stopping still for a moment as she glanced around.
"Somewhere away from the main tunnel. I think it was closer to the other end of the city." she explained what she remembered, the young Avatar nodding, and with that, they continued on down the tunnel in the direction of the entrance.
He continued glancing down the tunnels flanking off from the main tunnel as they made their way past the market stalls once more, and tried to remember where exactly the apartment was. He was certain it was on the right side, that being the same side as the training yards, which were as far down in that direction as one could go by the tunnels. Suddenly, his attention was drawn by some chittering, and he glanced back to see that Momo was approaching them, and he quickly climbed Aang's side to reach his shoulder.
"Hey, buddy." he smiled at the flying lemur, "Did you get any food?" he asked, the lemur glancing around, a response that didn't tell him which was the case; he was sure that he could make sure Momo and Appa were both fed once he got back to Bumi, who he was sure would offer them some food to eat while they were staying in the city, even if it was only for a few nights at the very most.
They continued along, and Aang decided, given that he really didn't have any idea where he was going, to turn right at the next tunnel, and make his way down there; hopefully, if he came across some people who lived in the tunnel, they might be able to tell him if Toph was their neighbour or not. They continued along the tunnel, and Aang heard the sound of some children laughing up ahead of them; he noticed that they were playing around in the tunnel, chasing each other and wrestling about. He was unsure why they were doing it, but some of them noticed the two of them as they made their way down the tunnel, and seemed confused by their presence.
"Who are these weirdos?" one of the kids asked another, "Are they here to help you guys?"
"No!" another of them shouted at him in return, "I've never seen these people before."
Katara stepped forward, raising her hands up, "Uh, I don't mean to get in whatever... fight you're having, but we're looking for someone."
"Looking?" a young girl asked them, "You two aren't from around here."
"No we're not." Aang conceded, "Uh, we're looking for a blind girl, a little older than me, dark hair, sand-coloured tunic?" he asked, the kids looking amongst themselves.
"The Blind Bandit?" one of them asked, before pointing down the tunnel, "Yeah, she lives just down there. Are you going to go fight her?"
"That would be a bad idea." Aang admitted, "I just want to talk to her."
They looked at him with surprised, somewhat confused expressions, and as they walked by, Katara leaned over, and told them with a purposefully loud whisper, "He's the Avatar, you know?"
Aang turned and noticed that their expressions shifted to ones of surprise, and they began to chatter amongst themselves; with his hair partially covering the tattoos on his head, and his attire a little less obvious than the usual monk robes, he obviously didn't look like how they might expect him to.
"I thought he'd be older." one of them commented, making him snicker, remembering that he was technically a hundred and fourteen, even if he was only twelve physically and in mind.
He and Katara continued on, heading in the direction the kid had indicated, and Aang hoped they could find Toph's apartment quickly enough; he glanced around the street, and tried to remember which one was her home. They were all rather indistinguishable, other than the few racks of clothes and sheets that had been left out to dry, as well as a few small decorations on the doorways and windows, which had carvings on them. The carvings depicted things he'd seen before in Earth Kingdom cities and towns, such as lion turtles and badger moles.
Suddenly he heard a shout behind him, "Oi, Twinkletoes!" he heard Toph address him, and the Air Nomad turned his heels, smiling as he made sight of the stout earthbender, who had her hands on her hips as she stood by the door of an apartment, "What are you doing back here?"
"Looking for you." he admitted honestly, making her chuckle.
"You do realise I can sense all around these tunnels. I already sensed you coming around this way." she explained, making Katara furrow a brow.
"Then why didn't you come out to greet us earlier?" she asked, the earthbender crossing her arms, seeming annoyed by her suggestion.
"Well, I spent all of last night out scouting to make sure the Fire Nation wasn't trying to invade the city after the shit they pulled at Old Omashu." she explained, "I was in bed, trying to get some sleep."
"Oh." she mumbled, seeming a little embarrassed by her forthright question, "Sorry."
"Eh, whatever. I don't really care." she assured her, before gesturing toward them with her right hand, her head turned slightly away from them in a way that slightly unnerved Aang; she didn't need to be able to see or even look at them to sense them and know exactly where they were, "So, are you here to recruit me to help her highness?"
"Well, this isn't really about Azula." Aang admitted, "I want you to be my master."
The earthbender crossed her arms, seeming to be weighing up his offer, "Be your master?" she asked rhetorically, which only made him more nervous, "What says I even want to teach a light-footed Air Nomad like you?"
"Uh..." he cringed, scratching the back of his head, "I'll learn how to be an earthbender." he assured her, "I don't know much about it, but you must know a lot."
"Yeah, it's how I see the world... literally." she stressed by raising her right finger up, before tilting her head slightly upward, "So, are you ready to be tested?"
"Tested?" he raised a brow, stepping closer, "Are we going to start training now?"
"Hold up, I didn't even say I'd teach you yet." she warned him, "I'm going to see if you're worth my time."
"W-w-wait, really?" he asked, now concerned that she might refuse him for being too far from the mindset expected of an earthbender, or purely because she didn't like his personality- he felt a little offended, but far more nervous.
"Yes, really." she stressed, before smirking, "But I know that you already have the power to earthbend." she noted, "I saw you do it that day."
"I did." he recalled, remembering what Katara had told him, as he had blacked out during the actual experience of the Avatar State, "I won't let you down."
"No need to get so serious." she strode up toward him, punching him in the shoulder, "I wanna hear what you've been up to. I'm sure the Princess has been up to something interesting." she noted, before turning her head slightly so she was looking in Katara's general direction, "And your brother might have embarrassed himself again."
"Actually... it's been mostly the opposite. Sokka's... well, he's done pretty well." she admitted, making the earthbender scrunch her lips up.
"Intimidating people or beating people?"
"Both." Aang clarified, "He's pretty good at both."
"And flirting with another Princess." Katara raised a finger, making Toph snicker; she grinned, obviously thinking that was hilarious.
"Oh great. Did Azula beat the crap out of him?"
"I don't even know if she knows about it." the Water Tribe girl admitted, "We split up for a few weeks while she was going to take control over her former supporters... by tricking a high ranking officer into becoming the prisoner of the Northern Water Tribe."
"Nope." Aang admitted, and his expression faltered as he remembered what Sokka had to go through, "Sokka saved the Northern Water Tribe- actually, he saved waterbending... I helped a little."
"Saved waterbending?" she raised a brow, "Okay, now I'm just confused." she admitted, "You mean, he made sure the masters didn't die or something?"
"No, like he actually saved waterbending. The crazy guy Azula was dealing with wanted to kill a spirit to get rid of waterbending." he explained, making Toph scoff.
"Wow... okay, sounds like you've been having a more interesting time than I have." she noted, before crossing her arms, "So, you've learned how to waterbend, right?" she asked, the young Avatar nodding.
"Yep." he confirmed, "I can waterbend pretty good, though Katara's better." he explained, before he grinned at her, "So, can you teach me earthbending?"
"Can, yes... want to, unsure." she clarified, before tilting her head down the tunnel, "How about we go to the training yards and we'll see what you're made of."
"Sounds like a plan." he nodded, ready to go along with whatever she had in mind, "Right now?"
"Not just yet." she admitted, "I've got to eat some lunch." she excused herself, opening the door into her apartment, "You two can come sit in if you like."
"Well, we want to get to know you better." Katara admitted, "So, can you tell us about yourself?"
"Eh, I'd like to hear all the juicy details about your little adventure to the North Pole first." she decided, Aang raising a finger.
"Well, after Sokka beat up Jet, we got out of there as quickly as we could." he admitted, "I'm pretty sure if people knew who Azula was, they would have gotten angry."
"Yeah, once we got back, and Yung told Bumi about the whole Dai Li, and word spread around, the reactions were mixed." she noted, "Some people really don't like her, or anyone from the Fire Nation, but others were more concerned about getting the wrong attention from the Fire Lord."
"I guess... I guess that's not going to happen now." the Water Tribe girl admitted, "Things have changed."
"That's a pretty big understatement. From what I've heard from General Iroh, this changes everything."
"Azula will be the Fire Lord." Aang admitted the fact of the matter, "Now we all have no choice but to work together."
"Aren't you happy about that? You're a pacifist after all." Toph observed, the young Air Nomad cringing as he realised that despite the possibility of Zuko's supporters working with Azula's, the danger Ozai posed was far more of a downside than the potential of cooperation.
"Ozai might... he might destroy everything." he admitted, "I don't know him, but Azula does, and she doesn't talk about him like he thinks peace and deals are an option."
"There is a deal." Toph suggested as she moved to sit down at her table and eat the noodles she had ready.
"You're the Avatar. You can ask him to abdicate, and if he doesn't, you can just kill him." she told him rather bluntly, his eyes widening as he comprehended her suggestion; it was so disturbing that he stepped back and shook his head.
"No!" he refused, "I'm not just going to kill this guy because he thinks he's right. I have to stop him, but I won't just murder him." he stressed his own position, "That's wrong."
"Letting that guy take back what he thinks is his isn't right." Toph simply told him, as if she wasn't fazed in the slightest by his retort, before putting her chopsticks into the bowl, "I'm not making decisions for you, but you've got to... act. Fumbling around won't get anything done."
"She is right." Katara stressed as she placed a hand on his shoulder, "But I agree. Killing Ozai isn't going to be an end all; there might be another way. If Azula can beat him in an Agni Kai... or I guess, if you challenge him to one and win, once you've learned firebending, then he'll have to give up."
"That'd be pretty funny." Toph admitted, making him raise a brow.
"Beating him with his own element. Just a big old middle finger to his dignity and pride. That'd make any man like him break down and beg for mercy." she explained, crossing her arms as she eyed them both, "I've fought enough cocky firebenders to know that."
"You haven't fought Azula." Aang suggested, "I don't think he will give up that easy, if they're anything alike."
"Lightning would do it, though." Katara realised, "Maybe she can teach you."
"I... I don't know if I can do it." he admitted, nervous and unsure that he had the strength, in mind and body to achieve such a feat; Azula was a whole different breed of person, with an indomitable resolve and determination to get what she wanted- if he had to be like that to shoot lightning, he didn't know if he could do it.
