The Return @tubendo
Chapter 24

Aang wished he wasn't going to leave New Omashu after only a night, but he knew that staying for any longer would just be selfish; he needed to learn earthbending, and the Water Tribe warriors needed to receive their message. Appa was the fastest way to reach them, and he wouldn't refuse the offer; he might have only been twelve, but he understood well enough what was at stake. The world had fallen into chaos, and it was up to him and his friends to do something about it; usually, Aang wouldn't have a problem with chaos, as it was really another way to be free, like his people loved to be, but he knew that the freedom the world had was not the same kind he knew and cherished.

Villages being destroyed, armies clashing, and Fire Nation warlords staking their claims over the Earth Kingdom; it was only a matter of time before worse things happened, and Ozai's seizure of power was clear enough evidence of that future being likely. He wasn't going to lose his optimism however, as he knew that he could do good for the world as the Avatar, and make sure that Azula's crazy and evil father was defeated; all he needed to do was learn the elements, and knowing that countless Avatars had done the same before him was a little bit comforting. He knew most wouldn't have had to learn the elements in the same circumstances, but he knew that the faster he became the Avatar he was destined to be, the faster he would be able to stop the fighting and return the world to some semblance of peace, which it hadn't known for over a century.

So, as he sat at Bumi's table, having finished his breakfast of egg noodles, vegetable baozi and bread, which was given to him by the King's best cooks, he smiled at his friend, thankful for all he had done, and the advice he had offered; he was perhaps one of the oldest people in the world, and with that age came wisdom and strength that he couldn't compare. Aang had been taught to respect the elder monks at the temple, because they had learned things throughout their life, and it was his responsibility to listen and learn from them, so he could become wise one day himself; Bumi was a whole different kind of elderly man to the old monks he had met- if anything, he reminded of Monk Gyatso, being old and wise, but young at heart.

The same could be said, though to a lesser degree, about General Iroh, who according to his own niece, was once a great, powerful and rightfully feared leader of the Fire Nation's military, who had changed so much, because of the things he had learned. He was wise too, though in a different way to Bumi; he was nowhere near as old, but still had a lot of experience, and the way he spoke was indicative of that. Proverbs, sound advice and musings that made him feel less like a battle-hardened general and more like an old sage or monk. The General was an unusually happy man, at least considering the fact that his nephew, who he seemed to treat like his own son, was dead, at the hands of his own brother. Perhaps because he had already seen much and suffered in the past, he was able to remain strong; that was inspiring to Aang, who frequently found himself saddened and struggling to deal with the loss of his people, who he missed dearly.

Though he didn't know him well, there was another man at the table, who had only met after meeting Bumi after dinner; Jeong Jeong was his name, and he knew his name from Azula and Sokka, because he was the person who had tried to have her captured, and had effectively caused all the chaos that he saw befalling the world; of course, that chaos provided the Earth Kingdom with a chance to rise up again, instead of remaining under the rule of a ruthless Fire Lord Ozai. In a way, he thought that his actions actually had a positive result, at least for his friends; he was the reason Azula and Sokka had met, and effectively what had allowed Zuko to become the Fire Lord. Without Zuko, he would still be in the iceberg, and Ozai would have never been imprisoned, remaining on the throne, and continued to do what he guessed would be extreme measures against his opposition in the Earth Kingdom, as indicated by what Azula had done to the Dai Li, no matter how deserving they were of their fate.

All in all, Aang didn't mind the company he had his breakfast with, and though Katara was rightfully a little suspicious of Jeong Jeong, after their interactions with Chey, they were both more inclined to trust him and act civil in his presence. The Water Tribe girl was nearly finished her own breakfast, and Toph, who was sitting at the end of the table, invited by virtue of being Aang's new earthbending master, seemed to be enjoying her own meal greatly; he guessed that the noodles and jook she might have been used to eating weren't much compared to the great breakfast Bumi had provided them.

"This was a good breakfast." Aang spoke up, turning to face his old friend, "Thank you, Bumi."

"Oh, I bet it's better than rice crackers." he noted, referring back to their conversation the night prior where he had mentioned the fact they had been stuck eating mostly rice crackers for over three weeks.

"It is." he agreed with him, before glancing down at his empty bowl, "I don't think I'll be eating anything this good for a while."

"Well, we might be able to eat some Water Tribe food when we reach the warriors." Katara explained to him, and Aang cringed slightly, not finding their cuisine to be the best; it was a little too salty for his taste, but it was better than eating the bland rations he had been stuck with lately.

"What does that taste like?" Toph asked, seeming a little interested, but the smirk on her face told Aang she might be intending to insult Water Tribe food.

"Well, there's lots of fish, sea prunes, seaweed and seal meat. There's chicken and eggs too, from arctic hens, but other than that, nothing much else." Katara explained, and the earthbender girl raised her elbow up onto the table as she tapped her chin.

"Sounds salty." Toph observed, before raising a brow, "Is it any good?" she turned her head slightly, indicating that she was talking to Aang, not Katara, who seemed ever so slightly annoyed by the suggestion it was bad.

"It's not bad." he softened his words, "I like the seaweed noodles." he admitted, before scrunching his lips up, seeing that Katara was eyeing them both.

General Iroh cleared his throat, and turned his gaze toward the young Avatar, presumably to break the awkwardness that had fallen over the table, "So, Aang, what do you think of Fire Nation food?" he asked, and Bumi raised a finger.

"Too spicy, right?" he preempted his friend, who nodded, finding that to be an astute judgement.

"Yeah, it's a little too spicy. But it doesn't taste bad." he explained his thoughts, and Jeong Jeong and Iroh both looked at each other, seeming a little interested by his comment.

"So then... which cuisine is best? Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation or Water Tribe?" the retired general asked him, and the young Avatar cringed.

"Uh... tough question."

"Well, that's a bit of a trick question, Iroh." Jeong Jeong warned him, "Each cuisine has its ups and downs. Not everybody likes seafood, or spicy food, or meat." he noted, glancing toward the young Avatar, "Vegetarianism might make enjoying some foods a little harder." he made an accurate judgement; as much as Aang would like to try new foods, he was limited by the fact he was a vegetarian and didn't eat meat, which seemed to constitute a large part of the other nation's cuisines, especially the Water Tribes, if Sokka's obsession with it was any indication.

"Well, I like being a vegetarian. I can sleep soundly knowing no animals suffered so I could eat a meal." he explained his thoughts on the matter, before sighing, "I guess we should talk about... you know what, before we leave."

"Things have changed before I left for this meeting." Jeong Jeong admitted, glancing toward the young Avatar, "I know you... believe I have some kind of antagonism toward the Princess, but you must believe me, stopping Ozai is the paramount goal, and we all agree on it."

"The methods, perhaps not as much." Bumi spoke up, and the retired general raised his right hand up to his goatee.

"Avoiding a direct military confrontation, though helping protect innocents, may not help us all in the long run. I am sure my niece will not be as cautious as I am when it comes to military ventures, but that forwardness might be what is necessary to stop my brother before the Earth Kingdom is invaded by Fire Nation forces in earnest."

"Your countrymen still control much of the more isolated parts of the Earth Kingdom." Bumi warned him, "Those are the people the other rebel forces have to contend with for now, and at present, I doubt Ozai will come to their aid."

"So, act fast?" Katara asked, and the group nodded in agreement.

"Usually I wouldn't call for immediate action. I am a man who appreciates strategy and waiting for the opportune time to strike... this is less a case of striking, and more a case of avoiding being struck." Bumi warned, turning his serious, almost fearful eyes to Aang, "I know you're good at that, Aang, but this isn't about you specifically. All the rebel forces in the Earth Kingdom, as well any Fire Nation forces against Ozai, will need to avoid the brunt of the military expedition that will come their way. Only by conserving our strength and consolidating whatever support we have in the Earth Kingdom can our alliance stand a chance."

"What about all the people loyal to Zuko?" Toph asked, "They're not all just going to up and support Ozai because they think he's dead."

"Some might." Iroh conceded, seeming a little disturbed by the fact, "But not all. Many will see me as a potential contender for the throne, and legally, I am. I will not contest it, however, as I believe it is my niece's right to take the throne after her brother." he admitted his opinion on the matter, which had already been made clear, "My 'supporters', whoever they are, I will try to keep in line, and hopefully, get them to cooperate with Azula. If she can move her forces from the isolated wilderness of the northern Earth Kingdom into the colonies, where there is enough of an industrial base and actual soldiers to help her defend those lands from her father."

"Have you sent out letters yet?" Jeong Jeong inquired, and the retired General nodded.

"I have." he confirmed, "I don't expect much response for at least the next week, and I will send a letter to my niece as well." he decided, "She should know that she has my support."

"We can tell her, Iroh." Katara assured him, "We can make sure she understands."

"I know that, but I would prefer she learns this as soon as possible. She may go and seize the opportunity to attack Zuko's supporters, and that will only further divide us against Ozai; she needs to know that we are not her enemies."

"I'd be less worried about her, and more worried about the guys who support her." Aang admitted, and everyone's gaze turned toward him.

"Oh..." Jeong Jeong mumbled, "Those men might have originally been supporters of Ozai. I assume they weren't very happy when you showed up at their base of operations."

"They weren't." Aang conceded, before grimacing, "Now that Ozai's taken control, maybe they'll... try and switch sides."

"You should warn her about that in your letter." Katara suggested, "I don't want them getting hurt because of him." she admitted, before grimacing, "This could all go very badly for her."

"I know that." Iroh admitted, "That's why I want her to know that she has my support... if she needs to flee, it needn't be back to the South Pole." he explained, and Toph snickered.

"Why would she try to go back there? That'd be like running across the entire Earth Kingdom on foot to find some hidden little village to hide in."

"Well, the Southern Water Tribe actually likes her... the rest of the world, less so." Katara admitted the truth as she saw it, and her eyes met Aang; they both didn't like that fact, but it was true- Azula, despite her good intentions, was not getting the world, or more specifically, the people whose help she needed, to like her.

"The Fire Nation doesn't disdain my niece... there's just a general fear of association due to my nephew declaring her a fugitive... and now that she is associated with you, Aang, Ozai's supporters will be even more suspicious of her." he acknowledged, before his expression lightened, "But the rest of my country might consider her their Fire Lord, if they don't want my brother as their ruler."

"Well, the people don't really choose the Fire Lord, Iroh." Jeong Jeong spoke up, "The Fire Lord is selected by the Fire Sages, who choose whoever has power over them at the time." he stressed, and the retired general looked a little annoyed, before sighing.

"No, you're right." he admitted, "But the legalities of the matter isn't what's important. The Fire Nation is in the middle of the biggest crisis it's faced in centuries. Even if my brother has been made Fire Lord by the Fire Sages in the capital, that does not mean that the military need to accept him as such, given the way he seized power."

"Didn't Zuko essentially do the same thing?" Katara asked, and the General winced.

"Y-yes... he did." he conceded, "But the context is different. Zuko sought out an Agni Kai, and he won; Ozai did nothing of the sort. From what I can gather, it seems that his agents had Zuko and Mai killed, and then freed their leader from prison." he explained the distinction, making Toph narrow her eyes.

"You guys just keep going on about what's legal and what's real, but does that really matter? Some guy is the Fire Lord. He's a bad guy, and we should stop him, and make sure somebody else is the Fire Lord instead." she broke down the whole argument into pieces, and both Iroh and Jeong Jeong nodded.

"Yes, you're right." the latter agreed with her, "There is no need to confuse ourselves about what is legal and who is the Fire Lord. The fact is, Ozai needs to be stopped, and once the Earth Kingdom has reunited itself in some shape or form, they will stand a real chance to stop him."

"And Azula?" Aang asked, unsure where she fitted in with all this.

"I trust that the Princess already has her own plans to beat her father. Whatever they are, they are probably made easier by the fact the generals and governors loyal to Zuko might choose her over her father." he clarified, and the young Avatar furrowed a brow, actually unsure exactly what Azula was going to do; she spoke of taking back the colonies, but he hadn't actually heard much of a concrete plan concerning such a goal.

"Well, I don't really know what she's going to do, honestly." he admitted, turning to face Katara, "Do you know?"

"Well, she wants to take back the colonies... as she says it, though she didn't really control them to begin with." she noted, "She's going to stop her father, and I assume her airship technology and fleet of ships she's taken from Zhao would have something to do with that."

"Oh, the airships." Iroh's eyes widened, "I heard from-"

"Yeah, we know." Aang admitted, shaking his head at the memory of what their waterbending master had told Iroh; if he had been after Azula, there was a good chance they might have been attacked already, but obviously, Zuko and Iroh had had other priorities, "Pakku told you."

"Yes, he did." he nodded, "I assume you found out about that from him..." he began, before his eyes widened, "How?"

"Sokka's just observant, that's all." Katara admitted, "He figured it out pretty quickly that he was a member of the White Lotus, and then interrogated him about it."

"I can't imagine he'd-" he began, before his eyes widened, "What did he do to him?"

"Broke some ribs." the Water Tribe girl admitted, Aang and her both wincing at the memory, "And then I had to learn how to heal because of it."

"Oh..." he mumbled, "I see that Sokka is rather defensive when it comes to my niece."

"Defensive is an understatement." Toph warned him, "That guy takes his role very seriously."

"He did threaten to fight me, so I understand what you mean." the retired general conceded, making a small smile, "I am glad they were able to get away that day."

"I am too." Aang admitted, knowing that Iroh's mercy was effectively the only reason he had ultimately been found by Azula and Katara in the first place.

"Do you... do you have any advice for us?" the Water Tribe girl asked him, "Now things are different out there, so... I thought you might have some advice."

"Avoid flying over the sea." Iroh gave his first warning, "I know it might feel safer at times, but I assume much of the Fire Navy will fall into Ozai's hands now, and that makes it a lot harder for you to avoid getting attacked." he warned, before furrowing a brow, "Jeong Jeong, you've been doing a lot of travelling. What do you think?"

"I agree." he gave his own opinion, "You should not go out into the world thinking they will treat you with the same kindness you might give to them, young Avatar." he warned him, his solemn, if not frustrated voice speaking to a history that seemed obvious enough from what Chey had told them; Jeong Jeong had betrayed his country after seeing all the horrors of the Hundred Year War, and Aang could only imagine after seeing Monk Gyatso's body what kind of things the Fire Nation were doing to their enemies.

"You Air Nomads are noble of heart, and that is one of the great virtues of your people, but it is a weakness that you mustn't let them exploit. Keep away from people when you can, and when you do, try and help people without involving them in your efforts, unless of course... they're like Bumi's men here." he admitted, "Then you won't have much of a choice in the matter."

"What about Ozai?" Aang asked, and the retired general sighed, seeming either frustrated or merely sad about what had happened.

Everything he must have thought about putting Zuko on the throne had been turned against him, just like how Aang felt when he realised fleeing the temple wasn't just fleeing the control of the monks, he was fleeing his responsibilities as the Avatar, and ultimately his own time and everyone he knew.

"I know you are a pacifist, but you must understand that there is only one way this crisis can be solved now. Zuko took the path of mercy, which was something I admired at the time, but now... all I see is how it was foolish for me to tell him it was right." he admitted, the pain in his eyes more than visible; he was on the verge of tears talking about it, and Aang felt like the seemingly kind, wise man had been dealt a terrible life by the spirits, "My brother will never give up while he bears breath, so you must kill him. That is the only way we can be sure that he will not cause any more grief for the world."

"I-" he gasped, knowing that Iroh was right, even if every fibre of his being said it was abhorrent; taking another's life was something he never wanted to consider, but now, he knew that it was a real possibility, "How can I do it?"

"Physically or emotionally?" the retired general asked him, and knowing he was the Avatar, Aang was only concerned for the emotional brunt of the action he was being asked to do; Iroh seemed to understand this, and as the young Air Nomad refused to answer, he placed his hands together and nodded, "I know this will be a challenge for you... it against everything you stand for, and please... I ask that you don't take the easy path." he requested, Katara turning to face him with a confused face.

"The easy path?" she asked, "What is easy about killing somebody?" she asked, sounding rather unamused, if not offended by his words, and Iroh raised hand up, his expression solemn.

"I do not want to make my niece as bad as him." he acknowledged, looking at the Avatar, the fear in his expression clear, "She cannot kill him. He is her father- the man who raised her and shaped her into the person you know. Even if she tells you she is willing, she should not do it. It is not right for her to have to do that... after what I failed to do."

"Does this have to do with what happened to Azulon?" Katara asked, and the retired general nodded.

"So she told you?" he assumed, before sighing, "I know my brother was behind it now... and if I had understood it back then, maybe I'd be Fire Lord right now, and none of these terrible things would have ever happened." he admitted, "I can't undo what's been done, but I can make sure Azula doesn't become anymore like her father. If she kills her father that makes her no better than him."

"I know what you mean." Aang acknowledged, glancing down to his empty bowl, "She doesn't want to be like him, not anymore. She wants to be better." he stated what he knew about the Princess; despite all her flaws, the one thing she wielded against them was her introspection- she could see her wrongs, as well as the wrongs of others, and try to fix them.

"So why don't you do it then?" Toph spoke up, clearly addressing Iroh, whose expression shifted to one of surprise.

"Honestly... I don't know if I could do it if it came down to it. He's strong, and even... even if I am angry about Zuko, I won't stoop down to his level. I don't have the willpower to defeat him with my bending, but Aang, he has the power of all his past lives, and all the elements. He's the one person who could defeat him assuredly, once he receives the training he requires." he explained, and the young Avatar pouted slightly.

He felt that Iroh, clearly a skilled bender, and with good reason to fight Ozai, might have taken the opportunity to defeat Ozai, but it seemed obvious enough, given the fact he already hadn't done so when Zuko was scarred by his father, as Azula explained, that he was never going to take up that fight. He, on the other hand, had the abilities that could ultimately prove vital to defeating Ozai in battle, if that was what it came to, and given everything he stood for, Aang couldn't say he disagreed with fighting him. He wasn't just a terrible person, but a terrible person fighting for the very cause that had destroyed his people, and led to the death of the man he respected most. Even if Ozai was completely disconnected from Monk Gyatso and his death, he knew that he was the kind of man who would kill men like Gyatso mercilessly, just for more power over the people of the world.

"I will fight him." he assured him, "I have to." he stressed, before turning his eyes away, "But... killing him isn't... I don't know if I can do it."

"Well, somebody must be able to." Toph gave her opinion, "Everybody on this table's a good bender, right?" she asked, everyone nodding.

"That is true." Bumi agreed with her, "But that does not mean we will fight Ozai. For most of us here, it is not our fight; I fight for my country, Jeong Jeong fights against the oppression of the Fire Nation, Iroh fights for peace and protecting innocents. You, Aang, fight for balance and freedom in the memory of your people, and Katara, well, I'd say you are fighting for the future of your tribe."

"And I'm here to kick some butts." Toph proclaimed rather proudly, "Though, I've decided to only beat those people who are asking for it."

"So, people like Ozai?" Aang asked, and she shrugged her shoulders.

"Well, yeah, but I'm not really all into the whole murdering thing either." she admitted honestly, before narrowing her eyes, "Is anybody?"

"Not here, at least." Katara admitted, before furrowing a brow, "But... I guess there is somebody."

The young Air Nomad and the former Crown Prince of the Fire Nation both turned to face her, equally perplexed by her comment, "What do you mean, Katara?" he asked his friend, and she touched the blue pendant she had tied around her neck.

"I wear this necklace to remember my mother, who the Fire Nation killed... and Sokka, he went off to fight the Fire Nation in her name... if there's anyone who's going to kill a Fire Lord with a bent for child abuse, it's Sokka." she admitted, before narrowing her eyes at Aang, "That doesn't mean he'll do it, but I'm trying to say, people like him are willing to."

"Pfft... you might as well ask Jet to kill him. The dickhead might actually enjoy it." Toph joked, and Aang looked at her with a grimace, not really finding her comment funny.

