"Twinkletoes, are you gonna finish that?"
Aang's head tilted up as he realised that Toph was talking to him, and he realised that she was referring to the breakfast he had in his hands; he narrowed his eyes, thinking that he did want to finish his breakfast without any help from her.
"I am." he stressed, "Why don't you ask for seconds?" he suggested, indicating to the pot that sat off in the distance, in the centre of the tent.
"I don't want to ask them for any more. They're already helping us out by giving us breakfast and all that dried seaweed and meat." she explained her reasoning, and the young Avatar furrowed a brow.
"So, you don't want to be greedy?"
"I'm not greedy." she stressed, "If I can buy food myself, then I'll buy as much as I like." she explained, and he scrunched his lips up, remembering they had very little money on themselves.
"So... you have money?" he asked, and she turned her head slightly, her glazed eyes narrowed in thought.
"What do you think? I'm not going to travel across the Earth Kingdom with empty pockets."
"Oh, good, because we don't have much." he admitted, "I forgot to ask Bumi for more."
"So you're either humble or forgetful." she observed, and he scratched the back of his scalp, feeling a little embarrassed for not asking Bumi when he was sure the King would give him anything they needed for their journey back.
"I-" he mumbled, before glancing back down at his bowl, "I better finish this." he decided, picking up slurping down some of the broth; he thought the soup was fine, though it tasted just a little too salty in his opinion.
"You think Sugar Queen's gonna be sad that we're leaving her family?" she asked, and he narrowed his eyes; it took a few moments for it to click, but he realised that 'Sugar Queen' was her nickname for Katara, and he grimaced slightly, wondering how she'd respond to that.
"Uh, I guess." he answered her question, "She hasn't seen her dad in a while." he conceded, "I would want to stay longer, if I were her." he gave his own opinion, before glancing toward Katara, who was sitting some distance away, chatting with her father and some of the other warriors while they ate their breakfast.
"She seems like she's in a good mood." Toph added, "I can tell from her heartbeat."
"What can't you figure out from that?" he asked, imagining that she could figure out countless things about people's emotions and condition; she chuckled, and raised a finger to her chin, tapping it in thought.
"Whether somebody needs to go to the toilet." she gave an unexpected response, and the young Avatar almost spat out the broth he had just sipped up.
"Go to the-" he gasped, shaking his head, "Why would you need to figure that out?"
"I don't know." she conceded, "It's just hard to distinguish that from stress." she explained, and the Air Nomad boy held back a laugh.
"Well, needing to pee can be stressful." he noted the rationale of her judgement, "Did you ask somebody if they were stressed, and they said they needed to pee?" he asked, and she smirked.
"This one time, we were out scouting, and some Fire Nation soldiers attacked us, so I pulled up some walls to protect us, and we threw some rocks over to scare the ash-makers off. It worked, but the guy beside me had a really strong heartbeat, and I thought he might try and run away. Turns out, he wasn't even scared, he just wanted to pee in peace, but the ambush stopped him."
He snickered at the thought of what had happened, and he shook his head, "Do you have any other good stories like that?"
"A few." she admitted, before narrowing her eyes, "What, did you want me to just yap on all day about stupid things I've seen people do?"
"It can get a little boring up on Appa's saddle, so... uh, I wouldn't mind." he admitted, and she chuckled.
"Oh, okay, Twinkletoes, I won't leave any detail unmentioned." she assured him, and he scrunched his lips up.
"Uh, how much is going to be talking about you being the greatest earthbender?"
"I can't brag about myself all day." she acknowledged, "Plus, making fun of others is funner." she argued, and he let out a small smile.
"Yeah, you're right." he agreed, "I can show my airbending tricks off, but good stories are better."
"Well, you can't show me any airbending. It just feels like dust whacking the ground or my face." she argued, and he snickered, knowing that despite his skill in his native element, Toph couldn't really experience it in the same way others could.
"True." he agreed with her point, "So, stories are better, right?"
"I guess." she shrugged her shoulders, before taking a sip from her bowl.
Aang picked up his own bowl, and drunk down the last of the broth left in it, before placing it down on the mat in front of him. He knew that once breakfast was over, they would be leaving, so he decided that he ought to go check if Appa was ready to go. He had been promised that his flying bison would be fed, and he just wanted to make sure he was ready to start flying; they'd have a long day ahead of them, and Aang couldn't imagine them camping until sundown, given the distance they were going to have to travel.
Though Aang was not the most pedantic individual when it came to timekeeping, he had come to understand the value of haste, given the circumstances of the conflict within the Fire Nation, which could soon reignite into a conflict against the other two nations. He didn't want the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes to suffer because of his own tardiness, and more than anything, he wanted to master the elements so he could keep his friends safe. They had helped him, and he would make sure that Azula and Sokka didn't end up in another situation like Yu Dao. It would be grossly unfair for them all to have to run away after all they had achieved.
He stood up, and glanced down at Toph, "I'm just going to make sure Appa's ready to fly."
"Well..." she spoke up, placing her empty bowl down, "I have nothing better to do. We'll just leave Katara to yap on about things."
He held his tongue, not wanting to chide Toph about being mean to Katara, knowing that it was just her way of expressing herself; he'd figured out quickly enough that she liked to spar, train and chide others, but not because she was angry, but simply because that was what she was used to.
"Yeah, uh, let's go." he nodded, pacing on past some of the warriors toward the entrance of the tent; they stepped through the parting of the canvas, making their way out onto the beach, where he could see the breadth of the Water Tribe encampment, and in the distance, his sky-bison, who was resting by the edge of the woods.
Aang and Toph made their way toward the sky-bison, winding around the haphazardly hoisted tents, and made their way off of the sandy beach and onto the grassy knoll that sat between it and the woods, where Appa was sitting, and their own tents had been raised. They had already put them away before breakfast, as Katara had decided they shouldn't waste time waiting around for the food; that was quite funny in hindsight, as now, they would be waiting for her, instead of waiting for breakfast. As they reached Appa, Aang glanced around, and noticed that his flying bison had already chewed through a good stack of cut grass, meaning that he would be ready to fly.
"Appa, buddy, are you ready to go?" he asked Appa, who turned around, and let out a low groan, moving his head around, turning to face him and Toph; she stepped back as the sky-bison tried to lick her, and she grimaced, shaking her head.
"No, no, no. I ain't letting that furball lick me." she declared, and Aang giggled.
"That means he likes you... or maybe he thinks you'd be a nice meal." he suggested, and she looked at him with unease.
"I know he's as big as a small house, but that doesn't mean he should eat people." she declared, and he cackled, finding it hilarious that she had even fallen for his joke; Appa was a vegetarian, and anybody who knew anything about sky-bisons would know that they're friendly creatures- he wouldn't even eat people if he got angry, because he could just as easily airbend at who or whatever peeved him.
"What?" she turned to face him, confused by his laughter.
"Sky-bisons don't eat people, Toph." he clarified, making her raise her hands up.
"How was I meant to know that?! Nobody's seen a sky-bison in a hundred years." she reminded him, and the young Avatar shrugged his shoulders.
"I mean, you can see that he's only been eating grass and leaves, right?" he indicated to the scattered bits of grass on the ground all around the sky-bison, before his eyes narrowed, realising that he'd made a stupid mistake again, "Wait, no." he spoke up, before face-palming, "Sorry."
"No, no, you're right." she conceded, crossing her arms, "I could sense him eating the grass, and Katara kept telling me that we needed to get some branches to feed him the other day. I don't know why I'd think he'd eat people."
"Because he's huge." Aang argued, patting his sky-bison on the head as he spoke.
"Big things don't just eat people." she argued, "What about badger-moles? Or dragons?"
"I mean, I'm pretty sure a dragon could eat somebody." Aang conceded, "They're big and they can cook you in a second." he explained, and she scrunched her lips up.
"Wait, you've actually seen a dragon?"
"Yeah, this one time, me and my friend Kuzon went looking for dragons, and we found these poachers trying to steal a dragon egg. But we stopped them and gave the egg back to its mother. It was really cool." he explained, before narrowing his eyes, "I remember Azula told me that the Fire Nation started hunting them down during the war. It's just terrible." he added, recalling the fact she had given him, one which made him even more disappointed in the Fire Nation than he already was.
"That'd be like if earthbenders tried hunting down badgermoles." Toph noted, before scoffing, "It's not anyone could do that. They live in caves, and they can earthbend better than any person."
"They taught me." she reminded him, "They're definitely better."
"I wish that a lot of things that have changed hadn't... some of them are just crazy. Why would anyone try and kill dragons? They're so beautiful." he explained his thoughts, and Toph raised her chin up.
"Pride." she suggested, "Maybe the Fire Lord couldn't stand the thought of some creatures being better firebenders than him?" she suggested, and Aang shook his head, finding such a mindset to be absurd.
"That's just crazy." he sighed, "I hope there's still some left. I hope Azula's wrong."
"I wouldn't say that sentence to her face." she suggested, and he let out a snicker.
"Yeah, I won't." he agreed, before he bent his knees, before propelling himself up into the air with his bending, landing on the saddle, "You coming?" he asked, the earthbender tilting her chin up.
"You do realise it's hard to climb up onto this thing." she observed, before smirking, "But I have my own strategy." she explained, before stamping her right foot down, creating a pillar of earth, which shot her up into the air, allowing her to land on the saddle, though she did so a little awkwardly, almost faceplanting.
"You've gotta teach me that." he grinned at her, and she let out a little laugh.
"Oh, we'll get around to it, but you've got to master your basics." she warned him, the young Avatar letting out a chuckle.
"Yeah, I do." he agreed, before smiling, "Are we going to train later?"
"I'm not sitting on this saddle all day." she gave her opinion, as she moved to sit down on the saddle, "So, yeah, we'll train." she clarified, before leaning back onto the saddle-bag, "Well, I guess I might as well nap here, while we're not flying." she decided, making Aang scrunch up his lips.
"Nap?" he raised a brow, "But, don't you want to- uh, talk? Have fun? Do something?" he asked, unsure what she wanted to do; he didn't want to just sit there idly while Katara spent some more time with her father, but it seemed that Toph had other ideas.
"Okay, Twinkletoes, what do you have in mind?" she asked him, sounding rather skeptical of his idea, "What's going to be more enjoyable than a nap?"
"Uh, something funny, I guess." he gave his thoughts, raising his index finger to his chin, tapping it as he considered what he could say; Aang liked jokes and practical humour, but he wasn't very good at doing anything on the spot.
"Silence isn't that funny." she quipped, making him realise he had just been sitting there on the saddle, unable to come up with a joke.
"You know what is funny?" he asked her, having decided upon his joke, and she shrugged her shoulders as she leaned back onto the saddle, twisting her neck a little as she looked like she was trying to actually relax.
He reached over the side of the saddle, picking out some of Appa's fur, which he pulled up onto his head, creating a bushy, white whig, and he used some more fur to make a moustache. Even if Toph couldn't see, he preferred to wear a disguise when he was pretending to be somebody else.
"What are you doing on my saddle, whipper-snapper?" he asked her in his best old-man voice, and Toph raised her head up, her face showing only confusion.
"Why are you- what's with your voice?" she asked, baffled by his joke; seeing that she wasn't amused yet, he decided to play into it further.
"I asked, what are you doing on my saddle, girly. You know it's rude to come on a man's sky-bison uninvited." he crossed his arms, and she scrunched her lips up.
"And who are you meant to be?" she asked, playing along with his joke.
"Bonzu Pippinpaddleopsicopolis the Third." he proclaimed, and she snorted, the young Air Nomad crossing his arms, "Don't you laugh at my name. That's an insult to my father, Bonzu Pippinpaddleopsicopolis the Second." he declared, and she face-palmed, making the young Avatar point at her, "You haven't told me why you're here."
"To nap." she clarified, and he wagged a finger at her.
"Now, now, I don't let anybody nap on this saddle." he declared, and she scoffed, pulling herself back up to a seated position.
"What, do you want me to pay you?" she asked, and he pursed his lips upward.
"Oh, I don't need money. I want you to tell me a joke." he gave her his request, knowing that she would come up with something.
"Very smart, Aang." she quipped back at him, before rising to her feet, "But I just can't find what's funny about talking like an old man."
"I'm Bonzu." he retorted, "This is how I speak. You don't like it? Get off my saddle."
"Well, I just can't see what's funny about it." she explained, and he looked at her for a moment, before noticing her joke, and he cracked a grin.
"That was a good one." he admitted in his normal voice, "The funny bit's the massive whig I'm wearing. I look like Bumi!" he declared, before stroking his moustache, "If he had a moustache."
"Bumi isn't a shorty, though." she noted, and he narrowed his eyes at her, offended that he'd take a swipe at his height; he wasn't even that short for his age, and beside that, he was taller than her.
"I'm taller than you!" he pointed at her, and she snickered.
"Hey, just making an observation." she defended her comment, and Aang crossed his arms.
"You shouldn't be disrespecting your elders like that." he warned her in his old-man voice, and she scoffed.
"I love doing that, just to show them when they're stupid." she declared, and Aang pursed his lips up slightly; Toph's confidence was something he could admire, given how forthright she was with people- it did start arguments at times, as he could see with her and Katara, but he knew he could trust her to say what was on her mind.
"Ah, if only you knew the wisdom of a hundred and fourteen years." he suggested, making her snicker.
"But weren't you frozen for most of that time." she reminded him, and the young Avatar scrunched his lips up.
"No, no. I've had a long life, and I've learned everything there is to know." he argued, making her snicker, pointing a finger toward him.
"Oh, okay, then explain to me how I can better teach the Avatar." she suggested, "He's this kid with a loud mouth and he's an airbender. What do you say I should do with him, Mister Pippinpaddleopsicopolis?" she asked him, making Aang furrow a brow; he didn't really know what advice to give her, but decided to just play into his old-man joke.
"You've got to show him how to break some rocks." he gave his first idea, "Not just break 'em, but grapple 'em too." he explained, "Airbenders can't be too good with rocks, because they like to get out of the way of threats." he added, giving his actual opinion, even though it was disguised with his old-man voice, "So, show him how to stick to it. Like he's stuck in quicksand, and the only way out is to rip the sand apart."
"Hmph, you know, that isn't that bad of an idea." she raised a finger to her chin, "Making a sinkhole and tossing you in, you'll have to bend yourself out." she deduced, and he cringed at the thought of it.
"Maybe teach him how to bend with all his body first, otherwise, he might drown in it." he suggested, and Toph cocked a smirk.
"You're not too shabby, old-man." she acknowledged, before punching him in the shoulder, making Aang's wig fly off and splatter all over the saddle.
"Aw man." he looked down at it, realising he'd have to clean it all up.
"Aang, why do you have a moustache?" he heard Katara ask out, and he turned around to see that she was approaching with her father and a few of the Water Tribe warriors in tow.
"Uh, just for a joke." he explained, before pulling the fake moustache off and tossing it away; he picked up the rest of the fur and threw it off of the saddle as the Water Tribe girl continued her approach, before turning to hug her father.
"I'm going to miss you." he assured her, before turning to face Aang and Toph.
"I wish you all luck. I know things might be more dangerous now, seeing that the new Fire Lord doesn't like you." he noted, before narrowing his eyes at them, "But I'm sure you'll be safe with Sokka and Azula by your side."
"Yeah, they're pretty smart." Aang conceded, and the Chief let out a little laugh.
"Oh, they are." he agreed, "Both of them have enough wits about them to end this war for good." he acknowledged, before turning to face his daughter, "But they're going to need some help."
"Don't worry, Dad. I'll make sure they don't do anything too crazy." Katara assured her father, before smiling, "We'll get through all of this together... no matter how bad the guy we're facing is."
"He sounds pretty terrible." Hakoda conceded, before glancing toward his fellow warriors, "But I know that together we'll stand a chance against the Fire Nation."
"And maybe the Fire Nation will stand a chance against him." the Water Tribe girl added, before sighing, "I'm sorry we're leaving already."
"I understand, Katara." the Chief placed a hand on her shoulder, "You have responsibilities, Aang has them too. We're here to do our part, and you'll do yours." he explained, before she reached in and hugged him tightly; Aang felt a little sympathy for her anguish, not wanting to leave the person she perhaps trusted the most- he didn't want to leave his friends, and that was glad he was still had Katara by his side.
"I'll see you soon." she softly told her father, "And we'll make sure to stay safe." she assured him, and he let out a little chuckle.
"That's good to hear." Hakoda admitted, narrowing his eyes, "And we'll do the same."