Toph pointed one of her chopsticks in his general direction, and her expression told him that she doubted the veracity of his words; that was oddly reassuring, and her words were even more so.
"You're the Avatar. If anyone can shoot lightning from their fingertips, it's you."
The afternoon sun shone down upon the courtyard, and Ty Lee wiped the sweat from her forehead; Azula truly loved to make her feel spiteful, it seemed, as she forced her to do more stupendously tough exercises. She wasn't weak by any means, but her endurance wasn't comparable to hers, nor that of her guards, who seemed to be rather calm and collected, while she struggled to continue lifting herself up from the ground. Sit-ups were bad, and push-ups were worse; her flexibility at least made the former relatively straightforward, but she was still strained by doing it continuously for an extended period of time.
Sokka was across from her, and she could tell from the exasperated look on his face that he too was struggling with the push-ups, at least after all of them had done a few dozen; his breathing was shallow, and he groaned before falling flat on his chest. Azula didn't seem to approve of his failure, and she got up, and looked at him with a displeased expression, before she put her foot under his gut, and pushed him over, the Water Tribesman's eyes widening with surprise.
"What do you think you're doing?" she questioned, "Did I tell you to stop?"
"Just a little... break... please." he mumbled, taking breaths between his words.
Ty Lee had momentarily stopped to watch, and her friend took notice of this, pointing her index finger at her, "What do you think you're doing?"
"Waiting for the sparring to start." she told her with a quiet voice, before taking a deep breath as she continued her push-ups.
"Turn back over and continue. In a life and death situation, you don't get breaks, Sokka." she warned him, "Did you get to stop when you ran around my sinking ship?"
"Uh... no." he conceded, before cringing, "I see your point... but come on, this is really tiring." he pleaded, and the Princess raised her chin up, not seeming to sympathise with his plight.
"Our training isn't over." she refused, just as Ty Lee expected her to; the acrobat was struggling to keep up her own push-ups, and decided to just keep her head down and focus on them while she could still push herself off the ground.
Azula stepped away, indicated by the sounds of her footsteps, and she turned her head up to see that she wasn't exercising like they were, but instead was holding her hands out toward the air, seeming ready to firebend.
"Uh, Sokka." she mumbled to the boy beside her, "I think we're sparring now."
"Oh, good." he smiled, leaving her surprised by his attitude; he must have despised the push-ups so much that he considered getting humiliated by his girlfriend in sparring in front of her guards and Ty Lee preferable.
He took a deep breath as the Princess turned around to show off her bending form, "Sokka, are you competent enough to fight after being exhausted, running from your enemies?"
"My enemies aren't all going to be master firebenders." he retorted, and Azula crossed her arms, not seeming amused by his comment.
"Do you think my father will send incompetent fools to kill us? He could have command of the entire corps of Imperial Firebenders. A few hundred of my guards, in other words. And he could send a fraction of them to thrash us."
"You'd beat them." he argued, and the Princess scoffed, before taking form again.
"Well, could you?" she asked him before she raised her hand toward Ty Lee, "Get up." she told her and she heeded her request.
The acrobat glanced around, and her eyes widened as she realised that the guards were also moving into form, no longer doing push-ups; it seemed as if they were going to spar against the guards.
"So, we're not fighting you?" she asked her friend, who simply narrowed her eyes.
"No. This is an exercise to test your strength. My guards could beat me in an all on one fight, and the Imperial Firebenders could do the same. We need to be ready."
"Nice." he smiled, before turning to face the guards, "I get to beat them again." the Water Tribe warrior noted as he stretched his arms out, grabbing his boomerang off of his back.
"Is that a challenge?" Renshu asked him, obviously offended by the way Sokka was talking to him.
"Ah... yeah, it is." he confirmed, before turning to face Ty Lee, "Wanna disable their bending only and just have a fist fight?"
"But Azula can bend. That's not really fair for the guards." she reminded him, and he snickered, gesturing to his girlfriend, who stood behind them.
"It's Azula. She'll just stand back and enjoy the show."
The Princess let out a little chuckle as she lit some flames on her palms, "He's not wrong." she conceded, before the pair took form with her, "Don't burn them too much." she warned her guards, "But don't be merciful. My father's men would treat us all as traitors, worthy of death."
"I didn't betray anyone." Sokka argued, and the Princess rolled her eyes; it was a little self-indicative what Ozai thought of foreigners.
"He'll want you dead because you're a dirty savage." she explained, before she raised her right hand up, "Go!" she commanded her guards, who immediately moved their arms up, conjuring flames in their palms.
The Water Tribe warrior did not hesitate to toss his boomerang, which he aimed right at Renshu's chest, though he had easily seen it coming; the boomerang instead struck the guard behind him, Shen, in the chest, and made him stumble over and fall over. That wasn't that useful when there were half a dozen men ready to tackle him and set his clothes on fire; he was forced to roll onto the ground to avoid getting himself set on fire by two fire streams that came his way at once, while Azula returned fire behind him, her own flames momentarily keeping the guards at bay while Ty Lee and Sokka moved to chi-block them.
Ty Lee rushed toward a pair of guards while Sokka went right for the Captain; she would think that wasn't the best idea, given he seemed to be the fastest, and most skilled of the bunch, though it wasn't by a great margin. None of them compared to Azula herself, other than the fact that they were taller and more physically imposing, so Ty Lee would be more concerned about fighting them while chi-blocked than Azula, even if her friend was well-prepared to dodge such attacks. When she got close enough to the guards, she somersaulted past them, dodging the fireballs they sent her way, before she jabbed both of them in back, paralysing their legs. That didn't stop both of them from turning around and trying to attack her again, but she simply dropped down, weaving out of the way of their attacks. She smirked as she realised Azula was moving in right behind her to attack the guards, and they barely had a moment to try and react as she raised up a wall of flames, the attack forcing them to cower down to avoid the searing heat of the blindingly bright blue flames.
Ty Lee had already turned herself around, and eyed the next guard ready to attack her, that being Shen, who had recovered from being hit by the boomerang; he covered his hands with flames before he created two fire whips, hoping to strike her before she could chi-block him; she would have gone straight for his arms, but he was fast enough that she had to somersault again to dodge the attack, shocked but not surprised by the heat that whacked her back. She rolled over, dampening the flames that she was sure had caught onto her top, and Shen moved to grapple her arms with both fire whips.
Despite being an ephemeral element, the flames felt like they had weight as they grasped her wrists, the heat singing her skin; she had little choice but to leap back and hope that she could pull herself free of the flames before they burned her hands and made it a whole lot harder for her to chi-block. Another guard rushed in to go attack her, and she just let him tackle her out of Shen's grip, assuring her that her hands wouldn't get burned; the guard hadn't tried to firebend at her, feeling confident enough to grasp her by the arms and hope he could subdue her.
The acrobat chuckled as she turned her head, "I don't need my hands to fight." she warned him, before raising her right leg up, thrusting her foot back into his knee, blocking the chi-path that ran down his leg with her toe tips.
He grunted as he struggled to maintain his balance while gripping her forearms, and she pulled herself forward, freeing herself before she glanced around at two more guards who were moving to attack her. One of them came at her, attempting to hit her point-blank with a fireball to the face, but she thrust her left arm up, deflecting his arm, before she jabbed him in the gut with her right hand. She wasn't even trying to block his chi, but merely distracting him for a few moments as he wheezed for air, while she turned her attention to weaving out of the way of the other guards attack; she tripped him over by placing her left foot in front of his right as he tried to step forward and to grapple her, and she instead grabbed his right hand, holding him off for a moment.
Suddenly, she heard Sokka's voice, "Ty Lee!" he shouted at her, and she turned around to see him pointing to the ground in front of her, and she noticed that his boomerang was lying right there.
She moved to kick the guard she had been fighting in the leg to stall him before reaching down for the boomerang; once she had the weapon in hand, she realised that Renshu was standing between her and Sokka, and though he could have attacked her, he simply watched with frustration as she lopped it over his head, and the Water Tribe warrior proceeded to catch the weapon and threw it out in a wide arc, presumably to hit the guards he was facing in their backs when they least expected. She was forced to weave out of the way of the Captain's fire stream, seeing that he was rather annoyed by her assistance to Sokka. His attention was drawn away by Azula, who was slowly, but surely beating every single one of the guards, as she had been putting the effort into facing them all one at a time.
Ty Lee ducked down once more as the guard she had been fighting tried to hit her with a fireball; she somersaulted past him, and moved to chi-block his legs, but he was quick enough to spin around and kick her with his flame covered boot. Luckily for her, he only hit her arms, but that did still hurt, and she groaned in pain as she reeled back, forced to drop down to dodge a fire stream that he sent out from his right fist. In her frustration, she kicked him in his shin, and he grunted, perhaps hurt by the forceful strike, but it didn't seem to stop him as he charged a fireball in his palm.
"Forfeit." he demanded, and she shook her head.
"Duck." she simply told him, sure that he was about to find a blue fire blast throwing him off his fee; he turned around, and did indeed duck under the attack she'd been expecting from Azula.
That momentary distraction was all she needed to rise up and jab him in the back, paralysing his legs which allowed her to knock him over with a simple shove; Azula looked at her with a bemused face before turning her attention to the guards Sokka had been fighting. Once more, the Captain was trying to fight him, and the Water Tribesman was actually struggling this time; none of the other guards tried to intervene, all reeling from chi-blocking or Azula's flames, and the two effectively began to duel.
The Princess crossed her arms, and Ty Lee narrowed her eyes as she watched the Water Tribe warrior weave around Renshu's flame-covered forearms, blocking his attacks with his own arms, forcing his opponent's flames to dart away from his face and upper-body, which were clearly the parts that the Captain wanted to hit. Sokka was pushed back by a forceful shove, before he was forced to duck under a fire stream; he then jabbed his opponent in the gut, and though Renshu tried to grapple him, Sokka was fast enough chi-block his right-arm, before he threw his fist upward, connecting with the Captain's chin. That knocked him out with a single hit. That was the disadvantage of the guards not wearing their helmets, and he had paid the price for it.
"Shit." one of the guards commented, "I didn't expect him to get his arse handed to him that badly."