"Why are..." he mumbled, before shaking his head, not wanting to start an argument over that of all things; he didn't want to think about anybody killing anyone, but the conversation topic wasn't helping in the slightest.

"The point is, people are willing to do it." Katara admitted, "And it shouldn't have to be Azula."

"Y-yeah..." he nodded, turning his gaze away from Toph, who seemed a little unsympathetic to his uneasiness; she obviously didn't know him that well, and how he felt about the topic, but she probably could have acted a little less casually about the whole situation.

"Don't worry yourself, Aang." Bumi addressed him, his stern expression somewhat reassuring, "This isn't something a twelve year old should have to think about anyway. You might be the Avatar, but this is a challenge for anyone." he conceded, "I know your friends will help you with whatever you might face, and I hope you can face Ozai, if that is what it comes to, without the fear I know is holding you down."

"Thanks." he made a small smile, glad that he was sympathetic with the dilemma he faced, before he turned toward the door, "So... uh, are we going to head off now?" he asked Katara and Toph, the latter shrugging her shoulders, seeming indifferent to his question.

"You're the boss, Avatar." she suggested, though the Water Tribe girl didn't seem as carefree about their departure; she wanted to see her father once more, and Aang knew that he couldn't keep her waiting for much longer.

"We should get going." she argued, "I think I'll go get Appa ready. We've got most of our things on the saddle already... but I just need to be sure." she explained her intentions, before rising from her seat, "Thank you for breakfast, Bumi, and for letting us stay in your city again."

"It's not a problem. You can come back anytime... though I recommend you head off and do something before coming back. Mastering the elements and bringing peace to the Earth Kingdom isn't going to happen over night." he noted, "But I am sure that Aang has all the help he'll need for getting that done."

"He does." she agreed, turning around to face Iroh, "We'll make sure Azula knows you don't mean any harm." she assured him, "I don't want you two to have to fear each other... with everything that's going on."

"I agree completely." he nodded, "It is only by working together that we can face the threat that faces us."

The Water Tribe girl turned her gaze to Jeong Jeong, "If we pass by Chey, would you like me to tell him anything?" she asked him, and his expression shifted to one of surprise.

"Sorry... you've met Chey?" he asked, perplexed by her revelation.

"Yeah, we met him last week, and helped him and your friends fight some of Ozai's men who were camping in a forest." Aang explained, and he pursed his lips up, seeming to be glad for their assistance.

"Well, I am glad you did that, young Avatar. We don't have much resources... so any assistance you provided must have helped Chey and the others greatly." he acknowledged, before turning his gaze to Katara, "I don't believe I need to tell him anything specific... though, I would recommend he and my men make contact with the Water Tribe fleet you're about to go see. They might be useful in getting my men somewhere a little more strategic."

"I can inform them both. I assume my father's ships will be travelling up the coast, right past where Chey and the fighters were hiding." she explained, before glancing toward Aang, "I'll be waiting at Appa." she explained, before pacing toward the door, "I wish you all good luck."

The three men nodded as she walked through the doorway, the guards shutting the doors behind her, and Aang glanced down at his bowl, wondering what he should say or talk about before he and Toph inevitably had to leave.

"Well, I assume you two are going to head out soon enough." Bumi deduced, "Was there anything you wanted, Toph?"

"From you?" she raised a brow, crossing her arms as she considered his offer, "Not really. I've got everything I need." she declared, turning her head slightly in Aang's direction as she made a small smile, "And I've got a new job to keep me occupied."

"I won't let you down Sifu Toph." he assured her with a curt bow, and she snorted, amused by his deference.

"Don't get too confident. My training regime ain't going to be easy." she warned him, before turning to face Bumi, "Is there anything I ought to emphasise to Mister Twinkletoes here?" she asked, making Aang scrunch up his lips upon hearing his nickname once more.

The King of Omashu snickered at her nickname for Aang, before raising a finger up to stress his point, "To earthbend like an earthbender. To master our element, he'll need to take up a different mindset when he fights. Earthbending is not about attacking or avoiding obstacles-" he began, before she finished his sentence for him.

"It's about standing your ground and taking the opportunities your opponents give you." she acknowledged, before turning slightly toward Aang, "Just the smallest gap in your opponent's defence can be taken advantage of, only if you wait for the opportunity to best use it."

"Hmmm... and what if somebody throws fireballs at you when you're waiting?" he asked, and the Earth Kingdom girl pursed her lips upward.

"Oh, that's why you need to learn how to earthbend. Then you can just throw up a wall in front of yourself." she explained matter of factly, and the young Avatar narrowed his eyes.

"But then how can you see where your-" he began, before straightening his lips, realising what he just said; instead of seeming offended, Toph simply smirked, pointing her thumb toward her chest.

"And that's why seismic sense is better than your pitiful eyesight." she declared proudly, "I can put up walls in every direction and still see everyone around me." she explained, and the young Avatar glanced down, wondering how useful that skill would be in a confrontation; even if he preferred to avoid a fight, it actually might end up making it easier to do so with such a powerful ability.

"I've gotta learn that." he mumbled under his breath, and she pointed toward him with a cocky grin.

"If you're a good enough student, then maybe you will." she suggested, and Aang nodded before glancing back toward Bumi.

"I promise I'll be a good earthbender, so next time we spar, I won't just be trying to dodge the boulders you toss at me." he explained, and the King of Omashu grinned at him.

"Oh, I am looking forward to that, Aang." he assured him, before placing his hands together, "Now, did you need anything for your trip back?"

"No, I don't think so. I think Katara got us enough food from the market." he admitted, before smiling at the group of men, "Good luck. I hope that when I see you all again... we'll be in a better place."

"I mean, my palace isn't that shoddy, Aang." Bumi glanced up toward the ceiling, "Though I can see it could use some more ornaments."

"I meant... uh, in better spirits." he clarified, and the old king snickered.

"I got that, Aang." he told him with a loud whisper, before gesturing toward the doors, "Now, you better not keep Katara waiting too long. I'll see you again sometime soon, Aang." he farewelled him, and Aang rose up from his seat.

"You will." he stressed, before glancing toward Toph, "Did you have much you need to get from your room?"

"Oh, are you going to help me carry it?" she asked him, though Aang could clearly see she was making fun of him; he was twelve and he wasn't even that scrawny- he'd argue that he was pretty fit for his age, though most Air Nomads were active and exercised regularly with their bending and without.

"Yeah, I will." he confirmed, ignoring her insult before he paced toward the doorway, "I want to earn my master's respect." he added, and she snickered.

"If you keep acting that stubborn, you'll learn earthbending in no time." she joked, and he smiled, at least glad that he was getting into the mindset.

"Goodbye!" he waved to Bumi, Jeong Jeong and Iroh, who made curt waves back, before returning to some conversation; once the doors were opened, he and Toph paced on out, and the earthbender girl furrowed a brow as she seemed to be sensing ahead.

"I can sense Katara over that way." she pointed down the main tunnel of the city, up and past the market, before she crossed her arms, "So, you actually want to help carry my stuff? I usually stick to doing my own work for me." she explained, and Aang shrugged his shoulders, a small smile on his lips.

"I really just want to help. I know you might not be happy having to move all your stuff, so I want to make it easier." he explained his reasoning, and she huffed, making a somewhat positive mumble, before she began walking down the tunnel.

"I don't even have that much... you're too nice for your own good."

"But being nice is a good thing." he argued, and she shrugged her shoulders as he followed after her, now unable to see her face.

"Being nice gets you friends, but it also makes you a push-over. Sometimes you've just got to stick to doing things by yourself, and letting others do the same." she argued, Aang blinking a few times as he thought about what he wanted their group to do.

"But we're only going to win together." he argued, and she nodded.

"Well, I know that. I'm just talking in general, not about defeating Mister Big Bad Fire Lord." she clarified, making him snicker at her titling of Ozai.

"Oh, tell Azula that one. She'd find it funny."

"So the Princess has a sense of humour. I wouldn't have guessed from how she was acting when she was here last."

"Well, she was worried. She does like jokes... but just not the kind I like."

"Practical jokes... so like tripping Sokka over and making him eat dirt?" she guessed, and Aang tried to hold back a laugh; when she stated it like that, it actually sounded funny, no matter how bad it would be for Sokka.

"Uh, yep. That's what she finds funny." he confirmed her suspicions, and Toph snickered, her grin suggesting she approved of Azula's humour.

"I think I'm going to get along with her." she decided, before she hastened herself, and forced Aang to speed up to keep himself behind her.

"What about Katara and Sokka?" he decided to ask, "Will you get along with them?"

"Katara... haven't talked to her enough. Sokka... he's got guts but doesn't seem that fun." she explained her thoughts, and Aang scoffed.

"Sokka's fun... you just haven't seen him in a good mood." he retorted, "We have lots of fun. Doing stupid things that Katara sometimes gets grumpy at us for doing."

"Like what?" she asked, and Aang smirked at one memory that came to mind.

"Using Appa's fur as wigs when we went to one village. It looked pretty funny, and he had a big bushy beard." he explained, making the Earth Kingdom girl smile for a moment, before narrowing her eyes.

"He just seems like the kind of guy who gets very serious at times." she admitted her thoughts, and Aang glanced to his side, looking at the market stalls as they walked past them.

"I mean... he does. Sokka does take some things seriously... like keeping us all safe and making sure he does the right thing for his tribe." he admitted, "You should have seen how grumpy he got at the Northern Water Tribe. I kid you not, he got a Princess infatuated with him by just standing up for his tribe." he recalled what had happened with Princess Yue, or at least, what Aang best understood had occurred.

"Wait... another Princess?" Toph raised a brow, "From the Northern Water Tribe?"

"Yeah." Aang nodded, before furrowing a brow, "I think he just has a way with royalty."

"Did Sokka say if Iroh liked him?" she asked, and the young Air Nomad tried to recall when and if Sokka had talked much about the conversation he had with Iroh back when Azula and Zuko had their Agni Kai- he knew it had occurred, but he didn't actually know what they talked about.

"I think he did... but I think that's just because Iroh likes good people."

"Well, he is pretty nice." she mumbled, perhaps not wanting to voice her opinion of the Dragon of the West too loudly; he guessed that she didn't want to be seen as liking him by her fellow countrymen because of who he was- he was a general in the past, and Aang felt that he had probably caused a lot of grief for the Earth Kingdom.

"Anyway... uh, I've been meaning to ask. Where are you from?" Aang decided to give her a question he'd had in his head for a while; he guessed that she wasn't local to the area, though he didn't know enough about the Earth Kingdom to discern where she was from; her pale skin suggested she was probably from somewhere cold, in the north or south, or that maybe she just spent a lot of time indoors.

"A town called Gaoling." she clarified, and he narrowed his eyes; he'd heard of it before, having known that some of the monks in the temple had travelled through there before, though he didn't know anything much about it- a town in the southern Earth Kingdom, which was definitely not a large city like Omashu.

"Oh, I've heard of that place." he admitted, "Never been there before. What's it like?" he asked, and she narrowed her eyes.

"Well, last time I heard, it was still ruled by the Fire Nation." she admitted, and the young Avatar's lips pursed downward as he realised why she might have ended up in New Omashu to begin with; she was a tough earthbender and great fighter, but she must have had a life before all the fighting.

"Oh..." he mumbled, "Did you have to leave?" he asked her, and she turned her head slightly, seeming unsure how to respond.

After a few moments of silence, she glanced back ahead, "No, I didn't." she admitted, and the tone of her voice made it seem like there were some bad feelings tied up with her home- perhaps she'd had a bad home life, not too unlike Azula, "I don't want to talk about it." she stressed, before she turned at the corner, heading in the direction of her apartment, presumably; he glanced at the street for a moment, and narrowed his eyes, realising it wasn't the same path he and Katara had taken to get to her place.

"Wait... why are we going this way?" he asked, and she pointed down the tunnel.

"This is the quickest way." she clarified, and Aang nodded, before he followed after her, watching as she strode along the left side of the tunnel, her head movements indicating she was sensing around the earth that surrounded them on all sides; she suddenly came to a halt, Aang accidentally walking into her, and she pushed him on the sternum.

"Watch it!" she snapped back at him, not really angry, but merely frustrated that he had rammed into her, "Why were you walking so close anyway?" she questioned, and the young Avatar made a sheepish smile.

"I thought you'd like to talk more if I was close by." he admitted his reason, before glancing at an unremarkable wall to their left, "You stopped at... nothing." he noted, and she tapped him on the shoulder.

"Oh, it's nothing to you with your eyes." she clarified, before tapping the wall with her closed fist, before bending the wall apart, revealing a hidden passage.

"Wow." he gasped, "You have your own secret path?"

"Well, most earthbenders would be able to sense this being here... so it's not really that secret." she clarified, "But yeah, this is my path." she added, before stepping on inside, "Follow me, I'm closing the wall when you step through.

He eagerly stepped in behind her, and a moment later, she raised both hands up to pull the stone wall back in place; it was dark inside, but he didn't worry about that, knowing that if he just followed after Toph, whose footsteps he'd be able to hear in front of him, he would be fine.

"Oh yeah, I guess you get to feel what it's like being blind now." she noted with a humoured tone, before pinching his arm, making him flinch back, "Eheheh." she sniggered under her breath, before beginning to walk, "Just go straight ahead. I'll take us to my place."

Following Toph down the pitch-black tunnel, Aang remained silent as he focused on keeping himself from walking into the walls; he had one hand out touching the wall to his right, making sure he would keep himself heading straight on the path. After about a minute in darkness, he heard the earth shifting around ahead of them, before suddenly, a glimmer of light came into the room.

"Oh, we're at your apartment." he noted, and she nodded, sitting herself down on her bed, where she already had a small bag packed.

"Ah, I'm gonna miss this place. It's always nice and ventilated, and I can see everything around me." she explained, Aang realising that with all the earth in every direction, her seismic sense would be working at its best.

Even the furnishings were made out of stone, with the utensils and places made of ceramics, which he guessed she could bend as well; she could use her bending for pretty much everything in her apartment, which he was very impressed by.

"You can bend everything here. That's pretty smart." he admitted, and she smirked, before her expression shifted to one of amusement.

"Well, almost everything. My pillows and blankets aren't made out of dirt." she clarified, before chuckling, "Oh, that'd be... comfortable but way too dirty. I'd get dirt all in my nose and stuff." she realised with a cringed expression, and Aang laughed, being somewhat disgusted by the idea.

"That's... different." he conceded, before glancing around the apartment, "So, what do you need help taking to Appa?"

"Not much." she conceded, "I don't need your help, Aang." she warned him, and the Air Nomad crossed his arms, not going to take no for an answer.

He knew he could help her, and since she was going to teach him earthbending, he was more than willing to help her and prove his dedication to her, even if it wasn't really do with earthbending at all; Aang would stick up for and help his friends, even if they didn't think they were his friend yet.

"Come on, there has to be something." he asked her, "I'm not going to leave until you give me something to do for you." he decided, and she scoffed.

"You're sickeningly humble, you know that." she derided his behaviour, "It's pitiful, honestly."

"I'm not pitiful. I'm going to do this, and you can't stop me." he declared proudly, and she rolled her eyes.

"You better be this headstrong when we're earthbending or I'm going to call you a lazy wuss who likes chores."

"But how can I be lazy if I like chores?" he asked, before whispering, "And I don't like chores."

"Then why are you trying to help me?" she retorted at him, clearly getting frustration, though he could tell she was amused by his behaviour as well.

"Because it's the right thing to do." he simply put his thoughts to words, "I want to be a good student, and a good student should help their master."

"Oh, so you've carried your masters things before?" she scoffed, and Aang raised a finger to his chin.

"I mean... Master Pakku never really made me do much work for him in person. I was more just forced to keep practicing my sets and keep up with Katara. She's really good, by the way." he added, before shaking his head, realising it was getting off track, "And Monk Gyatso would make me do chores, but he'd always try and make them fun."

"Well, I don't give you chores, and I'm not here to have fun." she argued, "I'm here to get a job done."

"Hey, hey, it doesn't just have to be just a job. We can have fun. You, me, Katara. What do you like doing for fun?"

"Fighting." she quickly responded, and the answer was obvious enough; she did it all the time, and was renowned for it, there was no reason for her not to like fighting.

"Well... we can spar!" he declared, and she snickered at his idea.

"You'd just jump around all my attacks with your twinkletoes." she retorted, "As I'm blind, fighting against an airbender who I can barely sense doesn't seem very fair at all."

"I mean, I could waterbend and earthbend instead." he suggested, and she snickered.

"I dare you to try and use your five minutes of earthbending training against me. That will get you very far in a fight; as in, thrown far off of the field." she warned him, and the young Avatar cringed.

"Okay, maybe I need to learn a bit more before I can go against you... but I will." he assured her, "If I can fight Katara with waterbending, then I can fight you with earthbending."

"That confidence is admirable, but I have yet to see if you have guts. You stopped that rock, sure, but can you deal with the stress of a fight?"

"Uh... yeah." he tried to assure her, though his mind came back to the first fight he and Toph had fought together in, against the invading Fire Nation soldiers in the mountains north of the underground city; he had completely lost his calm, and fallen into the Avatar State when he was surrounded.

He didn't even remember what he did, but he knew that he had screwed up badly enough, and was unable to protect himself. Learning earthbending would surely give him an advantage in that field, as he could just raise up defences when the fighting got too tough, instead of freaking out and panicking himself into letting his past lives take control.

"I think I need to get better." he conceded, "But you seem like you might be able to teach me that. Azula too. Maybe she has too much guts." he mused, knowing that the Princess was so confident at times that it was dangerous, given what had happened with Zhao, a byproduct of her arrogance and determination to follow her plan through with no consideration of failure.

"You can never have enough guts... you just need to be smart enough to use your determination the right way. No point being determined if you're going to lose."

"We're not going to lose."

"I don't think you will... how you win, however, that's something I have no idea about." she admitted, before turning around to face him, "Maybe you can take something for me." she decided, and Aang's expression brightened upon realising he had finally gotten through to her; perhaps stubbornness was all it took to get through the hard outer shell of the persona that was the Blind Bandit, and speak to the real Toph.

"Oh, great." he grinned at her, "What is it?"

"Just some bags of clothes. I don't have much, but I might as well bring them. I can't just wear the same tunic every single day." she conceded, before tossing him said bag of clothes; it wasn't that heavy, and when he saw her pick up what looked like a pot, pan, and a few plates, stacked ontop of each other, he grimaced.

"Are you giving me the light stuff on purpose?" he asked her, and she shrugged her shoulders, acting as if she wasn't doing just that.

"I'm just taking my stuff, Twinkletoes." she assured him, before glancing around the apartment, "Now, I'll need to come back for my blankets, but other than that... I think we're good." she decided, grabbing the smaller bag of items she had sitting on her bed, slinging that over her shoulder while she balanced the pot, pan and plate in her free hand.

"Okay, come on, just let me carry some of that." he asked, and she rolled her eyes, giving him the stack of cutlery and cooking equipment, making him cringe from the weight in his hands; she looked at him with an amused face, and gestured to the door.

"Well, come on, all-powerful Avatar, let's go." she suggested, and he sighed, knowing that at least he was helping, even if she had given him the two most unwieldy things to carry.

"Is this training now?" he asked, and she smirked.

"Anything's training if you challenge yourself." she suggested, and Aang smiled, knowing that even if she had been stubborn and refused to let him help, she was at least acknowledging the merits of the work he was doing; struggling to hold a stack of pans, a pot and some cutlery, with some clothes stacked on top of that, he was being pushed to his limits, and he knew that if he wanted to become a master earthbender, he'd need to push them all the time.

"Thanks, Sifu Toph."

"There's no time for thanking. I want to get my stuff on the saddle now." she warned him, and he nodded, awkwardly walking toward the door before pushing it open with his foot, assisted by a little gust of air he bent with the kick.

When he stepped outside, he heard her chuckle, before she called back out to him, "Stand still."