She then let go of her father, before pacing over toward the saddle, Aang offering her hand to let her climb on up. She accepted it, and he hoisted her up onto the saddle, allowing her to climb on over and sit down beside Toph; the Earth Kingdom girl glanced her way for a moment, before leaning back onto the saddle, without uttering a word.
"Good luck!" Aang waved toward them, before stepping over onto Appa's neck, where he could grab his reins; once he had them in his hands, he whipped them, and called out to his flying bison, "Yip-yip!"
Appa let out a groan, and flapped his tail up, creating a blast of wind, before he slowly levitated up and off of the ground; the Avatar glanced down to the warriors, and gave a wave, which he received in return, Katara doing the same behind him on the saddle. They slowly rose up and above the encampment as Aang turned his attention to the reins of his sky-bison, keeping a hold of them as he directed him to fly up and over the bay, quickly departing from the encampment. Katara turned around to face it as they continued on over the water.
"How long is it going to take, Aang?" she asked him, and he glanced ahead of them, looking toward the other side of the bay, and past that, over the hilly countryside that lined the coast.
"A few weeks." he responded, "That's how long it took on the way to Omashu."
"A few weeks just flying?" Toph scoffed, "Aw, this is going to be terrible."
"Don't worry about it, Toph." he tried to reassure her, "We're not going to fly that high or anything." he stressed, "Just smooth flying."
"And what if it rains?" she retorted, Katara turning to face her.
"We can waterbend it away. We're fine, really." she stressed, "I'm more worried about the Fire Nation."
"Well, yeah, they might shoot us out of the sky with their trebuchets." the Earth Kingdom girl noted, "That's why we ought to stay over land." she suggested, and Aang nodded, already having that plan in mind, after he'd been warned about it earlier.
"We will." he agreed with her point, before he let go of the reins, seeing that they were already on the right heading; he turned around, and sat himself down onto the saddle, before smiling at them, "What do you guys wanna do now?"
"Sleep." Toph gave her opinion, "Though... your old-man act was funny." she conceded, making the young Air Nomad grin, glad that she approved.
"Acting is fun." he stressed, before furrowing a brow, "But there's other things we could do."
"Yeah, like sleep." the earthbender repeated what she had already said, before rolling over into a more comfortable position, "Which is what I want to do."
"We just got up and had breakfast." Katara noted, "You can't really just want to go back to sleep."
"You overestimate how much we can do on this tiny saddle." she replied, not seeming very enthused to do anything.
"Come on, it's not that boring up here." he argued, before scooching himself closer to her, "What do you find fun?"
"Earthbending, and I can't do any of that up here." she gave an unsurprisingly response, and Aang turned to face Katara, recalling what they did sometimes when they were bored.
"Maybe we could meditate. That's a good way to calm... and then it'll be even easier to sleep." Aang suggested, and Toph turned her head away from the saddle, before sitting up.
"Fine, let's try that." she agreed to his proposition, "How does it work?" she asked, and Katara moved around, sitting herself cross-legged, with her hands in her lap.
"It's best to sit up properly when you do it." she suggested, and the Earth Kingdom girl sighed before doing just that, moving into a similar position, though she leaned her head and back down toward the rear of the saddle.
"Don't just lie down like that." Aang warned her, "That'll be bad for your back."
"I'm fourteen not sixty four." she retorted, making him chuckle, seeing the point in her argument.
"Okay, fair enough, but you've got to sit in a position where you can remain focused and calm- you're not trying to sleep yet."
"Then what's the point?" she scoffed, the Water Tribe girl placing a hand on her shoulder.
"Clearing the mind. Sometimes you just worry too much about things and you've got to just... breathe and let all that go."
"I don't get worried." she argued, before scrunching her lips, "At least not here."
"I thought you said you were scared of flying." Aang recalled, and she crossed her arms, her agitated expression telling him that she was offended.
"Oh, yeah, for the first few minutes. I can handle sitting up here now, no matter how much I don't like it."
"Okay, okay, sorry." he apologised, "We're meant to be calm... I shouldn't have said that."
"I mean, you're not as annoying as Katara, but she's been good today." she honestly admitted, making the Water Tribe girl scoff.
"I-" she tried to retort, before holding her tongue; she glanced back in the direction of the encampment, which was now far off, near the horizon, "I've had my mind on other things."
"Maybe you need this meditation more than I do." she suggested with a smug look, which seemed to hit a nerve.
"Yeah, I think I do." she snapped back at her, "So stop annoying me. I just want to relax."
She let out a little snicker, before nodding, "Fine. I'll zip it." she assured her; after a few moments silence, she rolled her shoulders, "Uh, so are we just sitting here?"
"No, we have to do some breathing. Deep breaths help relax... they're good for getting to sleep too." Aang explained, and Katara raised a finger.
"Okay, let's go together." she decided, before dropping her finger, "In." she told them, and with that, all three of them took a deep breath in; they held it for a few seconds, before she gave the complementary word, "Out."
Once they had breathed out, Toph shook her head, "This is weird." she gave her opinion, "Don't you find it hard to breath like that?"
"I mean, it takes a little getting used to, but it helps." Katara admitted, before turning her eyes to Aang, "What other things should we do?"
"Keep up the breathing, and imagine something relaxing." he explained, before chuckling, "I like to think I'm resting up on a mountain with the monks after we did some exercises." he admitted, smiling at the thought of it, "What do you find relaxing?" he asked the Water Tribe girl, who furrowed a brow.
"Sitting out on the water at the South Pole. When it was calm, after Sokka and I got some fish, and we were paddling back toward our village." she explained, "That was always really nice." she admitted, before closing her eyes, "Except when he started complaining about me trying to practice my waterbending."
Toph chuckled at that, and Aang turned his eyes to her, "What do you find relaxing, Toph?"
"Making stuff with my earthbending." she explained, "Like trying to sculpt somebody by remembering what I sensed them to look like." she added, before chuckling, "Once I made the whole cast of Earth Rumble down in a cave. It was pretty funny, and made them all do stupid poses."
"That does sound pretty funny." Aang conceded, before furrowing a brow, "Or something like that spiral you made the other day." he recalled, and she raised a brow.
"Uh, yeah, things like that." she nodded, before she let out a deep breath, "So, we just keep breathing slowly?"
"Yep." he nodded, before taking a long, drawn out breath; he closed his eyes, and imagined what he had been thinking of before- sitting near a mountain top, covered by old trees, just blooming at the start of spring, just after he and his friends had eaten.
It was half a memory and half his imagination, and it brought him calm; life was good before he learned about being the Avatar, and though he had been annoyed and frustrated about it in the past, he was ready to do his duties. Refusing had gotten him and the world in a terrible situation, and he shook those memories from his mind; he stuck to the good ones, before all that, and assured himself, that once everything was over, he could reclaim that part of his life. Even if the Air Nomads were gone, his memories of them and their world were still with him, and he'd cherish them forever.
He let out a smile, before his mind drifted back to the mountaintop, and he imagined the sounds of the wind softly blowing above him, with birds flying about in the sky. Aang wished that he could go someplace like that again, and just experience the world for its beauty, and not be worried if there were Fire Nation soldiers looking for him, or if he was wasting time that could otherwise be spent trying to help the world.
"This is nice." Katara admitted, "How do you find it, Toph?" she asked, and the Earth Kingdom girl shrugged her shoulders.
"Eh, it's no earthbending." she simply commented, before smiling, "But it's helping me relax." she admitted, "I'm going to sleep now."
"Okay." Aang nodded, "I might lie down for a bit too." he decided, before glancing toward Momo, "Momo, you keep an eye out for me, okay?" he asked the flying lemur, who chittered as he glanced around before curling himself up.
"I'll sow up my cloak. I cut it when we were collecting wood the other day." Katara decided, "But I think I'll sit here for a little longer."
"You can't do much else." Toph retorted, though not seeming overly concerned about the fact, not anymore; she laid herself down, and Aang turned his eyes up to the clouds above them; the random, erratic patterns were something people tried to find meaning in- not just fortune tellers, but anyone, just bored enough to look out and try and pick out the shape of an animal, or a face.
"Well, Toph's right. Sleeping is probably the best thing to do." he conceded, "Maybe we can play some games once we have lunch." he suggested, making the Earth Kingdom girl cringe.
"Ergh, what's for lunch?" she asked, sounding nearly afraid of what she might hear.
"Probably just rice crackers or dried fruit." Katara conceded, "I don't want to eat all the Water Tribe food just yet."
"I don't want to eat it at all." Toph responded, leaving the Water Tribe girl to look her way with confusion.
"Did you have to say that?"
"No, but I don't really like it." she simply put her opinion out, "The seaweed noodles were alright, and that fish stew was good. But the rest- stewed sea prunes? Gross." she gave her opinion, making Aang chuckle; he did agree with her there, though he didn't say anything out of respect for Katara and Sokka, knowing they'd be offended if he actually said that.
"You're mean, Toph." Katara crossed her arms, "You know that, right?"
"Hey, it's not my fault you're personally invested in Water Tribe cuisine." she shrugged her shoulders, before rolling over.
"How would you like if I started insulting earthbending?"
"Well, I'd challenge you to a duel." Toph retorted, and the Water Tribe girl scoffed.
"We're in the sky, with no earth for you to bend." she reminded her, making the Earth Kingdom girl chuckle.
"Well then, Sugar Queen, insult away." she suggested, and Aang facepalmed, finding her attitude to be really confusing at times.
"You really want to fight her that bad?" he asked her, and she turned around slightly so he could see her face; the smug smile she was pulling said everything he needed to know- agitating Katara did have a purpose, and he admittedly was impressed by her plan, given it was bound to work eventually.
"Just ignore her, Aang." Katara suggested, and he shrugged his shoulders.
"Well, don't start fighting on the saddle. I don't want to have to glide down and catch whoever falls off the saddle."
"You say that like it's happened before." Toph noted, sounding understandably concerned; he smirked back at her, finding those memories to be hilarious, despite the danger he'd got his friends in.
"I've had a lot of crazy adventures in my time."
There wasn't really much for Ty Lee to do, and even though she could spend her day at the spa, or helping Azula with whatever plans she had, she didn't think the former was productive, and the latter was just going to be boring. She wasn't a master of military strategy, even if she thought she was a pretty skilled fighter, and she decided that she would utilise her skills as best she could, and actually get something done with them. Seeing that they weren't presently fighting off Ozai's forces from seizing the base, she decided that the best thing she could do with it was training. She was a master chi-blocker, or at least, she hoped she was one, and with her abilities, she could show some of the people she might have to fight alongside how to defend against such attacks, and if possible, utilise her own knowledge of chi-paths to their advantage.
So, she had come down to the grounds of the encampment where the Earth Kingdom rebels were staying, and she spoke to their leader Jianren about teaching them and training them. Of course, he was a little skeptical about a teenage girl teaching him and his men how to fight better, but she was able to persuade him with a demonstration against a few of his men. A few paralysed and shocked earthbenders later, he decided to give in and let her teach them what she knew. She was sure her knowledge was better given to people she knew would use it for good, and to help her friend get what she wanted. The Earth Kingdom forces weren't just there to help against Ozai, they were there to begin what would hopefully be a partnership between those who fought for the Earth Kingdom, and those who fought for Azula.
Standing in front of them, she indicated along her arms toward her chi-paths and centres, where it was best to strike when trying to block said chi-paths; they seemed to be comprehending what she had been saying, so Ty Lee kept up a bright smile and cheery tone. That wasn't just because she was in a good mood, but because she wanted them to keep listening; she certainly didn't want to be all dreary and formulaic like Azula's old firebending tutors, Lo and Li.
"So, if you turn to your partners, and step back, maybe you can try and hit the chi-paths around their shoulders." she explained what she wanted them to do, "If you do it right, one of you won't be able to move your arms." she explained, before demonstrating by wagging her arms around limply, "You know, like this." she clarified, making the earthbenders look at each other, slightly amused by her movements, before they stepped back, following her guidance.
She watched as the pairs of earthbenders moved into position, standing on the opposite side of the field from each other, though it wasn't a very large field; they moved into form, raising their right hands up to draw small fragments of dirt out from the ground, before motioning their hands around, hardening the fragments. They'd obviously all learned how to make projecticles same way, and in quick succession, they tossed the hardened dirt at each other; a few of them actually hit their partners' chi-paths right on, as she could see their arms slump down.
She clapped her hands in approval of their practice moves, "Great!" she grinned at them, "Now, I want you all to try the same thing, but aim to block your partner's bending." she explained what she wanted them to do; she had already explained that bending could be blocked by hitting the chi-paths around the stomach, as these formed the core of one's chi-paths, and blocking them prevented them from bending anything.
They all moved back into form, even those who had had one of their arms chi-blocked, and quickly repeated the same motions they had before; in a few seconds, they had shot out fragments of dirt again, most them hitting their partners, though, only a few seemed to have been chi-blocked. A few of them stumbled over, winded from the hits they had received, while others cringed from the sudden pain of getting whacked in the gut.
Jianren, who had been standing beside her, watching his men get trained, grimaced at the sight of what they had just done to each other, "That... uh, looked like it hurt." he observed, "Which of you are actually chi-blocked?" he asked out to his men, all of whom thrust their arms up to try and bend the ground in front of them; out of the two dozen earthbenders present, around eight couldn't bend, which showed that they had a reasonable chance of actually hitting each other's chi-paths.
Ty Lee obviously had much better odds when she was fighting, as did Sokka, as the two of them had trained regularly to know which spots to precisely hit; she hadn't actually done much chi-blocking while at the circus, but it was basically muscle memory for her now, where she would reflexively jab at chi-paths whenever she got in a fighting situation.
"Okay, maybe everyone should take a break to recover from that." Ty Lee admitted, and the leader of the group nodded.
"Take a minute." he suggested, and they nodded, relaxing their stances, before they began chatting amongst themselves.
She raised her hands up, letting herself stretch out for a moment as she realised that being an instructor was a lot of standing still and talking, and actually not much chi-blocking; she was almost going to yawn, but stopped herself; it was far too early in the day to be doing that, and she wanted to look like she was still enthusiastic to continue teaching the earthbenders. She wanted to actually feel like she had achieved something, rather than just showing off her skills to brag.
"They're learning quickly." Jianren conceded what he had seen, "It's not as complicated as I thought it'd be."
"Well, chi-blocking isn't complicated, it just requires precision. If you don't know where to hit, then you can't do it, and if you aren't good with your aim, then you'll just end up tapping people." she admitted, before eyeing a few of the men who had been knocked over, "Or winding them."
"Earthbending doesn't really involve tapping people." he warned her, slightly concerned in his tone, "We mostly throw rocks at people to try and beat them. Or use the ground as a weapon." he admitted, before furrowing a brow, "I wonder if we could chi-block by shooting pillars up at their chi-paths."
"I guess that'd take a lot of focus." Ty Lee gave her thoughts on it, "I'm no expert on earthbending. I'll leave you to make up crazy uses for chi-blocking."
"Thanks again for teaching my men. I'm sure this will come in handy when the... worse ash-makers come around." he admitted, seeming a little cautious to refer to firebenders with such a degrading term in front of her; she wasn't like Azula, who would take personal offence to such an insulting term for her countrymen, or perhaps, herself.
"Well, you want to be sure you'll win." she admitted, "There's no point going to fight if you'll lose."
Jianren raised a hand to his face, "I can't believe we're actually working with the Fire Nation now." he admitted, "If somebody told me a few years ago that we'd be cooperating with a former Crown Princess of the Fire Nation, I'd've said they were insane."
"I get it." she nodded, "I didn't think Azula would do what she's done... but she's an adaptable person." she acknowledged, "She has good reflexes, but not just with her body." she clarified, raising her hands to the sides of her head, "She has mind reflexes."
"Mental gymnastics?" Jianren asked her, trying to hold back a laugh, and she snapped a finger at him.
"That's itǃ" she grinned, "She's really good at figuring her way around things, and now, she's trying to use that skill to... uh, help people."
"I assume she wasn't always like this." the earthbender conceded, eyeing his men, "I'd heard stories about the prodigious daughter of the Fire Lord... that's the kind of person we're afraid of coming to destroy us. Just like the Dragon of the West."
"Ah, you shouldn't be afraid of him. He's a really nice guy." she beamed at him, knowing that no matter what Azula said about him, her uncle was quite a likeable guy; she'd only met him a few times, but every time she had, he'd always had something insightful or funny to say.