"What can I say, I'm a great trainer." Azula cockily declared with her arms out wide, before she turned her gaze to her boyfriend, "You are capable of fighting Imperial Firebenders, Sokka, I'll give you that. The difference in the real fight is that they'll have armour."
"That'll make it even easier to trip them over if they're heavy." he argued, and Ty Lee nodded, knowing that chi-blocking was even more effective when an armoured opponent was paralysed, given that armour was hard to hold up when it's wielder was unable to stand.
The Princess stepped forward and glanced down at the Captain, seeming disappointed in the result of his fighting, "Renshu, get up." she demanded, and he groaned as he slowly pulled a hand up to his jaw, grasping it as he cringed in pain.
The acrobat felt a tinge of sympathy for the guard, knowing that he didn't really deserve the hit that he received, which was undeniably the worst any of the guards had gotten; in Sokka's defence, he did get back up after already being beaten, so it really was his fault when he could have just forfeited like the rest of the guards did. Renshu slowly did pull himself up, and Azula stood over him with her arms crossed, annoyed that he was taking so long to do so.
"If this had been a real fight, you'd be dead right now." she warned him, "Have you really gotten that sloppy."
"No... you've just trained the little shit too much."
"I agree." Sokka commented with a humoured tone, earning his girlfriend's attention.
"What, so you don't like being a great warrior?"
"Greatness comes from feats, not from strength." he argued in return, before crossing his arms, "And I always thought my mind was my best weapon."
"It still is." she conceded, before shaking her head, and pointing toward him, "But, let's see about the other skills. Ty Lee, paralyse him." she requested, and the acrobat turned to face her with a perplexed face, remembering what had happened the last time she told him to do that.
"What?" she asked with an open mouth, unsure if she should accept that specific request.
"Just do it. I need to see which of you is the better fighter... in a fair fight."
"Ty Lee, probably." Sokka conceded, "She beat me last time we sparred."
"Without your weapons?" Azula inquired, and he nodded, before stepping over to pick up his boomerang.
"Yeah, but they're pretty useless against an acrobat who happens to be a master chi-blocker." he conceded, putting his boomerang back in its holder before he turned to face Ty Lee, "Well, we may as well. Let's go." he gestured for her to attack him, and she sighed.
"I'm sorry, Sokka."
"Yeah, yeah, I know you let yourself get pushed around by Azula. I know that a little too well." he conceded, making his girlfriend turn around to face him, probably perplexed that he'd even say that in front of her.
"This is what I meant when I say you're too honest." she warned him, "Did you want to spar me instead?"
"No, I prefer not getting burnt. Chi-blocking doesn't hurt." he argued, "Though, falling face-first onto gravel does."
One of the guards, whose nose was bleeding, made a dry laugh at that comment, "Hah, hah, yeah, sure does." he noted, making the Water Tribesman cringe slightly before his gaze turned back to meet Ty Lee's.
"Well, are we going to do it, or what?" he asked, and she nodded, before moving into form, the Water Tribe warrior eyeing her for a few moments before he rushed toward her, the acrobat moving at once to the right to avoid getting pushed over by the teenage boy who weighed far more than herself.
She weaved around him, and as she was about to move to jab him in the back, he flicked his right sole out, jabbing her in the shin and making Ty Lee lose her footing; she struggled to keep herself upright, and was forced to fall back, lest Sokka jab her in the gut. He then chuckled at her, gesturing toward her with a smug look on his face.
"And that, Azula, is the evidence you need. Sneak attacks never count."
"Except when you win." the Princess retorted, making her boyfriend wince as Ty Lee pulled her legs up, ready to jump back up to her feet.
Sokka realised this, and stepped back as she jumped up, landing on her feet before she tried to kick him in the chest; he was able to narrowly escape her foot colliding with his shoulder, and moved to jab her leg with his fingers. She instead reoriented her body, forcing her shin into his throat, which prevented him from chi-blocking her leg, and in fact, forced him to stumble back as he gasped for air.
"That looks like it hurt." one of the guards commented as she dropped her leg down, and moved to rush him with a few jabs to the gut, which would paralyse his lower body and assure her victory.
As she moved her hands toward his gut, he thrust his own arms forward, though he wasn't able to punch, let alone chi-block her, he did grab her by the shoulders. Ty Lee's arms weren't that short, and as she was able to connect her jabs and hit his chi-paths, but she only had a momentary victory as his knee was already rising up to collide with her gut. She coughed out as he winded her, and stumbled back, watching as his legs faltered; even in victory, she could only cough and gasp, as if it really wasn't one at all.
As she struggled to regain her breath, Sokka turned to face his girlfriend, "Is... is this just a chi-blocking fight?" he asked her, and the Princess shook her head.
"I want to see how long you'll last." she admitted, and the Water Tribesman turned his gaze back to Ty Lee, who had fallen down to her knees as she gasped out for air; even if her chi-blocking was effective, she couldn't return to the fight in that state.
She grit her teeth as she returned to form, and eyed Sokka, who was still on his knees, unable to stand due to her hits; he had his hands on his lap, as if he were waiting for her to attack, which made her feel a little cautious. He obviously had a plan in mind, and that was why he had asked Azula if it was a chi-blocking fight alone, or if he could use other tactics.
"Let's finish this." she whispered under her breath as she moved toward him, and she saw him moving his right hand down to his waist, so when she leaped at him, she aimed her left hand to grapple his right, and she did, seeing that he had his bone dagger in hand.
She forced her other hand into his shoulder, jabbing it as Sokka forced her left hand back, pushing the dagger toward her throat, and he uttered the one thing she could expect of him in that situation, "Forfeit."
Instead of following his demand, she threw her right hand into his bicep, blocking the chi-paths in his right arm, which left it numb, and his threat useless. Once he had realised his defeat, Sokka sighed as he slumped back down onto the ground, and the Water Tribe warrior glanced up toward the sky.
"Well, shit. I can't do much now, can I?'
"Good job, Ty Lee." Azula commended her, "Sokka lasted longer than I expected him to."
"Thanks." he noted his girlfriend's words, before the Princess approached her friend.
"Ty Lee, we have some of those Earth Kingdom rebels showing up soon, so I need you and the Captain to go greet them. I've got to speak with the officers first." she explained, and the acrobat turned to face the Captain, who was still recovering from the hit he received from Sokka.
"Yes, your majesty." he accepted her indirect command, glancing down at the Water Tribe teen for a moment, "What is he doing?"
"Remaining there until his paralysis wears off." she stated the obvious, "Sokka, you can meet up with Ty Lee and Renshu as soon as you can walk again."
"Yep." he mumbled, "Just gonna enjoy the clouds for a bit."
She didn't seem to be amused by that comment, and glanced around, "Now, where is my armour?" she asked, knowing that she would need to wear it when she was dealing with things in her official capacity as the leader of the base, given that going around just in her sparring gear would be a little unseemly of a future monarch.
Ty Lee gestured over to the racks of armour, clothes and towels that had been set up for their training, and the Princess strode over toward it, immediately picking up her chestplate and pulling it over her head. Renshu did the same, approaching his own armour, and putting it back onto his body, though he left his helmet under his arm as he turned to face Azula, waiting for what she had to say.
She fixed up her hair momentarily, before she glanced over to the others, "The rest of you can continue training, unless you have something better to do." she suggested to the guards, who looked amongst themselves; they might have thought they could go off and have a break, whether to eat, wash up or simply enjoy themselves with some leisure time, but the implications behind Azula's words told Ty Lee she wanted them to continue training and prepare themselves for any potential battle.
The acrobat realised that she had a task, but didn't really know what she had to do, "Where are we taking the rebels?"
"Well, you can take them to the compound, but the leaders will come to the meeting room with you, and we can all discuss the matters at hand." she simply explained her task for her, "If you'd like to show them where they might be staying while they're here, you can do that also."
"Where?" Renshu simply asked, and the Princess gestured over the walls beside them.
"There's more than enough space for them to camp on the grounds. If they don't have tents, then I assume a warehouse or two could be spared as a sleeping area." she explained, the Captain nodding, before he turned to face Ty Lee.
"Did you need to catch your breath, or are we going?"
She simply gave him a smile and stepped toward the gates of the compound, "Let's go. We don't want to annoy these guys. They might not like having to wait outside the base."
The pair both made their way to the gate, where the guards stationed there, who must have been watching their spar, opened the gates for the pair, looking at them with surprised expressions; obviously, they understood Ty Lee's skill in battle, and perhaps, were a little surprised, given that if one didn't know her, she might have looked like any other teenage girl, albeit a very athletic one.
She smirked at the Captain, who didn't seem to share her sense of pride, "People think we're tough."
"Imperial Firebenders are the best trained fighters in the country." he simply told her, "As much as I'd like to brag, I'm not that unique." he acknowledged, "You on the other hand... are unusual."
"Are you calling me weird?"
"No weirder than the Water Tribesman." he clarified, "Your skills are rare and extremely effective against benders. Most firebenders dismiss the skill of non-benders, and until I saw what Sokka was capable of, I didn't think much of them either."
"Well, we're not all weaklings." she proclaimed, "And you don't need muscles to be a great fighter." she proclaimed, before glancing up ahead, down the path that led toward the palisade that surrounded the compound, remembering who they were going to face, "Do you think the people here aren't going to like us recruiting earthbenders?"
"I don't want us recruiting earthbenders." he admitted bluntly, "I know they can be great and steadfast fighters, but that's exactly what makes them so dangerous. If they betrayed us, we would be in a very compromised position." he warned her, and the acrobat nodded, understanding the danger of the choice Azula had made.
"Then we'll just have to make them like us." she explained her idea of how to solve the issue, "That way, they won't try and do anything sneaky like that."
Renshu raised a brow, seeming skeptical of her idea, "Well... I guess that's an option." he conceded, "But I warn you... we're not in the position we'd like to be. Even if Zuko's forces come to fight alongside us, we're still the invaders in the eyes of these Earth Kingdom rebels."
"I know they don't like us." she admitted, nervous about what they might just assume of them because of their background, "But we've got Sokka. He's got to mean something. He's a Water Tribesman- they would trust him over us."