"What?" he turned around to face her, unsure why she had told him to do that when she wanted to get to the saddle.

"You have good balance, right?" she asked, and he nodded, thinking that his own airbending training he'd had throughout his childhood left him with better coordination than the average person; she smirked, before raising her hands up, "Then this will be easier than you walking." she suggested, before suddenly he felt the ground shift beneath his feet; he tensed up slightly, before he realised that the ground wasn't just moving, but pushing him along down the tunnel, even though he wasn't moving his feet at all.

What was more amazing about it was that Toph was barely even breaking a sweat, casually walking beside him as he moved by means of her bending, "How can you do this?"

"Lot's of practice, Twinkletoes. How else do you think I became the greatest earthbender in the world?"

With her guards flanking her on either side, Princess Azula felt confident that she was protected as she strode down the length of the pier of her base; though she knew assassination attempts were inevitable, now that her brother was dead and she was the only one with the claim and the will to face her father, she wasn't feeling that nervous about them at present. She knew that her base had some of the strongest security she could find, though that didn't mean threats couldn't loom within. If her subordinates decided to conspire against her, either out of fear of her father, or merely their unease toward her policies in the Earth Kingdom, then she would be in real danger. That was why she felt a little at ease knowing there were Earth Kingdom fighters inhabiting her base now, at least for the meantime while she hosted them and they provided their services to construct better defences for the compound and surrounding encampment from whatever assault was coming their way.

Sailors, guards and labourers moved out of the way to allow her and her unit of elite guards to walk on down the pier, and they all looked at her with interest; perhaps it was because she was outside of the compound after days spent inside, either training, planning or discussing matters with her new allies and her ranking subordinates, though another possibility was that they were all looking upon her with suspicion, because of who exactly she had let into their base.

She did not want to become the enemy of her own men, and she knew that many of them, indoctrinated by the Fire Nation's effective and harsh education system, would think that she was disgracing herself by stooping down to treat herself as an equal with mere Earth Kingdom peasants. She didn't really think that they were her equals, at least in terms of fighting abilities and mental fortitude, but that did not mean she could not respect them.

Azula did not like many people, nor believe many of them to be her equal, but she had learnt from her time down in the South Pole that by far the most effective method to make people do what you want them to, is to treat them with respect, assist them in their time of need, and empower them to be the best allies they could be. The fight against her father would take more than a base full of tired and undersupplied soldiers; even if she could gain the support of those generals and governors formerly on her brother's side, that did not mean that their combined strength could push Ozai's forces back to the homeland, and her father off the throne that was rightfully hers. She knew that Aang and Katara might be going to speak with King Bumi when they went to retrieve Toph, and hopefully, the King would have some news, intelligence, or merely some progress on his own efforts of gathering support to rebuild the Earth Kingdom.

With any luck, she might see some rebels from down south within a few months, and she would be able to work with them to both take down the Dai Li, and establish a new government for the people of the Earth Kingdom, and establish her own authority over the colonies and whatever armies and fleets were stationed there. From there, it was only a matter of building her airship fleet, and her father would be done for, along with whoever else had conspired by his side.

She smirked at the thought of what the engineers were doing on the ship ahead of her, which happened to be the reason she was on the pier. One of the engineers had interrupted her meeting with one of her commanders, explaining that the new prototype airship was about to be tested; the gondola hadn't been constructed yet, nor was the engine the right strength to lift up all the cargo and arms that would be onboard, but she had heard that it was capable of lifting itself into the air, or at least, should be when she came to watch the test.

At the end of the pier, she could see that Sokka and Major Chui were waiting for her, ready to show her the prototype craft, which was being constructed on the ship behind them; it was only being built on a ship and not at the workshops because the vessel had all the materials they required for building the craft, which was presently being constructed from the spare parts aboard the ship, which would usually be used for mid-journey repairs in the case of a battle or encounter with a reef or an iceberg. Those parts were more than enough to construct the frame and engine they needed to make the craft, though a downside of using all those materials was that it had to be assembled on the ship for ease of access, given much of the parts were far too heavy to be carried around by anything other than a pack of komodo rhins pulling a cart, the kind of resources she couldn't spare when concerned about constructing a new set of defences around the base. So, pulleys and levers had to suffice to retrieve all the parts, something that she knew sailors were used to when assembling their catapults and retrieving goods and arms from within the hull.

When she reached Sokka, he stepped forward with his hands behind his back, obviously trying to make a good impression with the Major by seeming formal and professional with her, when he usually would be rather careless and blabber about trivial things, like what he had for breakfast, or about some new unusual Fire Nation thing he'd learnt about. The Water Tribe teen made a curt bow toward her, and she pursed her lips slightly, appreciating that he at least learnt how to bow correctly; she had seen him embarrassingly drop his whole upper body down when trying to bow in the past, but she assumed that he had caught on that his way of doing it was stupid looking and flat-out incorrect.

"Your highness." he addressed her rather formally, before making a light snicker, proving that he found it funny to call her that; it was her correct title, at least if one considered to be Crown Princess, but that didn't mean that he'd ever call her that- the only title he'd refer to her by was your majesty, and that was only ever to mock her authority, "The prototype is ready for you to see."

"I heard." she simply retorted, knowing that he didn't need to tell her what she came to see, "Major." she addressed Chui, whose posture tensed up upon hearing his rank, "How long has it taken your engineers to build this prototype?"

"Three days." he clarified, "Though, we've had to use some makeshift materials for the envelope... not the fire-proof material Sokka suggested." he added, seeming a little frustrated by that fact, "We didn't have much on hand, so improvisation was required. The engine is not the one we plan to use for the functional craft... given it is only powerful enough to lift the frame and itself."

"So, a better engine is required." she concluded, "Could such an engine be created from materials we have here?"

"Unfortunately, from our investigations into the mechanics of this craft... no. The spare steamer engine is barely strong enough as is." he admitted, "It could lift the craft if it ran for long enough, but it would require an unreasonable amount of fuel, unless we were planning to run the craft on firebending."

"That would be a needless waste of the crew's energy." Azula conceded, before stepping past Chui and Sokka, striding toward the plank that led up onto the ship, "So, I will find a way to retrieve the parts for a stronger engine. The shipyards at Yingang should be sufficient, would they not?" she suggested, knowing that the relatively nearby colony might provide the resources they required.

It had massive shipyards that the Fire Navy had recently been used to construct its Northern Fleet in preparation to deal with the Northern Water Tribe and the remaining Earth Kingdom ships that lingered in the region; as the Northern Fleet was under her own control, she was poised to take control over the port city, even if it required some deal-brokering- it would be well defended, given its importance to the Fire Navy.

"That will be well defended by... well, actually, I believe Yingang is presently under the control of forces loyal to your brother, your majesty." he explained, and she narrowed her eyes.

"Well, I will send a scout ship to see what exactly is going on in Yingang. If the city is still loyal to Zuko, then I might be able to cut a deal for the parts you require. Our ships could protect it and other colonial cities like it from my father's forces." she decided, before shaking her head, "That isn't what I'm here for, however."

"Yes." he nodded, "If you would just follow me, your majesty, we have a spot where the test can be observed." he explained, and she did just that, letting the Major take the lead as she, Sokka, and her guards followed behind up the plank.

As they climbed the plank, she glanced back toward her boyfriend, and she could tell that he had something to talk to her about, or at the very least, some questions for her. Things were picking up pace, and that meant that there was more for them to talk about, at least concerning their efforts to build up their strength in light of the events in the capital. Ozai would be sending men to quash their attempts at resistance already, even if they hadn't moved onto the assault just yet; she was sure it was only a matter of time before they had to stand their ground, and Azula was ready to do everything in her power to stop her father and his plans for the world.

He would only doom them all to an even longer war, where countless innocents would die, and none of the prosperity Sozin promised would be attained. Only chaos as his generals became kings and his domain became a war torn shithole, comparable to the Earth Kingdom before the Hundred Years War had forced them to focus their efforts against the Fire Nation instead of against themselves. The only option was maintaining and furthering the tenuous peace her brother had established with what remained of the Earth Kingdom, and reuniting the weakened nations so that the Hundred Years War could never occur again.

When they reached the door that led into the hull of the ship, their path widened enough that Sokka was able to walk up beside her, and though he wasn't probably trying to run into her, he clearly had placed himself closer so he could speak with her, "Hey." he whispered to her, and she flicked her head to the left to get her bangs out of her face, "What's on your mind?" he asked a rather simple question, seeming to just want to make some conversation before they saw the test.

"I'd rather not be too specific, as I'd not want to worry the sailors we're walking past." she admitted, speaking as nonchalantly as she could, not wanting to actually rouse their suspicions or interest.

"Oh... thinking about the whole mess we're about to get involved in." he deduced, and made a small huff, seeming a little amused, "I thought you were on top of it all."

"I am." she retorted snappily, "That doesn't mean I don't have to consider all the threats we will face, and prepare accordingly."

"I thought we covered that back at that lunch." he noted, reminding her that they had discussed the potential of having to flee the base in the case they were turned on by Azula's subordinates.

"We did... but you know what men are like. If you show them your strength, then they mightn't dare to attack you." she explained her reasoning, and his eyes narrowed, realising what she was intending by going ahead with a public test of the new airship.

"So, this is a little bit more than a test." he observed, and she nodded; though she was clearly the most important person showing up, there were other officers who would be watching, and observing the efforts that she was taking to strengthen their forces, and the role that Sokka played in that.

Even if she couldn't get them to like him, or anyone from the other nations, showing their worth would be vital to stop any of those traitorous thoughts from becoming plans to overthrow her, or perhaps worse, give her up to her father; if there was one thing Azula feared, it was whatever her father would do to her, Sokka, or both of them.

"Everything is not what it seems, Sokka." she warned him, knowing that the more observant he was, and the more suspicious of others intentions, the safer he'd be in the long run; even if she didn't want him suspecting her, she would prefer if he did that and perceived the dangers that those 'loyal' to her posed, than be ignorant and happy-go-lucky about their situation, which was growing more dangerous the longer they let Ozai sit on the throne unimpeded.

"So, we should act." he decided, "If there's anything that will put them in line... well... actually." he turned his gaze away, realising that he was suggesting the very kind of action that he had pleaded with her not to take in Ba Sing Se many months prior, "Maybe not that." he refuted the thought he had not spoken, but had clearly conveyed through his prior phrasing.

"If I have to do anything of that sort, I will make sure to do it against those who actually want to harm us. Slaughtering innocents seems like a counterintuitive approach." she bluntly acknowledged what she wouldn't do; Azula had learned her lesson well enough, and knew that the only way she could gain the support of those outside of the Fire Nation was by making sure nothing like that happened under her command, "So, that's why the Southern Raiders will face the full brunt of my armada once we can reach them." she clarified, making the Water Tribe warrior smirk; if there was anyone's suffering he could take pleasure in, it was theirs.

"Oh, the Southern Water Tribe is going to love you even more." he joked, though he wasn't really exaggerating; Azula destroying the Southern Raiders for their stolen waterbenders and dead kin would be enough to make even the most parochial and xenophobic of the lot think of her as one of them.

She didn't really hate them that much personally, but knowing that they were going around enslaving children just didn't sit right with her, no matter how much violence she was willing to tolerate to achieve her own goals. So Azula was ready to, when the time came, let those few of her countrymen who had decided to join that disgusting organisation to suffer, perhaps fatally, for the good of the Southern Water Tribe, and for the debt she owed to them and Sokka especially.

"I am sure some under my command wouldn't approve, but they might want some more ships... if we do end up invading the homeland."

Sokka fell silent for a few moments as they continued through the hull of the ship, following after Major Chui, before he turned his gaze back toward her, his face telling her that he was being serious, "I prefer the airship plan. Sounds like a lot less people would end up dying with that." he admitted honestly, and she nodded.

"I agree. Needless deaths, especially of my own soldiers would be... a disgrace to the title I hold. I cannot let them suffer any more than is necessary to defeat my father."

"Wasn't-" he began, before his eyes widened, "Nevermind." he turned his eyes away from her own, suddenly more nervous after hearing her say that; she was confused for a few moments, wondering why he would find issue with her trying to prevent those under her command from dying, before she recalled the whole reason they were standing where they were, if she thought back long enough.

"Oh... I guess I'm just like him now." she concluded, and for the first time in a long time, she didn't feel angry by being compared to her brother; she knew that at the very least, he was right for what he had said.

She was not at that war meeting, but she had asked her uncle about it before he and Zuko left on their ship, and it amused her at the time, considering why her brother would put his own honour on the line for a bunch of people he didn't know, but now with hindsight she considered the fact he was Crown Prince at the time, and had become the Fire Lord a few years later. Those men were his responsibility, or at least, his future responsibility, and he didn't want them to die for honouring their nation, for honouring their Fire Lord in the field of battle, if it wasn't completely necessary. The good of those soldiers dying was not outweighed by the victory they would attain, and she did know afterwards that that division of soldiers had successfully helped defeat the Earth Kingdom forces they had faced, but did lose most of their men in the fighting. She didn't even know if that division existed any more, but she knew that sacrifice really wouldn't have been worth it.

"Are you okay with that?" he asked her, and Azula nodded, before furrowing a brow.

"Did you really think I was that petty?"

"Yes, I did." he bluntly retorted, "But I guess you can see the merits in being a good leader."

"I can... I can even see how my traitorous uncle's actions at Ba Sing Se were justified, no matter how much I believe he should have burnt that damn city to the ground."

"If your father, who's absolutely fucking insane, didn't burn down Ba Sing Se, then why would he?"

"Because unlike my uncle, my father doesn't care about his children." she retorted, and Sokka's face shifted to one of unease.

"His..." he mumbled, before glancing at her with confusion, "What are you talking about?"

"My uncle's son, my cousin, died at Ba Sing Se." she explained, and Sokka tensed up, before glancing ahead of them toward Chui for a moment.

"So... were you uncomfortable being there?" he asked her, and she narrowed her eyes for a moment; her mind hadn't been on Lu Ten at the time, though the thought had crossed her mind as they took the tram into the city from the walls.

"I wasn't thinking about that... there were more important things to worry about." she explained what had happened, and he grimaced.

"I didn't... you never said anything."

"Because I didn't think it was relevant." she bluntly stated her reasoning, though that was half a lie; she didn't want to speak about Lu Ten because it made her uncomfortable- unlike her grandfather, his death had had some impact on her, and she missed him far more than she did her own mother, as he at least had given her some attention when she was little.

"Cut the crap." he snapped back at her, not in anger, but in mere frustration, "I know that's not the real reason. I'm pretty sure out of all things you could have mentioned, that was it."

"I don't want to think about it." she retorted, before raising her chin up, not wanting to concern herself any longer with what had happened to him; it wasn't what she ought to be worrying about, given their own circumstances, "And you shouldn't either. It has nothing to do with you."

"I know it doesn't." he conceded, and a few moments of silence fell between them as they strode down the hallway, reaching a wide open space within the ship.

Before them laid an opening out onto the deck, shining light down on the assembled frame and gas-filled balloons that formed the beginnings of her next airship, which sat surrounded by parts and engineers who were doing some final checks on the craft before it was to be tested; it was larger than the last one, and clearly would be far more formidable when completed, as a weapon and tool of intimidation against those who would oppose her.

"But Azula." Sokka addressed her once more, placing a hand on her shoulder to stop her from getting any closer to the craft, "Whatever troubles you... that's my problem too. I'm not saying you need to tell me all your feelings or anything like that, because I know you won't. Just trust me here; I'll listen to whatever you want to say."

"I don't want to say anything." she retorted, before stepping over to the railing that sat between them and the sharp drop down onto the floor of the assembly area, "The only thing I have to say concerning that is that I am trying to do everything in my power to avoid you and I going the same way as Lu Ten and Zuko."

The Water Tribesman looked at her with concern for a few moments, but forced his expression to straighten, leaning down on the railing beside her, "So, are you saying he was assassinated too?"

"Well, he was killed in battle. Whether that was with some intent by the Earth Kingdom to harm my uncle directly, we'll never know, but they did it." she admitted, making Sokka blink a few times.

"How can you... well, I don't need to ask that question." he decided, not going on to ask her how she could trust fighters from the Earth Kingdom when she could ask him the very same thing about trusting her after what happened to his mother; the two things weren't really related, when she really considered it- a nation in common was all they held, and she was not the same kind of drivel she imagined Yon Rha to be.

"No, you don't. They have nothing to do with what happened there... and asking for revenge for that would be pointless. It's not like he wouldn't have killed whoever killed him if he had the chance." she acknowledged, "What is wrong is my Uncle's cowardice." she added, and the Water Tribesman narrowed his eyes, his expression becoming less nervous and more serious, which told her that he had his own opinions on that matter.

"I agree with you." he admitted, "Even if I don't agree with the Fire Nation's war, or what your Uncle was doing there... he gave up that siege right, because of what happened?" he asked, and she nodded to confirm what he already had some idea about; he mightn't have known about Lu Ten, but she had spoken enough about her uncle's past and personality for him to connect the dots there, "I never would have done that. If I lost someone that dear to me... I would have pushed all the way to the palace, and burnt it to the ground."

"That's where we can agree on things, Sokka." she smiled at him, not happy, but simply pleased to know that they had common ground when it came to revenge, honour and justice.

That was why she was so willing to tell him about Yon Rha back when she first realised the connection, because of his unwavering desire to see justice enacted, something that she couldn't help but respect, even if it was against her own nation. Of course, her uncle burning down Ba Sing Se was perhaps an overreaction to what had happened, but that would have not been far from the result if her cousin had never died.

"I still am glad that the siege failed... it's probably the only reason we met."

"You're right about that." she agreed with him, before glancing back down at the airship, "I see that it actually is starting to resemble a flyable craft, and not just some metal scaffolding shaped like a flattened ball."

"Well, yeah, now it's got its skin." he explained, and she tried to hold back a laugh.

"Skin?" she scoffed at what he had just called the envelope of the airship; it could be described as such, but even then, it was a weird way to phrase it, given the association of skin with animals and humans, and not with machines.

"Uh, sorry, the whatchamacallit." he corrected himself, making the Princess cringe, facepalming at his inability to recall the name of a part of an airship he had been helping design.

"You seriously don't even know the name of it, and I'm trusting you to make sure this thing actually works." she gestured down to the airship, "At this rate, it's going to explode instead of fly."

"Hey, hey, you might not trust me, but you ought to trust all those engineers down there. They've been working hard on making sure this thing actually works." he gestured to the men who were doing the final checks on the craft before it was tested.

She looked at him skeptically for a moment, unsure how much input the Water Tribesman had made on the design and mechanical aspects of the craft, though she doubted there could be much he could have screwed up, given that the design was basically the same she had had made a few weeks prior, only a fair bit larger.

"The test will commence in under three minutes, your highness." Major Chui assured her, and she glanced his way, giving him a curt nod before she crossed her arms, eyeing the engineers as they checked the airship.

It seemed that they were trying to make sure the tubes of heated air from the engine were all screwed on correctly and in the right place to heat up the bags of gas that were situated within the airship's metal frame. She couldn't actually see some of the engineers, as they were inside the envelope of the craft, but she could see their shadows, cast by the lanterns around the area, making them out as darkened patches on the envelope. Though she knew their first craft had been successful, it had also been a whole lot smaller and less technically complex, as it had only consisted of a single bag of gas that was heated by the engine, while the others remained disconnected, and simply served to ensure the craft remained buoyant.

"We won't be waiting much longer." Sokka assured her after a period of silence, after the Major had walked away from them to talk with one of his subordinates; it had been a long awkward silence, barring the sounds of the men below them, which caused echoes to reverberate through the box shaped cavity in the deck of the ship.

"I know you want this thing up and running, and it will be soon enough."

"I'm not worried about the damn airship, Sokka." she chided him, "You know what the real issues are here."