"He was the most successful Fire Nation general in a generation. That man nearly conquered Ba Sing Se." he reminded her of his feats, and when she considered them for a moment, in the eyes of the Earth Kingdom, he'd almost seem like an evil spirit, conquering their country and defeating their armies, seeing that they'd never actually met him.
"Uh... yeah." she grimaced slightly, before turning her mind back to what he had been saying, "But Azula has changed. Just like I think her uncle did. She never conquered anything, though. Unless you count what she did in Yu Dao."
"Get the city bombarded by the Fire Navy?" he asked, and she cringed, reminded that Zhao had played a terrible role in all those events.
"Zhao." she mumbled his name, "I'm really glad that guy's locked up... he's the guy you should really be afraid of."
"Crazy ash-makers who want to destroy things?" he guessed, before crossing his arms, "I already have a solid opinion of them."
Ty Lee turned her gaze back toward his men, and decided that they ought to start practicing again; she whistled out to them, catching their attention, before she put her hands behind her back, "Okay, now we're going to practice hitting the chi-paths on the back. Those ones can allow you to block your opponent's bending, and even paralyse their legs." she explained, before chuckling, "But I wouldn't want you all to accidentally break each other's backs." she conceded, "So we can practice without earthbending first." she suggested, and they all nodded, "Get into pairs again."
She turned to face Jianren, knowing that he was the only one she could reasonably practice on, "Could I use you as an example?"
"How long does it last?" he simply asked, and she scrunched her lips up.
"It depends on how hard I hit, and where. Right at the chi-centres, it can last a while, but if I'm sloppy, you might fall over for a few seconds and regain control." she admitted, before glancing toward the earthbenders.
"Watch me closely." she suggested to them, moving into form as she eyed the earthbender's back, "If you want to paralyse your opponent's legs, it's best to hit them right in the lower-back." she explained, before thrusting her fingertips into Jianren's back, making him grunt, before his legs buckled underneath him.
She grasped him by the shoulder to make sure he didn't drop face-first onto the ground, and he slowly dropped down to the ground with her hands grasping his shoulders. Laying there, he grimaced as he realised the embarrassing position he'd found himself in, and his men were clearly amused to see him beat so quickly, though their eyes turned to each other as they must have realised they would be doing the same to each other.
"You don't want to hit them too hard, because that could end up seriously hurting them. When you're fighting actual soldiers... you might hit harder." she conceded, knowing that in a battle situation, such cautiousness would be thrown out the window.
The earthbenders stepped back, one of each pair moving into form while the other turned around, ready to try her move on each other. Of course, she didn't expect them to be punching each other, but instead using fragments of earth, as that was what they were used to. She watched eagerly as they pulled pieces of dirt out from the ground below them, tensing their forms before they threw the fragments at their partners' backs; none of them missed their hits, though not all of them struck their targets' chi-paths. A few of them almost face-planted, and others slowly collapsed from their legs giving way.
She clapped her hands in approval, "Good job!" she applauded their work, glad to see that almost half of the earthbenders had successfully paralysed their partners.
She glanced over to Jianren, who was still seated, unable to move his legs, and he nodded in approval, seeming glad that his fighters had done a good job.
"Well, that'll be useful." he conceded, before he glanced down at his legs, "How long am I going to be stuck here for?"
"I didn't hit you that hard." she assured him, "You should be able to get back up in a minute."
Her attention was suddenly drawn by a thumping noise, like the sound of a bag being dropped on the ground, and she glanced over to see that something had landed right in between the earthbenders; those who weren't paralysed moved to earthbend at what looked like a small bag that was smoking. Their bending covered the bag, and a moment later the ground shook violently as the earth they covered it with exploded outward, Ty Lee raising her hands up to cover from the dust and smoke. Jianren had quickly raised his hands up, creating a wall of earth to protect them, which kept away the heat and bits of earth that had been shot out by the explosion.
She coughed from inhaling the dust, before turning down to face the earthbender who had just protected her, "What... what even was that?" she asked, unsure if he had any better an idea than she did.
"I have no idea." he admitted, "But I think somebody just tried to kill my men." he gave his observation; she offered him a hand, and he accepted it, before he was hoisted back up to his feet.
Though he was struggling to stand up due to her chi-blocking, he was able to earthbend his feet in place, keeping himself upright as he removed the wall of earth, revealing that his men had been hurt and startled by the explosion. Those that had been paralysed were helped up by those that weren't, and Ty Lee's eyes darted around, unsure where the explosive had even come from.
"That... where did it even come from?" she asked, before glancing behind her; the compound was located right behind them, and its walls, though tall, could have had a bag of explosives thrown over them; her suspicions were confirmed when another bag was thrown over, she pointed toward it.
"Jianren!" she caught his attention, and the earthbender immediately shot out a stone pillar from the ground, which struck the explosive back, sending it into the metal walls of the compound; his fighters raced forward and earthbent a shell around the explosive, making sure the same thing didn't happen again.
The explosive went off a few moments later, and to their luck, the earthen shell was enough to nullify its effects, only shaking the ground a little; she glanced back toward the injured earthbenders with concern, before pacing over to them. She offered one of them, a female fighter who was a few years older than herself, a hand to get up to her feet; she accepted her offer, and she helped the fighter get away from where the first explosive had gone off. The other fighters helped their comrades get away, and Ty Lee noticed a few soldiers, running from the entrance of the compound, clearly concerned by what had just happened.
"What in the name of the spirits was that?" one of the soldiers asked, looking at the earthbenders with concern, "Did- was that a bomb?"
"What does it fucking look like?" Jianren questioned him, clearly agitated by what had just happened, before pacing past him, "There's somebody in that compound that just tried to kill us." he explained, and the soldiers looked at him with concern.
"You mean the explosives came from inside?" one of the soldiers asked, and the earthbender nodded; the soldiers frantically looked back before running toward the doors.
"Shit, shit, shit!" one of them began to shout, "Get every single exit closed, right now!" he ordered his men, and Ty Lee cringed, realising that the perpetrators could have already snuck out via the rear entrance of the compound; she understood the layout well enough, and realised that whoever had just tossed the explosives at them clearly wanted to make it look like it had come from somebody in the compound itself.
She narrowed her eyes, realising that could actually have been a possibility; she knew there was a danger of spies, which had already been caught, and it wasn't too much of a stretch to say they'd try and kill Azula's only non-Fire Nation allies. They were the ones who weren't going to betray her to Ozai, if the worst came to bare, and just having thought about it made her shudder with fear; she turned to face the earthbender she'd been helping along and grimaced, realising she had to talk with her friend and fast.
"I need to find Azula." she admitted, and the fighter grimaced, before she raised her hand towards Jianren.
"She needs to go, boss." she told her superior, who glanced back, his tense expression softening for a moment.
"I- yes, she does." he agreed, turning his eyes to Ty Lee, "Tell the Princess what just happened, and hopefully she and the Water Tribesman can figure out who just tried to kill us before it happens again."
She nodded, and began to pace toward the gates, though she quickly broke into a sprint, rushing to the entrance, where the guards were moving to close the gates; they knew who she was, and held them open for her as she ran inside, before turning her head to the left, eyeing where she was sure the explosives must have been tossed from. She couldn't see anyone, and due to the ground being covered with stone tiles, it was impossible to make out any tracks. She knew Sokka was the best person to ask about finding those, and she ran straight for the doorway, knowing that she ought to do that; just as she was about to step through the doorway, she was confronted by a few of Azula's guards, who weren't wearing their armour, indicative of their rushed arrival.
"Oh, thank the spirits you're alright." Shen sighed with relief, "The Princess wanted us to find you and make sure you weren't hurt."
"People were hurt." she stressed, and Yi stepped forward, eyeing the gates which had been shut behind her.
"The earthbenders?" he guessed, and she nodded; none of them seemed to be very badly hurt, given that they were quick to cover up the explosives before they could cause any real damage.
"They were fast on their feet. It's because of them that I'm alright." she admitted what had happened, before looking back to the gates, 'We- I mean, Azula should send some physicians to help them with their injuries."
"Nobody died, did they?" the guard asked her, clearly sounding a little concerned, and she shook her head.
"No." she stressed, before glancing behind them, "Where's Azula?"
"Getting her armour on." one of the guards, whose name she couldn't recall, told her, gesturing back inside, "You should catch her back at the hallway."
She nodded, and indicated down the hallway, "You guys better go look for anybody suspicious going for the other gates; I'm pretty sure whoever threw those explosives is going to be dressed like a soldier... or literally a soldier." she warned them, and they glanced amongst themselves, clearly uneased by the suggestion.
"You mean... oh, this can't be good." Yi mumbled, before he turned around and began pacing back inside, "You heard her. We need to find the person behind this." he declared, and his fellow guards followed right after him; Ty Lee joined them, having to take the same path through the compound to reach the hallway where their quarters were.
When she reached it, she waved them goodbye, wanting them to succeed and find the person behind the attack more than anything; she had a feeling, however, that Azula and Sokka's investigative skills would come in handy. When she pushed the door open, she made sight of Azula, who was wearing her armour, with Sokka standing right behind her, wearing his own.
"Ty Lee." her friend addressed her with a relieved expression, quickly stepping toward her to place her hands on her shoulders, "Did you get hurt?" she asked, and the acrobat shook her head.
"No, no, I'm fine. Some of the earthbenders did."
"What even happened?" Sokka asked her, "It sounded like a bomb went off."
"That is what happened." she emphasised the fact of the matter, before indicating down the hallway, "I told the guards to go and find whoever threw it over the walls."
"These walls?" Azula asked her, gesturing in the direction of the compound walls; she had sounded surprised at first, and then once Ty Lee nodded, the Princess' tone shifted to one of agitation, "Somebody's trying to undermine me... right here." she snarled, before stepping past her friend, who followed right after her as she stormed in the direction of the main hallway.
"The earthbenders need some help." she added, knowing that Azula had the power to help them at once, "They need physicians- or just anybody who can help with their injuries." she explained, the Princess glancing back her way as she followed after her toward the door.
"I'll get somebody on it as soon as we figure out where this would-be assassin is headed." she declared, and Sokka let out a chuckle.
"The spirit world, I'm guessing." he joked, and his girlfriend shot him an unamused glare, before pushing the door open, and glancing down their potential paths.
"Okay, this can't be good." Sokka admitted his thoughts on her reaction, as they made their way down the hallway, turning left down toward the opposite side of the compound from whence Ty Lee had come; Azula immediately covered her palms with fire, and a few moments later, her boyfriend audibly face-palmed, "No, it's terrible."
"I thought you were more optimistic about things." the Princess off-handedly commented as she pushed open the door, and led the two of them out.
"That's my sister." he corrected her with a frustrated tone, making Ty Lee snicker lightly as her friend began to increase her pace.
"They must have gone this way." the Princess came to the exact same conclusion Ty Lee had, and the trio's pace hastened as they made out shouting by the other end of the building; when they reached the other entrance, they noted that her guards were interrogating a few men who were standing nearby.
"What did he look like?" she heard Shen question one of them, "Come on, you must have seen his face."
"He was just an ordinary soldier." the man he had pushed up against the wall told him, "Seriously, that's what I saw. He just ran past and went through those gates."
"And nobody asked this man why he was rushing?" Azula questioned the soldier, whose expression shifted to one of unease as he saw her eye him.
"I think he said something about having a message for one of the commanders in port." he explained, and the Princess glanced past him toward the gates, which had now been shut.
"Ah, he just had to be vague about it." Sokka complained, stepping over toward the entrance, "So, how are we going to find this guy?"
"He isn't acting alone." the Princess gave her opinion, though she stated with a surprising amount of certainty, before eyeing her guards, "Get in uniform and tell the others to do so too. Their break is over. You'll all come to the meeting room when you're ready." she ordered them, and they saluted her at once, "We're going to scour every single office in this building for evidence."
"Why the offices?" Ty Lee asked her, "If the guy was throwing explosives... why not check with the Quartermaster- that's what he's called, right? They'll know who took the explosives, if they did it on record."
"You're right on point, Ty Lee." her friend commended her with a pleased smile, before her expression sharpened, "But I'm going straight to the point." she admitted, before eyeing the men her guards had just interrogated, "Make sure those gates aren't opened, and if they are, I want the names and ranks of every single person who comes through." she demanded, "And tell the other gatesmen that too." she added, knowing that every entrance needed to be held watertight so no more potential assassins could try their hand at attacking her.
"Of course, your majesty." one of them accepted her command, presumably the highest ranking of the lot, before he spun his hand around, "Lock it up!" he ordered his comrades, who followed his words with urgency.
"We'll be as fast as possible, your highness." Yi assured her as he and the guards turned to run down the hallway; they knew what was going on and the danger that was present already, and they weren't going to waste any time- Ty Lee didn't want she and her friends to go the same way as Mai and Zuko, and the guards certainly didn't either.
The Princess turned to face Sokka and Ty Lee, narrowing her eyes at them, "We need to talk about this somewhere private." she admitted, and they followed after her as she made her way back toward the staircase that would lead them to the meeting room; that was obviously where they were going, given she had told the guards to go there once they were in uniform.
As they made their way towards the stairwell, they ran into some clearly concerned soldiers who must have come from upstairs, "Your majesty." one of them, presumably an officer, addressed Azula, "Did you require some assistance?" he asked, and she gestured down the hallway.
"Yes. I need some physicians rounded up to go tend to our Earth Kingdom allies. They were attacked with an explosive." she explained, and the soldiers looked amongst themselves, seeming concerned by that suggestion.
"Could it be spies, your majesty?" the officer dared to ask her, and the Princess' chin cocked upwards as she considered his words.
"I will find out soon enough." she warned him, though it wasn't a threat specifically directed at him.
"We will get the physicians at once." he assured her, before turning to face the soldiers behind him, "We can find them quicker if we split up. Go in pairs to retrieve any physician on base grounds, and if you find anyone acting suspicious report it back to me. Her majesty will want to know." he stressed his orders, and Azula smirked, seeming pleased by his unrequested assistance; he simply turned back to face them, bowed and then raced off with his men, intent on fulfilling her command.
The trio then moved past them and began pacing up the staircase, making their way up toward the meeting room, which was empty when they arrived; when they stepped on inside, the Princess glanced back around before closing the doors. Ty Lee and Sokka didn't sit down, simply looking at her, waiting for whatever she had to say to them.
"So, who is it?" her boyfriend asked her, clearly already having somebody or a group of people in mind as the perpetrators.
"I don't know who might have dared to have gone as far to attack my guests, but I know the only ones with the men loyal enough to do it are the high-ranking officers. The men I expect to be running this base." she gave her opinion, "It's either them, or a disgruntled nationalist." she admitted, "And though the latter is actually quite believable, I don't think any soldier would be foolish enough to act alone."
"What about a spy?" Ty Lee asked, "There's the chance there could be some of them around... like the ones who had been working for your brother."
"That is also possible." she admitted, before narrowing her eyes, "But this move seems too calculated to have been made by a spy. They were clearly trying to harm the earth benders, maybe even you, Ty Lee; they wanted to weaken my position, and make sure I had fewer people who were assuredly on my side."
"Because not everyone at this base is going to agree with your teaming up with the Avatar." Sokka acknowledged a fact that was already quite clear to all of them; Azula had already expressed her opinion of that before they had even arrived at the base to trick Zhao, "Maybe they want to turn the earthbenders against you. If they make it harder for you to work with them, then they can justify whatever terrible shit they like to do to the peasants around here."
"Like the ones I ordered to be freed from labour camps." Azula recalled what she had done a few weeks prior, "We need to avoid any conflict with the rebels. They will be counting on me to solve this and find the perpetrators."
"Well, shit." Sokka raised a hand to his face, before he slumped down, sitting on one of the seats, "I guess this isn't going to be our relaxation day." he conceded, and the Princess glanced his way, her expression serious for a few moments, before she let out a sigh.
"I know you've been doing a lot of work making sure the prototype is built, but I need your help here, Sokka." she emphasised his importance, before turning her eyes to her friend, "Ty Lee, I'll need you too."
"I wanna find the guys responsible as much as you do." she assured him, cracking her knuckles, "They deserve a whole lot of chi-blocking after nearly blowing me and the earthbenders up." she argued, and the Princess smirked.
"I'm glad you think that." she gave her opinion, before she moved to sit down on the table beside Sokka, "But I agree with Sokka... this is just frustrating."