"A Water Tribesman who's..." he began, before trailing off, the Captain turning his gaze away from her, seeming embarrassed, "He's not exactly neutral on this whole matter."
"I know, but he knows Azula well... better than most people. He can persuade them that she really does have good intentions." she contended, and Renshu seemed appeased for the moment by her argument; even if he wasn't willing to argue with the Princess herself, that didn't mean he was in constant, full agreement with her plans.
Ty Lee turned her gaze ahead, and eyed off the palisade, noting the men who were stationed there were chatting amongst themselves- gossiping, as she'd call it, noted by their posture and explicitly quietened voices. The Captain didn't seem to care about it, though it caught his attention quickly enough, and when they reached the second set of gates, he whistled to catch their attention. They all turned to salute him, quickly moving into straight postures, and Renshu seemed amused by that; Ty Lee certainly was as well, but as the individual with military experience, she would let him do the talking.
"Do you call gossiping protecting the gates, men?" he asked them, and they looked at each other nervously, one of the men stepping forward to presumably apologise.
"Captain- uh, Renshu, was it? We're sorry. It's just... well, you've heard about what's going on. The dirt eaters are going to join us."
"Yes, they are." he confirmed, "I recommend you don't call them that to their faces." he raised a finger, "They want the same thing as us- to keep Ozai's men out, who'll presumably burn their villages down for daring to resist his rule. You remember what the war was like before Ba Sing Se, right?"
"We do, Captain." another man spoke up, seeming a little unnerved by the memories of that time, "The Earth Kingdom did not give up easily."
"And neither did we. But now, we're not fighting them. I shouldn't have to tell you all this, but we all serve her majesty now, and she requires their assistance, because she knows that a friendly Earth Kingdom is far more useful than a hostile one." he explained essentially what Azula herself thought, and the men nodded along, though Renshu didn't seem that pleased, "I don't like this situation as much as the next loyal Fire Nation citizen, but this is what needs to be done."
"Of course, Captain. Nobody was suggesting treachery."
"No, I saw that... not yet." the Captain warned them, before pacing on past them through the gates, Ty Lee following right after him.
"So, you've changed your opinion in the span of a minute." she observed, making the guard turn to face her, unamused by her commentary.
"What I say in front of you, and what I tell the men serving her majesty are two different things."
"I'm serving Azula." she argued, and the Captain raised a finger in her direction.
"Yes, but you'd never betray her." he contended, making her eyes widen; she had never considered the possibility, but as she saw it, she couldn't see a situation where she could even betray Azula, who was practically her best friend, and the only person who really understood her.
"You're right about that." she conceded, before sighing, "I wouldn't want us to be betrayed."
"That's why we've got to make sure it doesn't come from either side." he added quietly, and she glanced around at the soldiers they were walking by as they made their way down through the massive sprawl of tents that surrounded the palisade, "I'm sure the Avatar will help with the Earth Kingdom, but keeping all these men in line is going to take more than nice words."
"Well, they came to conquer the colonies in the first place, didn't they?" she asked, and the Captain nodded, "We're going to end up doing that, whether Ozai likes it or not."
"Yes, we are." he agreed to her proposition, "I didn't think you were that excited about violence."
She blinked a few times at that comment, before shaking her head, "I'm not excited about violence, I'm excited about action." she corrected him, before glancing up ahead of them, "These guys must be right at the edge of the camp, because I can't see them yet." she noted, unable to see anyone that resembled an Earth Kingdom guerrilla, of which she'd seen a few when they ambushed her and the others on their way to Shengchang.
"If I was about to be invited into an enemy base with a thousand soldiers standing by to burn them at a moment's notice, I'd be cautious too." he explained the situation from their point of view, and the acrobat grimaced, imagining how nervous she would have been in the tables had been reversed.
Especially without Azula's help, she would feel scared for her life if she was going around trying to talk to Earth Kingdom rebels to persuade them to their side; Ty Lee's skills were no joke, but against a dozen earthbenders at once, she wouldn't exactly have a fair fight, given unlike firebenders, they could sink her in place and beat her unconscious before she could even chi-block one of them.
"Yeah, I would too." she agreed, falling silent as they continued on through the camp, making their way down the winding path that led outward the edge, beyond which was cleared land and some woods; she guessed earthbender rebels regularly hid and spotted from those woods, eyeing off their base, long before Azula even arrived, but now, they had a reason to come out and make talks, because they could be the ones to rule over the very land they trod on within a short period of time.
As they got nearer to the edge of the camp, she was able to make sight of some soldiers, in uniform and standing in line, seemingly guarding the camp; it was a little confusing to see them doing that, though she realised quickly enough that they were actually standing in the way of the Earth Kingdom rebels Azula had wanted them to meet with. They were having the obvious reaction to their arrival, which was one of suspicion and tension; some of them turned to face her and Renshu as they approached, and all of those who saw the Captain understood his rank and position, and immediately parted out of the way to allow them past.
The leader of the unit turned to address them before they could reach the rebels, seeming a little confused by the whole situation, "Ah, you two are here. I assume you're going to deal with this situation."
"Deal with it as in take them to the compound." Ty Lee clarified, making the officer's eyes widen, and the Captain stepped between them to try and defuse any tension.
"That was her majesty's express wish." he stressed, "I know this is not the safest action, but she wants to garner trust here, not start a fight in our literal backyard." he then gestured to the fields that they were standing by, and the group of rebels who stood in tense forms all while he spoke, "I apologise for the... unwelcome arrival." he addressed them, and Ty Lee found it an opportune time to speak to them.
"This is the welcome arrival. I'm Ty Lee, and this is Captain Renshu. We are here to answer any questions you may have, and guide you to the compound, where you will meet Azula." she explained the situation as succinctly as she could, and they looked at her with surprised faces; perhaps they just didn't expect to be greeted by somebody who was so clearly not a soldier.
"Uh... well, we're here." one of the rebels noted, "Could you call off these men so they stop death-staring us?" he requested, and Renshu turned around, raising his hand up.
"Move it! They're not here to crush you with rocks. They're here to talk." he ordered them, and they heeded his words without question, moving away from the Earth Kingdom men, and those that were in form, dropped their stances, and turned away from their potential foes.
One of the men stepped forward, and Ty Lee recognised him from when they had fought the rebels about a week or so earlier, "Now, we're here." he declared, "I assume you're not going to do what we did to you?"
"Well, we're not earthbenders." Ty Lee conceded, "We are physically unable to throw rocks at you... and I doubt it'd be that much of a surprise."
"It wouldn't be." the leader conceded, before eyeing Renshu, "Did your journey go well?"
"We have some potential sponsors and factories to build the weapons we require." he explained what had happened, "And bounty hunters tried to capture the Princess."
"They must have failed." he deduced, and Ty Lee clenched her fists, remembering how afraid she had been in that situation.
"Oh, they didn't just fail." she admitted, "Do you know what the... what the dead Fire Lord looked like?"
"Blinded in one eye." one of the men recalled, glancing to his comrades, "That's it, right?"
"I thought it was just a scar." another spoke their mind, and the leader stepped forward.
"Sorry... are you trying to say she did that to them?" he asked, sounding unnerved by the idea.
"Yes." Renshu confirmed, "All of those men are missing an eye now." he admitted, "I had to do a few myself... not my proudest moment." he added more quietly, which surprised Ty Lee; she would have thought he wouldn't have had much issue taking revenge against those men, though it might have been that he could have seen the overreach that Azula had made in doing so.
"Fuck." he gasped, "Well, I'm glad she wasn't that angry with us." he noted, "We might have been... well, fucked."
"She is not somebody to be trifled with." the Captain stressed.
"Admiral Zhao is lucky to be alive." she recalled a fact she slept calmly knowing; if that man was still free, she'd be fearing for her life far more than Zuko might have ever because of his father or Azula, "You heard of him?" she asked the rebels, who nodded.
"He's the guy who burned down our villages."
"Well, the Princess shot him with a lightning bolt." she admitted, "So, I hope that pleases you." she added, before glancing back toward the compound, "We'll take you right to her. The compound has more than enough space for you all to rest."
"Where's Sokka?" Renshu asked her, glancing back the same way she had, "You didn't punch him that hard."
"He likes to take his time." she argued, before crossing her arms, wondering if they should just go or instead wait for him, "Let's start heading back. He'll probably run into us along the way."
"Who's Sokka?" the leader asked them both, stepping forward to intrude in their conversation, though with good reason.
"The Princess's right hand man." Renshu clarified, not sounding overly pleased by the fact, "He's a Water Tribesman. You did fight him."
"Oh, that one." he recalled, "Is he meant to be important?"
"Well, he's here to represent the Avatar, our friend." Ty Lee admitted, "Aang's not here right now to speak for himself, so Sokka will have to do that for him."
"Why'd the Avatar side with the Fire Nation, anyway?" the leader asked, and Ty Lee scrunched her lips.
"Well, Azula was the one who freed him from the ice. He'd been frozen for a hundred years." she explained, the expressions on the faces of the rebels shifting from ones of confusion to shock.
"She freed him?" one of the men asked, "I can't believe it."
"She has done things I wouldn't have believed she had if I hadn't seen the evidence." she admitted her own feelings of disbelief; she had learned much about how Azula had changed, and it was shocking in a lot of ways, given how different she used to be.
Personality-wise, Azula really wasn't that different; she was the same irritable perfectionist who loved firebending and strategy, but she had very different intentions for her own life and for the world. The old Azula might hate what she had become, but it wasn't really what she became that would be so infuriating to her past self, but rather, what she did; she fell in love, she made friendships, she helped the Southern Water Tribe, a people she probably regarded as being mere savages, subsisting in a wasteland that she never wanted to see, before she had got to know them, and the place they called home.
"She hasn't changed that much." Renshu declared, "Her majesty is still determined to become the greatest Fire Lord in history."
"That isn't the best way to introduce her to us." the leader of the rebels admitted, and Ty Lee chuckled, before smiling at him.
"Don't worry, she's not just going to be great for the Fire Nation; she'll be a great leader for the world. Aang will be one too."
"Where is the Avatar, anyway?"