He turned back to face her, now with a clearly concerned look on his face, "Should we... should we go ask Jianren if he can get us out?" he asked, "Maybe the colonies would be better than this place... people there actually seem to like you." he suggested, and she cringed slightly, knowing that he was right, even if his words were offensive; her subordinates were loyal to her because of what they believed she was, and who she had been before the Agni Kai, not the 'new Azula', who had exchanged her ruthless ambitions for more altruistic ones, in the hope that the world would accept her as a leader better than her brother, father or even her uncle.

"No." she retorted with a firm tone; as concerned as she was, Azula was not a quitter, and the last time she had quit, she had sacrificed her chance to face her brother, and instead left herself with nothing to her name but the clothes on her back, and the boy who swore to protect her- she couldn't do that again, not when the danger was so much higher for both of them, "I can't let him scare us, Sokka." she stressed, "This is not where we run away and hide."

"I don't..." he mumbled, before leaning his arms down onto the railing in front of them, his head drooping down as he seemed to consider something to say in response; she didn't know what to say to that response, dejected and frustrated, and she simply placed her left palm on his shoulder, calmly and softly, before gripping it.

"You're not stupid, Sokka." she admitted quietly, "I know you're afraid. That's the logical emotion to feel in this situation." she added, not willing to actually say that she herself was afraid as well; she was more determined than afraid, but she could understand why the latter emotion dominated her boyfriend's mind.

"Then why aren't you?" he turned his eyes up to meet her own, "You can't reasonably... you're the most paranoid person I know."

"I have something stronger than fear." she declared, trying to sound as confident as she wanted to be without seeming like a foolhardy idiot; she wanted to be strong, for both of them, but even then, she didn't know where their fight would lead them now, even if she had some certainty on the Earth Kingdom front.

"Sometimes, determination is just fear dressed up in a warrior's face-paint." Sokka gave her a very Water Tribe specific metaphor, but she understood it well enough; they disguised their fears by being angry, determined and focused on defeating their foes, and acted as if their motivation was through those emotions and not through the universal one that seemed to permeate through all people, "I was always afraid."

"Afraid of the Fire Nation?"

"No, afraid of losing what little family I had left." he admitted, and the Princess turned her eyes away; the fight against the Fire Nation the warriors had fought could be argued to be one of revenge, or justice, but in another perspective, it was mere desperation, wanting to make sure the Fire Nation wasn't unstoppable, so that their families at home had a hope of a future, where they wouldn't end up the next casualty in a Fire Nation invasion, "And you were afraid of him." he added, and Azula clenched a fist.

"I'm not afraid. I can kill him." she retorted to his claim of fear; she knew her father was a powerful firebender, but she was stronger, now more than ever.

"That's not what I mean." he shook his head, "I mean of losing the only love you had from anyone." he clarified, "That's why you wanted to kill Zuko, right? Because he stole that from you."

As much as she wanted to deny it, he was right; she didn't just want to honour her father when she declared her intention to destroy Zuko, she wanted to get back at him for taking the only person who cared about her. Maybe Ozai didn't really care about her, and that was just what she told herself to keep herself sane; Sokka helped her move past that, and the Southern Water Tribe did too. The little love she received from them, far more genuine than any respect Fire Nation citizens gave her, proved that her father's 'care' was little more than control over her life and her abilities for his own ego, and perhaps, as Sokka had just shown, to dissuade his own fears.

"You're right." she admitted, "That's why I was angry. That's why I... I imagined killing Iroh." she admitted, "Because that's the only thing I could do to make him understand my feelings."

"Well, I guess it's good your father isn't dead then." he concluded, before grimacing, "But it isn't... because that's why we're having this conversation."

"I wish things were better than this, but I don't have much choice in the matter now." she sighed, before she heard the sound of a fire being started; she glanced down toward the airship, and realised that the engine had fired up, "Finally." she sighed, "This thing better work."

"It will." he assured her, before their gazes were drawn to the engine, which had begun to pump heated air into the pipes that led up into the main structure of the airship.

Azula grasped the railing as she heard creaking noises on the floor below, and soon after, saw the craft slowly, but surely begin to rise off from the floor. She watched with awe as the massive craft rose up in front of them, a few engineers standing by the engine, ropes tied to their bodies as the craft took off. It only rose up to the level of the main deck, right above them, after which it stabilised, and allowed Azula and Sokka to glance at the underside of the craft, from where she could clearly see all the pipes that ran into the airship proper.

"Is this more impressive than the last one?" the Water Tribesman asked her, and she nodded.

"It is." she confirmed, before imagining what the craft would look like once its gondola was constructed, and it had the full offensive capabilities she desired; it would be a force to be reckoned with, and she wouldn't just have one airship- she would make as many as she could, and fly them right to the capital.

She imagined raining down fire upon the Fire Navy as they fruitlessly tried to defend the city from her forces, and then, they would bomb the palace, and force her father to surrender. It would be a glorious day, and she was one step closer to it with a functional airship, even if it hadn't been properly fitted, or given the protections that it would require to hold off attacks from firebenders.

"Victory will be ours, Sokka." she assured her boyfriend, "I know it."

"That's the kind of confidence that let Zhao throw you in the hull of his ship." he warned her, and the Princess smirked at him, crossing her arms.

"There's no more Zhaos to betray me, Sokka. All I need is a few colonies under my sway, and they'll be able to produce all the airships we could ever need." she declared, before she pointed a finger onto his sternum, "Are you willing to trust we can do this together?" she asked him, knowing that the biggest difference between last time and this time was that he was by her side, able to give the blunt advice that she had grown to appreciate more than any sweet words and compliments she might receive from sycophants.

"I am." he assured her, "Let's just make sure those earthbenders are willing to... you know." he suggested, not wanting to say what he was thinking around any of the soldiers and officers who might betray her; she glanced up toward the main deck of the ship through the hole, and could see a group of officers standing on top, watching the airship with interest as it slowly lowered back down into the ship- they had seen the proof it worked, and perhaps, they would trust her more to deliver the victory she promised.

"I assume they will be, especially once Aang shows up and proves we weren't messing around." she gave her own opinion, "The Avatar is the key to peace, and I can only hope they trust him as much as I do."

"I mean, Aang's a good kid. He'll do what's right, and that's more than what I can say for them." he noted with a tense tone, tilting his head up toward the men he was referring to.

"Oh, they'll do what they think is right, Sokka... it's just an issue that right doesn't align with ours, or Aang's." she stressed; she understood their motivations and fears well enough, and that was why she wanted to try and find every way possible to relieve them, without compromising her plans for the Earth Kingdom.

She had made promises on that ground she was unwilling to give up, because if she did, that would make her no better than Fire Lord Sozin, who had promised her other great-grandfather, Avatar Roku, that he would stop their colonisation of the Earth Kingdom, but had foregone that promise as soon as the Avatar died. She had learnt about that as part of her lessons of political intrigue and deception, and now knowing that Roku was her ancestor made her feel a lot more uncomfortable about that turn of events.

"Is something wrong, Azula?" he asked her, his hand reaching toward one of her bangs, making her grab his hand and move it away.

"I don't want to be like any of them." she admitted, "Sozin, Azulon, my father... their world is gone, and everything they fought for, it was a pointless lie." she stressed, though quietly enough to not draw anybody else's attention.

"And you're not." he assured her, "You've seen where they've gone wrong, and now, we can fix their mistakes together."

"You, me and Aang." she noted, before chuckling, "Plus Katara."

"And Ty Lee. Don't forget your best friend. She might get offended if you do." he warned her, and the Princess scoffed.

"I'm not really her best friend, Sokka." she explained, before she tensed up, not wanting to finish her sentence; she didn't disdain Mai like she did Zuko, and actually, felt quite angry over her purported death at the hands of her father's men; she clenched her fist, before turning around, not wanting anyone to see her face as she snarled.

"She didn't deserve that... no matter how much she loved that fool." she admitted the truth to herself, and Sokka understood quickly enough who she was referring to.

"She didn't." he agreed with her, "I didn't really know Mai, but she seems like she was a good person."

"She wasn't caught up in all this, and then... Zuko just came back. Probably swooped her off her feet and out of her dreary life... all for this." she acknowledged the fact of the matter; Mai had probably been happy to join Zuko, and now, she could only wonder what she fought when they faced their murderers- she didn't know if she felt regret, or maybe only frustration, that her brother hadn't had the guts to finish Ozai off, and stop the threat before it even existed.

"You'll be able to make sure nothing like that happens again." he assured her, and Azula narrowed her eyes, knowing that there was one thing she would need in the worst case scenario that she couldn't make, nor steal from others.

"Sokka, there's something I need to learn before we face my father."

"How to- uh, you know?" he asked her, assumingly referring to her willingness to actually kill Ozai.

"Well, yes, but not in the way you're thinking. Why did Zuko win the duel?"

"Because he could-" he began, before his eyes widened with surprise, "Do- do you think Iroh would even teach you that?"

"He has no choice in the matter." she retorted, "It's either him or me, and I know he'd prefer me over the man who was responsible for both the death of his father and the boy he treated like a son. I only tried to kill Zuko, and I was justified at the time." she argued, before narrowing her eyes, "But in hindsight, perhaps that wasn't the best choice of action."

"Talking it out?" he guessed, and the Princess sighed, knowing that the Avatar was right at times, and this time had to be one of them, no matter how angry she had been with her brother.

"Aang has a few good ideas at times, I'll give him that."

Toph crossed her arms, glancing at her latest student, who was standing before her with his bandana over his eyes; though she hadn't wanted to teach him seismic sense immediately, she knew that he could gain perspective and a better intuition about earthbending if he did it while being unable to see, simply relying on his ability to sense earth. She knew that all earthbenders could sense earth around them, though she didn't know anyone who had honed their ability to the same degree she had; it was the only way she could see the world, so she had far more of a reason to do so than most earthbenders would.

"I'm ready, Sifu Toph." he assured her, and she chuckled, recalling how he had fallen flat on his butt after being knocked over by a pillar she created, "I won't do that again."

"I will." she assured him, and she could see how his confident expression faltered for a moment, before he took the form she had taught him to take; he needed solid footing if he was to block her moves, and that would be vital if he was to be a good earthbender.

As much as the young Avatar wanted to just start tossing rocks, her element consisted of a lot more than that, and she was sure to make him learn the basics of earthbending before trying to teach him any complex moves. Simple concepts, she had found, were the best way to improve one's earthbending; overthinking earthbending was just an easy way to slip up and make a mistake. Her element was all about finding the most straightforward path and taking it, something she found to be rather easy, given the insight her seismic sense provided.

That was why she hoped to teach the Avatar to use it, knowing that if he was going to fight anybody with earthbending, her ability would grant him a vital advantage. Though part of her wanted to withhold that knowledge, out of pride in her skill, she knew that she would be just as happy to see somebody else perfect it under her tutelage. Dodging pillars was not using seismic sense, however, but she was sure he could get there.

She took a deep breath, and analysed his stance, taking note that he had his right forward forward, suggesting that he would move his left toward her to bend the pillar; she hadn't even taught him to use his feet yet, but she guessed that being an airbender, he was used to using his whole body to bend, and that came natural to him. She raised a pillar to the right of him, aiming to whack him in the leg so she could weaken his stance, and Aang immediately sprung into action, moving his left palm toward the pillar, which stopped her from moving it into his leg. He was fast, but she doubted he could multitask, which was why she shot a pillar right into his behind after that, shunting him forward and causing him to faceplant on the ground.

Toph let out a cackle at his position, and the young Avatar just groaned, before rolling himself over, "Ow, I feel like I just got chi-blocked by Ty Lee." he grumbled, and Toph scrunched her lips up, not having heard about him fighting a chi-blocker that wasn't Sokka.

"Wait, this Ty Lee girl's a chi-blocker?"

"Yeah." he nodded, before his heart-beat sped up, "Oh, wait, we didn't really explain who she is, did we?"

"Well, I've never met this girl before." she clarified, before crossing her arms, "If she's half as good as your friend, I'd like to fight her."

"I'm sure you'll get a chance." he noted, before moving back into form, "Okay, okay, I'm ready to try again. Please don't do two at a time. I'm not very good at this."

"Well, you are a beginner." she conceded, before she sighed, "Take off that bandana and fight me with your eyes instead." she suggested, and the young Avatar took the bandana off of his face, tying it around his wrist instead.

"Do you mean... fight-fight?" he asked, obviously a little nervous; they hadn't actually sparred yet, and she didn't intend to fight him properly until he actually had a grip on earthbending.

"No. You can barely throw a rock, let alone go against me." she warned him, "You can, however, block my rocks." she noted, bending two boulders out of the ground from either side of herself, "So, will you?"

"Yes." he confirmed, before he took form; without delay, Toph tossed one of the rocks up into the air, on a high arc, while she threw the other right at Aang.

She could tell from his heartbeat that he was scared, and even if he had halted the second rock, the first was still climbing into the air above them; she could no longer sense it, but she had aimed it to land right on top of him. She could sense his feet shifting around, and she wondered whether he was going to bolt out of the way, but she was surprised to see Aang tense his right hand, which must have been holding the other boulder in place, before he threw his arm up; she couldn't sense what happened next, but she could certainly hear the two rocks colliding, and the sound of dust splattering down over her and her student.

"That was not what I expected." she conceded her surprise, before smirking, "You're already thinking like earthbender. You just punched through the problem."

"I mean... yeah." he acknowledged, his tone suggesting he was happy to hear her approve, "I knew I couldn't jump out of the way."

"I would have sunk your feet into the ground if you tried that." she warned, and he laughed at her unveiled threat, obviously intimidated.

"Sure." he retorted, trying to sound as if he doubted her, though she knew he was just trying to seem tough; that seemed to be his way of handling her training, and though she saw it as being indicative of his dedication to learning her element, it was a little unsettling at times, since she knew that really wasn't what he was like, and outside of training, that was clear enough.

"That wasn't a joke." she warned him, before testing the ground beneath his feet, making him nearly fall over, only stopping himself by airbending underneath himself, before he landed back on his own two feet, "Twinkletoes... I thought you weren't going to airbend." she reminded him, and he cringed back before raising a hand.

"I... uh... that wasn't part of training. You were just trying to scare me." he argued, and she snickered.

"That was me having fun. If I wanted to scare you, you would have tried to fly away." she warned, and he didn't respond for a few moments before he dusted off his robes.

"I can't actually fly without my glider." he clarified, "I mean, I can jump pretty high, but so could you, if you wanted to."

"Yeah, I'm not trying that." she assured him, knowing that even if her earthbending allowed it, she couldn't see while in the air, so such a move would be insanely reckless, even for her, "Flying on the sky-bison is already bad enough."

"Appa has a name." he raised a finger toward her, and she shrugged her shoulders.

"Oh, so why didn't he introduce himself?" she asked him in jest, and the young Avatar looked at her for a few moments, before letting out a snicker.

"You really know how to argue." he noted, "You and Azula are going to do it alot, I'm guessing."

"Oh, that's going to be fun." she placed her hands together, looking forward to both sparring and arguing with the Fire Nation Princess, who she was sure had enough witty remarks and deadpan responses to humour her for days on end- that would make for better conversation than the awkward small talk or random questions she'd get from Katara, though Aang was a little better, but then again, he was only twelve.

"Did you want to do some more training, or are we going to go make dinner now?" he asked her, and she furrowed a brow, recalling that Katara had said she would make dinner.

"I thought Katara said she was going to make it." she reminded him, and the young Avatar shook his head.

"Well, I don't want to let her do it all herself." he admitted, "We're all eating."

Toph couldn't really be bothered helping Katara cook, as she had already set up her sleeping area, and had been training Aang; of course, they hadn't been doing it for that long, and as much as she wanted to remain independent of them, and continue as she always had in providing for herself, passing up the chance to not have to cook after doing so for over a year certainly persuaded her to let the Water Tribe girl cook for her.

She didn't think that she would really need her help, but she tagged on after the young Avatar as he paced back toward their campsite. They had decided to do their training in a wide open area away from where they had set up their sleeping areas, as Katara had warned them about accidentally damaging their things while training, or disturbing her as she prepared dinner.

The young Avatar made a whistle, and got Katara's attention; Toph could sense that she was leaning over next to a spit, where the pot was cooking their meal. She guessed it was some kind of stew, though what it was specifically, she couldn't be sure; she doubted it was Water Tribe cuisine, given they ate seafood and that was lacking in New Omashu's markets, which only got goods from friendly villages, none of which were located by the sea.

Aang cheerily approached his friend, and gestured to the pot, "Do you want us to help with dinner?" he asked, and she indicated away from them; it took her a moment to sense, but Toph realised she was pointing to Appa.

"I'm pretty sure the bowls are still in the saddlebag. Could you go get them?" she requested, and the Air Nomad boy stood still, perhaps surprised that they were probably about to eat.

"Wait... so I don't need to help with the cooking?"

"No, you don't." she assured him, "You and Toph got into that training." she observed, before her head turned in the earthbender's direction, telling her she was talking to her, "Is he getting better?"

"Slowly but surely, he'll start thinking like an earthbender. What did I tell you?" she snapped a finger toward Aang, who moved into form at once.

"Rock-like!" he chanted, making Katara giggle at his on-key response.

"Okay, I do need those bowls." she reminded him, and the young Avatar leapt up into the air, a gust of wind blowing onto both girls; Toph was unable to sense where he was as he disappeared from her senses, but she could just sense Appa's weight on the ground increase ever so slightly as he touched down on the saddle a few moments later.

She listened to him shuffle around, before he made a positive grunt, leaping back up, from the sounds of the sudden wind she heard, and then, landed back down right beside them, "Three bowls for three people." he explained, before glancing back, "Oh wait, I forgot Momo."

"I'm pretty sure Momo can just eat some of the dried fruit... he liked it, right?" Katara asked him, and the young Avatar nodded, before glancing around, "Actually... where is he? I haven't seen him since Toph nearly hit him with a boulder." he explained, and the glare the Water Tribe girl must have shot her preempted Toph to speak up on her own behalf.

"I wasn't actually trying to hit it." she defended her actions, "He was distracting Aang."

"You nearly hit Momo?" she scoffed, before her heartbeat rose for a moment, "Oh wait... I think I accidentally hit him when I was practicing waterbending once."

"See even she knows it's a nosy thing. I just don't want to actually crush it by accident." she tried to give a more reasonable defence, now knowing the other girl had accidentally done something similar, and Aang crossed his arms, not seeming impressed.

"Oh, okay, so you want to do it on purpose." Aang deduced, accusing her of something she really didn't intend to do.

"I don't. I swear. He might be annoying, and try to snatch my rice crackers, but I wouldn't try and hurt your monkey thing."

"Flying lemur." he corrected her, before sighing, "Eh, just don't do that again, please." he requested, before sitting down, "Now, let's eat... uh, whatever this is."

"Stew. Made from rice, beans, chickpeas and some cut up vegetables." she explained, before chuckling, "And some love."

Toph cringed a little at that last comment, but didn't quip at it, knowing that starting an argument when she really just wanted to eat dinner would be a poor choice on her behalf; Katara used a spoon to pull out some of her stew, before placing it in each of the bowls, handing her and Aang one each, allowing her to get a sniff of the meal. It didn't smell terrible, so she assumed that the waterbender was a better cook than the master of the elements; she just guessed that the girl was the 'group cook', not by virtue of wanting to do all the work, but merely because she was good at it.

"Hmph." she mumbled, before sensing around, "Where are the chopsticks?" she asked, and Katara turned around to reach over into one of the bags nearby; she pulled out some chopsticks, and tossed some at Aang; she couldn't sense them for a moment, though it didn't surprise her when she felt him catch them, before he handed her a pair.

She took the chopsticks into her right hand and sensed the ceramic in the bowl she was holding, allowing her to have a reasonably good idea of where she was aiming the chopsticks when she aimed to pick up some of her dinner. Toph was relieved to find when she raised them back up to her mouth that she had actually picked something up; she was always a little self-conscious about doing tasks that would make her look stupid if she did them wrong, due to her blindness. That was why she avoided certain things, like critiquing people's appearance, which was possible, but when all she could comment on was the shape of their clothing, and if they happened to be wearing shoes, what kind, it didn't make for much of a conversation. She didn't sense Aang or Katara turning her way as she ate, and with that, she could continue on eating, not thinking that she had made a fool of herself just yet.