"I mean I get it." Ty Lee nodded, "We've been trying to get everything organised, and we need a break... but the world just won't let us have it." she acknowledged the situation they were in, "Your auras aren't looking too great either."
"Well, I feel... what, gray... brown? What colour?" Sokka asked her, making the acrobat snicker; he usually didn't acknowledge her talk about auras, so she was more than willing to oblige.
"A dull brown." she acknowledged, "Sour, and tired." she gave the emotions she thought best represented that colour.
"Yep." he sighed, dropping his face down onto the table, "Who are we going to have to beat up today?"
"It depends." Azula acknowledged, and Ty Lee grimaced, realising that the attack could have come from one man, or a whole clique of officers and their subordinates; she still hoped it was just a spy, even if that would make it harder for them to find him.
They were planning to face Ozai's forces soon enough, and they were nearly ready to leave for Yi Province, where they'd set up their plans to defeat the invading army. That wouldn't be stopped by one man throwing explosives, but a whole lot of Azula's supposed 'loyalists' being behind it would stop them right in their tracks. They had to be quick, that was clear enough.
"If it's a spy, we're... okay, I guess." she admitted, and the Princess nodded.
"That's true. A spy could try and kill any of us, but they're only one man." she agreed with her judgement, "I'm sure you both understand the worst case scenario."
"What was it you thought was the best plan... set off a steamer to make it look like we sailed away, while we went off into the woods?" Sokka asked, and the acrobat furrowed a brow, realising she had no idea what he was talking about; it sounded like an escape plan, something she had yet to discuss with them.
"Sorry, you're saying we might have to run away?"
"There isn't much of an option of the soldiers here really do want to join my father." Azula conceded, "I wouldn't blame them for doing so, but that would make me their enemies."
"Getting out of here might be the only option if they want to sell us off to Ozai." Sokka admitted, before grimacing, turning his eyes toward his girlfriend, "I know you might hate doing it... but I think we're going to have to go find Iroh if that happens."
Azula's expression told Ty Lee that she didn't approve of such a move, though she seemed conflicted over it; perhaps she was willing to forgive her uncle, after all that had happened, for the greater good of their nation.
"No, you're right." she conceded, "I'm not going to prostrate for him, but eventually, we're going to need to work with him."
"Prostrate for him?" Sokka mumbled, before putting his hands down on the table, "Wait, do you mean bow to him?" he asked, seeming a little confused by her wording.
"Essentially." she nodded, before chuckling, "If anything, he should bow to me, seeing that I'm the rightful Fire Lord."
"I mean it's choosing between your dad and you." Ty Lee spoke up, "I think the choice is pretty easy."
"The men here might disagree." the Princess conceded, "I lack the armies and resources to defeat my father just yet, and they might think it's better to cast their lot with him if he's intending to come and destroy this base." she explained, raising her hands to indicate to the room around them.
"But Zuko's forces might join you." Ty Lee admitted, before furrowing a brow, "Didn't you say something about sending some ships to Yingang?" she asked, recalling that Azula had mentioned that when she explained their present operations around the Northern Sea.
"That wasn't to actually get their support. I wanted to see if they hadn't switched sides to my father." she clarified, "We'll find out soon enough, but that mightn't change the mind of those who are considering betraying me." she admitted bluntly, "As foolish as it would be to try and attack or capture me, there are a lot of soldiers at this base. They might even try to take Yingang as a way to prove their loyalty to Ozai."
"Or to you." Sokka suggested, and she smirked.
"Well, that was the plan, actually." she admitted, "I wanted to see if they were capable of undertaking an operation to either take the colony or protect it from my father. If they decided to defect, it wouldn't hurt us immediately, and would prove the untenability of our position here. That would give us the time to flee. Right now, we're facing a potential assassination attempt, and I don't know how long it will be until they act. They might panic, knowing that I have locked down the compound."
"Most of the officers aren't in here, though. They'd be on their ships." Sokka recalled, "Except for Major Chui and the others working in the Engineering Corps. They're still fixing up the defences."
"Which gives us time. If they're not here, they're not together." she argued, "We have to act before anyone else does." she declared, standing up before she paced over toward the door; she pushed it back open, and looked down the hallway, "When the guards arrive, we'll start checking every office for papers, letters, even just personal notes. That's what will prove a conspiracy, if it exists."
"And what if he was a spy?" Ty Lee asked her, the Princess turning back with a cold, serious glare, "Then we'll find him, and make an example of him."
"You don't mean like the bounty hunters, do you?" she asked nervously, recalling what she had made the guards do to them.
"What do you expect?" she asked, "If somebody threatens the lives of those that have sworn to help me, then I will act with the diligence and force expected of me."
She turned her eyes away, remembering that Jianren was rather agitated after the explosion, and clearly expected her to get Azula to do her job; if he wanted the perpetrator punished, then she really couldn't argue against it- it was his fighters whose lives were threatened, after all.
"Well, Jianren did say... yeah... I see what you mean." she conceded that her friend was right, no matter how much she didn't like the vicious violence Azula tended to enact when people went against her- the lightning bolt Zhao received was indicative enough of her opinions on the matter.
Their attention was drawn to the staircase as the guards paced up to the first floor, in uniform and pacing in formation, just as Ty Lee expected they would be; they reminded her of when she saw the Imperial Firebenders at the palace, which showed how they were expected to act on duty. The guards were given a little leeway given their present circumstances; Azula didn't have a palace and dozens of guards under her command, but simply the group in front of her.
"Your majesty." Renshu addressed her, before turning his gaze toward Ty Lee, "It's good to see you made it out of those explosions without a scratch." he observed that she was uninjured, and she chuckled.
"Well, the earthbenders are good at what they do." she admitted, before cringing, "I was in the middle of teaching them how to chi-block with earthbending... so some of them couldn't walk at the time."
"Oh." Sokka grimaced, "They couldn't jump out of the way." he realised, before narrowing his eyes, "I wonder if they threw it then on purpose."
"That's good observation." Azula conceded, "Whoever tossed those explosives over might have known about our itinerary." she came to the obvious conclusion, "Who did you tell about your training with the earthbenders, other than us?"
"I mean, nobody really." she admitted, "But people did watch when I was training them... but that would have been like thirty soldiers or something. Any of them could have told the person behind it what we were doing."
"I think this is a dead end." Renshu gave his own opinion as he glanced at his comrades, "We're ready to get to work."
"Good." Azula smiled, seeming to appreciate their punctuality, "I want every office in this building checked, from bottom to top. We need to find any evidence that links the ranking officers under my command to what just happened... or to Ozai." she stressed, and the guards seemed to tense up upon hearing that.
"You mean they might have been taking his orders?" one of the guards asked nervously, and the Princess nodded.
"That's exactly what I mean." she stressed, "But we can't be sure that my subordinates are in league with him. It could be a spy, so we need to disprove the worst possibility first."
"And then hunt down the bastard and toss him in a cell, if otherwise?" the Captain guessed the other plan, and Sokka cracked his knuckles upon hearing that.
"Yes, Captain, that'd be about right." he confirmed, before rising to his own feet, "So, are we going now?"
"Yes." Azula confirmed, "Go in pairs, and check every office. We'll go floor by floor." she explained the plan, before turning her eyes to Ty Lee and Sokka, "I'll go with Ty Lee. Captain Renshu with Sokka." she clarified and they nodded, though her boyfriend seemed a little annoyed by that.
"When I said I was friends with him, that doesn't mean you need to toss him with me." he gave his opinion, though quietly enough not to sound annoyed; Renshu scoffed at him, and crossed his arms.
"I'm supervising you, remember?" he asked him, obviously referring to Ba Sing Se, where she had heard they had worked together to fight the Dai Li.
"Yeah, yeah, whatever tough guy." Sokka quipped in return, patting him on the shoulder before he began making his way down the hallway, "How many offices are there, anyway?"
"At least twenty of them, spread across all the floors." Azula answered his question, and he nodded, before the guards all began to fan out and head to look into the offices.
She turned to face her friend, who was wondering what they could even find in their search; if somebody was plotting against her, it could be anyone, and given that most people were clearly afraid of her, any plotters would be sure to keep their tongues tied. Speaking against the Princess' policies wasn't something Ty Lee thought anyone would do lightly, even if they weren't part of a plot, and simply wanted to critique.
"What do you think we will find, Zula?" she asked her, and the Princess narrowed her eyes.
"There's a few things I'd prefer not to." she conceded, before gesturing down the hallway, "Come on. I'm not the tardy one of this group." she argued, making her friend snicker.
"Oh, and who is?"
"Probably you." she conceded, before chuckling, "But you've been fast on your feet today." she commended her, and Ty Lee smirked, glad that she thought so.
"Thanks." she beamed at her, before she began pacing down the hallway, heading after the guards, "You know, I'm pretty smart, Azula."
The Princess let out a chuckle as she followed after her, "Being smug doesn't suit you." she warned her, and Ty Lee smirked.
"Says the smuggest girl in the Fire Nation." she retorted, and Azula raised her chin up, looking at her as if she thought there was nothing wrong with that.
"I take pride in my abilities, and so should you." she acknowledged, "They'll come in handy and save our lives at some point."
"I sure hope not." the acrobat grimaced, hoping that it never came down to her chi-blocking somebody so dangerous that even Azula couldn't beat them.
"Just be glad you can."
Reaching into another cabinet of papers, Azula couldn't help but sigh; she had not intended to spend her afternoon scouring through documents, whether official or personal communications, trying to find any links between the officers leading her forces and her father, but that was what it had seemed her day had devolved into. She was kneeling over, running her hand through the papers, before she pulled them out, quickly scanning over their titles to check for their topics, before she would put them back in. There was a wealth of information she had seen, but nothing much that stood out as conspiratorial just yet.
She realised that it was her choice to take the path she had taken, and though she was sure that if there was something afoot, she could find it, she was unsure if it was the best choice to search through the officers papers if they were innocent. It would make her sound paranoid and overbearing at the least, and insane at the worst. Azula hoped she was neither; she was just taking the necessary precaution to keep herself and her associates safe from harm. Hearing Ty Lee fumble around with some papers in her hands reminded her that she wasn't alone in the room, and she glanced towards the door, just hoping that nobody ended up walking in on them all searching through the offices She could excuse her actions easily enough by claiming she needed to find any illegal communications, which was the truth of the matter, but she knew she would have to phrase it in a way that wouldn't get any hidden traitors into a panic.
With another cabinet gone through, she rose up to her feet, eyeing at the shelf of scrolls that was sitting in front of her; given the age of them, she assumed they were probably strategy manuals, kata manuals, or even some prose that the officer who used the office might like to read. She decided to ignore those, knowing that new documents were the only ones that concerned her, and she eyed the desk she had knelt down beside. Each of the standard issue desks usually were hollow in some parts, leaving area for storage so that one didn't need to leave everything on top of it, so Azula decided to pick up the letter opener that was sitting on the desk, brandishing it like a blade as she moved to jam it into the panel beneath the desk.
"Oh..." Ty Lee mumbled, eyeing her work as she watched her remove the panel, allowing her to reach into the inside of the desk, "That's a good place to hide something."
"Not really." she argued, "It's the first place most would check." she admitted, "Because all the standard desks have compartments like these."
Taking her hand out, all she had on it was dust, and smacked her hands together to get rid of it, "Gross." she simply spoke her mind, before she put the panel back in place, "I think this room is clear." she admitted, glancing to the door, "We need to keep moving."
"This is the third floor, Zula. We must nearly be done." Ty Lee observed, and she nodded, knowing that if they didn't find anything soon, then their fears would be dissuaded.
"And once we're done, we can make sure nobody else has tried to kill the Earth Kingdom fighters." she noted something that she had in mind, and her friend cringed at the suggestion.
"If somebody had done that, wouldn't have we heard?" she asked, and Azula scoffed.
"They won't try the same trick twice, Ty." she argued, "They'll use another method, probably quieter." she suggested, knowing that if she was a wannabe assassin, she'd have a plethora of methods to kill her target, in case the intended way fell through.
"Unless... they weren't trying to kill them." her friend suggested a possibility, making Azula narrow her eyes; she hadn't seriously contemplated the possibility that the entire attack on their training session was just to throw them all off- it could have been a complete distraction, trying to keep Azula occupied while something more devious, and dangerous, was going on beneath her nose.
She had gone up to the offices with the assumption that there were subversive elements in her forces trying to harm her and her allies, and even though she had reason to believe that, she had no real understanding of what their actual plans might be. A random attack on the earthbenders, one that could be easily dispensed with, seemed a bit unusual, in her opinion, given if their aim was to stop Azula, they would best try and isolate her, and then kidnap, or kill her, depending on their specific intentions. Though she doubted many at the base had the ability to kill her, she knew some might be arrogant enough in numbers to try and take her down.
"There's a possibility." she conceded that Ty Lee had reason to question the very assumption of it being an assassination attempt, "We don't know why those explosives were thrown your way, but we can assume it was meant to get our attention." she gave her opinion, "But why... I don't know."
"Maybe one of these stupid offices will give us the answer." her friend suggested, and she rolled her eyes; that was just stating the obvious, which was of no help to them.
"Let's just keep going." she told her, stepping on out of the office into the hallway, glancing down to see her men continuing to check office after office, slowly moving through the floor.
She paced past another office, noting that there were already a pair of guards inside, so moved to the other side of the hallway, reaching an office which hadn't been checked yet; she pushed the door open, and glanced on inside, noting that the desk was tidy, it's shelves were mostly lacking any scrolls, unlike previous offices she'd looked through. She furrowed a brow, before gesturing to the cabinet of papers.
"Ty Lee, go through those. I'm going to check the desk." she explained, her friend stepping past to begin pulling out the papers, checking each of them, one by one.
The Princess knelt down by the desk, taking her hand to the underside, where she felt along the grooves separating the paneling; instead of trying to open it, she checked to see if she could feel any damage, or signs of it being opened. Unsurprisingly, it didn't feel any different from the last, and she picked up the letter opener on the desk, and just like the last one, she jammed it under the panel, allowing her to slide it off and reach into the hollow interior. Feeling around, she felt only more dust and sighed, frustrated that none of the guards were actually using the compartment. She'd at least expect them to hide some illicit alcohol or drugs inside, but they weren't even hiding that. She realised it'd probably make more sense to hide such things in their personal quarters, which was not what they were searching through. Most officers had some rooms in the barracks, outside of the main compound, and she hadn't gotten up to searching there just yet, though she intended to do so if she didn't come up with anything on her present search.
"Princess!" she heard one of her guards shout out, and she immediately pulled her hand from inside the desk, and turned around, seeing one of the guards step into view with a frantic look on his face and a letter in his hand, "We got something."
"Something?" she narrowed her eyes, stepping closer toward the guard, eyeing down the hallway to check if anybody had come upstairs yet, "What?"
He just handed her the paper, and she unfolded it, scanning its contents at once; she immediately tense up upon realising what it said, because she realised that it wasn't just any letter. She thought it might have been a message from the Intelligence Service, at least the part of it under her father's control, but no, it was far worse than that- it was directly from the man himself, presumably written in the cell Zuko had kept him in before he reclaimed the throne.
The letter was addressed to Zhao, giving explicit commands on how to deal with her, dated not long after her rough up of General Zhang's forces back near Omashu. It confirmed her worst fears all at once, and all she could do was stand there with her mouth agape, unsure how to act on what she had just read; for weeks, she had just thought that Zhao had thrown her in that cell on his battleship because he knew about her alliance with the Avatar, but she now understood it was so much worse than that.
Ty Lee paced up behind her, and looked at her with a concerned face, unable to see what was on the letter, "Zula? What is it?"
She raised her hand up, pinching her fingers together to emphasise, "We were this close to being sent to my father in chains, Ty Lee."
"Wh-what?" she gasped, before taking the paper into her hands, having a look at it herself; her expression quickly shifted to one of fear, as she glanced down the hallway, "Azula. We've got to do something." she warned her, "Who- who else would know about these orders?"
"That's something we don't know." she conceded, before narrowing her eyes at the guard who had handed her the letter, "Whose office did you find this in?"
"Colonel Jinchi's office." the guard clarified, and she crossed her arms; that made almost too much sense, given the Colonel's clear abrasiveness and disdain towards the Earth Kingdom- he was the perfect subordinate for her father, and perhaps he had been the one to make contact with her father's forces, not Zhao, who might have been too prideful to consider cooperating with Ozai without good reason.
She sighed, raising a hand to her scalp as she ran her hand through her hair, "Well..." she mumbled, turning her gaze to Ty Lee, "We have to act at once. There is no point mulling over who might be a traitor- we already have one."