"Going to get his earthbending master." she clarified, "And hopefully, not get himself caught." she added, a little unsure if the young Avatar would be able to avoid doing so; Katara was a responsible person, but even then, Ty Lee could see them making a few silly mistakes, or trying to help others, and getting themselves into a dangerous situation.
"I'm sure there's a lot of Fire Nation people who want him in chains... or worse." the rebel leader noted, before crossing his arms, "Well, let's hope that he gets back here safely, so we can all rest easy, knowing that he'll be able to fight for our freedom."
"The Avatar is just a child." Renshu warned him, "It'll take more than just him to turn the tide against Ozai and his supporters."
"And who counts themselves amongst them? People who want to see us dead?"
"Just about." the Captain nodded, before gesturing up the path, "Let's go to the base. Sokka will show up sooner or later."
"I really didn't hit him that hard." the acrobat added quietly, knowing that her chi-blocking couldn't have been so effective that he would still be paralysed at that instance.
She glanced back up ahead, and as if he could hear Renshu speaking about him, Sokka paced into view, making his way past a few tents before he turned to face them, realising that they were already there with the rebels; his expression shifted to one of surprise, and the rebel leader stepped forward past her to greet him.
"So, I assume you're Sokka." he guessed, and the Water Tribesman nodded, stepping forward to bow toward him curtly.
"That is me." he confirmed, "And you are?"
"Jianren." he gave his name, which neither Ty Lee or Renshu had asked for, before he glanced back toward his men, "Are you going to want all of us to come to this compound?"
"Yes." Sokka confirmed, "Not all of you are going to have to come meet with Azula, but you are going to be staying here for more than a single afternoon, right?"
"We'll see." Jianren cryptically told him, before striding on past him, "Show us the way." he requested, and Sokka nodded, momentarily glancing toward the other two, before he began leading the rebels along through the encampment, winding down the path that led them back toward the gates of the palisade.
Ty Lee and Renshu followed after him, and both watched with interest as the leader of the rebels eyed Sokka, clearly wanting to talk to him, given that he was the one closest to Azula; he might have just been her right-hand man in Jianren's eyes, but that was a gross oversimplification of their relationship, something he might realise soon enough.
"So, how long have you been here?"
"Me personally?" Sokka turned his head slightly, confused by the question; the rebel leader nodded, and the Water Tribesman turned his attention back toward the path, winding past some soldiers, who got out of his way at once, "A few weeks now. We were off on our trip for a week or so, because Azula wanted to see what allies she could make in the colonies."
"If she has allies there, why does she need us?" he asked, and Sokka chuckled.
"Well, she doesn't need you. Your country needs you... everyone like you. The Earth Kingdom doesn't really exist anymore, and that's going to change soon enough, if everything goes good."
"Well, for the world. I'm sure most people don't want Ozai coming back to continue the policy of burning villages to the ground and colonising your country." he explained, before grimacing, "And I'm sure the North and South Poles wouldn't be safe for long, especially if he got his hands on the schematics for the airships."
"Airships?" Jianren raised a brow, "What's an airship?"
"A contraption that uses hot air to rise up into the sky, and is able to fly high above the ground." Renshu clarified the exact nature of the invention, "They were made by an Earth Kingdom inventor first, but we don't know where he is... since Admiral Zhao kicked him out of the Northern Air temple a few months ago."
"Huh... you're saying somebody from the Earth Kingdom has been making machines for the Fire Nation?" the rebel leader asked, the unease in his voice audible and quite understandable; Ty Lee knew that if it was the opposite way around, with some Fire Nation inventor helping the other nations fight them, she'd be confused and concerned about it.
"Supposedly." Sokka answered his question, "Never met the guy, so I'm unsure why he was doing it. I think it's pretty... unusual, but I can't complain. I've been helping Azula for almost a year now."
"Why?" he asked, and the Water Tribesman fell silent for a few moments; he obviously didn't think about the whys of his relationship with Azula, and though Ty Lee liked to harass her friend about it, she didn't really know all that much about Sokka's perspective.
"Because I didn't really have a choice in the matter." he admitted honestly, before chuckling, glancing off into the distance, "But when I did, I decided to help her."
"You're a warrior. You're like us. How did you... how did you manage that?"
"Ever been stuck in the wilderness with somebody before?" he asked, "Somebody you don't like?"
Jianren's expression faltered for a moment, "How long were you stuck with her for?"
"A few days. But those were some rough days." he admitted, "And she did promise me she'd get me home if I helped her."
"Yep, but I got us there myself." he admitted, the pride in his voice audible; he obviously was glad they had escaped Yu Dao and gotten to his tribe safely, and Ty Lee was too- if they'd been caught, perhaps she would have been drawn into things a little earlier than expected.
She had wanted to go help Azula when she found out about Yu Dao, but she didn't know where she was, and her sisters did persuade her out of it. She knew that she ought to have gone to help her, but obviously, it would have been hard to find them; the two of them must have been laying low while sailing to the South Pole, so she knew that it would have been more than a challenge to figure out where they were and where they were going, if that was what it had come down to.
"Well... I hope this isn't a waste of our time. This Princess seems like... the pragmatic type."
"That's a good way to put it." Sokka agreed with him, "She doesn't like you... I doubt she likes many people, really. Common interests unite us all."
"Well, I don't exactly want to help the Fire Nation."
"Trust me, you wouldn't like the other guy."
"I've heard about the Fire Lord... the other one, before the scarred Prince." he admitted, "Like the old one, but worse."
"Azulon?" he raised a brow, guessing that he was referring to Azula's grandfather and namesake, "Yeah, fuck that guy." he admitted, before glancing ahead, "Ozai's bad, but I'm pretty sure he was worse." he stressed, before glancing back toward Ty Lee, "He wanted Ozai to kill Zuko, right?"
"Yeah, that happened." she admitted, remembering that story from back when it happened; Azula coming to school the day after the Fire Lord died telling her that he had threatened his own son to kill his grandson was more than a little disturbing, and even though Azula made it out to be a joke, she seemed a little unnerved by it herself- she probably wouldn't have told her and Mai about it otherwise.
"Well, he killed him didn't he?" Jianren noted, "I guess the old bastard got his wish... for whatever reason he had it."
"I thought that was just a rumour." Renshu admitted, glancing toward Ty Lee, "That actually happened?"
"I'm pretty sure Azula wouldn't lie about that." she stressed and Sokka nodded, seeming disturbed by the fact.
"Yeah, she didn't. Her grandfather was a real prick."
"He led our nation for decades." Renshu acknowledged, "I doubt the people of our nation view him as poorly as you do."
"Well, they probably don't know about the shit he let happen."
"No, no they do." Ty Lee conceded, knowing that even if she had a conscience, and understood what was wrong about the things they had done to the other nations, especially concerning the Southern Raiders that Sokka and Katara rightfully despised, "The people of the FIre Nation have been told all their lives that our war was righteous... that all those things, like what happened to the Air Nomads, or your waterbenders, that it was all the for the greater good, to ensure peace."
"Azula's Royal Barge at the bottom of the Eastern Sea would like to disagree with that proposition." Sokka retorted, sounding rather confident of himself, "My people wouldn't give up. Not after what we lost."
"Neither will mine." Jianren assured him, and Sokka seemed to approve of that greatly.
"That's exactly what I want to hear. We can't give up, not when we have the chance to fix all of this."
"Good, you're here."
Katara felt a little nervous being called into Bumi's throne room; she didn't know why the King of Omashu wanted to meet with her. She and Aang were yet to leave with Toph, and she was sure that the King had plans in mind, especially concerning the fighting that was sure to begin between his forces and Ozai's, given what had happened to Fire Lord Zuko. Iroh was not there, and she was unsure where he was, though that wasn't her concern. Whatever was going on with the rebels concerned Aang and Azula, and given that she was going to be training the former and her brother was fighting alongside the latter, she was more than sure that the rebellion was her concern as well; in the end, their success was her success.
"Uh... hi." she raised hand to address Bumi, "What did you want to see me about, your majesty?"
"I just got a letter from somebody, and I think you'd like to read it." he admitted, drawing a letter from his robes; the Water Tribe girl was surprised to see that he was just offering her his own letter like that, so she guessed it had to be something important, concerning her and her friends.
"Does... does it have to do with Azula?"
"No, actually." he clarified, placing the letter on the table, "Just you." he stressed, "Katara of the Southern Water Tribe."
She stepped closer to the table, and picked up the letter, the King placing his hands together, indicating he was intent on her reading it; when she opened up the letter, it just seemed like any other message, but when she looked down at the seal on the bottom of the document, she realised where it was from. It was a message from the Southern Water Tribe, or more specifically, from her father, Chief Hakoda. Her eyes widened, and she immediately turned her eyes back to the start of the letter, knowing she had to read it in full. Katara glanced down the document, and ran her finger down it to keep it unfurled while she eyed its contents. The letter was understandably addressed to King Bumi himself, and she glanced down to the first line, seeing what her father had written.
"Your majesty, I am not one for writing or fancy words, so I will go straight to the point." she read out the first line in her head, and smirked, knowing that it sounded very much like her father; he wasn't a disrespectful person, but he certainly wasn't going to mince his words, especially given the seriousness of his role as Chief, "I have spoken with some of your men who met with my fleet on the coast just east of your headquarters. They have provided my warriors with shelter and some supplies, and told me of how my son and daughter came to you and explained our tribe's willingness to provide assistance."
She glanced up back toward Bumi, glad that they had come to New Omashu to begin with, knowing that now, her intentions, or more accurately, Bato's intentions, were coming to fruition, "Thank you, your majesty." she acknowledged what he had done to ensure that they could all cooperate.
"Oh, well, I wasn't the one housing them in a hidden encampment. My loyal fighters did that. I would tell you to thank them, but they're off helping your father's fleet." he clarified, before gesturing on to the document, indicating for her to read.
"I apologise if Azula caused any problems in your city, as I am sure you were not pleased to have a member of the Fire Nation Royal Family in your city. I was the one who told her and my son it was fine to go north to your city, but I know that things are always changing. Word is appearing at ports all around about the battle she fought alongside your men, and the great powers of the Avatar. I hope that we can provide you assistance, and if possible, find a way to ensure we can all work together. I know the Princess well enough, and I am sure that alongside the Avatar, she will be able to help us make your country whole again." Katara read out what seemed to be mostly a preemptive apology for Azula, which made a lot of sense.