"Oh, Toph, you still haven't explained that thing- oh, yeah, the Earth Rumble." Aang recalled, and she chuckled, looking back on her time there fondly; that was when she was truly the Blind Bandit, the almighty and indomitable wrestler, who was unmatched in earthbending.

"What did you want to know?" she asked with a bit of food still stuck in her left cheek; that seemed to earn Katara's attention, but Toph didn't care, preferring to be social and lack etiquette than to be an utter bore.

"What kind of people did you fight?" he asked her, his voice suggesting he really wanted to know about the Earth Rumble.

"Well, there were a lot of different wrestlers there. The Boulder, the Gecko, the Gopher, Headhunter, the Big Bad Hippo, the Boulder, and Fire Nation Man, just to name a few." she explained, and Katara turned to face her.

"Wait, did you just say Fire Nation Man?"

"He wasn't actually Fire Nation. Just a big earthbender who dresses like he's Fire Nation- you know, good for the crowds to boo." she explained the reason for him being there, though he wasn't a completely incompetent earthbender, most of the other benders beat him every time.

"Well, which of those could beat you?" Aang asked, and the earthbender scoffed at his suggestion; none of them had beaten her once, though the Big Bad Hippo and the Boulder were reasonably good earthbenders, and both of them had given her good fights, neither of them had had the skill or speed to beat her.

"None." she raised a finger, "I'm the world's greatest earthbender." she proclaimed proudly, before picking up some more of the stew and taking a bite.

"Well, how many earthbenders can you fight at once?" Aang asked her, and Toph raised a brow, remembering back to her last proper spar against her 'students', though it seemed a little weird to call them that when most of them were grown men, and she was only a teenager.

"The most I've gone against at once is about eight. They tried to trap me, but... I can see through stone." she explained, "So, hiding underground was a pretty easy way to snag each of them, one at a time."

"Ooh... so can you just dig under and see everything above you with your seismic sense. Nobody would be able to hit you." Aang observed her strategy, and she cocked a grin.

"Spot on, Twinkletoes." she snapped a finger at him, before taking another scoop of the stew into her mouth; as she chewed it, Katara seemed to be focusing on her, and Toph turned her head, so that she was facing her; even if she couldn't see, she knew that when people faced each other, it was usually to talk.

"Uh, are you enjoying dinner?" she asked, and Toph scrunched up her lips as she continued chewing on the stew.

"For a meal made by one person... decent." she gave her opinion, and the Water Tribe girl scoffed, seeming a little offended by that.

"Wait, decent? So, it's not even good. Aang, you think it's good, right?"

"Yeah, it's good." he assured her, "Better than rice crackers. Definitely." he stressed, though Katara didn't seem appeased by that.

"What's so mediocre about my cooking Toph?"

"Well, it's just a stew. I've eaten way better food than this before." she acknowledged the fact of the matter; she was a noblewoman, and back at her family's estate, they were always afforded the best meals, and even though she didn't miss her home, part of her did miss the quality cooking, far better than anything she could do herself.

"You think you can cook better than me. That's it, right?" she questioned Toph, who scoffed at her suggestion.

"Uh, no, this is better than my cooking." she assured her, not considering herself a good cook in the slightest.

"Where'd you get such a fine taste from then?" she asked the earthbender in return, who just put a little bit more stew in her mouth; she didn't want to talk about where she was from, and not because she would be judged, but simply because she didn't want to think about home, or her parents.

Gaoling was far away from Omashu, and now, she'd be going even further away from it and the memories she left there; she didn't want to return, knowing that her father might try and lock her in her room for being so insolent and running away from home. She didn't want to live with them, knowing that they would try and control her, and make her into a proper lady, as they saw it. They would just ignore, if not deride, her ability to bend, which was how she literally saw the world, and it was her passion. She loved her earthbending, and if she ever went back, she would not lie about her abilities; she was a powerful bender, and she would use her abilities for good, and not just sit around like a fool while the world turned on its head.

"Toph?" Aang asked her, seeming a little unnerved by her silence, "Did something happen?"

"No, nothing happened." she retorted, taking another bite from the stew.

"You're eating that pretty aggressively." he observed, and she just tried to ignore him, and the question she had received.

"I'm sure Toph is just thinking about the better meals she's eaten." Katara commented, and the earthbender tensed up, wanting to throw the other girl to the ground with her earthbending for her prodding, but she decided against it, knowing that she had given her fair share of harassing in the past, and she hadn't really been that forthcoming about why she was annoyed.

"I don't want to go back there." she simply spoke her mind, and both Katara and Aang looked at her, clearly a little confused.

"Go back to Omashu?"

"No, to Gaoling." she clarified, before taking another bite from her meal; the Water Tribe girl's posture softened, as she seemed to understand why she was agitated.

"Did something bad happen there?"

She scoffed, recalling what her father had last told her; that she was going to get them in trouble by earthbending in public, given the Fire Nation was quite intent on capturing earthbenders and sending them to labour camps back then. He wanted her to stay at home, and not even leave the estate, let alone use her abilities for any reason; she had refused that, given how absurd a request that was, and decided to take it upon herself to leave home once and for all.

"It's probably not what you think it is." she conceded, "My family's the reason I left there. Not the Fire Nation."

"Oh..." Aang mumbled, before he turned away, "I get what you mean."

She scrunched up her lips, recalling that Air Nomads, from the best of her knowledge, were raised by monks, and didn't have families, at least in the same way people in the other nations did, "Don't Air Nomads not have families?"

"We don't." he conceded, "But the monks. They're the reason I left the temple... the reason I got frozen, actually." he explained, and she turned her head slightly toward him, realising that he actually might have something in common with her, despite his different mentality about fighting and starkly different worldview.

"Let me guess, they wanted to control your life, because you were the Avatar, right?" she guessed, and the young Avatar nodded.

"Y-yeah..." he confirmed, seeming a little uneased by it, "It was a mistake, but I- they just didn't care about how I felt."

"It's okay, Aang." Katara tried to console him, "You didn't do anything wrong."

"No, I did." he retorted, "I'm trying to do what's right... just like Azula, because I made stupid decisions, and they... well, you know about the war."

"People make mistakes." Toph conceded, "But you're not just giving up. I respect that." she admitted, pointing her chopsticks at him before she continued eating her meal.

"Huh... so, you ran away." Katara concluded, her tone sounding a little sympathetic, "I guess you really don't like your family."

"I don't." she confirmed, before sighing, not wanting to talk about it any longer, "Can we please talk about something else, if you're going to demand we have a conversation." she requested, and the Water Tribe girl's heartbeat rose in pace.

"Wh-what? I didn't demand-" she began to defend herself, before crossing her arms, "I never demanded we talk."

"Asking me questions is pretty much that." she retorted, picking up a bit of rice with her chopsticks, and gestured them toward Katara, "So, how about we don't talk about my home, and I won't ask you about whatever bugs you?"

"Uh..." she mumbled, and her head dropped down, "Yeah... I guess that's fair." she conceded.

"Good." Toph pursed her lips upward, glad that they could come to a resolution, "So, if you want to talk about something, talk about something trivial and stupid."

"Well, uh, the weather's nice." Aang noted, and she turned her head slightly.

"What, it's not raining?" she asked, and he turned his head around.

"I mean, you can see the- uh- nevermind." he shrunk back, retracting his half-finished statement, obviously realising his comment was about to be a little insensitive given her blindness.

"The sunset, right?" she asked him, guessing that was what he'd be referring to, given the time of day.

"Oh, so you know what that is." he realised, and she chuckled.

"Uh, yeah, being blind doesn't mean I'm unaware of the basic things of life. The sun rises and sets." she gestured up above them, making an arc with her hand to imitate what she assumed the sun did; she only knew about it from her education, rather than from observation, but she understood day and night well enough- it didn't make any difference to her seismic sense, but night was cold, and days were hot, at least during the summer.

"Well, sunsets are pretty." Aang noted quietly, "Like a lukewarm fire... in the sky." he explained, and Toph narrowed her eyes; though she didn't like firebending, she didn't mind the feeling of her feet up by a campfire, so she could imagine the feeling a little bit, even if the visual aspect was different to the heat of a fire.

"Hmph." she mumbled, "I guess that sounds kinda nice." she conceded, before reaching down to the ground beside her with her hand.

She pulled a bit of dirt into her hand, and then, with both her hands, formed it into a shape she remembered once when she was a child; her parents had taken her to a beach, and she had found something rather interesting there, at least to her senses. She formed the dirt into the shape of a seashell, or at least, as best as she could remember what one looked like, and she could see that she'd gained both their attention.

"Huh, that's pretty cool, Toph." Aang admitted, "It's a little seashell."

"Yeah." she nodded, "I like the patterns they have. A spiral that keeps getting smaller and smaller." she explained her thoughts on it, before she gripped the rock and pelted it away from them, causing it to shatter when it hit a small boulder in the distance.

Aang snorted, amused by her sudden move, and looked at her with interest as she continued eating her meal, which she had nearly finished, "Uh, so, what are we going to learn tomorrow?"

"I want to see you actually bend some earth.' she explained, and he didn't move as he continued looking her way.

"Uh... I was earthbending today. I stopped those rocks."

"That was blocking. I want you to actually move some earth." she explained, "Like how I did with that bit of dirt."

"Oh..." he mumbled, sounding to comprehend her intentions a little better, "So making things with the dirt. Like walls?"

"Yep, that kind of stuff." she confirmed, before picking up the last of the food in her bowl, before putting it into her mouth; once she chewed it down and swallowed it, Toph raised her arms up, stretching them before she sensed over in the direction of the stone tent she made, "Well, I think I'm going to go head off to bed now."

"Already... but it's not even dark yet." Aang noted, "You don't want to do any more training?"

"Not really." she shrugged her shoulders, "I'm tired, and I want to get up early. We want to get to that fleet quickly, right?" she asked the Water Tribe girl, who made a positive hum.

"That's right." she agreed, "We need to leave early tomorrow so Appa can fly as far as possible. I don't want to have to camp in this area again. You know who's around here." she warned Aang, who cringed.

"Yeah, I remember." he confirmed, before turning to face Toph, "Well, uh, good night."

"I might go get a drink first, actually." she changed her mind, knowing she ought to go get some water; she might get thirsty, and she didn't want to have to go down after she laid down to go to sleep.

"You know what, I should probably refill the water skins." Katara spoke up, rising to her feet, "I'll do that, and then somebody can wash these bowls."

Toph noticed that she had turned her way, and she raised a brow, "What? Do you want me to clean?"

"Uh... well, you haven't done any chores yet." she explained, the earthbender sighing, not wanting to do that; she knew that the Water Tribe girl would probably harass her otherwise, so she decided it was easier to give in for the moment.

"Where are those water skins? I'll go fill them up on the way." she decided, and Katara gestured to a few bags that were sitting by Appa.

"Uh, in those bags." she clarified, before her tone shifted to a pleased, amicable one, "Thank you, Toph."

"I'm only doing this because I'm thirsty." she clarified, before pointing at her, "Were you still coming?"

"Uh, yeah." she confirmed, rising up to her feet, "There's too many of them for you to carry at once."

"Hmph." she raised her chin up, wondering whether she ought to take that as an insult; it was a fact that Toph was strong, though she didn't necessarily want to have to carry all the skins herself, especially when they were full of water, "Well, you're the waterbender. It should be easier for you." she deduced, and the Water Tribe girl nodded as she paced over toward the bags she had spoken about.

She followed her to the bags, and waited for her to hand her some of the waterskins; she did, and once she had them in her hands, she slung them over her shoulder, finding them rather malleable and light without much liquid in them.

"Aang, could you just clean up those bowls? You can use the water in my bending skin." she explained, and the young Avatar reached over to pick something up off the ground.

"Yep, I can do that." he responded, and with that, Katara began pacing off away from the campsite in the direction of the stream, which Toph could sense in the distance; it was rather easy to note its presence by the effect the water had on her seismic sense, constantly flowing over and moving the earth about, even if it was at a very small scale.

Pacing behind the Water Tribe girl, she dug her toes into the ground as she took each step, appreciating the earth for every moment her feet touched it. After being stuck on Appa's saddle for the best part of a day, she had come to appreciate her connection to her element even more; up in the air, she couldn't sense anything at all, being truly blind, and it was unsettling, given she spent almost every moment of her waking hours with her feet touching the ground.

"So... was my cooking really that bad?" Katara asked her once more, and the earthbender couldn't help but slam her palm into her forehead.

"Enough about the stupid food!" she demanded, "It was perfectly fine!"

She tensed up at her reaction, and her heartbeat hastened; though Toph didn't want to scare her, she realised that perhaps shouting at her like that was not the best way to respond.

"I... uh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to keep asking... I just want to improve it if it's really not that good."

"Well, you can improve, but I can't offer any advice." she clarified, "I'm not that good at cooking."

"Okay." she nodded, seeming to have gotten over her incessant need to ask her about the one comment she made.

As they drew nearer to the stream, she was able to hear the water flowing in the distance, and noticed that the Water Tribe girl began to speed up her pace. Toph didn't, not really feeling fused to rush, and followed her toward the edge of the stream, noting that the other girl had shifted into a bending stance; the earthbender furrowed a brow as she sensed her feet movements, noting how she was shifting her body weight around smoothly, and she could hear the sound of some liquid splashing about. She had already taken out one of the water skins, and from what she could sense, it seemed like she had funnelled the water into the skin before tying it shut.

Without any waterbending to rely on, Toph was forced to kneel over by the water's edge, taking one of the skins off of her shoulder. She wanted to fill them up quickly, but given her thirst, she decided to dip her hands in first, and drink some of the cool water; it didn't taste the greatest, but it was better than some of the water she'd drunken before, back when she was out in the middle of nowhere, travelling around the Earth Kingdom. She picked the waterskin beside her, and dropped it into the quick flowing water, letting it fill up the waterskin, which she raised up once it felt heavy enough. She tightened it shut, before dropping it down beside her on the gravelly bank of the stream; not wanting to waste any time, she took the other water skin off of her shoulder, and dropped it into the water, sensing that Katara was standing to her left, with two water skins already filled, sitting on the ground beside her.

"Do you need to stand there and watch?" she questioned her as she waited for her waterskin to fill, "You can do this a lot quicker than I can."

"Well, you wouldn't have any work to do then." she observed, making the earthbender scoffed.

"You really must like chores."

"No, I just like making sure everyone does their fair share." she retorted, crossing her arms as she spoke.

"And what if things can be done quicker?"

"Then we should choose our chores better." she suggested, making her snicker.

"Well then, Katara... choose water-duty. I'll do whatever other stupid things you need me to do."

"It's not stupid. Do you want cooked meals, and a place to sleep?" she asked her, and the Earth Kingdom girl shrugged her shoulders, before pulling the waterskin out of the stream, tightening it so none of the liquid leaked out.

"I want us to not end up in a Fire Nation prison." she gave her one request, given that most of them were made out of metal, from what she knew, and that wasn't something she could bend, "Or in any situation where I can't bend."

"Well, if we all do our chores, we'll be able to do things quicker, and that'll keep us safe." Katara gave her own reasoning.

"Bit of a stretch." she mumbled, before picking up both of her waterskins, "I want to go to bed." she reminded her, "So, let's go." she decided, not considering to ask Katara if she wanted to go; she could stay if she liked, and practice her bending, but Toph could not be bothered continuing a boring, if not frustrating conversation with her, when she could be getting some shut eye.

She began pacing on back toward their campsite with each of the waterskins slung over her shoulders; unsurprisingly, the Water Tribe girl followed after her soon after, and her hasteful steps toward Toph suggested she wanted to continue their conversation. She clenched her fists, not wanting to talk about stupid things like chores for any longer, but decided to not preempt her and tell her shut up; giving Katara the benefit of the doubt was fair, and when she cleared her throat, the Earth Kingdom girl couldn't help but wonder what she wanted to say.

"I'm sorry if I've annoyed you."

"Hmph, not good with personal boundaries, huh?" she asked in return, and the Water Tribe girl's steps slowed momentarily upon hearing her response, "I guess that's why you and the Princess mustn't get along."

"How do you know about that?"

"Aang mentioned it." she clarified, before furrowing a brow, "I'm not going to take your righteous shit, okay? I'm able to things how I want, when I want."

"But... the chores." the other girl mumbled.

"Yeah I'll do the chores... Because it's necessary, not because you want me to." she stressed, "You're not going to mother me... or her."

"Sokka did mention something about her ha- oh..." Katara cut herself off, obviously realising something about Azula, "No wonder she got so angry at me."

"Family problems?" she guessed raising her chin up, "Given what they said about Ozai, I'm not surprised."

"Yeah... He's pretty terrible." she conceded, "But Sokka said something about her mother."

"Maybe she was like him?" she guessed, wondering about the kind of person who could have children with a man who had allegedly killed his own son.

"No... I don't think it was that." she conceded, "Just neglect." she added more quietly, sounding almost disappointed, "It hasn't been easy for her... If what Ty Lee says of her is true, she was set on a much darker path than the one she's on right now."

"That's why I'm glad she's on our side. After the shit you guys say she pulled at the North Pole, I don't think we'd stand much of a chance against her at her worst."

"The Earth Kingdom?"

"The whole world. That's why we've got to stop that crazy dad of hers."

Sokka didn't really like bending all that much, but even he could appreciate the skill with which earthbenders could use their element to a great practical effect; though he was impressed by what the waterbenders at the North Pole were able to build, with their massive walls and canals, he knew that took a lot of manpower. What he saw before him was only a dozen men, digging out a massive trench to help defend the base; what he saw before him might usually take weeks to construct with non-benders, but with earthbending, it could be done in the span of a few hours. There was no wonder Ba Sing Se was surrounded by such massive walls when they had all those earthbenders to build them.

He watched with interest as they moved in form, digging out the trench and shifting the dirt up into a mound that doubled as a wall. The part he was properly overseeing was the Fire Nation engineers bringing out stakes to build the wooden wall; they couldn't spare too much manpower when most of them were working on constructing their new airship, so Sokka himself was lending a hand where possible, though he was mostly there for the purpose of ensuring that the process went along smoothly. Azula had assigned him to the task of meditating between the earthbenders and engineers to make sure everything was built to a sufficient standard, and that their new allies were compensated well for their labour.

"Uh, Sokka, could you give a hand with this?" he heard one of the engineers, Doshi, ask him, and he glanced around to notice that he was struggling to keep the stake level as he was putting it into the ground.

The Water Tribesman knelt down and grabbed the end of the stake, and helped it along as Doshi placed it into the ground; he glanced up and noticed that the other engineers were stringing along the metal bandings that were connecting the stakes to make sure they remained in place, and moved out of the way so they could take the metal band along the stake and then, once it was in place, hammer it into shape so it curled around it. He paced over to the box of metal parts they had sitting nearby, and took a pair of bolts out, and tossed them over to Doshi, who knelt over and began hammering them in.

"Thanks." he acknowledged his assistance, before getting into his work.

Sokka turned around to look back down at the trench, watching as the earthbenders continued to move along; they had already dug out much of it, and were moving a lot faster than the engineers were with setting up their stakes. He noticed that the earthbenders, despite being more efficient at their work, didn't seem to take it as seriously; though he did not doubt their discipline as fighters, they were still chatting amongst themselves and moving through their work at a steady, calm pace. The engineers, on the other hand, were far more hasty, jabbing each stake into the ground as soon as they could, and hammering the metal in place as efficiently as they could, always having two engineers pulling more metal bindings along at any given moment. He decided that after his momentary break to stride back to their pile of stakes, and he saw one of the engineers, Shuri, moving to pick one up, and he stepped past him, indicating toward the stake as he moved to grab one end.