"How many of them could there be?" her friend asked, "Most of those officers might want your father to be the Fire Lord. I guessed they joined you thinking you were like him."
"As much as I hate to say it, you're right, Ty Lee." she conceded, before whistling out, catching the attention of everyone else on the floor, "Get out here!" she commanded them, and within a few moments, everyone had stepped out of the offices, and stood in the hallway, looking her way with interest; she took the letter out of Ty Lee's hands and raised it into the air, "This is what we were looking for!" she declared, before shaking her head, knowing that it was probably the worst news they could have received, barring something like Aang and Katara getting captured, "And it isn't good."
Sokka and Renshu, who were some distance away, down the hall, paced up toward her after hearing that, and both of them seemed concerned about what she'd just said; she turned her eyes to her boyfriend, realising he truly was owed an apology.
"What does that say?" he asked her, and she sighed, turning her eyes down to the document, deciding she might as well read it aloud so they understood the exact issue they were facing.
"Admiral Zhao, I command you, as your Fire Lord, to apprehend my fugitive daughter, Azula, for high treason and miscegenation." she read it out, disturbed that her father could have even said, given how he had treated her before she left the capital, that being the last time she had seen him, "You are to arrest her as soon as is possible, and if she comes to you seeking assistance, provide it as long as she can assist our efforts against the other nations, but only as much as you can ensure she made be apprehended and taken to the capital to face punishment for her crimes. If you fail to complete this task, I will have you arrested and imprisoned for the murder of twenty-three Fire Nation civilians in the Battle of Yu Dao, and for cowardice in the line of duty, for which the punishment is execution. Fail me, and you shall see my fury unleashed tenfold stronger than whatever my son gave you." she read it out, before turning her eyes toward Sokka, "You were right." she simply told him, "I never should have come here."
He stepped closer to her and stared her down, obviously concerned by what he had just heard, "And I assume the orders in this letter just don't stop because Zhao's in prison, right?"
"No, they wouldn't." she confirmed, before raising her chin up, "We need to speak with Jianren."
"That's what I was thinking." he agreed, before glancing toward the guards, "Should we... prepare?"
"There's not much that can be done to protect ourselves if the officers are on my father's side. We cannot reveal our knowledge, but we must prepare to face them... and I have a plan to make sure we are victorious." she assured him, having figured out how exactly she could fool her subordinates into revealing their treachery, and allow her to arrest them and place others in command who she could better trust to serve her.
"Your highness." Renshu addressed her, sounding equally concerned as Sokka was, "How exactly are you going to make the traitors clear?"
"Trickery." she simply told him, before stepping past the Captain, "But we should not waste any more time. We need to speak with Jianren and prepare to face those who seek to betray us." she explained her intentions, "The earthbenders are necessary for my plan."
"This escalated." Sokka mumbled behind her, before following alongside Ty Lee and the guards, who all moved with her toward the stairs.
She turned her eyes down toward the piece of paper, and clenched her fist, crumpling it as she recalled exactly what it had said; she hadn't wanted proof of her father's disregard, and now that she had, all she could feel was anger. She had dared to trust him, and think that he cared about her in any regard beyond her ability to serve his will and vision for the Fire Nation; she was just as dispensable as Zuko, and knowing that made her only feel guilt for how she had treated her brother. He had had the stomach to stand up and fight Ozai, after what he had done to him, dishonouring and scarring him so publicly; he was braver than she had ever been, and though she hadn't known better, now that she did, she realised that she was the fool, and he had been free for far longer than she had.
She might have been strong, both in bending and in mind, but Azula wasn't free until, ironically enough, she got shot by her own lightning in her chest. Azula had come all that way to avenge Ozai, still his pawn and under his thumb, despite the fact she believed he was dead; that was how powerful his will over her had been, and now, all she could feel was disgust and shame for her own weakness. She had once despised herself for failing to defeat Zuko, but now, she despised herself for failing to even step out of her father's shadow until she was given the choice to travel to the most desolate place in the world, and make it her home over the gilded cage she had enjoyed for all her life.
She knew that there was only one way she could react now, and all she could do was curse her brother's name, "Damn you Zuko, damn you and your pointless mercy." she snarled, frustrated that he had let her father live, which had now seemed to have cost him his life, if the stories were true, "Now, I'm going to have to do it." she acknowledged, realising that she would have to step into her brother's shoes and stare down the monster that was their father.
"Z-Zula?" she heard Ty Lee mumble behind her, and she felt a hand on her shoulder, stopping herself as she was partway down the stairwell, "Do what?"
"You already know what." she turned her eyes away, deciding to continue on; they had no time to talk about it now, "We can't talk now." she refused the implied desire of her friend to discuss whatever she was feeling, having read a letter that told her father wanted her in chains.
She recalled one of the charges, and grit her teeth, knowing that her father hated one thing more than anything else; it wasn't Azula siding with the Avatar, or consorting with Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes- it was falling in love with Sokka, and breaking her proverbial chains with him. She couldn't help but smile, knowing that she could spite her father ever more by marrying that stupid Water Tribesman and remaking the world in their image, not his. Fire Lord Sozin's mission, as her father saw it, was going to be incinerated, and she would fan the flames of the fire her brother and uncle had already started; she knew that they were capable of great things, and she was sure that with Sokka by her side, as well as Ty Lee, Katara and Aang, she could change the world, and make good on her promises, the ones she wanted to keep, at least.
As they made their way down to the bottom of the staircase, she folded up the piece of paper and slid it into her belt, making sure nobody might accidentally get ahold of it while she went outside of the compound; the chance of getting another explosive thrown her way was real, so she remained cautious, eyeing the entrance as they approached, where a few soldiers stood guard, turning to bow toward her in respect. She raised her hand to dismiss their deference, knowing that she needed to keep moving.
"Where are the earthbenders being treated?" she asked the men, who glanced amongst themselves, seeming unsure to the answer.
"Uh, we don't know, your highness." one of them admitted, "They haven't come through the gates."
"Maybe the physicians went to their little campsite?" Ty Lee suggested, and she scrunched her lips up, knowing that was their most likely location at the moment.
"We'll head there first." she decided, before pacing toward the gates, where the guards standing duty were all in form, cautious and prepared for another attack.
"Your majesty, would you like to leave the compound?" one of the soldiers asked her, and she nodded, the guard raising his hand up to signal one of his comrades, who pulled on a lever, pulling the metal doors open, allowing her to gaze out at the grounds surrounding the compound; there were a few soldiers looking around, obviously interested by the explosions and their aftermath, and now, by her presence.
She and the others paced through the gates, and she turned around to face the men standing guard, "Don't let anybody that isn't me or my associates back through these gates." she ordered them, and they nodded, before closing the gates shut.
She turned her eyes toward her boyfriend, who had stood up beside her, "Are you alright?" he asked her, and she shook her head.
"No, I'm not." she told him bluntly; she was afraid of what the traitors might do next, and she had to prepare, and act before they did, "We need to get things done." she argued, and began pacing right toward the encampment of the Earth Kingdom fighters, situated not too far from where they had been practicing with Ty Lee earlier; she could see a few of them standing watch at the edge of their small camp, and as she and the others got closer, a few of them stood forward, seeming concerned about the situation they'd found themselves.
"Princess, did you have any news?" one of them asked her, and she nodded.
"I do." she confirmed, "I need to speak with Jianren at once." she stressed, before glancing behind her, "Do me a favour and tell us if anybody else is watching us... I don't want unwanted visitors." she explained, and they nodded.
"We understand." one of them assured her, before giving a hand signal his comrades, "Keep an eye out." he told them, before Azula continued on into the camp, approaching the campfire that she could see a few of the earthbenders sitting around, accompanied by a few Fire Nation physicians, who were tending to the cuts, burns and bruises some of them had received from the explosions.
A few of them glanced up, surprised by her arrival at the camp, and she didn't address anyone, simply continuing on to the largest tent in the camp, where she knew Jianren would be speaking with his most trusted subordinates about what had happened, and what they might do next. She didn't want them to abandon her base, knowing that their assistance was vital in both rooting out the present threats and protecting against the imminent attack that would be coming from her father's army pushing through Yi Province.
Reaching the tent, she parted the canvas to glance inside, seeing Jianren sitting with a few of his subordinates on a mat, drinking tea; she could tell from their expressions that they were worried about what was going on, though the leader's face shifted to one of interest as he realised she was at his tent.
"Princess Azula." he addressed her, "I am glad to see you've come to my tent so quickly." he admitted with a small smile, "Did you find the perpetrators?"
"Not exactly." she conceded, before she glanced back toward her guards, "Keep an eye on the surrounds. Ty Lee, Renshu and Sokka, come in the tent with me." she gave them all the directives they'd need, and the three she wanted came into the tent after her, sitting down with her and Jianren's subordinates.
"So, what did you find?" he asked, and she reached for the letter, drawing it from her belt, and handing it over to him; he unfolded it, and quickly scanned over it, his eyes widening as he looked down it, "Who exactly is going to follow this order now that Zhao bastard is imprisoned by the Northern Water Tribe?" he asked her the question she presently still had no answer for, other than 'probably Colonel Jinchi'.
"This letter was found in the office of one Colonel Jinchi, and I believe, from my conversations with the man, that he could certainly still be loyal to my father, and willing to follow this order." she admitted, "Obviously, he has nothing to do with the cowardice and Yu Dao, being part of my forces from Ba Sing Se, but he came to join me like the others, out of opposition to my brother. I was my father's legitimate successor, and everyone who believed in his policies would have put themselves behind me had I not lost my duel and disappeared." she explained, before Jianren handed her the letter, which she put back on her belt.
"So, will you arrest Jinchi?" he asked the obvious, and she glanced to her side, eyeing Sokka and Renshu.
"No." she admitted, "That is not my plan. Going after one man would simply set the others into a frenzy, realising that I knew my subordinates were not as loyal as they claimed. If they try to capture me, then it will be a bloody battle, and even if I doubt they could win, I do not want to waste the lives of the men they would order to attack me. Their loyalty is to me, their Fire Lord, no matter what their superiors might tell them."
"So, what are we doing?" Sokka inquired, "Arresting all the officers?" he asked, and she snickered, realising that he wasn't actually far off her idea.
"No, not all of them, but we will need to call a meeting and get as many of them in the compound as possible. The navy men are an issue, given most of them are out at sea, but we can just hope they don't flee and defect once they hear about the events here."
"What are you planning, Princess?" Jianren asked, "I know I'm not one of your subordinates, so I'm not obliged to know what, but I assume you want our assistance to make sure these people are dealt with."
"I hope that you could help us stop those who tried to have you and your fighters killed." she explained her intentions in a way that would make it seem like it was his obligation to assist, as a commander.
"Sir, we definitely should help, even if this isn't part of the deal." one of his subordinates admitted, "They tried to kill us. They almost did get a few."
"I know." he sighed, sounding angry about that fact, "We will help you, Princess... but with what?"
"I need you to... well, imprison us." she admitted, making Sokka and Ty Lee both look at her with confusion.
"Sorry, imprison?" her friend asked her, "Imprison us where?"
"I need them to block the entire compound off so that once we have the officers inside, they will have no chance of escape." she explained, "That means that once I make them confess, they'll try and run, and they won't be able to. My guards will arrest them, and take them to the holding cells at once."
"And how are you going to make these guys confess?" Sokka asked her, "They seem pretty good at boot-licking, if you ask me."
"Oh, I have a very good idea." she assured him, "Intimidation is a good tactic to try first, just to see if they'll break, but I have something far better than that."
"Trickery." Renshu recalled, "What tricks are going to fool these men?"
"Only the most believable ones... for them. I want them to think they've won... or are about to." she explained, before smirking, "That's the other thing I need the earthbenders to do."
"Make some fake explosions or something?" her boyfriend guessed, and she snapped her fingers toward him.
"Spot on." she confirmed, "They'll drop some big boulders, just out of view of any windows in the compound, and they'll sound like artillery strikes." she explained, "Some of the guards will dress as ordinary soldiers, and I want them to look beaten up when they run upstairs. They'll say how Ozai's forces from Yi Province have already arrived, and are sieging down the encampment, ready to destroy us. The officers who are loyal will realise they have a chance to flee, and those who run, they'll have proven their guilt." she explained, and Sokka scoffed at her plan.
"That's crazy... crazy enough it might work." he admitted, giving his approval to her plan, even if he might have doubted its possibility.
Jianren placed his hands together, thinking over her plan, before he nodded, and smiled at her, "I believe that might work."
"But what happens if they don't believe the trick?" Renshu asked her, "Is there a backup to the backup plan?" he asked, and she narrowed her eyes.
"Well, I think we'll just cut straight to the chase." she conceded, "Simple is better when it comes to it, so we'll just have Ty Lee chi-block them, and interrogate the officers until they either give each other up or declare their treachery."
"So, will we tell them about Jinchi's possession of the letter?" Sokka asked, "Because if we don't, we can just check and see his reactions."
"We'll refrain from mentioning the letter until we properly interrogate them." Azula gave her opinion, "I am almost completely certain Jinchi is on my father's side, so gauging his reaction will help us see how easily the others will crack."
"And what if... they already see it coming." Ty Lee dared to suggest, "I don't think these guys are stupid. They might even know that you would find out about all this."
"Or the letter could have been planted." Renshu suggested, before narrowing his eyes at his superior, "Can you verify its authenticity?"
"This was certainly written by my father." she explained, "I've seen his penning before, and note that it doesn't have a seal. I believe that's because it would be a lot harder to smuggle that into a prison cell." she gave her argument for why she thought it was real, "And whether another officer planted it in Jinchi's office is yet to be seen. If he reacts defensively, then he is almost certainly a traitor, but if he's just confused, then perhaps your idea is correct."
"Trying to frame each other for a promotion." Jianren gave an almost humorous conclusion from Renshu's suggestion, "That's just insane."
"They could get away with it." Azula conceded, "It's hard for me to tell whether it was planted or not." she conceded, before turning around, "They didn't say how they found the letter, did they?"
"I'll go ask them right now, your majesty." the Captain offered, rising to his feet, before pacing on out of the tent to go find the guards who had acquired the letter in the first place.
She turned her gaze back toward the leader of the Earth Kingdom fighters, "Will you be ready to assist us this afternoon?" she asked, and he nodded.
"Those that are able can help with your plan, Princess." he assured her, "Once we've found the traitors, will you begin your plans to assist the Governor of Yi Province?"
"Yes." she confirmed, before narrowing her eyes, "I'll need you and your fighters to surround the compound and block it shut as soon as the officers have entered. I will request their presence as soon as I leave this camp, so they will be there soon." she warned him, Jianren nodding.
"I understand. We all want this problem solved as quickly as possible." he conceded, "What about the 'fake shelling'?" he asked, and she furrowed a brow.
"I will have a signal." she explained, before turning to face Ty Lee, "Remember that windowed office on the western side of the compound's first floor?" she asked her, her friend furrowing a brow.
"Yeah." she nodded, before turning to face Jianren, "I can go into the office and wave from the window. You guys should be able to see me if you have somebody standing a little away from the walls." she explained, and the leader nodded.
"Sounds like a plan." he agreed to her proposition, before turning his eyes to his fellow fighters, "Perhaps we should tell the others." the two fighters in the tent nodded, and all three of them rose to their feet; the leader then stepped closer to the Princess, and offered her a hand, "To victory?" he asked, and she smirked, before accepting his hand; she never would have imagined she'd shake hands with an Earth Kingdom fighter over anything, but there she was, working with him to root out her personal enemies.
"To victory." she confirmed, watching as he and his comrades stepped out of the tent, and Azula turned her gaze back to Sokka and Ty Lee, wondering what might come of the meeting; she hoped there was no traitors, though she honestly preferred to find them than to not- that would dissuade her fears, and assure that she was on top of things.
She was only a teenager, yet she was intent on ruling her own nation, as if it wouldn't be a struggle, but she was sure that it would be, even if she wouldn't admit her fears, knowing that she had to remain steady and focused for their sakes. She was the leader, the one they could trust to be ready to deal with things, and not freak out or run away, like she imagined some might in her circumstances.
"Are you alright?" her friend asked her, before eyeing her boyfriend, "Or... do you need a moment?"
She sighed, before reaching forward to hug her friend; she deserved it, after what had happened to her earlier that day. She had been put in danger because of Azula's ignorance and lack of caution, and now, she hoped she could solve the problem and prevent something like that ever happening again.