The Princess didn't seem to have the best intentions when they left the South Pole, and though she had saved their village, it didn't seem like she really wanted to help the rebels, or the Earth Kingdom at all, and seemed far more set on defeating her brother by means of Aang's Avatar powers. Of course, it had become apparent that those were not her sole intentions, and she and Aang stressed that to her uncle when they met him; she might have despised her brother and conflicted with him more often than not, but defeating him was clearly not her only desire.
She continued to read along, and ran her finger across each word as she read them in her head, "I hope that we do not impose on your men too much, as I know your supply lines must be running short and under threat because of the Fire Nation's grip on the region. Please, provide me with whatever goals you have, and I will see to it that our efforts will not be isolated from one another. In this time, we need allies more than ever, and my good friend Bato speaks highly of you and your forces. You are the last of the Earth Kingdom, as it once was, and we want nothing more than to see your country free from the grip of the Fire Nation; without the Earth Kingdom, we cannot prosper, and my people will continue to languish. I cannot let that continue, and I know you must feel similarly for your own people."
She smiled, knowing that her father wanted exactly what she wanted, and from the impressed look on Bumi's face, she guessed that he wanted the same; she glanced back down, and continued to read out the last bit of the letter, "We will await your reply, King Bumi, and I hope to see you in person soon enough. Good luck, Chief Hakoda, representing the warriors of the Southern Water Tribe."
"Well, I... I'm glad he sent this letter." she spoke her thoughts plainly, placing it back down on the table, "Do you have a reply?"
"I am going to write one, but I realised... well, you might as well give it to him yourself. Appa will be just as fast as any messenger hawk, and he won't tire as quickly and have to rest like a courier." he noted, "I know that you must miss your father and your tribe, so I thought that might come as good news to you."
"It does." she responded, perhaps a little too fast and ecstatically, "I can't wait."
"Well, I hope you can wait at least until tomorrow. I haven't written the letter yet, and I want to speak with the leaders of the units here in the city. They might be able to work with your father's fleet to extend our reach, perhaps as far away as Azula's headquarters."
"That is very far away." she conceded, "Are you sure you want to send your men there? The fighters are here to protect New Omashu from the Fire Nation."
"They won't need to do that for much longer, I believe." he conceded, "General Iroh will retake the city and expel Ozai's loyalists as soon as he contacts friendly forces who can assist him. I am unsure how much of the Fire Nation has accepted Ozai's rule, but I believe for the good of us all, they are as afraid of him as I believe they ought to be."
"Are you afraid of him?"
"No." he retorted, before snickering, "I could beat that man in a fight if it came to that, but I do not want to do so. I do not go looking for fights I do not need to partake in. Sending my men to stop Ozai's forces from threatening the Princess and her soldiers is a priority I do not underestimate. She is the best candidate for Fire Lord as we speak, but even then... she cannot rule if she does not have the resources to face her father. Those resources might be wasted needlessly on the defence of lands she has no desire or need to rule." he explained, raising a finger to his goatee, "I never think one's strength should be wasted on an unnecessary fight, but if one can find the right thing to defend, and the strength to hold it, then you should never give it up."
"So, you think... you think Azula's claim is worthy?"
"I don't have much of an opinion on the girl herself, but her uncle thinks... well, he thinks she must have changed." he noted, before scrunching his lips up, "But I doubt that." he added, though his down wasn't really suggesting he thought that was a bad thing; as Katara understood what Azula was like, at least vaguely, before she had got her lightning shot back at her, she thought that certainly would be a bad thing- Azula changing was what she hinged her hopes on.
"You... you really doubt she's changed?"
"Ohohoh, people don't change, Katara." he warned her, "People learn from their mistakes, and can choose new things to believe in, but they don't lose their essence. I am still the little boy Aang knew, even if I have been a king for decades, and fought for my nation for almost all my life. I never gave up myself, and neither will the Princess."
"I... I guess you're right." she conceded his point, "She's still Azula. She won't ever be somebody else."
"She can pretend to be 'Saila', but pretending is just pretending." he raised a finger, and she scratched the back of her head, remembering how the King had seen through her disguise and fake identity, "Becoming worthy does not require Azula to change, she merely needs to see the strength she already has."
"Just like Aang learning the other elements." she realised, knowing that Aang's journey so far really was just him understanding the strengths he already had within him, and the King's eyes widened, surprised by her comparison.
"Ooh... that's a good one." he noted, "I've got to use that when Aang and I talk. He'll think I'm real smart." he gave his thoughts without filter, which she was unsure as to whether they were in jest or not.
"I guess you could. Aang thinks you're a genius, and well... I'm inclined to agree." she conceded the king's intelligence and wit; it probably didn't just come from years of experience, given that Aang stressed that he was already very smart when he was twelve.
"Oh, you're too kind. Most people just think I'm erratic and crazy, but you know, that's the best way to fool them." he raised a finger to his forehead to stress his strategy, "One should always seem weak when they are strong."
"Hmph, that seems like a good strategy." she noted, before glancing back toward the door, "I should probably tell Aang about this. I don't think he'll want me grabbing Appa's reins and flying us to my dad with no warning."
"That is a good idea. Will you leave today?" he asked her, and the Water Tribe girl furrowed a brow; she didn't want to take away any time Aang might have with his friend, but then, she didn't want to needlessly delay their departure, knowing that Bumi was counting on her to give the message to her father, and she personally wanted to see him as soon as possible.
"Maybe... I'll see what Aang thinks." she decided, before she raised a finger to his chin, "I wonder how he and Toph are going."
"I don't expect learning earthbending will be easy for him." Bumi conceded, "Air is the opposite element to earth, and he'll need a new mindset if he wants to master my element."
"Aang figured out how to think like a waterbender easily enough." she noted, "I think he'll be fine."
"We should hope so." the King of Omashu agreed, though he seemed a little skeptical of her own view; she understood that he was a master earthbender, and thus, took his opinion a little more highly than her own, even if she hoped for the best.
"I can help with the training... Toph might go all- uh, drill sergeant on him." she noted, knowing that her experience in training soldiers would both help and harm her training of Aang.
Treating him like any other earthbender, training to fight the Fire Nation, would not exactly work, given that Aang was an Air Nomad, with a completely different mindset and way of thinking about bending that she mightn't work around, but merely try to push over, not too unlike her own element- she understood earthbending was the bending art most focused on standing one's ground.
"Well, that's what I expect. She'll be a fine master... and I believe training the Avatar is a great privilege." he admitted with a smile, before gesturing to the door, "Go to your friend. I'm sure he'll appreciate you being there for him."
"He will." she agreed, before turning around; she wanted to leave at once, but she felt obliged to tell him what she thought, "Thank you, Bumi. I'm glad my father sent you that letter."
"I am as well. Please, go enjoy yourself." he waved her off, and she paced on toward the door, which the guards opened up for her, allowing Katara to step out into the main tunnel of the city.
She glanced around, noting that there were a few people out at the city's market, which ran down the main tunnel, stalls lining the walls, where she could see a crowd of people going to buy things. New Omashu still felt like a real city, even if it was underground, and though she hadn't seen many actual cities, she knew that the place before her provided some sense of normalcy to its inhabitants, instead of being forced to live under Fire Nation rule in Old Omashu. She glanced to her right, knowing that Toph would be training Aang in the yards where she trained the other earthbenders; she paced on with haste, wanting to get to them as quickly as she could. She wasn't necessarily that excited anymore, but she did want to help Aang with his training in whatever way she could, and tell him about the letter, as it gave them even more of a reason to leave soon.
Pacing on down the tunnel, she could hear a little commotion ahead of her, and she raised a brow, confused about what was going on; the tunnel curved around, and she made sight of what looked like a few dozen men wrestling. It didn't take much for her to figure out that some of them were Fire Nation, and the others were Earth Kingdom soldiers; obviously, one group had got fed up with the other, and it had turned into a brawl. She sped up her pace as she approached, watching as rocks were thrown about, along with fire streams and fireballs spurting out from the hands of some of the soldiers. The pedestrians who surrounded the brawl seemed uneased by it, and perhaps, were afraid that it could escalate further. Katara could only think of one thing, and that was how to break up the fight; the only bit of water she had on her person was the small waterskin she always had, which clearly wouldn't be enough to separate the two groups.
She turned to face one of the pedestrians, and asked them what they knew, "Does anybody know where a washroom is? Or a well?" she asked around, not getting any immediate responses, and so, she decided to be more specific, "I need some water to stop this fight!" she raised her voice, and one of the pedestrians pointed back behind them, toward some stone pipes that ran along the exterior walls of the houses that lined the tunnel.
She reached her arm out to her left, feeling for the water that was inside the pipe, and clenched her fist, tightening her grip on it before she pulled her arm back toward her, ripping one of the sections of the pipe open purely from the pressure of the water inside, and then, she bent said water right toward the brawling soldiers; she knocked them over, dampening flames and breaking up boulders and rocks that were being thrown around with the high pressure stream of water, before she bent it around the men themselves, quickly freezing it to stop them from restarting their fight.
"That's enough!" she shouted at them, and they all looked toward her with surprise.
"Wait, it's the waterbender." one of the Earth Kingdom soldiers noted, narrowing his eyes at her, "Why are you helping them?"
"I'm not helping any of you. I'm helping the people who are trying to go about their business." she retorted, stepping closer to the group as she eyed them, "Why were you all fighting?"
"These bastards think they can walk all over us. We don't even have any money to give." one of the Fire Nation soldiers declared, and the Earth Kingdom soldiers seemed rather agitated by that.
"You're living in our city for free, after you invaded our damn country! You should be grateful for what you've been given!" one of them snarled with fury, "These freeloaders think they can just do whatever they like."
"We're not even trying to start a fight." another Fire Nation soldier spoke up, "The only reason we're here is because the usurper's men are going to kill us if we do."
"Oh, usurper? We don't give a shit about who's on the throne. You're all ash-makers to us." the same Earth Kingdom soldier shouted at them, and Katara bent out some more water, coiling it into a thin stream around her body.