"You're the supervisor, you know that, right?" he asked, and the Water Tribesman smirked at him.

"Well, yeah, but I'm just not going to let you guys do all the work. That's just not how I do things."

"So, savages don't delegate?" he asked, and Sokka snickered.

"Not in the Southern Water Tribe we don't."

"Sounds nice." the engineer mumbled for a moment, before shaking his head, "Don't tell the guys I said that."

He held back a laugh, finding it funny that he was ashamed to actually consider a Water Tribe value in a good light; he assumed that they were all taught of the virtues of the Fire Nation's culture and systems, and of the weakness and poverty of their enemies. It was pretty far from the truth, even if they were pretty poor down in his village; that was more from a lack of manpower and trade rather than any lack of willpower on his tribe's behalf.

He and Shuri carried the stake along, pacing up towards the next hole that was to be filled; it wasn't all that heavy, especially with two men carrying it, but its weight meant that it was hard to balance. When they reached the hole, the engineer aimed the stake down into the hole while Sokka raised his end up, causing the stake to slide smoothly into the hole, before the metal band was rung around by two other engineers. He would have thanked them, but his attention was drawn by a whistle behind him; the Water Tribesman turned around to see that Renshu was standing nearby, in his armour and all, so he assumed it was a formal occasion rather than his friend coming to see him.

The Captain would hate to call him such, but the fact of the matter was that they worked together a lot, and seemed to get along reasonably well, even if the Imperial Firebender had a rather contemptuous view of the Water Tribesman; even Sokka would admit that he was given far too much authority compared to his lack of experience, even if he didn't think he was all that bad at design and planning.

"Why are you carrying stuff around? You're meant to be supervising."

"I mean, I am." he assured him, "The earthbenders know what they're doing, and I explained the parameters of the job to them... plus, the engineers are smart. They know how to do all this." he explained as he gestured to the wall of stakes they had already propped up.

"That doesn't explain why you're carrying stakes... unless this is some savage thing. You Water Tribe people like sharing the workload, I guess."

"Uh, yeah, that's it." he confirmed, "If you think that's dumb, don't talk to my sister. She might scream at you for saying something like that." he warned him, knowing Katara had strong opinions on the topic; she was somebody who adored the ideas of merit, hard work and equality, so anybody who supposed otherwise was not looked upon kindly.

"Oh, I assume she got agitated at her highness about that, given her propensity for... uh, being a Princess." he noted rather awkwardly, obviously not wanting to insult his boss in front of her boyfriend.

"You know, Azula doesn't mind hard work, she just prefers working smart." he explained how she liked to treat work, given how she had treated chores back at his village; she didn't avoid them, but merely tried to be smart and efficient about them, not wanting to waste her time doing something she would deem 'stupid and tedious'.

"Ah, that does sound like her." he nodded, before tilting his head back in the direction of the compound, "A messenger's arrived, and she wants you at the meeting." he explained his intention for being before him, and succinctly at that.

"Oh, so this isn't a social call." he mused, making the Captain scoff.

"You think I would come and talk to you out of my own volition?" he asked, and the Water Tribe warrior nodded, thinking he might feel the need to socialise every once in a while.

"Yeah, I think you might." he retorted, and Renshu rolled his eyes.

"That was a rhetorical question." he grumbled, before gesturing for him to follow, "Come on."

"What about the supervising?" he asked, and the guard shrugged his shoulders.

"You said it yourself. They can do the work well enough alone." he suggested, and Sokka sighed; he didn't want to leave them doing everything themselves, but he knew that they were capable.

"Keep up the good work, guys. I'll be back as soon as I can." he explained, and the engineers glanced his way, seeming a little concerned.

"Uh, what about our lunch break?" Doshi asked him, and Sokka just raised his hands up.

"Feel free to have it whenever you like." he suggested, before glancing down toward the earthbenders, "Oh, and tell those guys they're free to use the canteen when they want to have theirs."

They nodded, accepting his request, and he turned around to follow Renshu as he paced on into the encampment that surrounded the compound. The haphazard way in which the tents were placed meant their path back was rather twisted, but he could figure it out well enough, given there weren't any dead-ends along the way.

"So, Captain, uh, how's your day been?" he asked him, and the guard glanced back his way for a moment, before shrugging his shoulders rather coldly, not seeming that interested in conversation.

"Fine, I guess." he admitted, before sighing, "Could be better."

"Does this have something to do with this message?" he asked, before narrowing his eyes, wondering what could be so serious that it would make even Renshu uneasy, "Oh... this can't be good."

"Well, there's good news and bad news. I'm just... well, you should hear it from the messenger yourself."

"So, you're just gonna leave me hanging. Aw, come on, man." he groaned, frustrated that he wouldn't just reveal what had been going on.

"Trust me, I'm not the expert on this matter. I'm just a guard. I firebend, command my men, and protect the Princess." he explained his role rather simply, "And sometimes, I help take down conspiracies and coerce government officials." he recalled what they had done in Ba Sing Se and Yu Dao, respectively.

"Ah, we've done some good stuff together, Captain, don't you think?" he smiled at him, looking back fondly, at least at some parts, of their time together before Azula's defeat.

"I believe the best things you've done are the things I've had no supervision over." he gave his opinion bluntly, "Such as defeating the Admiral and protecting the Princess from her brother."

"You don't supervise me, Renshu." he warned him, "I take orders from Azula, and Azula alone." he declared his position plainly, before chuckling, "And most the time, I'll refute her orders anyway, if they're stupid."

"That'd make you the freest man in this base, Sokka." he noted, making the Water Tribesman cockily grin at him.

"And I'm proud of it." he declared, before scrunching his lips up, "And how about you? Do you get to go and make your own calls?"

"Well, when her highness has given me the choice, then yes." he admitted, "But she likes to keep everything around here nice and orderly, if you haven't realised."

"Yeah, I'm the one making sure shit goes smoothly with the defences and the airships." he reminded him of what he was actually doing out by the edge of the base.

"I know." he replied, before shaking his head, "She's giving you a little more authority than need be."

"Hey, even I agree with you there. I much preferred when I was assisting her and not doing my own stuff. This is... serious work."

"Oh, so you prefer being a servant?" he asked with an amused voice, obviously finding it funny that he found it natural to be working by Azula's side, or perhaps as he might see it, under her.

"I'm not a servant... damn, it's been a while since I've had to say that."

"Yeah, because you're not." Renshu clarified, "You might have been back then, but well, people move up in the world."

As they continued through the encampment, making their way toward the interior palisade and the gates through them, he wondered back to the reason for them walking back to the compound, "So, what's the news, anyway?" he asked him again, the Captain shook his head.

"Seriously, I'd prefer if I didn't have to explain it. I only got the briefest of explanations from the Princess." he admitted, eyeing the Water Tribesman for a few moments, before sighing, "Fine, whatever." he accepted his request, before glancing ahead, "A messenger from the Governor of Yi Province arrived, and supposedly is here to make an agreement with the Princess to secure her protection."

"Oh." Sokka's eyes widened, before he made a small smile, not thinking that was terrible news, "That's not that bad, really."

"The reason why is." he warned him, "Supposedly the only reason they're asking is because Ozai's forces defeated one of Zuko's loyalist armies, shattered their forces and left the province completely undefended from both the Earth Kingdom and the invading forces."

"Okay, that's bad news." he admitted, knowing that even if a defeat for Zuko's forces might have been good for them in the short term, every defeat they faced only made Ozai's position stronger, "I'm assuming Yi Province is in between us and those guys."

"From the best of my knowledge, yes." he confirmed, "I haven't been reading the intelligence reports. That's not under my purview." he stressed, "I really shouldn't be telling you things I don't understand."

"Well, you understood what Zhao was doing well enough, didn't you?"

"That wasn't from a messenger, that was from observation." the Captain retorted, before shaking his head, indicating up to the gates, "Let's just get back to the compound. I'm not going to tell you every single thing I think about this stupid civil war." he added, sounding rather frustrated now, and Sokka decided not to press it any further; perhaps Renshu was merely afraid of what might come their way, and by not thinking or learning any more about it, he wouldn't be consumed by fear, where he wouldn't be able to do his job.

"Yeah, I get it." he conceded, "I was always afraid back in my village, before the warriors came back. Like I couldn't do anything to stop terrible things from happening." he explained his thoughts rather quietly, not really wanting anyone else to listen in on his feelings; he wanted to be stoic and tough, or at least, give the visage of it, especially when he went to talk with Azula- he didn't want her thinking he was afraid, and his reactions told Sokka that Renshu was in a similar situation.

"What?" Renshu turned his head slightly, "I'm not afraid."

"No, you are." he stressed, "I know because I've been there. Your job is to protect Azula, and obviously, it's going to get harder to do that the more Ozai wants to get rid of us. You're afraid of what'll happen to her, to your men, to all of us."

"That just sounds like what you feel, Sokka." he retorted, crossing his arms as they strode up to the gates.

The Water Tribesman was afraid, but he wasn't going to deny it; he knew what was coming their way, and wanted to be prepared as he could be to deal with it. The men at the gates saluted them before letting them on through, and they continued on their way toward the compound, which was clearly visible in the distance, its tall metal walls sitting starkly in front of the more distant bay and forested hills that surrounded the base.

"I am afraid." Sokka bluntly admitted, "I'm not going to lie about it."

"Then why are you usually so happy-go-lucky, huh? Are you just acting?"

"Not really." he shook his head, "I'm not letting my fear get in the way of getting things done. I don't want to do stupid things, and at the moment, all the work I'm doing is going to actually lead somewhere... unlike some things we've done in the past." he admitted, and the Captain tilted his head back slightly.

"The North Pole?"

"Yeah, that." he confirmed, "I think she could have just gone into his office and shot him with lightning to begin with."

"In hindsight, I am inclined to say that would have been the best course of action... no matter how loyal these men might have been to him. He was no Fire Lord."

"Exactly." he nodded, "That's why I wish I had been able to come with her... though, I did enjoy beating up Master Pakku." he raised a finger to his chin.

"Who the hell's Master Pakku?"

"The guy who taught Katara and Aang waterbending. He refused to teach my sister because she's a girl, so beat him up with my chi-blocking." he explained, making Renshu scoff.

"Wait, that actually worked? I'd think that'd make him hate you all."

"Well, that wasn't what got him to teach her. He used to be engaged to my grandmother, and when he realised we were her grandchildren, he decided to allow Katara to be his student. A bit of a cop out, really." he explained his thoughts, not approving of Pakku's decision-making process; no matter how much he disdained bending, he wished that he and the others in the Northern Water Tribe could have treated his sister fairly.

"These northerners don't sound like very considerate people, and that's on Fire Nation standards." he admitted, and Sokka snickered.

"Well, yeah, they're not." he admitted, "They act like we're all one nation, but treat our values and customs like dirt." he acknowledged, "They just want to make good of our suffering... even if I hate the Southern Raiders more, they're just as bad if they think they can make some money off of our recovery."

"I mean, that's how development works. Didn't the Princess explain that to you?" he asked, and the Water Tribesman sighed.

"Yes... but you could expect a little compassion from the people who claim to be our brothers and sisters." he grumbled, not approving of something that was effectively the same as what the Fire Nation was doing to its colonial territories; even if they couldn't really undo what the Fire Nation had done there, he couldn't certainly prevent the same happening to his own people, "Plus, I don't expect Azula to do the same. We just want fair trade and access to the same resources they do."

"Well, if the war's going to be over... then maybe it'll work." he agreed to his proposition, before shaking his head, "You really shouldn't be talking about this kind of stuff to me. I barely know anything about your tribe, or the North, for that matter."

"That's fine." he assured him, "I wouldn't expect an ash-maker to know much about us, given all that propaganda they fed you as kids."

Renshu seemed to tense up upon hearing that before he shook his head, "Yeah, okay, that's true." he conceded, "School seems a lot weirder in hindsight once you see the world."

"I mean, I could say the same... except we don't have schools at the South Pole. It's just Dad and Gran-Gran telling me about the world, from the best they can gather."

"And they didn't have much nice things to say about us, I guess."

"They had nothing nice to say about the Fire Nation. They despise you all... and even if their opinions have been changed a little by Azula, it's going to take some time for them to accept that you're not all evil and looking to make us your slaves."

"Well, some of us are." Renshu conceded, and the Water Tribesman narrowed his eyes.

"That's why Azula and I are going to smash the Southern Raiders' armada into pieces and use the scraps to build our tribe factories and all the weapons we could need to defend ourselves... without any stupid bending." he proclaimed his intentions, and even if the Captain didn't agree with him, he did seem a little impressed by his resolve.

"You're not fooling around." he mumbled, "I guess you two are more alike than I first thought."

The Water Tribesman smirked for a moment, knowing that was about as close as he would get to a compliment from Renshu; he clearly thought highly of Azula after his long service to her, and comparing Sokka to her indicated his approval.

"Thanks." he smiled at the Captain, before eyeing ahead toward the gates of the compound, which were fast approaching; his mind drew back toward the reason he was going there, and he grimaced, knowing that things obviously weren't going to be all calm and optimistic at their meeting.

Ozai was coming from them, and even if they could garner allies from Zuko's supporters, that didn't mean that they would be able to find a certain victory. From what Sokka could gather, Zuko actually had more support in the homeland, and it was in the colonies that Ozai's supporters were able to garner the most support and control; that wasn't good for them, given that it meant it would be easier for Ozai's forces to beat them than it would be Zuko's loyalists, but it did mean that if their plan to take the colonies was successful, then it would weaken Ozai's position greatly.

He wondered what Iroh, given his role as Zuko's right-hand man, would be doing at that moment; he wasn't counted amongst the dead in the declaration proclaiming the shift in power, so he assumed that he was out of the Fire Nation Capital at the time, and would most likely be taking the lead of Zuko's loyalists. Soon, they'd need to find some way to cooperate with Iroh if they wanted a real chance of beating Ozai, and he was sure that the Order of the White Lotus, no matter how much they opposed Azula in the past, would probably be able to assist them in that matter.

When they walked up to the gates, the guards stationed there immediately opened them for them, and the pair stepped through, before Renshu took the lead, pacing into the compound with haste; Sokka wasn't far behind, and glanced around the courtyard, noting that nothing was set up at the moment, indicating that Azula wasn't having the meeting outdoors, but presumably in the chamber where they'd usually eat their meals and talk with her highest ranking subordinates. He followed the Captain inside, and strode up alongside him as they made their way down the hallway, heading straight for the staircase.

"What's her mood like?" he decided to ask, wanting to be prepared if his girlfriend was agitated or tense.

"The usual." he gave a rather unhelpful answer.

"What, pretending to be suave and tough... come on, you can tell me something a little better than that."

"I'm not in the business of analysing the Princess's every behaviour." he retorted, sounding a little offended by Sokka's assumptions.

As they reached the staircase, the Water Tribesman raised a hand to the Captain's chest, stopping him from climbing them, "I'm being serious."

"Probably nervous. If not a little suspect." he gave his thoughts, "I don't imagine she's going to trust this representative, or the Governor of Yi Province for that matter. Their forces have been actively hostile toward our own before the events in the capital."

"Oh, were they the guys that caused chaos in that village you were staying in?"

"Yes." Renshu confirmed, his voice giving off more emotion than he might have liked; he actually respected the people of Hungu after all the time they had spent there, so it made sense that he was distrustful of those who might be inconsiderate of their safety and livelihoods, "I wish we had stayed a little longer... if only to stop that from happening."

"Well, maybe I would have had the chance to persuade her highness to let me come, or to just arrest Admiral Sideburns before he didn't anything stupid." he gave his own thoughts; he still wished things had gone differently after they found the guards- if Azula had just let him come along, he was sure that he could have helped her, and made sure the Admiral didn't play her with his smooth words and confidence.

"I don't think that will happen again." the Captain spoke up, his tone foreboding and suggestive of his own desire to prevent them from ending up in avoidable dangerous situations, "The Princess will not stop until all threats are dealt with, so we will not rest either."

"I know you take your job seriously, Captain." he assured him, "I remember Ba Sing Se."

"So do I." he nodded, "We aren't going to get upstaged by those sneaky earthbenders again."

"No, we are not." he agreed, smirking in thought of what they'd be doing to finally reunite the Earth Kingdom; the Dai Li were going to face the consequences of their arrogance, and find out what a real nation was.

Their country had been disunited and lacking a common ideal for a long time, but he imagined that the peasants, rebels and even nobles could agree that groups like the Dai Li had to go, and that only together, understanding of the threats that face their nation, could they come out victorious. Aang might be the one who would ultimately help inspire their future victory, but he was not the one that would attain it; victory could only come from cooperation, and there was a lot of Earth Kingdom people to inspire to their cause, and presumably, not much time to stop Ozai before he manically tried to vanquish all opposition, whether within or outside his nation. Sokka's attention was drawn to the doors of the meeting room as they reached the top of the staircase; two of Renshu's comrades were standing outside, and they nodded upon seeing the pair arrive.

"Sir, they're waiting." one of them addressed their superior, Sokka recognising his voice as being Shen; he and the other guard pulled the doors open, and let them inside.

On the table sat a soldier, who from his attire, seemed to be an officer, and beside him were his own guards, who were wearing the usual attire of firebending soldiers; on the other side of the table sat Ty Lee and Azula, whose gazes immediately were drawn toward him. Their expressions told him they were both concerned, though clearly, they wanted to seem calm and focused, no matter the circumstances, especially when they were dealing with people that weren't Azula's subordinates.

"Ah, this must be the Water Tribesman." the officer acknowledged him, and Sokka strode past him to sit down beside Azula, who eyed him only for a moment, before she cleared her throat.

"Now, Captain Xin, you may explain the details of your message, and the circumstances of your province." she addressed the messenger, who nodded, before he gestured to a piece of paper that sat in front of her.

"As you can read before you, my superior, Governor Boei, desires peace between his soldiers and yours, as he understands the danger that the usurper Fire Lord's forces pose to both of you." he explained, and she nodded.

"And?" she asked, obviously wanting him to give more details.

"We need your support militarily, as I already explained. We lack the manpower and resources to defend against the invading forces, and the Governor fears that they will hunt us down and force us to join them, or... kill us."

"I imagine my father would treat you all so absolutely." she agreed with the story he was spinning for them; Sokka wanted to think the best of the plea for help, but he couldn't help but feel a little suspicious- they would want Azula's help, but to what ends, he did not know.

"The army protecting our province was defeated in battle... and sorely." the messenger added, "I can't stress how much danger the rest of us are in. The colonists have formed militias to protect their settlements, but we doubt that will be enough. You have a fleet of ships under your command, not to mention all the soldiers at this base. You are the only one who can protect those citizens, and I implore you to do so."

"My ships won't do Yi Province much, Captain Xin." she warned him, "Your province is inland, poor and isolated. There's not many colonists there, so I doubt that your militias are very large. A whole army, well-supplied and morale high from a recent victory is the worst thing anyone can try and face." she explained the situation they faced, "I know that there are rebels in your territory that will be willing to defend their own bases and villages, but... your towns, perhaps not as much." she gave her observations, "I recommend you tell those colonists to stand down. That will only make them targets for the invading force."

"If they stand down, there's only the garrison forces." he admitted, "We won't stand a chance."

"I know." she confirmed, before narrowing her eyes, "Defending a few towns from a large invading force is more effort than it is worth... but I do not disregard the importance of what is being offered here."

"So, will you protect our province?"

"No. I will not protect Yi Province. I will give your garrisons the means to withdraw from the towns, and move into the wilderness surrounding the settled areas. Those lie between my base and the forces who are intending to defeat me. If we place men there strategically, where the enemy will be strained for supply, and believe, due to a lack of soldiers protecting the province, that it would be unoccupied. That is where we can strike; I have Earth Kingdom allies that will be vital in defeating our mutual enemy, and when they are routed, we can sweep in and ensure the safety of your province." she explained her plan, before turning her eyes toward Sokka, "What do you think of that?"