"Thank you." she whispered to her friend, before forcefully straightening her face, "Leave." she requested, "I need to speak with him." she indicated to her boyfriend, making her friend giggle.
"Oh, alright, Zula. You got it." she snapped a finger at her as she winked, making both Azula and Sokka cringe as she pranced on out of the tent, with a smug grin going from ear to ear.
"Urgh..." he boyfriend face-palmed as she left the tent, before he rose up to his feet, looking into her eyes, "So, what did you want to say?" he asked, as if the situation was about to become sensual; as much as she might have liked that, it was the furthest thing from her mind.
She raised a finger up toward his chin, "You might think I want to get romantic... but this isn't the time, Sokka." she warned him, "You heard what the letter said."
He narrowed his eyes at her, realising the seriousness of the situation, "Your father doesn't want you back anymore." he stated the obvious, "I guess... that makes you angry."
"I understand why." she admitted, before gritting her teeth, "But he can't stop me- no, us." she declared, placing her hands on his shoulders, "You're one who got me out of his grips, and now, I need- I need you to help me get rid of him."
"That was the plan." he nodded, "Has something changed?" he asked, sounding almost afraid of what she might say in response.
She let go of his shoulders, and turned her eyes away, "No, that's the thing." she mumbled under her breath, "He's never cared, that's the thing."
"You have me." he assured her, "I won't let him hurt us." he assured her, and she scoffed.
"You can't even bend Sokka. Do you know what my father is like?" she asked, raising a finger toward his face, "He burnt half my brother's face off just for speaking out of turn in a meeting. What do you think he's going to do to us?"
"Nothing." the Water Tribe teen retorted, before grasping her by the shoulder, "We're going to show him where good his obsession with strength and power can get him." he assured her, and she somehow felt relieved by it, despite the fact he was talking about killing her father; she didn't hate him like Zuko did, and that was the whole problem, as despite her anger toward him, she didn't know if she could do it when it came down to it.
"We have to do it." she acknowledged, "We're the ones who have to do it." she stressed, "Aang won't have the guts to do it, unless he's in the Avatar State." she admitted, before turning her eyes away, "I don't even know if we can persuade him. He's a twelve year old pacifist- out of all people, he can't kill the Fire Lord."
"Yeah, I know." he nodded, before letting out a deep breath, "He hates what you've done." he suggested, "But that doesn't matter." he stressed, "He wants to get rid of us, fine, he can send as many people as he likes." he suggested, before gesturing outside the tent, "He can turn as many of your men against you, but he can't stop us. We have something stronger than his hate."
"You sound like you're about to go on a Katara tangent." she joked, and he let out a snicker.
"Well, she's right. We have hope. We have a vision for a future that we can make, because we know how, and we won't stop until we stop him and everyone like him. We can save our nations, and then... we'll make something better than this."
She narrowed her eyes at him, before raising her chin up, "But you do hate... don't you Sokka? Everybody does."
"Then who do you hate, Azula? Zuko? Your uncle?" he asked her, and she turned around, before she sighed, knowing that she couldn't even claim that anymore.
"No, I don't hate them, not anymore. They frustrate me, and I don't want to work with my uncle, but I don't really have much of a choice." she explained her feelings as briefly as she could, "I might hate him now... but I don't even know if I do."
"Are you afraid of hating him?" he asked, and she narrowed her eyes at him, turning around to step closer to him.
"I'm only afraid of losing." she argued, before grasping his shoulders again, "And I know we won't." she assured him, before her attention was drawn behind her by footsteps; she turned around to see the Captain, who parted the canvas to look at both her and Sokka, stepping back slightly as he realised how close they were to the opening of the tent.
"Your majesty." he addressed her, "They explained where they found the letter. It was located at the bottom of the cabinet... so not that hidden." he explained, the Princess narrowing her eyes.
"But hard to reach." she observed, "That doesn't tell us whether the letter was planted or not." she conceded, before glancing behind him to see Ty Lee standing out in the campsite, speaking with some of the injured fighters; her friend glanced back toward her, and the Princess cringed for a moment, realising she ought to hurry up and get to the point with Sokka, "We'll find out soon enough." she acknowledged, knowing that they would be leaving the campsite and she would call on the officers for the meeting that would reveal who, if any of them, were traitors.
"Uh, did you need me to leave you two be?" the Captain asked her, and she nodded, before he dropped the canvas, leaving them alone in the tent once again.
"Sokka." she addressed her boyfriend, "You didn't actually say who you hate. Now I'm no psychic, but I'm pretty sure you do hate some people."
"Just have to be a downer, don't you?" he crossed his arms, before shaking his head, turning his eyes away from her, "You know who I hate."
"Yon Rha?" she asked, and he nodded; the Water Tribesman seemed to still be intent on taking down his mother's killer, especially given he knew who he was- at one point, it might have been a distant wish, but now, there were some tangible ends to find some closure on that specific issue.
"We'll get around to him." he declared, before he stepped closer to her, "But what about you?" he asked her, sounding more hopeful than foreboding, "There's people you need to find." he suggested, and she turned her eyes away, realising who he was referring to.
Azula wouldn't go as far as to say she hated her mother, given how she had treated her paled in comparison to what her father had merely declared in that letter, she still didn't like her, and felt as if she would never be able to find the answers that part of her wanted. She had once wanted to see her just so she could gloat and proclaim her position as Crown Princess and future Fire Lord, but those long past thoughts only seemed unusual in her present mind. That was her long-unsolved issue, and as much as she wanted to cover it up with anger toward her mother for being a poor parent, part of her wanted to see her again, and somehow dispel all the things she thought about her as simply Ozai's lies. That was just hopeful thinking on her behalf, given she did abandon her, and Zuko, for that matter, to her father's clutches.
"I don't want to see Mother." she declared, half a lie, mostly because she didn't want to admit that part of her did want to see her.
"Are you-" he began to ask, before shaking his head, and reaching in to grab her; if it were anyone else, barring Ty Lee, she'd uppercut them in the chin, but she let him hug her, and she felt his heartbeat as her head leaned up against his neck, wondering why he didn't say anything.
Perhaps he just knew, without having to ask, that it was a topic that was best left untouched; they couldn't do anything about her mother, given she had no idea where she was, let alone if she was still alive, so talking about her would just be a distraction.
"You don't have to see her, Azula." he assured her, before snickering, "I mean, we have no idea where she is."
"I know." she admitted, before narrowing her eyes, "The only person that would is father... he's the reason she left the palace. I know it."
"I don't think we'll get that out of him." he conceded, before chuckling, "But you don't need to worry about her." he assured her, smiling at her brightly, "You have me and the others. Ty Lee, Katara and Aang. We care. Gran-Gran and Dad too." he assured her, making her smile for a moment; even if she didn't really have much of a family left, her 'new family' of sorts, seemed to be much better than the last, no matter how much she and Katara butted heads- it was less than she did with Zuko, so that was a start.
"Ah, and Katara's the new annoying sibling." she acknowledged, making him snicker.
"She's not that bad." he argued, "She's only trying to do what's best for us." he argued, before scrunching his lips up, "Well, she is now."
She turned her head around, and sighed, realising they had things to do; so, she turned back to face him, and closed the gap between them, kissing him on the lips. Although she hadn't intended for it to be impassioned, she couldn't help herself; she needed the reassurance he provided, and he was more than willing to oblige, his hands grasping her back as she embraced him. It could only last for so long, and when she pulled back, she narrowed her eyes at him, ready to do what had to be done, for their sakes, and for the sake of all the soldiers at her base, who might otherwise end up partaking in a conspiracy that would only give them grief, out of no choice of their own.
"Let's trick some traitors."
Toph was tired of flying around on Appa's saddle, and after a good day spent crossing wilderness, she was glad to return to some semblance of civilisation; she didn't mind the wilds themselves, but she knew that going to a village would give her a good excuse to dig her toes into the ground and enjoy her connection with the earth, as well as practice her seismic sense. Seeing that her abilities were effectively useless up on the flying bison, when they were soaring above the clouds. She assumed for sighted people, that would be quite a wonderous thing, but for her, it was only windy and cold.
Like Aang and Katara, she had put on a disguise, as they had arrived at a colonial settlement, presumably one of the closest to Omashu, given they were only still a few days from the city by sky-bison. She had sensed around for soldiers where they landed, but was relieved to inform her companions that their chosen landing spot was well isolated from the settlement, located on a rocky hill that was full of trees and lacking any houses, farms or mines- clearly undeveloped.
The other two made a fuss out of looking as Fire Nation as possible, and Aang kept going on about wearing a bandana, and doing his hair so that it covered his tattoos, something that confused her. She didn't really understand what they were, but supposedly, they were markings on the skin that Air Nomads received when they mastered airbending. She couldn't sense them, so it intrigued her, and when she had tapped his arm where there was supposedly a marking, it felt no different to the rest of his skin. Toph hadn't put much effort into her disguise, simply putting on a tunic and pants that were Fire Nation, so that she wouldn't stand out too much, and when she strode out of the cave where she had changed, the other two seemed amused, though she couldn't tell why.
"What is it?" she asked them, the other two turning to face each other.
"Oh, you put your tunic on the wrong way." Katara explained, and Toph scrunched her lips up; she was sure that the clothes were symmetrical when she was unfolding them, so she couldn't understand how she was wearing it the wrong way.
"How-" she patted down her tunic, "What do you mean the wrong way?"
"The collar." Aang gestured toward her, "The collar's meant to be pointing away from your neck, not going up to it."
She felt at her nape, realising that the fabric parted there, and she face-palmed, cringing from her mistake; it was an obvious miss that seemed a lot easier for her to make, given she couldn't see and she turned away, ashamed by her mistake.
"Urgh, I'll be a second." she grumbled as she paced back into the cave; once she was sure the other two couldn't see her, she pulled the tunic and its accompanying belt off, and turned the tunic around, making sure the collar was facing around the right way.
She shook her head, frustrated that she had just been made a fool of; Toph pursed her lips, deciding that she'd need to get back at the other two by making fun of them. She was sure that she'd be able to sense something in the town they couldn't see, and then, when she pointed out the obvious, they'd be the fools. She smirked at the thought as she pulled the tunic back over her torso, before retying the belt. Now redressed, she paced on out of the cave, approaching her companions, who seemed to still be amused by her mistake; she tried not to show her anger about it, and straightened her face as she stepped up beside them.
"So, are we going?" she simply asked, and they nodded.
"Yeah, we'll head down to the town, and see if we can find some place to eat." Aang gave his thoughts, "I could go for some street food."
"You always do like it." Katara noted, before she turned to face Toph, "How about you? Anything you'd like to go eat?"
"I dunno." she shrugged her shoulders; the young Air Nomad stepped closer to her, and she leaned back a little, finding his closeness a little uncomfortable.
"But if you had to choose something, what would it be?"
She sighed, knowing that she could go for something other than the basic stews that Katara usually cooked, or the countless rice crackers and dried fruits they had packed in the saddle bags, "Probably some noodles." she gave her opinion, not really in the mood to waste their money on anything too lavish.
She didn't actually know how much they had, but she guessed that it wasn't much, and Toph herself didn't have much either, most of her coins having been scrounged off Fire Nation soldiers, or part of her measly pay as a fighter in New Omashu. King Bumi was far more into providing them with food and housing than actually paying them in coin, though she didn't blame him, given it was hard to come by in their recluse, underground city.
"Sounds good." Aang nodded, before grabbing her by the arm, "Come on, let's go."
"Not so fast." she retorted as she wrung her arm free from his grip, which wasn't that strong, "We need to take a path out to this town that isn't suspicious. I don't think just climbing down the hill out of nowhere is going to seem very normal to anybody there." she argued, and the pair nodded.
"Good point." Katara agreed with her, "Maybe we should go around and try and find the road into town. Then we can pose as travellers." she suggested, and with that, Toph began sensing ahead of them, trying to make out where the nearest road was; roads were distinct if they were made of gravel or stone, but otherwise, they were rather indistinct tracks of dirt, but she was able to deduce their location by sensing for heartbeats.
She could note a few of them stringing off in a line over some distance, and gestured in the direction of the nearest heartbeats, "The roads that way." she gave her best deduction, and Aang turned to face her, clearly impressed by her seismic sense.
"Okay I've really gotta learn that technique." he admitted, "You can just tell where it is, without even being near?" he asked, and she nodded.
"Uh, yeah, that's how it works. As long as there's earth, I can sense it." she explained, "Really, it goes on as far as I can bother focusing, though it becomes harder with distance."
"It is impressive." the Water Tribe girl conceded, and began pacing into the woods in the direction she had pointed, "Well, we shouldn't waste too much time. It'll get dark soon."
"That ain't a problem for me, Sugar Queen." Toph reminded her, and she hummed with interest.
"Oh, that's a good point. Maybe we can sneak into places at night." she observed, "I don't know when it'll be useful, but it'll work." she noted, the Earth Kingdom girl smirking; her abilities gave her advantages over everyone else, especially in the dark.
"That's why I like going underground when i fight. Nobody can see me, but I can sense everyone around me."
"Unless they're flying." Aang raised his hand up to argue, and she scrunched her lips up, reminded of how annoying airbending would be, if she ever had to actually fight Aang.
"Airbending is annoying." she simply commented, "Though, I guess it's as strong as my element if I can't beat it." she conceded, making Aang let out a surprised gasp.
"Wait, you really think so?"
"If you glide around, how am I meant to hit you? Unless you are shouting so I can hear where you are, it sounds pretty hard." she argued, and he let out a chuckle.
"Ah yeah, that's what was happening when we first met you." he recalled, and Katara snickered.
"And she beat you by asking to talk with you, politely."
"Yeah, I can use my words too." Toph argued, "Not all brawn here, though I am pretty strong." she boasted, and the Water Tribe girl turned her face away, presumably a little annoyed by her words.
She smirked at the thought of how annoyed she might be by her confidence; she was sure that Katara was also certain of her abilities, but lacked the guts to say it out loud. She didn't strike as the bragging type, though she didn't find issue with it; having two tough, cocky benders would be a little much, and might cause some friction. She realised that the Princess likely fit that description quite well, and she couldn't help but smirk at the thought of the arguments they'd have, and even better, the spars.
As they made their way down toward the road, winding through the woods, which were challenging to traverse, given the thick bushes that dotted their path; Aang pushed the bushes out of the way, and Katara was even using her waterbending like a machete to slice through the foliage. She could hear some voices off in the distance, though they were too far to make out anything notable. She did know exactly where the voices were coming from, however, and knew that they ought to avoid stepping out onto the road right in front of some passersby.
When they neared the treeline, she raised her hand up in front of Katara, stopping her in her tracks, before she gestured toward the people she had heard, "We should wait for these people to pass before we head into town."
Aang crouched down, parting one of the bushes in their way to look out at the people who were walking by; she guessed that he might be concerned if they were soldiers or something like that, but she could already sense what kind of clothes they were wearing.
"They're not soldiers." she told him bluntly, and he glanced back, seeming confused.
"Wait, you could tell that too?"
"Yeah, I can sense people's clothes too, if I focus." she explained, before raising a finger to her lips, indicating for him to quieten; he did so, and they remained silent as the people walked by.
They were speaking a little too quietly for her to make out their conversation, and she didn't really care for it; she did note that their heartbeats were running a little higher than what she'd expect. They didn't seem like they had just been for a jog or anything like that, so she was sure it had to do with their emotions. What could be making people walking through the woods nervous confused her; she guessed it could have been because they didn't like the Fire Nation, and it was clear that they controlled the town.
"Are we good now?" Katara asked her, and Toph nodded, before pushing a bush out of the way to step out into the cleared area surrounding the road.
"I'm looking forward to this food, trust me." Aang piped up before he began hastily making his way down the road, though Katara immediately warned him with a whistle.
"Don't run off, Aang. I know you can handle yourself, but we don't know what's going to be happening in this town. Remember last time we decided to just go off to a market without paying much attention?"
"Pastries and explosions." Aang recalled, and Toph furrowed a brow, realising there was a story they hadn't told him.
"Okay, I don't really see what those two things have to do with each other." she admitted, "Sounds like an interesting story." she conceded, following after the other two, who led the way down the road; the town was still a bit of a walk away, and the market was located by the centre, so she knew they'd take a while.
"We went to a colonial town, probably similar to this one, except way far away, near Azula's base." the Air Nomad explained, "We had just stopped flying, and we decided to go buy some food, because... well, you've seen what we have on the saddle." he gave reference to the crackers and dried fruits they had supposedly subsisted on for the better part of a month.