"Do I need to make more ice binds?" she questioned them, "I'm not afraid to do it."
A few of them shook their heads, though some were still clearly agitated; one raised his fist up, breaking the ice bind it was in, and bent some rock from underneath him, "We're not taking orders from you."
"Fine." she simply responded, unwilling to let them continue beating each other; she threw her right hand forward, sending her water stream right into his chest, splashing him before freezing the liquid at once, keeping him in place before he could try anything.
The other men looked at him with surprise and turned to look at her, afraid of what she might do next, "Maybe you can spend the time you're frozen thinking about why your fighting was pointless. We're all in this together now." she warned them, "No matter how much we don't like each other."
The pedestrians looked at her with awe as she strode on past them, not wanting to delay herself any longer; she genuinely hoped that the soldiers would stop being so distrustful of each other, but she was sure this was just wishful thinking. She never liked the Fire Nation, and she knew that without knowing Azula, she probably would still mistrust, if not despise them; that mindset was completely unproductive, and she knew that the only way that peace was ever going to come about was if they actually found some common ground and trust in each other. She knew that with Ozai's seizure of power in the Fire Nation capital, it was now, more than ever, that they needed to see their common enemies and stand together against them; she knew that Azula would have hated joining forces with Zuko, so she was a little relieved that that was no longer going to be an issue.
As she strode on toward the training yards, she wondered about what might be going on back at Azula's base; she hoped that Sokka was well, but she was sure that the Princess was going to get them into some extreme and dangerous plans sooner or later. She worried for her brother, and Ty Lee as well, given they couldn't really refuse her, and with her determination to take back her country for herself, it was inevitable that she would do something stupid again. Azula herself was quite intelligent, but she tended to make plans that were either too flimsy, or simply had too many variables; Sokka, being the more level-headed of the pair, would probably be trying to warn her against doing anything too brash, and hopefully, she wouldn't. Aang wouldn't be happy with them if they started brewing more conflicts for a goal that would be unachievable without the cooperation they required from both Zuko's supporters and the Earth Kingdom rebels who dotted their country.
She knew that her father's ships arriving nearby would provide a chance to tell him and the other warriors about what was going on, and perhaps figure out how they could assist their efforts to reunite the Earth Kingdom, given they had the ships the rebels would need to move around the country with haste. Not everyone had battleships or sky-bisons that could quickly cross the world, and she was sure her tribe's boats would be helpful in allowing Bumi's forces, as well as the other rebels, retake the rest of their country, most importantly of which would be Ba Sing Se. Defeating the Dai Li would take a lot of help, and she was sure that they could do it once Aang had mastered earthbending, but even then, the threat Ozai posed might force them to delay any efforts against them.
Katara wouldn't deny that she was afraid of what might happen; she was afraid for herself, for Aang, and even for Azula. The Princess was defying her father, and she already knew the story about Zuko, so she was well aware of what would happen to her if her father got a hold of her; she had chosen to help the Avatar, and work with him to right the wrongs of her nation, the very wrongs her father wanted to perpetuate. The Water Tribe girl was glad that the Princess had chosen the path she had, and now, she was the one she trusted to lead them, even if she could be arrogant and a little crazy at times. Aang was the Avatar, and she was sure that he could and would become a great leader for the world, and could help shape it back to some semblance of the one he knew a century prior. She was sure he missed that world of peace, where the Air Nomads still existed, and the Four Nations were in balance; that world was gone, but she hoped that he could try and make a new balance, and something that would last longer than their own lifetimes.
As she approached the wide opening that led into the training yards, she could make out clouds of dust as the fighters inside trained their bending; she couldn't hear or see Toph and Aang yet, but she was sure she would find them soon enough. When she reached the entrance, she glanced about, noting the sets the rebel fighters were practicing, as well as the sparring she could see some non-bending soldiers doing. To her left, she found Aang and Toph, the latter standing over the former as he lay on the ground, looking like he had been knocked down; Katara cringed, hoping things hadn't gone as badly as she thought they might have. The Avatar wasn't one for sticking his ground and fighting head-on, so she was sure that earthbending wasn't going to be an easy bending art for him to learn.
When she neared the pair, she heard the stout earthbender mock him, "Oh, so you're not even going to try and fight back?" she questioned him rhetorically, and Aang groaned as he tried to pull himself up from the ground.
"How?" he asked, "I... I'm just not very good at this."
"It's all in the mindset." Katara spoke up, getting both of their attention; Aang smiled and so did Toph, though probably for a different reason.
"See, she gets it." the blind earthbender gestured to her, pointing at a slightly off angle, "You're thinking like an airbender. You have to stick to it. Giving up or running away... that's not gonna cut it." she warned him, crossing her arms as he rose up to his feet, dusting himself off in the process.
"Uh... yeah." he nodded, seeming nervous to continue their training, "So, I've got to bend some rock." he concluded what he had to do, and Toph raised a finger to clarify his claim.
"You're not bending anything yet. First you've got to learn something a little simpler: stopping a rock." she argued, "I toss rocks at those guys all the time." she gestured over to the rebels who were presently going through their sets, "But you, you haven't even earthbent once yet."
"Well, you shouldn't throw a rock at him right away." Katara warned her, and the blind girl gestured to her, as if she wanted her to start a speech.
"Okay, fire away. What's your genius advice?" she sarcastically quipped, making Katara narrow her eyes at her, not amused by her comment; she just wanted to help Aang get into his training without needlessly agitating or frustrating either Toph or him.
"How about you give him an incentive?" she asked, "Aang isn't just going to stop a rock because you want him to."
"Well, he should." Toph retorted, and the young Avatar cringed, stepping between the two of them.
"Hey, we don't need to argue-" he tried to defuse their conversation, which Katara wouldn't say had turned into a proper argument just yet.
"This isn't an argument." she calmly assured him, "I just think we need to find a way for you to... not jump out of the way when a rock comes your way." she clarified, making the other girl scoff.
She bent a wall up behind herself quite casually, before leaning up against it, "And so, what's your idea? You know him better than I do." she asked, and Katara raised a finger to her chin.
"Hmph... well, Aang I need you to do this."
"Stop the rock?" he asked, and she nodded, "Why?"
"I need you to do it." she emphasised her point once more, "We're counting on you; you can't just jump out of the way, or airbend the rock. You just need to stand there."
"But..." he began, and she raised a finger toward him.
"No buts." she warned him, "Toph isn't going to appreciate it if you don't take her training seriously."
"I am taking it seriously." he declared, now sounding a little annoyed, which was exactly what she wanted to hear.
"Are you?" Katara questioned him, sure that would rile him up a little bit.
"I am!" he nearly shouted at her, "I'll stop the rock!" he declared, and Toph laughed.
"Wow!" she exclaimed, now not even sarcastically, "That was impressive." she acknowledged, before she raised her fist up, bending a rock out of the ground, which she threw back, forcing it to skid across the yard, moving some distance away from the three of them, "I'm going to throw that at you." she warned Aang, "So, I hope you're not just playing tough. I need you to be really tough."
"I can be tough." he assured her, "I stopped Zhao."
"Okay, you did some things at the North Pole, but that's not what I'm thinking about. You guys were forced into that situation. You're choosing to stop the rock." she clarified, and the young Avatar nodded.
"I'll do it." he assured her, "I just have to stand my ground." he declared, and the earthbender smirked for a moment.
"I could stick your feet into the ground if you're worried about your reflexes kicking in." she suggested, and Aang seemed a little unnerved by her offer, shaking his head and hands.
"N-no, you don't need to do that." he assured her, "I'll just stand still."
"You say that now." she warned him as she moved into her earthbending stance, raising the rock into the air, "Ready?"
"Yep." Aang nodded, though Katara could see from his expression that he was nervous, he was trying to remain composed; she was proud of him for that, knowing that he was doing something very new and unusual to him.
"Don't worry." she tried to reassure him, placing her palm on his shoulder, not wanting him to freak out and jump out of the way when she sent the rock his way.
Without another moment's notice, Toph thrust her left hand forward, sending the rock right toward Aang, who tensed up and pulled up his own hands in reaction, staring the rock down for the split second it took to reach him. The rock didn't hit Aang at all; it just stopped, and his eyes widened with surprise. A moment later, it dropped down to the ground and shattered from the impact, making the two of them step back, realising what had just happened.
"Did I just..." he gasped, and Katara grinned at him, knowing that he'd gotten somewhere with his training, and the progress was promising.
"Yeah, I think you just did." she confirmed his unfinished question, and Toph clapped from a distance, earning their attention.
"You stood your ground. There was no easy way around that rock, so you bent it." she noted with an impressed look on her face as she strode toward them, "Are you ready to start doing some actual earthbending?"
"Yeah, I am!" he grinned at her, before furrowing a brow, "Wait, do I get a training outfit for earthbending?" he asked, and Toph snickered.
"Well, I don't have anything to do with that. I don't own much clothes." she conceded, "Maybe you can ask your friend, the king, to give you something." she suggested, a little sarcasm in her voice, and Katara smiled for a moment; at the very least, she knew that Sokka might get along with her, after their little spat over Azula when they first met- sarcasm and cockiness seemed to be two things they had in common.
"Uh, yeah, I guess I could." he agreed to her proposition, "So are we going to start training now?"
"No." Toph refused, "I spent the afternoon shouting at you about being a wuss, and trying to make you toughen up. Turned out, you just needed to get your pride hurt."
"My-" he mumbled, before narrowing his eyes at her, "I'm not prideful. The monks always told us that you have to learn how to be humble and put others before yourself." he declared, obviously offended that she'd think he was prideful.
"I don't think she meant it like that, Aang." Katara stressed, "She just means that you don't want to be seen as incapable. Everybody wants to be strong, in whatever way that is."
"Also, Katara saying it helped." Toph observed, "Obviously, he doesn't care that much about my opinion." she noted, Aang's expression softening.
"No, no, I don't don't care about your opinion. You're going to be my master. We're going to be great friends!" he assured her, making her snicker, and the earthbender punched him in the shoulder.
"We'll see about that, Twinkletoes."