"Using the terrain to our advantage, where the earthbenders will be strongest... yeah, I think that's a pretty sound plan. Those colonial towns, even if they could be defended, the lives of everyone living there is going to be in danger if a battle goes on."

"Yu Dao." the Renshu spoke up, reminding them all of what happened there.

"We've heard what happened there." Xin admitted, "I understand why you would feel cautious about fighting over settlements."

"I have no problem fighting over settlements." Azula assured him, "I intend to take the colonies that are loyal to my father through brute force, not kind words." she stressed, "But defending a settlement where we might be outnumbered, which could lead to a long, drawn-out siege, would not be productive for any of us. I have bigger goals than just stopping a single army from reaching my base."

"What is your plan, Princess?" the messenger dared to ask, and Sokka preemptively cringed, knowing that response he would receive; the Princess was silent for a few moments, before she hammered her clenched fist down into the table.

"Do you take me for a fool?" she asked him, her seething rage nearly boiling over into a shout, though she was tempering her emotions, obviously trying to keep up her visage of cool, serious authority, "I am not here to play games. You say you want my help, and though I am willing to provide assistance to your superior, I am not playing by anyone else's rules. I decide how I will help, and I will not tell you anything unless it is absolutely necessary." she stressed the point quite clearly, and Xin nodded nervously.

"Of course, your highness. I would never think so lowly of you."

She narrowed her eyes at that specific comment, "Was that statement concerning me specifically, or all your superiors."

"Just because you have not been on the side of the Fire Lord does not mean that you are not a worthy opponent." he explained his thoughts, which sounded far more personal than anything he had stated thus far.

"Oh." she gasped, crossing her arms as she turned her eyes to Ty Lee, "So I'm not as defamed as I first thought."

"No, you're not." she assured her, "Just because Zuko wanted you arrested didn't mean everyone thought you were evil or something." she added, though she spoke quietly enough that the messenger mightn't actually hear her.

"People can think for themselves." the Water Tribesman gave his own thoughts, before rising up from his seat, catching everyone's attention, "So, I'd like to hear your thoughts, Captain." he addressed the messenger, who looked at his guards for a few moments as Sokka began to approach him.

Placing a hand down on the table beside him, he eyed the man before him, "Where are you from?"

"The island of Yamiwa, in the Outer Islands." he gave a rather simple answer, "What does that have to do with anything?"

"Well, you have a home. You probably have a family there too, and it's going to be hard to go back home anytime soon, given what Ozai's been doing."

"Uh... yes." he nodded, before glancing back toward the Princess, "I'm... uh, confused, your highness. What is this?"

"A test." she bluffed; her words were obviously a farce, given that Sokka had not explained what he was doing to anyone.

"And what did you think of Ozai, when he was the Fire Lord?" he asked him, the Captain visibly unnerved by his questioning.

"What am I meant to say?"

"The truth." he retorted, "What else?"

Xin narrowed his eyes and glanced down toward his hands, which were on the table, "I don't... I don't really know. There really wasn't much I knew about the Fire Lord... other than the obvious things. He led our forces to finally conquer Ba Sing Se, and vanquished the Earth Kingdom." he explained the kinds of things that Sokka expected; it didn't seem like many people had much knowledge about the Fire Lord.

"And what about her?" he gestured back toward his girlfriend.

"She was Crown Princess. The most powerful firebender of her age. Trusted by her father to act in his stead; that was why I guess she went on that mission to Ba Sing Se."

"That's about right." Sokka confirmed, before narrowing his eyes at him, "And what did you think of her brother, the Fire Lord?"

"He was brave." he simply acknowledged Zuko's actions for what they were, "He did something I would say most would refuse to, and he wanted to lead our nation out of this war. That in and of itself was commendable. I didn't really know that much about him either, but the Governor was loyal to him. That's why we're here, after all."

"And why is the Governor loyal, might I ask?" Sokka further intrigued himself, knowing that getting a little detail on the man's loyalties would help before they considered making a deal with him.

"He's a veteran from the siege." he explained, before glancing up toward Sokka, "You know, the Six Hundred Day Siege."

"My Uncle." Azula clarified, "He's loyal to my uncle, not Zuko." she explained what the Captain seemed to be unwilling to address directly.

"I mean... yes, he is." Xin nodded, confirming her suspicions, "The General is the greatest military commander alive, and he was Crown Prince for his whole life. We all know of him, and his deeds."

"And do you know how much I mistrust him?" Azula spoke up, and he tensed up, "He is the reason we are all in this situation."

"I..." he mumbled, seeming unsure what to say; Sokka decided to shift the topic slightly, and get an answer that would help assure the Princess of the messenger's veracity.

"And what do you think about what happened in the capital?"

"That it was wrong beyond doubt. Regicide is the highest crime in our nation." he stressed, "and I don't know what the law is about killing one's own child, but I can't imagine it is treated lightly either. I can't... I can't imagine the kind of person it would take to do that."

"You don't need to imagine." the Water Tribesman assured him, "That's the man who seeks to destroy us. Have you considered defection?"

His eyes widened, and his guards too seemed a little taken aback by that question; Azula, however, seemed simply amused by Sokka's questions, though she only let out a small smile.

"I wouldn't- I cannot abandon my post." he stressed, "I swore to serve my nation, and I will."

"You can serve your nation under him. What stops you from doing that?"

"The fact he is a usurper, and that this war is his fault." he explained, "I would not have to be here, and my comrades would not be fearing for their lives if this conflict had never begun."

"Usurpation is a matter of perspective." Azula added her own opinion, "From my brother's perspective, I would have been a usurper if I had taken the throne, even though I was Crown Princess before he fought my father, but to all the men who stand in this base, I am their Fire Lord, and have been ever since my father was supposedly killed."

"Well, you are our Fire Lord." Xin admitted, "But the technicalities do not change the situation on the ground, your highness."

"And do you expect my uncle to claim the throne, Captain?" she asked him, and the Water Tribesman narrowed his eyes at the messenger, who seemed to seriously consider her question; that wasn't the best thing for him to do, given they were relying on Iroh not staking his own claim so that Zuko's forces would have to fall in line and support her.

"I..." he mumbled, "I don't know what he would want." he admitted, "He didn't claim the throne after Ba Sing Se, so I doubt he'd do it now."

"Oh, well, he's going to want to avenge my brother." she admitted, and Xin raised a brow.

"He can go and kill the usurper and let you be Fire Lord. Those two things aren't mutually exclusive, I imagine." he gave his own opinion on what might unfold, and Azula raised her chin up.

"Well, given his knowledge about lightning redirection, he is the only person I could trust to do it." she admitted her own opinion, "You seem to be quite forward in your opinions, Captain."

"I merely want things to progress. I cannot stand for us to do nothing; that's why I volunteered for this mission." he explained, and Sokka pat him on the shoulder.

"Well, I guess you've got guts." he acknowledged, before turning to face his girlfriend, "I think we can trust him."

"Me too." Ty Lee admitted, "This guy doesn't seem like he's lying."

"I don't think so either." Renshu gave his own opinion, "Not that that matters." he added, obviously not wanting to draw attention to himself or his own opinions.

"Well, I concur with the judgement." the Princess spoke up, "Captain Xin, we will cooperate with you and your Governor, but I will be taking charge of this operation. I expect the full support and coordination of the Governor's forces. I will protect you all, as my subjects, but I will not stand for unruly behaviour or stupidity. Facing my father's men head on will only get you killed... or worse."

"What's worse than dying?"

"Dying without achieving anything." Azula warned him, her tone dark and foreboding, before she rose to her feet, her eyes narrowed at the messenger with a cold edge, "I swore that I wouldn't have that fate, and I will not have it befall anyone who seeks to see the same outcome I do."

"You will be the Fire Lord, your highness... it's only a matter of time." he assured her, "The people will see your father's treachery for what it is."

"No, I don't think they will." Azula admitted, "They have been indoctrinated their entire lives to think that our war was righteous, and my brother has sought to end it, and bring peace to these lands." she explained the situation they faced, "There is only one way I will become Fire Lord, and that is through action. I have the technical capabilities and the plans to achieve my victory, all I need is the support of men who are willing to fight for me, and an Earth Kingdom that sees me as an ally and not their enemy."

"How will you achieve that, your highness?"

"There is a whole nation who have spent the past hundred years fighting us while their supposed rulers hid behind a wall, controlled by a clique of greedy men who blinded a whole city from the very existence of the war. They have been blinded and restrained, and I am simply going to break those restraints."

"By destroying them?" Xin assumed, and the Princess smirked.

"Oh, that's the brilliance of it all. I don't need to kill anyone. The Avatar will speak, and they will hear the truth. And the people, they will decide what to do with their supposed 'protectors'."

"We aren't in the business of conquering." Sokka spoke up, knowing that to be the truth of the matter; Azula simply wanted to fix things, and make the world better than it had been before, with all its flaws, lies and corruption, "We are going to change things, properly."

"And if they try to stop us... well, we have the Avatar." Ty Lee added, making Azula smirk.

"Oh, Father would be fuming if he knew what I was going to do." she admitted, "That's half the fun."

"What'll be more fun is seeing a lightning bolt go through his chest." Sokka added his own opinion, which clearly unnerved Ty Lee, though she didn't seem to disapprove.

"Just have patience, Sokka. He'll learn where his lies and arrogance will take him soon enough."

"Not back to prison, that's sure." the acrobat noted, sounding pleased by what was coming his way, and Azula picked up the document in front of her.

"This is the first step of many, Captain Xin. Are you sure you want to let me have this chance?" she asked him, as if he might have any doubts; Sokka could see the look in his eyes- there was nothing but determination in them, and that told him his loyalties well enough.

"There is no alternative. You are our only hope." he admitted, sounding genuinely afraid as he said it.

"And those are the words I have waited all my life to hear" she told him with a wistful smirk, before she pulled up the seal she had sitting on the table, stamping it down onto the document she had been given, "Who am I?" she asked Xin, who cleared his throat, before gesturing to his guards; they all rose up from their seats, and knelt down on the ground, allowing her to watch them as they dropped their heads down in deference.

"Our Fire Lord."

When she finally saw it, Katara couldn't help but smile; dozens of Water Tribe ships, beached on a recluse, isolated bit of coastline in the Earth Kingdom. She had been waiting for two whole days to see her father and the other warriors, and she was just glad that they had finally arrived. She was leaning over the edge of Appa's saddle, looking down at the ships as they flew closer and closer, eventually crossing over them as Aang began to pull on the reins, causing Appa to turn into a downward spiral.

"We're there, right?" she heard Toph ask out behind her, and she turned to notice that the Earth Kingdom girl was holding onto the saddle tightly, clearly not used to flying yet; since it was the one place she was definitely blind due to a lack of earth, she understandably felt uncomfortable.

"You'll get some dirt on your toes in a minute!" Aang grinned at her, the earthbender letting out a sigh as she laid back slightly onto the saddle.

"Great." she simply responded, not sounding too enthusiastic as she turned her face in toward the saddle, away from them.

The Water Tribe girl turned her eyes back down beneath them, eyeing the ships, and the campsite that lined the beach; she could only wonder what her father had been doing all those months while she and the others were away, travelling all the way to the North Pole. She knew that the Southern Raiders might have been harassing them, though their distractions, which had led them all the way to Kyoshi Island and beyond, probably meant that they were given a little reprieve from their attacks. She couldn't stand the thought of innocent children being captured by those monsters, and the very idea of it disgusted her. It reminded her why peace was necessary, and why Azula's promise was so important, as once she fulfilled it, her tribe would finally be safe.

As Appa circled down toward the ground, she could see men coming out of the tents, watching as they approached; she couldn't see her father amongst them yet, but she knew he was there. He was the leader of their village, and she knew he was respected amongst the other chiefs to be chosen as their war-leader. That was a great honour that gave her pride in her father, knowing that he had fought for their tribe, and against the tyranny of the Earth Kingdom, leading their tribe to victories, even if they were only small. They would have given the people of the Earth Kingdom a smidge of hope, and now, Aang had returned, and gave them sight of an even brighter future. More than anything, she hoped that she and her tribe could play some part in that, knowing that after all the struggles they had been through, they ought to do something good for the world, and not just for themselves.

She glanced over toward the saddle-bag, remembering the two things she had with her; a letter from King Bumi to her father, in response to his own letter to the King, and the sword that Jet and the Freedom Fighters wanted them to give to Bato. She found that, under that shell of suspicion, spite and anger, the Freedom Fighter wasn't actually that bad, which relieved her; she had really thought from Sokka's story and their duel after the battle that he was just a cold-hearted, foolish person, but even he had kindness and love in his heart. Though Jet wasn't like the people of the Fire Nation, given the source of his grievances, his suspicions were the same that those people held toward the other nations, and she was sure that if Azula wanted to make peace between her people and the world, they would all need to think the best of each other.

As Appa's feet touched down on the ground, the sky-bison let out a groan, and Toph immediately sprung up from the saddle, "Finally!" she exclaimed, jumping off of the saddle to land onto the sandy beach, which seemed to surprise the Water Tribe warriors who were watching them all; she turned around, a grimace on her face, "This is sand." she stated the obvious, though for some reason she seemed really annoyed by the fact.

"What's wrong with sand, Toph?" Katara asked her, and she pointed down toward the ground.

"I can't sense well through it." she explained, "And I have never tried to bend it before." she admitted, before tensing her stance; suddenly, the sand beneath her feet solidified, forming a slab of stone, though it was clearly made from compacted sand, "Ah, that's better." she noted with a smile, and the Water Tribe girl glanced up to see everyone looking her way.

One of the warriors stepped forward, and she recognised him as Gilak, one of her father's subordinates, "Hello, Katara." he addressed her, "It's good to see that you and the Avatar have come back to us in one piece." he admitted, before glancing past her, "Where's your brother... and the ash-maker?"

"Uh, not here." she clarified, "They're doing... politics." she gave the best answer she could, before eyeing around, "Where's my father?"

"He's just in his tent. We can show you where."

She heard a whistle behind her, and she saw that Aang was holding the scroll Bumi had given her, and she raised her hand up; he threw it to her, and upon catching it, she stepped closer toward Gilak, "Show us the way." she requested, and the warrior nodded, before turning around and beginning to pace through the campsite.

Aang and Toph followed after her as she began pacing after the warrior, and she eyed the onlookers, recognising many of their faces; she didn't want to say hello to everyone yet, as she was set on doing one thing- reaching her father. She noted a larger tent ahead of them, and when he reached it, Gilak parted the canvas to allow her and her friends to step inside. She immediately recognised her father, sitting at the back of the tent, speaking with a few of his fellow warriors; their gazes turned around, and her father's face shifted to one of excitement.

"Katara." he addressed her with a bright smile, rising up to his feet, "It's- I'm glad to see you." he admitted, and she paced up to him; without any hesitation, she hugged her father tightly, having missed him for so long.

She wished that they didn't have to separate, but she knew that going with Aang was the best choice for her to make; Azula and Sokka would have needed the help, and she was glad to have made friends with the Avatar, and seen the world. Hakoda's hand rose up her head, holding her close to his chest, and he scratched her scalp playfully.

"You haven't hugged me like this in a while, Katara."

"Well, I haven't seen you." she reminded him, before she raised her right hand up, revealing the scroll, "Bumi sent me."

"Oh." his eyes widened, "So he got my message." he deduced, taking the scroll into his hands.

"Yes, he did. You're going to be working together now." she acknowledged, before glancing back toward her friends, realising she ought to introduce Toph, "Oh, I should introduce you to Aang's earthbending master, Toph." she gestured to the Earth Kingdom girl.

"Uh, it's nice to meet you." he acknowledged, before glancing back at his daughter, "She's a little young." he admitted, and Katara nodded, before stepping a little bit closer.

"She's a good earthbender, trust me." she stressed, before eyeing the scroll as he unfurled it; her father's eyes scanned down the text, and his expression shifted to one of interest.

"Well..." he mumbled, his eyes darting to meet his daughter's, "Did he tell you what he wrote?"

"No." she shook her head, and he let out a little chuckle.

"Well, I've got good news. We'll be taking some fighters up north to assist Azula in her plans to fight the Dai Li and secure Ba Sing Se for the Earth Kingdom." he explained what Bumi had intended, and he smiled, "So, we'll be fighting with you all." he noted, Katara glancing back to Aang and Toph, the former's expression brightening on the news.

"That's good to hear, Chief Hakoda." the young Avatar addressed him, "I'm sure that Bumi's fighters will be pretty helpful in taking those guys down... and yours too."

"I never expected we'd be going to fight the earthbenders who took their city back from the Fire Nation." he admitted, "But I've heard the stories. They're not a kind bunch of people... some of the things they've done, I doubt the Fire Nation would even try."

"Like brainwashing people?" Katara asked, recalling what her brother had said they had done to some of the Fire Nation officials there, to try and use them against Azula and her investigation.

"Yeah, things like that." her father agreed with the proposition, "I want the best for this world, and though I'm not expert on Earth Kingdom politics, I think I'm right to assume the people of this country don't like them."

"Not many people like them." Toph spoke up, "I mean, they supposedly lied about the very existence of the war to the Earth King and the people there until the Fire Nation broke through their walls and took the palace."

"That sounds like it'd be pretty hard to do." Katara admitted, "What about all the refugees?"

"I think Jet told me that the officials spoke about 'economic migrants'." she clarified, making Katara wince; that was a terrible way of putting the situation those refugees had found themselves in, forced from their homes by the war, and without any place to stay.

"Lies don't help anybody." Aang spoke up, poignant in his tone, before turning to face Hakoda, "So, uh, are you going to sail to Azula's base?"

"Well, we don't know exactly where that is, actually." Hakoda admitted, "Somewhere in the northern Earth Kingdom, I presume."

"I think we could point it out if you showed us a map of the area, Dad." Katara explained, and he nodded, glancing around at his comrades.

"Could somebody get the map of the northwestern Earth Kingdom out?" he asked his fellow warriors, and one of them paced over to a chest they had sitting by the corner of the tent; the warrior opened it up, before pulling out a rather large scroll.

He strode back over to the Chief, handing him the map, which he unfurled and laid down on the ground for them all to see. Katara was impressed by both its size and detail, reminding her of the map that Azula had bought of the colonies, though that one had a little less detail when it came to the Earth Kingdom settlements. She guessed that the map was a little outdated, as there were city and town names she didn't recognise in areas she was sure they had travelled through a few months prior.

She knelt over, and eyed the northern coastline, trying to figure out exactly where the base would be; she knew that the town they had visited just after leaving Azula's base was called Shuangjiliu, having learnt that name when she had looked at the map when travelling back south, wanting to know what towns were colonies and which were free from Fire Nation rule- the places they could stop at safely. She noted the location of Shuangjiliu, and traced her finger up toward the Northern Sea, and figured that Azula's base was on the coast, due northeast of the town. She tapped on the location, and glanced back up to her father.

"That's where it is, Dad." she explained, "I'm certain."

"Hmph." he nodded, "So we could travel to the West Lake and then up to the Northern Sea. That won't take all too long." he observed, and she nodded.

"Yeah, you could go that way." she agreed, "I'm pretty sure Azula's fleet knows that you're allies, so they might be able to escort your ships there once you meet them."

Hakoda nodded, and furrowed a brow, "I guess I'll be seeing Sokka again soon enough." he admitted, before gesturing to the cushions behind them, "Sit with me. I want to know what's happened since you left the village." he requested, and she nodded, before glancing back to Aang.

"Aang, could you go get the sword?" she asked, and his expression brightened.

"Oh, I almost forgot about that." he admitted, before nodding, pacing on out of the tent, "Yep, I'll be just a second!"

"The sword?" he furrowed a brow, the Water Tribe girl simply smiling back at her father.

"I'll explain it later."

Toph looked at Katara and her father for a moment, and scrunched up her lips, "Uh... so do I just sit here, or can I go do some practice?"