"There was a stall selling pastries, and we decided to buy some." Katara spoke up, before her heartbeat hastened, clearly indicating the memory wasn't very nice, "Then something exploded. The town hall, which was right by the stall, had been attacked by Earth Kingdom fighters... probably like the ones at New Omashu."
"And they just blew up a town hall? Do you even know why?" she asked, knowing such a tactic, however eye-catching, didn't seem effective in actually driving out the Fire Nation occupiers.
"No." Aang admitted, before turning his head slightly so he could presumably look her in eye, something completely unnecessary in her opinion, "Katara was hurt, but we decided to go help the civilians, because some of them were hurt too." he explained, "Then we had to run, but we didn't forget the pastries."
"They were pretty good." the Water Tribe girl admitted, "The Fire Nation soldiers there didn't like us intervening, and they figured out Aang was the Avatar quickly enough."
"So you beat them?" she guessed, and Aang cringed.
"Well, not really. We stopped them from chasing us, got on Appa, and flew away."
"Eh, that's not as cool as slamming down like a whole town garrison." she argued, making him cringe.
"You say that like we're going to do it at some point." he mumbled, and she raised a finger to her chin; she knew that Azula had plans to fight a number of people, including her father, the Dai Li, and whatever Fire Nation groups would be opposing her claim to the throne.
"Doesn't the Princess want to defeat the Dai Li again?" she asked, "You're gonna need to get some practice." she argued, knowing that there might be a lot of agents for them to fight at once.
"Wouldn't be good practice, seeing that Fire Nation soldiers firebend and the Dai Li earthbend." Katara gave her own opinion, and the Earth Kingdom girl chuckled.
"Okay then, I guess I'll just have to pretend to be a Dai Li agent when we spar." she suggested, and the Air Nomad boy fell silent, seeming to consider her idea.
"But do you even know how the Dai Li fight?" he asked her, and she scrunched her lips up; she had heard about them from a number of people, including Jet and his friends, who had had to face off against some agents back in Ba Sing Se.
"I've heard about their tactics before. Sneaky and fast, they say."
"Sokka and Azula have both fought them." Katara noted, "So, they could give you advice on how to replicate how they fight." she suggested, and Toph smirked.
"So, that's it." she nodded, "I'll teach you how to fight them once the couple give me some pointers on how exactly they became the most feared organisation in the country."
"She's gone on tirades about the Dai Li's history before." the Water Tribe girl spoke up, "That made for some... unusual campfire chats."
"Would you like to tell us about them then?" she asked, a little curious to learn some more about them herself.
"I don't think that's the best idea, seeing where we are." she gestured around them, indicating to the fact they had just begun walking through the town proper, the woods peeling back behind them, with the road now flanked on both sides by houses, gardens and workshops.
Toph hadn't been to many Fire Nation settlements before, but she could tell they were different to Earth Kingdom towns. Even if they were built over old settlements, the streets were always straighter, and the buildings more tidily placed, with wide, well-maintained streets. She would admit that they were nicer than most places she had visited in her country.
Gaoling was decent, but even then, the streets and sewerage channels were always dirty and badly maintained, even if the architecture wasn't too shabby. She could tell the stark difference in a colonial town, when instead of smelling shit, she could only smell smoke from factories or the burning of coal inside people's houses.
"There really aren't many people out." Katara observed, and Toph sensed up ahead down the street; she was right, only sensing a few people out on the street, though she could sense more heartbeats further in the distance, presumably coming from the market which they were heading to.
"Weird." Aang mumbled, "What do you think's going on?"
"Maybe people are just out working." the Earth Kingdom girl gave her own thoughts, "You know, not everybody's a vagrant just running around the world, working with royalty." she joked, making both of them snicker.
"I'm not- okay, I guess I am a vagrant. That's why we're called Air Nomads." he argued, and she shrugged her shoulders.
"I got that." she assured him, "Bandana-wearing kids aren't Air Nomads, remember?" she warned him, knowing that they ought to keep their conversation off of any topic that might give away their identities, given that even if there weren't many people about, they could still be heard.
"Got it." he assured her, before they all fell silent again, continuing on down the street toward the centre of the town.
Sensing ahead of them, she noticed something that she wouldn't ever fail to recognise; she could sense some men down the road from them wearing the armour of Fire Nation soldiers, and she gestured in their direction, "Can you guys see the soldiers?" she asked, and they glanced toward her for a moment.
"Soldiers?" Katara asked, sounding concerned by the fact, "Where?" she asked, and Toph scanned ahead, realising that the bend in the road would make it hard for them to see who she was referring to.
"There's some up the road." she explained, "Should we turn and go another way, or keep going?" she asked, knowing that they had the option of taking a detour.
"We don't know why they're there." Aang admitted, "It could just be patrol. Nothing bad." he suggested, sounding as optimistic as ever.
"They're standing still." she explained, and the Water Tribe girl raised her hand in front of them to stop them from getting closer.
"Why would they do that?" she asked, "Are they guarding something?"
Toph sensed back ahead once more, trying to sense past where she sensed the soldiers; ahead of them was the market, and she could sense a lot of heartbeats that way.
"I don't think so. I think they're just standing guard on the street. Probably to inspect people... you know, customs." she explained, and they both nodded, understanding what she meant; it could be the most mundane thing, like checking people's bags, though they'd have to just find out when they reached them.
Aang and Katara didn't speak up again, telling her that they weren't going to make a detour, feeling confident enough to just go up and approach the soldiers; she didn't find issue with that, confident in her own ability to lie her way through any kind of shakedown they might receive, being outside travellers entering the town. As they drew closer to the soldiers, she sensed her companions heartbeats hastening a little, and she could sense the soldiers standing firm and ready to make them halt. That suspicion was confirmed when one of them raised their hand and spoke up.
"Halt. We need to check you before you go any further into town." the soldiers spoke up, and Toph stepped closer to them, thinking she could talk some information out of them.
"Yeah, okay, but why? We're just passing through." she explained their intentions, and the soldier gestured in the direction of the market.
"Because we can't let any potential saboteurs into the town." he explained, "Today's execution day."
"S-sorry, execution day?" Aang nervously asked, and the soldier nodded.
"We're teaching some peasants a lesson. They killed our comrades, after all, so it's right. Loyal men of our nation. You're free to watch. A lot of colonists will." he explained, and the Avatar's heartbeat seemed to go crazy upon hearing that; he didn't like it one bit, and Toph was surprised he was even keeping it together.
"We'll pass." Katara spoke for the group, "We just want to get some food." she explained, and the soldier stepped closer to her.
"Okay, but I'm going to need to check your bags." he explained, and she pulled her own bag from her shoulder and handed to it him; he looked at it for a bit, and then gave it back to her, before gesturing toward Aang, "What's with the bandana? Are you part of a gang or something?"
"Uh... no, of course not, sir." he tried to excuse himself, acting amusingly formal to him; something told Toph that he really wasn't used to dealing with people in positions of authority.
The soldier snickered, before patting him on the shoulder, "I'm just kidding." he assured him, before stepping out of their way, "You're free to go on now. Just watch yourself." he warned them, and the group paced on past the soldiers.
Once they'd walked out of earshot, Aang let out a sigh, before shaking his head, "This can't be good." he admitted, "They say they're going to execute people." he stated what the soldier had told them, "We can't let them."
Katara raised a hand to his shoulder, clearly concerned as well, though perhaps it was more about Aang's reaction, "Just calm down, Aang." she tried to dissuade his fears, "We can figure out what they're going to do, and then, we can see if we can help whoever they're trying to kill."
"Some Earth Kingdom fighters." Toph stated what was clear enough, "People like me." she added, realising that they were probably a lot like her and the people she had fought alongside for over a year.
"We can't let them do that." Aang declared, "It's not right."
"We can't just intervene in every bad situation we come across." she warned him, "I mean, I agree. It's wrong, and we should stop them... but Katara has a point. We need to figure things out." she argued, before smirking, "Luckily for you, I am a master earthbender who can sense with my feet. I'll figure out where these fighters are, and we can find them, and maybe, get some food along the way."
"Maybe we shouldn't worry about that anymore." the Water Tribe girl suggested, and Aang cringed, slumping his shoulders.
"Aw... but I'm pretty hungry." he complained, "Are you sure we can't do both?"
"There's food in the saddle-bag." Toph reminded him, "So, we don't need to get anything." she argued, before gesturing ahead, "We should go." she told them sternly, and they followed after her towards the town centre; she usually didn't feel obliged to do anything, but knowing she could help people like herself from certain death, she knew she had to act.
They remained silent as they approached the massing of people that she could sense ahead of them, and quickly enough, the trickle of people on the street had become a crowd, and forced them to wind around the other people as they drew closer to the town square, surrounding which was the local market; she could sense a few people, clearly soldiers from their attire, standing by the centre of the square, and with them were a number other people, whom she could sense a chain connecting them; they were the prisoners who they had to help, if they could find a way to do so. As they stepped up toward the edge of the square, past which there was nobody but the soldiers and prisoners, they stopped, standing beside the other onlookers.
She sensed Aang tense up behind her, before shaking his head, "We... we have to do something."
"I know." Katara assured him, before she turned around, "We've got to find a way to distract those soldiers." she whispered to them.
Toph sensed around them, trying to find something that would be of use to them; she sensed that beneath the square were a number of pipes, presumably running water to houses, and she realised how useful that could be for them. Her Water Tribe companion, being a waterbender, only had her water skin to bend with, but if she could rip out the pipe in the direction it was running, the pumped water would burst out and allow her to waterbend, and presumably, beat the soldiers with ease.
Though she was a great earthbender, she was sure that the soldiers were trained and prepared to deal with the prisoners bending, let alone any of their comrades who tried to come and save them. She could sense that the shackles around the earthbenders' hands and feet would prevent them from earthbending easily, so she decided that allowing her friends to waterbend would be the best way to solve the problem, even if she didn't doubt her ability to fight the soldiers. The issue lay with the soldiers' experience with earthbenders and their presumed lack of knowledge about waterbending and how to combat it.
"Can you sense the water in the pipes?" she asked the Water Tribe girl, whose head turned down, before she hummed with interest.
"Oh... I can. It's flowing right below us." she observed, making Toph smirk, glad that she understood their potential advantage.
"I'm going to bend up the pipe closest to the soldiers, and break it open. You take the water, trap the soldiers, and then we'll free the prisoners." she explained her plan, and Aang turned to face her.
"Okay, you're good at this." he conceded, "Let's do this." he told her with a confident voice; clearly, her tactics had given him the assurance that they could actually stop the soldiers before they did anything.
"Let's just wait and see what they're going to do to them first." Katara spoke up, "If they start gloating about being superior and all that, that'll be the time to strike."
"Ah, I love embarrassing ash-makers." Toph admitted, agreeing with her idea, before she turned her attention toward the soldiers; she sensed one of them step off the ground onto what she assumed was a wood platform, seeing that she could only weakly sense him by the weight his body exerted on said platform.
"Listen here, my fellow countrymen and patriots." he spoke up, sounding prideful and cocky, and she could sense that more people were gathering around the edges of the town square, "These men are the enemies of our great nation, who have tried to undermine our great march of progress. They stand not just in our way, but have taken the lives of our comrades, the loyal soldiers who fight for your nation." he explained, "They are sentenced to death for the destruction of a convoy of soldiers who simply wanted to help protect these great colonies from traitors and bandits who seek to despoil us of our wealth."
Unsurprisingly, there were a few cheers from the crowd, though not as many as she'd have guessed; perhaps the colony had an Earth Kingdom population as well, and they might have, like them, shown up to the execution, though perhaps out of anguish and grief for their fellow countrymen, and not by accident.
"The Fire Nation will never fall to these savages, and today, we will remind those who seek to attack us for only doing what is right." the soldier declared, even louder than before; he stopped his speech for a moment, and his voice quietened, "Take form." he ordered the other soldiers, who moved around to take positions behind the chain-gang of prisoners.
"Kill the rebels!" she heard somebody cheer out from the crowd.
"For the Fire Nation!" she heard another, and Toph cringed, realising that, disturbingly enough, their policies actually had support- not everyone was as considerate as General Iroh, it seemed.
"The Fire Nation is no longer ruled by weak-willed cowards." the soldier declared, obviously referring to Zuko, who had been the recognised Fire Lord until about a week prior, when he was supposedly killed by assassins, "We will not stand for this savagery, and we will remind you who we are. All hail Fire Lord Ozai!" he shouted out, before Toph felt a hand on her shoulder; it was Katara, and she could tell from her heartbeat that she wanted to act.
"Do it." she gave her the signal, and without delay, the Earth Kingdom girl decided that she would get their attention.
"Ozai can eat shit!" Toph shouted out, catching the attention of the onlookers, and making the soldiers turn around as they realised that she was talking to them,
"How dare-" the speech-giver began to shout at her; however, they only had a moment to react before she ripped the water-pipe out from underneath them, destroying the stone tiles beneath the platform in the process, and the pipe burst through and broke the wooden platform apart.
The soldier who had been giving his speech fell off the broken platform, and didn't have any time to prepare when what sounded like a flush of water splashed him before instantly freezing, the same water coiling around and striking all the firebenders, who were then ensnared by it. Katara had done it, and with the soldiers momentarily ensnared, Toph raced forward to assist the prisoners, raising up stone walls to keep the soldiers away; she used her earthbending to propel herself up into the air, before landing right in front of the prisoners, whose heartbeats were going crazy, obviously not expecting what happened.
"Who- what's going on?" one of them asked her, and she smirked.
"The Blind Bandit's here to save your butts." she declared, before using her earthbending to grip the shackles around their feet, ripping the metal apart with a single swing of her arm, "You're free to thrash the Fire Nation now." she suggested, before she dropped the walls; the Fire Nation soldiers were still trying to break their icy bindings, and Katara and Aang had stepped up to the broken platform beside her; suddenly she heard the sound of metallic scratching as she sensed the hand-shackles of the prisoners get broken.
They flexed their arms as they quickly moved into form, seeming to appreciate what the group had done for them, "Oh, we'll thrash them, don't you worry." one of the prisoners assured her before thrusting his right hand forward, creating a pillar which struck the leading soldier out of its icy bounds, and audibly shattered his ribcage as he was flung back across the town square, almost falling into the crowd that surrounded them.
"Get the foreigners!" she heard one of the onlookers shout out, and suddenly, a few civilians, indicated by their lack of armour, rushed toward them; Aang spun his hands around, before creating an airblast, which knocked them off their feet.
"Better luck next time." he mocked their failure, before he reached forward, bending one of the stone tiles off the ground to use as a shield, which admittedly impressed Toph; he wasn't even that well trained, yet he had already figured out how to use his earthbending in the right situations.
"That- that's the Avatar!" one of the prisoners exclaimed with surprise, and Toph raised her fist up, pulling out some earth to toss at any soldiers that came toward them.
"Oh, he is." she confirmed, "This is the part where they run away." she told them, before throwing her rock toward a soldier who tried to attack them, stepping into the square; she heard a small blast as he probably broke her attack, though that didn't help him as she stomped her foot down, creating a pillar right below him, knocking him back off his feet.
Toph turned to face Aang and Katara, noting that they were both taking form, ready to fight off any more attackers, "Let's make a path out of here." she suggested, and they nodded; she thrust her right fist forward, making the ground shake around the edge of the town square, which scared the onlookers away, who moved right out of their path.
She then sensed around the ensnared soldiers, and moved to incapacitate them at once, and even though they tried to squirm, move their arms and firebend at her and the others, Katara's icy bindings were too strong for them. She tossed small rocks at the soldiers, striking their heads and knocking them out; without them to worry about, she began running for the street, ready to lead the prisoners out of town.
They had been throwing rocks at the soldiers who were supposed to be guarding the town square from potential attackers, who had completely failed to realise that she and her friends were intending to free the prisoners. The prisoners weren't all earthbenders, and those that weren't stuck close to their comrades, obviously not wanting to face the flames of an angry firebender when they had presumably been marched around in chains all day.
They all followed her, Aang and Katara as they ran out of the town square, intent on getting out of the town; there would be no chance for them to buy snacks, but that was of no concern to Toph. She had just saved some Earth Kingdom fighters who could continue their struggle to protect their fellow countrymen, and help stop Ozai and his plans, which despite being a little vague, were clearly not in the interests of anybody in the Earth Kingdom.