"Twinkletoes?" Katara raised a brow before laughing, "Oh, that's a funny nickname."
"Please don't call me that." Aang asked softly, obviously not liking such a nickname.
"Oh, don't worry. I give out my nicknames equally and fairly." she assured him, "She'll be getting one soon enough." she tapped Katara's arm as she walked by her, making her way back toward the entrance of the training yards, "Aw, look who's here." she quipped, making the Water Tribe girl raise a brow as she glanced past her, a little confused who she was talking about; she tensed up when she realised that she was referring to the one person she and Aang hadn't run into yet during their time at New Omashu, that being Jet.
He was standing there awkwardly, seeming unsure what to say or do, but Toph strode up toward him, and pointed back toward the pair, "Are you gonna apologise to them or something?"
"I was going to ask- uh, nevermind." he shook his head, seeming like he had wanted to ask her about something, but Aang and Katara being there made it awkward.
"Well, enjoy yourselves." the earthbender waved them goodbye as she headed off in the direction of her apartment.
The Freedom Fighter stood there, seeming unsure what to say, and he scratched the back of his scalp, "Sorry." he mumbled, before clearing his throat, realising he had spoken too softly, "I'm sorry about what I did." he spoke up a little louder, and Katara crossed her arms, unsure whether she ought to accept his words just yet, for both her brother and Azula's sakes.
"Thanks for saying that." Aang admitted, "You got really angry at Sokka... for no good reason."
"No, I understand his reasoning." the Water Tribe girl clarified, "I just think that it was stupid of him to put his own anger on Sokka." she admitted, striding closer to the clearly nervous Freedom Fighter, "Did you see those frozen soldiers down the tunnel?"
"I was guessing you did that." he admitted quietly, scratching his neck as glanced back toward Aang before his eyes met her own, showing that he was afraid, and with good reason.
"You know I didn't like her very much either." she told him about her own mistake, "I thought she was some kind of evil spy, corrupting my brother and trying to undermine my tribe." she admitted her darkest thoughts about Azula, which were rather commonplace at times when the Princess agitated her, "But it wasn't really about her, you see. I've never liked the FIre Nation, ever since they killed my mother, and I know that you must have lost your family to them. That's why you hate them, right?"
His head turned down, and he sighed, "Yeah, it is."
She narrowed her eyes at him for a few moments, before her expression softened, realising that he wasn't just regretful about what he had said to Sokka; there was something else on his mind, something that either he had done, or he remembered.
"What is it?"
"I... I did something. I made my Freedom Fighters do something." he admitted, turning around, "That's why we were in Ba Sing Se. We had to run away, because the Fire Nation wanted us dead."
"What kind of thing?" Aang asked, sounding a little nervous, yet curious, about his yet-to-be-told story.
"Something bad. I know it was... it was just a stupid thing to do. I manipulated my friends into doing something so I could get justice for my family... but it really wasn't justice." he admitted, "I got angry at Sokka, because I thought he was getting manipulated by Azula. I thought she was making him into her tool, so she could get whatever she wanted from him. I'm like her- that's why I... I don't want good people to just become shit like me."
"I mean... maybe he was manipulated by her to begin with." Katara conceded, "But that's a bad way of viewing their relationship. It was never just one way. She's not some kind of evil genius, as much as she would like to be. She's a human being."
"I know that." he admitted, before his expression faltered, "Toph made me do this." he added, "I needed her help, so I promised I'd say... something."
"So, was any of that genuine?" she narrowed her eyes at him, and he nodded.
"Yes, it was. All of it." he confirmed, "But I don't want to talk about that again."
"That's okay." Aang assured him, "We won't mention what you said." he added, "Promise."
"Thanks." Jet made a small smile at him, "I've... I've made mistakes in my life, and sometimes, I've made more mistakes trying to fix the old ones."
"Heh." Katara snickered, "I guess you and Azula have that in common too." she noted, before straightening her face, "Thank you for saying what you did. I thought you were still angry about what happened." she admitted, and he shook his head.
"No, no, I wasn't going to- I've got more important things to worry about than my fits of rage." he stressed, before glancing toward Aang, "So, are you going to learn earthbending from Toph?"
"Yeah." Aang confirmed, "I think she'll be a good master."
"Well, she knows what she's doing." he agreed with him, "Uh, are you two leaving today?"
"I don't think so. It depends." Katara gave the best answer she could, Aang glancing her way with a perplexed face.
"Are we meant to be doing something?"
"Bumi gave me a letter that my father sent to him. He and the warriors have sailed nearby, and now they can help Bumi and the rebels move around. I want to go see him." she explained, and the young Avatar nodded.
"Oh, okay." he noted, and Jet raised a brow, seeming interested by what she had just said.
"Is Bato going to be there?" he asked, and Katara crossed her arms, pretty sure that he would be.
"I'd say so." she confirmed, and the Freedom Fighter smiled.
"If you see him, there's something I want you to give him." he explained, and the Water Tribe girl furrowed a brow, recalling that the Freedom Fighters had travelled with Bato to New Omashu before he had returned to their tribe; he pulled a sword off of his belt, and Katara noticed it wasn't one of his hook swords, but some kind of broadsword.
He unsheathed the blade, revealing that it had a number of markings on it, which seemed to be writing, "What's with the writing?" Aang asked him, and he chuckled as he ran his finger across the text.
"We decided we were going to send him a little message on our gift."
"Where'd you get the sword from?" the young Air Nomad questioned him, seeming a little suspicious in his tone, "This looks Fire Nation." he observed, and the Freedom Fighter nodded.
"Back when we had just left Ba Sing Se, some Fire Nation soldiers confronted us when we were trying to find a place to stay in a village. There was a fight, and Bato saved our lives by beating the soldiers when we thought we were outnumbered. He used this sword to fight them off, and I decided to keep it because it reminded me of the good he did for us." he explained, "So please, give it to him." he requested, resheathing the blade and giving it to them, "I had the blacksmith here fix it up a little so it wouldn't just be a dirty rusted sword."
"That's..." Katara mumbled, before accepting the sword into her hands, smiling at Jet, glad that he wasn't just a boy consumed by rage and hatred; he had love and respect in his heart too, and she understood how he felt.
He wanted to repay someone for saving his life, just as Azula did after what had happened at Yu Dao. Katara was pretty sure the Princess wouldn't have tolerated the menial work she had to do in their tribe if she didn't feel indebted to Sokka, who had protected her from her brother and ensured her escape; Jet didn't take such actions lightly either, and obviously wanted Bato to know that he still appreciated what he had done for him and his friends.
"I'll give him the sword." she assured him with a smile, before turning to face Aang, "So, are we going to have dinner?" she asked, and Aang furrowed a brow.
"Do you think Toph will let us have some of her food?" he asked, and the Water Tribe girl snickered, not imagining that she would be that willing to give up her own food.
"Let's just get something off the saddle." she suggested, the young Avatar cringing.
"But those rice-crackers are just... blegh." he made a face of disgust, and Jet scratched the back of his scalp as he awkwardly gestured down the tunnel.
"You can have dinner with me and the Freedom Fighters, if you'd like." he explained, and Aang furrowed his eyebrows in thought.
"Do you have anything vegetarian?" he asked, and the Freedom Fighter nodded.
"Uh, yeah. Some vegetables and noodles. You'll eat that, right?" he asked, and Aang nodded.
"Are you sure you want us to go eating other people's food, Aang?" she asked him, a little unsure about his idea.
"Don't worry about it." Jet assured her, "I'm pretty sure the others bought too much food anyway. It'd be better not to go to waste." he explained, gesturing for them to follow, "I'm sure you won't mind it."
"Earth Kingdom food isn't that bad." Katara conceded, "Let's see what it's like." she accepted his offer, and Aang grinned.
"Great! Now we can get some food and get to know you guys better." the young Avatar declared his intentions, making her cringe slightly as Jet gave his response.
"Well, my friends aren't that talkative... but they'll probably like you." Jet conceded, "You're a nice kid, Aang."
"They haven't tried to stab my brother." Katara noted, making the Freedom Fighter tense up as he tried his best to keep looking ahead as he led them down the tunnel.
"I must really suck at first impressions." he mumbled to himself, before raising a brow, "What would it take to earn your trust, Katara?"
"Doing something good." she simply told him, "You're not very good at it, from what I can tell."
"Y-yeah..." he mumbled, Aang cringing slightly from the turn the conversation had taken.
"Well, if he and the Freedom Fighters are going to go with the other rebels to help the Earth Kingdom, maybe he can prove himself there. He'll have to cooperate with the Fire Nation."
"I will?" Jet glanced back at him, a little surprised by that revelation, "Uh, I guess I could try. As long as they aren't the kind that destroy villages, separate families, and harm innocents." he gave his condition.
"You know, I can agree to that." Katara clarified herself, knowing that she had hated the Southern Raiders for what they had done to her mother, and by extension, her whole tribe, "How about you give them a piece of your mind?"
"I thought you didn't like me doing that."
"Azula had nothing to do with destroying villages and killing innocents." she argued, "Some people certainly did." she noted, "Those men don't deserve any kindness."
"Maybe don't... get too angry." Aang warned them, "Revenge is... well, it's not good." he tried to emphasise his point.
"Well, it's not really revenge. I don't know who even destroyed my village, or my friends' villages." he conceded, "But I guess they're going to be the kind of people that support this Ozai guy, right?"
"Yes, they would be." Aang begrudgingly agreed with him, obviously still not condoning revenge, but understanding at least the kind of people who would want the war to continue were not going to be good people in the slightest.
"Just think about what good you can do for the Earth Kingdom, and for the world." she suggested, "Once I was only thinking about how I could get back at the Fire Nation, but now I see, it's better to focus on how you can do good for others."
"I can't be the bad guy again." he decided, "I don't want to be like them."
"You see that you did bad. That's better than most people." she acknowledged the merit of his thoughts, before narrowing her eyes, "What food do you even have?"
"Rice, noodles, a little cow-pig, and some vegetables. We're cooking a big meal." he acknowledged, and she licked her lips; given what they had in their saddle bags, Jet's offer became a whole lot more enticing.
"That sounds a lot better than rice crackers. I'm in."