"Are you hungry?" the Chief asked her, and she stepped closer.

"Uh... I don't really know what Water Tribe food is like." she conceded, before glancing around, "What do you have?"

"I think seaweed noodles might be palatable for her." he suggested to his daughter, who nodded in agreement, "How about seaweed noodles?"

"Sounds edible." she gave her opinion, before Hakoda raised his hand up, getting the attention of his fellow warriors.

"Excuse me, Taktuq." he called on one of the warriors who was sitting in the tent.

"Yes, Chief?"

"Did you have any of the leftover noodles?"

"Yeah, they're back in the cooking tent." he explained, before furrowing a brow, "Did you want me to get Katara and her friends some?"

"That'd be good, thank you." he nodded with a smile, the warrior striding on out of the tent.

"Must be nice to be able to boss all these people around." Toph commented on what he had just done, and the Chief held back a laugh.

"Well, we Water Tribe people appreciate hospitality. I wouldn't want you or Aang to feel unwelcome here."

"My Dad's a nice guy." Katara piped up, making him snicker, patting her on the shoulder before he furrowed brow.

"So, what have you been doing?"

"A lot of flying, for the most part. It took us ages to get to the North Pole, and to get all the way back here." she admitted the most basic fact of their journey, "I guess... I guess me and Azula got along."

"That's good to hear." Hakoda smiled at her, "I knew you two would become friends eventually."

"And I learned waterbending from a master." she added, quite proud of the achievement, "I'm pretty good at it now." she boasted, and her father's eyes widening.

"Oh, you did?" he asked, sounding surprised by the fact, "So Aang persuaded the northerners?"

"Uh... not really." she admitted, knowing that would be an inaccurate description of the turn of events.

"What about his hair?" he asked a rather random question, which made her smile, "I didn't expect to ever see an Air Nomad with that much scruff on their scalp."

"He grew it so he could better hide when we went to the Fire Nation colonies." she clarified, before narrowing her eyes, remembering his previous question, "So you want to hear about the North Pole?" she asked, and her father nodded.

"Oh, this story's interesting." Toph admitted, having already been told what happened with Pakku when they first arrived back in New Omashu; she was very interested hearing about how Sokka had beat him twice, and about all the machinations he had made to try and help their tribe.

"What happened?" he asked, "I hope you didn't have to fight the masters yourself." he admitted, and she shook her head.

"No, Sokka did that for me." she conceded, "He's a good brother when it counts."

"He can fight waterbending masters?" he asked, sounding genuinely surprised, "I mean, I knew his chi-blocking was powerful, but that's really a surprise."

"He had a little help from me and Aang." she noted, before narrowing her eyes, "That wasn't the real reason I was able to learn, though."

"Oh." her father's expression shifted, "Why? Did Azula have to threaten them?"

"No, it wasn't that bad." she conceded, "My master, he was Gran-Gran's fiance... who she ran away from." he explained, and her father's expression shifted to one of shock, his eyes turning away.

"That's... that's unfortunate to hear." he admitted, before raising his chin up, "So, that's why he taught you? Out of guilt?"

"Yes." she conceded, frustrated by the fact herself; Sokka, however, had been furious when he figured that was why he taught her, given how defensive he was about her own abilities, despite what the Northern Water Tribe thought of women.

"I assume your brother wasn't happy about that." he guessed, "I'm not." he stressed, shaking his head in frustration, "I wish my mother had lived a better life. She didn't deserve what happened to her."

"None of our tribe did, Dad." she agreed with him, "But... at least we have a chance now, to take back what is rightfully ours."

"The Southern Raiders are going to learn the consequences of their crimes soon enough." Hakoda stressed his intentions, "I will make sure your mother did not... I will make due for what she did for us all."

She struggled to keep a straight face, feeling anguish over what had happened all those years ago; the only reason she wasn't thrown into some Fire Nation prison, far away from her home and family, unable to ever return, was because of her mother's sacrifice.

"We will." she assured him, placing her hand on her father's shoulder, "I can fight now. For all of us."

"Uh... I've got the sword." she heard Aang speak up, and she turned around to see the young Air Nomad with the blade in his hands, and Hakoda looked his way, a little confused.

"Why did he get a sword?" he asked, "Don't tell me you learned how to fight with one of those." he added, humoured by the idea.

"No, Dad." she stressed, "It's for Bato."

"Wait, Bato?" he looked at them all with confusion, "Why is Bato getting a sword?"

"The Freedom Fighters wanted him to have it." Aang clarified, "He saved them a while ago... and now, they wanted to give him this gift."

"Uh, I guess I better go get him." he admitted, before rising to his feet, "Just wait here for a moment. Your lunch will be here in a second."

"Lunch?" the young Avatar grinned, seeming excited by the fact, "Oh, I'm really hungry. Thanks, Chief Hakoda."

"You don't need to call me that." he assured him, patting him on the shoulder, "It's just Hakoda." he clarified, before pacing on out of the tent; Aang sat down beside Toph, eyeing Katara with a slightly concerned face.

"You... uh, you looked like you were having a moment."

"Their heartbeats were going a little erratic." Toph gave her own opinion, "Were you about to start crying in front of me?" she asked Katara, who looked away.

"I wasn't gonna..." she mumbled, trying to defend herself, even though she knew it was no use when the girl could tell if she was lying.

"There's nothing wrong with letting your emotions out." Aang spoke up, turning his head slightly, "Toph." he emphasised that he was speaking to her, "Katara can cry if she wants to. We've all been through things... and sometimes you just have to, uh, face it."

"That doesn't sound very airbender of you." she noted, and he scratched the back of his scalp.

"That's because it's not my advice. Azula told me that."

"Now, that's very earthbender of her." she observed, before furrowing a brow, "Or maybe she's just a realist. That's the kind of girl I can get along with."

"Uh, Katara." she heard somebody address her, and all of them turned their heads around, and she realised that Taktuq had returned with three bowls of seaweed noodles, "I've got the noodles."

"Thank you, Taktuq." she smiled at the warrior, who placed the bowls down in front of them, allowing Katara to pick up her own, and took the chopsticks that came with to begin eating at once.

Upon tasting the salty, slippery noodles, she couldn't help but smile, reminded of when her Gran-Gran would make them for them all after a hard day's work; being reminded of her home was something that improved her mood, after how sad she had felt thinking about her mother.

There were good memories at the South Pole just as much as there were bad ones, given she'd lived there her whole life; she was looking forward to returning home once they had finally dealt with Ozai and the Southern Raiders, and she could step back onto the ice knowing she'd done her mother proud. She just hoped that Sokka felt the same, and wouldn't end up too consumed by concerns about his girlfriend, which were well-reasoned, given the circumstances they were in. She was going to be the Fire Lord now, if Zuko really was dead; there was nothing to say that he wasn't, and though she didn't know him, she wished that things could have gone differently. Closure was something she needed, and perhaps she could get it with her uncle instead, at the very least.

"Well, when it comes to anything but her family, she's... quite open minded." she conceded, remembering Toph's compliment of the Princess's mindset.

"Anything but her family?" she furrowed a brow, "So, she really does hate Iroh? Even though he's a nice guy?"

"I think that was the problem." Katara conceded, "She's always been taught to be tough and merciless, so anybody like her uncle is... well, not good enough."

"Everything I hear about this Ozai guy makes him seem more and more of a terrible parent." she conceded, grimacing slightly, "And now we're going to have to fight him."

"Yeah, well, at least he's a bad guy." Aang conceded, "I wouldn't want to have to fight an actually half-decent Fire Lord." he admitted, "What if Iroh had been Fire Lord instead of him? How could I fight a guy like that?"

"Ask the soldiers who defended Ba Sing Se for over a year and a half against his siege." the earthbender suggested, and the young Avatar grimaced.

"Even the good people... aren't even that good." he mumbled, and Katara grasped his shoulder, not wanting him to feel so pessimistic.

"No, that's wrong. People can become good... but they have to choose to do it. Do you think Ozai will choose peace over destroying his enemies?"

"N-no." he shook his head, glancing away, "Is it... is it really so bad to let her fight him?"

"I think we should stick to the old man's advice." Toph spoke up, "Azula shouldn't have to kill her own father... that's just- I don't even know what that is."

"Patricide?" Katara asked her, sure that was the word she was looking for; she shook her head, her uneasy grimace telling of her feelings on the matter.

"No, it's even worse than that. It's facing the one person you looked up to, after you realised that they were a complete monster." she explained, "Even I'd be afraid to do that."

"Who do you look up to, Toph?" the young Avatar decided to ask her, obviously guessing that she had some kind of comparable experience or relationship.

"The badgermoles." she proclaimed, with a sense of pride in her voice, "They're the reason I can do any of this." she explained with a smile on her lips.

"So... uh, not any people?" Aang asked, as confused as Katara was by her shift in tone.

"No. People are stupid and frivolous." she retorted, "I mean... most people." she corrected herself.

"I mean, what about Bumi?" Katara suggested, thinking that the king, being such a powerful bender and wise man, would inspire her to greater heights with her bending.

"I guess I like the King." she conceded, "But he's not my idol or anything. He's just a friend."

"Heh, I guess I could say that too." Aang conceded, a smile on his face as he presumably thought back to his memories with his friend, back before the war.

"So, you really don't look up to anybody?" the Water Tribe girl asked her, and she shook her head.

"Not yet, at least. I haven't seen anybody who could really teach me anything new." she conceded, "But even I don't know everything there is to know, maybe even with earthbending."

"I guess if you're open to learning more stuff, you'll-" Katara began offering a bit of advice, before turning her eyes up, realising that Bato and her father had arrived at the tent, the former seeming surprised to see them, "Oh, they're back."

As they approached, Bato smiled at the group with a cheerful expression, though when Toph turned around, his eyes widened, "Toph? What are you doing here?"

"I'm Aang's master now." she explained, and he raised his chin up.

"Well, I shouldn't be surprised." he conceded, before stepping closer, "Are you all well?"

"Um, yeah, I guess." Aang spoke up, before reaching down to the sword, "This is for you."

The Water Tribe warrior looked at the blade with interest, and took it from Aang's hands as he examined its sheath, "Huh, where's this from?"

"Jet and the Freedom Fighters." Katara explained, "Supposedly you used it to save them a few months ago, so Jet had it fixed up so they could give it to you as a gift."

"Ah, those kids." he made a small smile, "Are they going alright?"

"Uh, well, they're okay, I guess." the Water Tribe girl conceded, her gaze turning to Toph, "You've been with them longer than we have."

"I have." she conceded, "Yeah, they're alright. Jet had a fit over Azula a few months ago, so Sokka beat him up... but he got better after that. He's learned how to not be a dick, I'd say."

Hakoda snickered, before glancing at Bato, "This Jet was the one who helped Sokka out in Ba Sing Se, right?"

"He was." he confirmed, "I didn't expect he'd keep this sword." he noted, unsheathing the blade, allowing him to examine the characters that were marked on it, "Ah..." he mumbled, a smile forming on his lips, "They're too kind."

"What does it say?" Aang asked, and the Water Tribe warrior raised the blade up so they could see.

"Live to fight another day beside your brothers and sisters, instead of dying alone." he read it out, Katara scrunching her lips up.

"That's an interesting proverb." she noted, and Bato let out a laugh before he sheathed the blade.

"Well, thanks. I made it up." he chuckled, "Jet's a stubborn kid, what can I say. A little too melodramatic, if you ask me."

"Uh, yeah, that's a word for it." Toph noted, seeming to think of him in less kind words.

"You said that to him?" Katara asked, and he nodded.

"Yeah, after he got beaten up by a bunch of firebenders. He suggested he could stay back to hold them off and let his friends escape, but I thought otherwise. He's too young to die." he admitted, a little poignant in his tone, "But I guess if he's alright he's learned his lessons well."

"Learned from Sokka's mercy, more like it." the Water Tribe girl argued, "He really had a go at him over something stupid."

"Well, he doesn't like the Fire Nation." Bato conceded, "Not many of us do." he glanced over to his best friend, who nodded.

"I've learnt that some of them are good, and that they can learn." he acknowledged, "Azula proves that."

"Yeah, she does." Aang agreed with him, before picking up some of his seaweed noodles, "These are pretty good noodles, by the way."

"You ought to thank Taktuq. He's the one who made them." Hakoda suggested, gesturing to the warrior who had given them their meals; Aang waved toward him, and grinned at him ear to ear.

"Thanks, Taktuq!" he cheerily addressed him, and the experienced warrior, probably not used to such behaviour, awkwardly waved back at him before turning back to continue talking with his friends.

Both Hakoda and Bato laughed at his reaction, before sitting down with them; the Chief turned to face his daughter, with an intrigued look on his face, "Anyway, you were explaining what you'd been doing on your journey."

"Oh, yeah." she recalled, slurping up the noodles she had in her mouth, before swallowing them, "We picked up Azula's friend Ty Lee along the way too. She's pretty nice, and really cheery. I'm actually surprised they became friends in the first place." she noted, thinking their friendship to be a little bit anomalous.

"I think Azula might have just been more sociable when she was younger... maybe." Aang gave his best guess.

"Before her father's... whatever you want to call it, got to her." Hakoda guessed, shaking his head, "That girl must have had a terrible time in that palace."

"Other than the spa she keeps mentioning." Katara joked, "She really loves the spa."

"Oh, that reminds me." Aang spoke up, "We learned something... interesting about her."

"About Azula?" Hakoda furrowed a brow, "What?"

"That she's a descendant of the last Avatar, Avatar Roku." he explained, the Chief's eyes widening; Bato's expression shifted to one of surprise as well, before he glanced toward his friend.

"And she found Aang, right?" he asked, the Chief nodding.

"That's... I don't think that was a coincidence." he mumbled, "Fate really works in interesting ways." he added, before smiling, "I guess that's why it's even better that she's helping you."

"And also... that makes Zuko Roku's descendant too." Katara noted another consequence of that fact.

"He was hunting me down..." Aang recalled, "Which makes it even weirder."

"Though, I assume it's not an accident she's his descendant." Hakoda noted, "Probably from an arranged marriage." he assumed, and Katara nodded.

"That makes sense." she agreed, before furrowing a brow, "She never really speaks about her mother, or that side of her family."

"Well, if it's an arranged marriage, she might have never met her mother's family." Toph gave a reason for that hole in her story.

"And she doesn't like her mother." Hakoda noted, "I didn't need to talk to her that much to figure that out."

"I'm a little worried about that," Aang conceded, "seeing how bad Ozai is."

"I think that was just him again." the Water Tribe girl argued, "He's got his grimy fingers all over her mind and memories. He's probably the reason she doesn't like people, and treated the villagers so weirdly."

"The only one she seemed to like was Gran-Gran." Katara admitted, before grimacing, remembering how much she had harped on at the Princess for her anti-social behaviours, when she was doing countless chores and always helping her grandmother with things; no matter what she could say about her attitudes, Azula was just as much a part of the village as she was.

"Hmph." Hakoda mumbled, before he made a small smile, "I hope she gets better. She's a good girl, not matter how... arrogant she can be at times."

"Yeah, I guess that's about right." Aang mumbled, before eating some more seaweed noodles; Katara did the same, recalling what they were talking about before they diverged onto Azula's ancestry and character.

"But after we found Ty Lee and learned about that... we went off to find her guards. They were off in some village, near the base you're going to sail to." she explained, before narrowing her eyes, "And she had a... stupid plan."

"Oh." Hakoda's eyes widened, "What kind of stupid are we talking?"

"Just arrogant." she conceded, "She decided she wanted to go find Admiral Zhao... you know, the guy who bombarded Yu Dao, and trick him into travelling to the Northern Water Tribe."

"What, so he could enact that crazy plan about the spirits?" he asked, and she nodded.

"Yeah, it was meant I think as a temptation... like she was luring a fish." she suggested by metaphor, making Bato chuckle.

"Fishing for admirals." he observed what she had been doing, "And I'm guessing she wanted to take all those ships he would be commanding?"

"And the soldiers." she clarified, "All the men who she had on her side back in Ba Sing Se. Sokka wanted to go with her, and she didn't let him."

"Why?" Hakoda asked, "He's the only one she seems to trust."

"Yeah, but she wanted to keep him safe." Aang explained her reasoning, both of the warriors looking at each other with confused expressions.

"What, did she think the Admiral would-" Bato began to express thoughts, before grimacing and cutting himself off, "Oh."

"Love and drama." Toph gave her own comment, "Didn't turn out well for her, though."

"Because Zhao figured her out before they even got to the North Pole. Imprisoned her on his ship while he went and took her new contraption, an airship, all the way to where he knew the spirits were."

"Well..." Hakoda furrowed a brow, "The moon definitely is still around, so he had to have failed."

"Oh, he did. Because Aang and Sokka beat him and his men, and Azula shot down the airship with her lightning before he could reach the spirit pool."

"And then what?" Hakoda asked, the Water Tribe girl narrowing her eyes.

"The crew of his ship were captured, along with some other people that tagged along." she recalled, "The Chief of the North kicked us all out, and we took Appa. We were able to get Azula's guards free, and they travelled by a small boat after us, back to Azula's base of operations... which used to be Zhao's."

"And that's where they are now?" he guessed, and she nodded, "Are they alright?"

"Well, Sokka was in a bad mood over what Azula did." Katara admitted, "But I think they would have made amends by now... and now, Azula's properly the Fire Lord, even if she's not in the capital."

"Because of what her father did." Hakoda recalled, "Supposedly half the Fire Lord's guard killed the other half."

"Shit." Toph gasped, seeming a little intimidated by that fact, "And have you heard what happened to the man himself?"

"Supposedly, he got burnt alive by the defecting guards... but that's just what they're saying." he admitted, "I don't really know much about that other than from the rumours."

Katara furrowed a brow, wondering if her father would want to tell Sokka anything, given that they mightn't see each other for a while; it'd be a while before their ships reached Azula's base, given their small size and all the men they'd be carrying.

"Uh, Dad, did you want us to give any message to Sokka, seeing that we'll be flying back to meet him?" she asked her father, who simply smiled.

"Yeah. That I'm proud of him." he gave a rather simple answer, "And that we miss him."

"Heh, I bet he misses you too, Dad." she smiled back at him, "Sokka's been trying his best to be as chiefly as possible, going off to represent our tribe."

"Ah, he's got big boots to fill." Bato noted, elbowing his best friend, "Soon enough he'll be leading our warriors with you."

"Oh, well, I hope that doesn't distract him from his job at the moment... he's got to help her so she can fulfil her end of the bargain."

"Getting our tribe resources and getting rid of the Southern Raiders." Katara recalled, before narrowing her eyes, "And maybe, she'll give us some directions to find him."

"Him?" Toph furrowed a brow, turning slightly to face Aang, "What is she on about?"

The young Avatar's expression was a little more uneasy, presumably figuring out who they were referring to, "The man who killed her mother." he uttered the truth quietly, perhaps a little unnerved by suggestions of what Hakoda and Katara both wanted to do to him.

"Sokka knows who he is." the Water Tribe girl emphasised, "But I doubt even Azula knows where he lives."

Hakoda's expression was solemn, and for a moment, she could see the built up rage in his eyes; he had waited years to fight and destroy that man, and Sokka's revelation that he had actually retired from the Southern Raiders with honours was enough to make him really angry. He never got angry like that, other than when it came to their mother, and what they had done to her.

"I will see that the debt is paid." he admitted, "Maybe they'll see what they didn't catch, and finally, they'll be terrified of us."

She picked up the water skin she had tied to her belt, and wondered how much training she might have done before she ultimately faced that man once again; she remembered his face, and recalling it made her snarl. She wasn't that little girl anymore, and thanks to a little help from Azula, they'd be able to face him with all the strength they had gained.

"I... no." she stopped herself, remembering that Sokka wanted to see it through as much as she did; chi-blocking was good for one thing, and that was to paralyse, and stop somebody from running away, which she imagined the man would do when he finally realised his mistake.

"We'll all make him remember."

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