When she saw a group of soldiers blocking the street leading out of the market, she simply thrust her foot into the ground, ripping apart the street beneath their feet as they tried to firebend at them. However, their fire streams coursed forward, forcing her to raise up some of the dirt below the street to create some defences. Aang jumped forward, using his airbending to deflect the flames away from them, as she felt the heat dissipate in front of her.
"Thanks." she acknowledged his assistance, before she sensed behind them, not wanting to accidentally let some more soldiers attack them from behind because she was solely concerned with making it out of the town.
To her luck, it seemed that the earthbenders amongst the prisoners were defending the rear, breaking apart buildings and the street to create further obstacles for both the attackers and their bending. She sensed around, and realised that almost all the civilians were frantically running away, in all directions as the clash of bending had consumed the street. Waterbending on one side, from Katara and Aang, whacking down soldiers and throwing them around, and earthbending on another, blocking the firebenders from chasing them, while damaging the street and nearby buildings in the process.
She sensed up the street, and realised it was effectively clear, with the only people remaining frantic and fleeing civilians, and Toph gestured down the road, "We need to run, nowǃ" she shouted to the people following her, and they heeded, staying behind her as she used her earthbending to speed herself up.
She didn't even need to take a step as she effectively used the ground below her as a vehicle, propelling her motions with wide strides. When she sensed that she was close to the hill that they had landed on, she turned down a street and moved down it, before she used her bending to break down some dividing walls, allowing her and the others to make a break for the woods. When she reached the treeline, Toph turned around to face the others, sensing out for any pursuers; despite the beatings they had received, the Fire Nation soldiers did not let up, and she understood it was not because of the prisoners, but because of Aang. With that in mind, she moved into form, standing still by the edge of the woods as Aang and Katara caught up, both stopping in front of her.
"What are you doing, Toph?" the Air Nomad boy frantically asked her, "We've got to get back up to Appa and out of here."
"They're going to chase us the whole way." she told him the fact of the matter, before smirking with an idea in mind, "Remember how I told you about shooting myself into the air with my earthbending?" she asked him, and he stepped closer, seeming a little confused.
"What?" he asked her, "How is that going to-" he began, before glancing up the hill, "You want Appa to catch you." he realised her intentions, before shaking his head, "Toph, you're crazy."
"No, I'm a genius." she retorted, "I can keep the Fire Nation busy while everyone else tries to get away, and then I'll shoot myself up. All you need to do is catch me."
"This doesn't sound like a good idea." Katara admitted her own opinion, "We can just get to the cave, Toph. We don't need you to try and shoot yourself onto Appa."
"Trust me." she turned to face the Water Tribe girl, "I can do this." she assured her, "And we can't let them get caught." she gestured to the escaped fighters who were running their way.
"They're still comingǃ" one of them shouted to warn them, and Toph readied herself, picking up any large rocks she could sense sitting on the ground and drew them near her, ready to use them as projectiles.
"Keep runningǃ" she shouted at them, "I'll deal with these guys." she assured the former prisoners, and they continued running past her into the woods, and she turned to face Aang and Katara, who had yet to leave her side, "Are you deaf? Keep goingǃ" she ordered them, her words finally heeded as they too began pacing up the hill.
Turning back to face the direction the soldiers would be coming from, she raised the rocks up into the air, ready to use them to shock them before she unleashed her strength on them. She had only been working to free the prisoners and get them out of the town, but now, she was really going to fight them, or more accurately, thrash them. They weren't comparable to her, even if they came in full force. She could just drop under the ground if they tried to actually burn her, so she knew that as long as she could figure out when Appa was overhead, she'd be fine.
When the soldiers actually started to get close, they moved into form, ready to firebend at her, and she preemptively shot out the rocks towards those who were closest to her; the rocks made contact with some of them, while others must have been destroyed by their firebending. She raised up some walls out of the soil, defending herself from the flurry of fire blasts which followed; when they tried to get closer and break her defences, she hardened her stance, sensing exactly where their feet were before she ripped up the soil from beneath them. The soldiers couldn't keep their balance, and quickly found themselves on the defensive as she shot pillars of earth at each of them in quick succession.
Some of them continued to pelt her earthen walls with fireballs, clearly indicating that despite tripping many of them over, they were not deterred from continuing their assault; so instead, she decided to raise her hands up, bending the soil just in front of her defences, taking in a deep breath as she readied herself to beat them all. More rose to their feet, and began shooting fire streams at her walls, failing to break through them quickly enough, as she began her attack, forcing the ground to coil up in a wave as she forced it all to move in motion, as if it were liquid. The soldiers were swallowed into the mass of dirt, the heat of their attacks dissipating as she felt them fall over and be pushed back by her powerful attack.
"It's gonna take more than a few firebenders to get me." she proudly declared, before sensing behind her, up the hill; Aang and Katara had yet to reach Appa yet, so she had to keep the soldiers distracted a little longer.
She then began firing fragments of dirt out of her walls, striking any of the soldiers who were trying to get back up to their feet; they were knocked back over, shouting out either in shock or pain, though as she couldn't be sure how hard the dirt was, it was little hard to tell. She heard some grumbled commands off in the distance, indicating that the soldiers must have been formulating a plan to beat her, and she could sense a few of them, beyond where she had attacked, standing behind some walls, by the edge of the town.
She decided to play with them a little by bending the walls they were standing behind, so that the stone latched onto them, and the frantic shouts she could hear in the distance only made her cackle, finding their inability to understand her skills to be hilarious. Earthbenders were not limited to bending their mere surroundings, and Toph didn't even need eyes to figure out exactly what she needed to bend. As long their feet touched their ground, they were in her domain, and she would use it to her advantage.
Perhaps thinking by attacking her, they might give their comrades a fighting chance, a few soldiers rushed toward her earthen walls, lashing it with flames as they tried to overcome them. She reinforced the defences with a new layer of dirt, before she shot pillars up from the ripped up soil, striking them in their legs as she was able to pick them off one by one, making them fall over or prod them into running the opposite way. When a few of them didn't stop, Toph dropped her walls for a moment, allowing them to see her, and they moved to firebend at her; she instead shot up pillars right in front of them, splashing their flames right back at them, which was made clear by their screams of pain. She threw her arms out, grinning widely at her opponents, and completely unfazed by their attempts to hit her.
"Who wants to try next?!" she questioned them with a boastful shout, ready to throw another firebender into the dirt.
A few of the soldiers who had been covering before broke from their earthen binds, and began throwing more fireballs in her direction, and she raised her hands up, creating a new set of walls in front of her, the flames never even getting closer to her. She sensed where their footsteps went as they split into two groups, trying to move around her defences, and one by one, she snagged their feet with her earthbending, stopping most of them from getting around. Some of them were fast enough that they got around the walls, and she gave those men a taste of some dirt as she picked up masses of soil from beside her and tossed them at the soldiers, creating two separate blasts of dirt that audibly splattered about, causing it to rain down dirt, even on her.
She sensed around, checking which soldiers were actually trying to get back up, and noted that most of those who were were back behind her walls, unable to hit her just yet. She could hear their voices, pained and frustrated, off in the distance, but didn't pay much mind to them, mostly focusing on their feet, as some of them moved back into firebending forms. She heard a chanting command, before suddenly, she felt a blast of pressure on the walls, which began to crack and crumble from the force of their flames, which poured onto the surface, before shattering it entirely.
Already ready for that eventuality, Toph dropped underground for a moment while the wall splattered apart, and flames coursed right for her position; being able to sense where exactly they were standing, she waited for an opportune time to strike their feet as they moved around, frantically stepping about, presumably confused by her sudden disappearance. She reached toward some of their legs, and sunk them into the ground, hearing only a faint humming underground instead of their shouts. Some of the others stepped around, clearly afraid they were next, and she shot up pillars, striking their guts and backs to throw them to the ground, before ensnaring them into the soil, which hardened from her bending. With the remaining soldiers who had resisted effectively neutralised, she popped back out of the ground, and arose to hear the sounds of frantic shouts and cries.
"Where did the dirt-eater go?!" she heard a soldier shout out, "How can she still attack us?"
"Because I'm the greatest earthbender in the world." she declared triumphantly, before her attention was drawn to above her, hearing the distant sound of Aang's voice.
"Toph, go now!" he called out to her, his voice very faint up above her, and she shrugged her shoulders as she grinned at her defeated opponents.
"Well, I'm done here. Thanks for the fight." she farewelled them, before using her earthbending to shoot herself up into the air, the wind brushing over her as she quickly ascended up into the sky.
She was forced to close her eyes and cover her face from the lashing of air she received, and quickly began slowing down; the wind no-longer as strong, and she felt oddly calm, with no earth to connect to, yet nothing else to feel but air. The feeling was so foreign to her, yet she didn't mind it; that feeling of peace was destroyed a few moments later, as instead of dropping down back toward the ground, she slammed down onto something hard, almost face-planting.
"It worked!" she heard Katara exclaim with a surprised voice, and now, it was pretty clear from the sound of her voice, that she'd landed on the saddle.
"That was crazy, Toph." Aang acknowledged her actions, before grasping her by the shoulder, "Are you alright?"
"I already miss the earth." she gave her thoughts, making the young Avatar snicker.
"Ah, it's alright, we're going to fly and find another cave to camp at. How about that?" he suggested, and she made a small smile; after doing some fighting, she was hungry and tired, so a cave sounded far better than the danger of remaining anywhere near that town.
"Good." she agreed, before rolling herself over to lie on her back, "I'm not making dinner, though."
"After what you pulled there, I say you've earned a free dinner." Katara conceded, "Your bending was amazing, Toph."
"Hey, I'm just good at what I do." she smugly agreed with her compliment, before sighing, "I hope that those guys don't get caught."
"I think they're going to be far more worried about us." Aang argued, "I'm the Avatar, after all."
"And Ozai kinda wants you dead." she noted, before shaking her head, "Ah, I'd make that a definitely." she corrected herself, and she could hear Aang mumbled, almost sounding pained by the suggestion.
"I've really gotta master the elements." he admitted, and Toph chuckled, before cracking her knuckles; she wasn't going to let up her training anytime soon, and she was sure the Princess would treat her training of Aang just the same.
"Oh, we'll get there, don't you worry."
The meeting hall was awkwardly quiet as the officers sat themselves down, and Sokka tried to keep a straight face, knowing what Azula had planned; they didn't seem that concerned about being called up for a meeting, and if anything, some of them seemed a little frustrated. From what he could tell, they were making their men do exercises and sparring in preparation for the expected fight with Ozai's forces that would be taking place within a week or so, just to the south, in the borderlands of Yi Province, which was hilly and mountainous, meaning that they would need to march into territory that would not be easy to traverse. Thinking about the upcoming battle was a good distraction from the matter at hand, but he could only mull over it for so long, until his girlfriend's voice brought his mind back to the table.
"I apologise for calling you all here on such short notice, but you all might have heard about the events earlier today." Azula spoke up, and the officers turned their gazes toward her, "The group of earthbenders I recruited were attacked by an assailant, who was wearing the attire of an ordinary soldier." she explained, and their expressions shifted to ones of unease.
One of them raised a finger to his cheek, "Is this another spy, perhaps?" he suggested, and narrowed her eyes.
"That is a possibility." she conceded, "But unlike those who were captured last week, this soldier could have only been working for my father."
"How can we be so sure, your majesty?" another officer asked, sounding a little skeptical in his tone.
"Because those spies who were working for my brother gave themselves up as soon as they saw me as their legitimate Fire Lord. To spy on me, in their eyes, would be treason." she explained the situation which Sokka already understood well enough, "Those loyal to my father, however, might see me as a mere renegade Princess, unwilling to submit to my father's rule." she suggested, Sokka eyeing the expressions of each of the officers, trying to spot any adverse reaction to her words; she was trying to test the waters first, and see if she could get much of a reaction out of them, before taking the more direct path.
He admired her ability to use her words precisely, and as a weapon to not just simply persuade and encourage, but to fool and trick her subordinates into giving away their allegiances, through no fault of their own. How they reacted to her words would tell them if they were actually loyal to her, or part of the presumed plot against her. They still lacked any evidence to claim anybody but Colonel Jinchi were part of the plot, but that wouldn't stop her from trying to find out. Her plan was a bit complicated, but he was sure that it would be effective in rooting out traitors, if any of the men before them were actually loyal to Ozai over her.
"Well, do you know who this attacker might be?" the same officer spoke up once more, "I mean, somebody must have seen his face."
"I didn't." the Princess conceded, before narrowing her eyes, "Some of the guards protecting this compound did, but they told me he was a normal looking soldier. There was nothing distinguished about him, and clearly, that must have been on purpose. He cannot be found easily, unless those that did see him looked through all the men at this base, and were able to pick him out among hundreds of soldiers."
"So, what can be done, your majesty?" another officer spoke up, "Would a lockdown of the base suffice to give us the time to rat out this traitor?"
"No." she narrowed her eyes at him, emphasising her refusal, "I will not waste our time looking for a man who does not want to be found. We have work to do, and an army to stop, which comes before any kind of threat a single man could pose to us." she explained, suggesting she might gloss over the entire event, though that was clearly a lie; she was going to get to the bottom of the attack, and hopefully, one of the officers could tell them something about it.
"What did they say, Azula?" Ty Lee spoke up, her tone far less cheery than usual; she was acting as calm and suave as her friend, and given the circumstances, Sokka understood why, "That the soldier said he needed to speak with one of the commanders." she recalled, and the Water Tribesman's eyes darted to the officers, unsure which of them were navy men; though he didn't need to figure it out, as they made themselves known by glancing at each other, clearly concerned by what they just heard.
"That must have been a lie." one of the commanders spoke up, "I haven't had anybody come to my ship today with a message, other than the message to come here."
"Me either." another officer made the same claim, "If somebody comes onto our ships, we know. This soldier didn't."
"Commander Waimao, what about you?" the one who first spoke addressed another officer, "Did anyone come to your ship?"
"Of course not." he shook his head, his rather defensive answer seeming suspect, though Sokka was unsure if that was just because he felt nervous about the meeting itself, "Nobody came aboard my ships, other than the labourers taking today's load of coal aboard."
"Well, I assumed it was a lie." Azula spoke up, "I know spies are good with their lies and misdirection, so I immediately guessed that he must have gone somewhere else. The encampment surrounding this compound is an easy place to hide, seeing how many men are there."
"But how could this spy get into the base?" one of the officers asked her, "We keep a tight control over the perimeter." he argued, and she nodded.
"I know you do. This base doesn't get unwanted visitors. I would say if he is a spy, he has been working as one since we left Ba Sing Se all those months ago." she suggested, and the Water Tribe warrior held back a smirk; of course, she wasn't referring to the man who threw the bomb, but actually whoever had ordered him to do it, who they presumed to be one of the officers sitting before them.
"Then how will we find him?" the same officer asked her, and she pursed her lips up.
"It's simple." she began, placing her hands together, "We need to discuss the allegiances of everyone here." she explained, revealing her intentions rather plainly, and with that, everyone on the table tensed up, turning to face their comrades, clearly afraid of which of them was the traitor, or conversely, who would rat the other out.
"Your highness... you can't be serious." one of them spoke up raising a hand up, "If anyone here was loyal to your father, they would have defected with the rest of those who did when his status was revealed." he explained something that was rather obvious; Sokka had heard from Azula that many people had defected after that, but that didn't mean that all of the loyalists would have, perhaps because they preferred the security Admiral Zhao's fleet provided them.
"People did defect, I heard... but that does not mean others would have remained here out of a desire to remain safe with the threat of my brother's forces." she acknowledged, "Security in numbers is a strategy that helped the Earth Kingdom fight on for a hundred years, so I doubt you all would have failed to consider that strategy." she explained, suggesting that any one of them could be traitors.
"No one here is a traitor." another officer declared in defiance of her claim, "Why would anyone defy you? We swore our loyalty to you as our Fire Lord back in Ba Sing Se." he reminded her, and Azula only snickered at his claim.
"Are you going to ignore the obvious?" she asked him, before rising to her feet, "Oh, well, I guess I'll have to spell it out for you."
Sokka and Ty Lee both turned to face her, wondering exactly what she'd say to them; they eyed each other for a moment as the Princess took a deep breath, before she began her speech.
"A few months ago, I freed the Avatar from his imprisonment within a ball of ice at the South Pole. I did." she emphasised that fact, "By virtue of that, I had explicitly gone against the policies of our nation since the reign of Fire Lord Sozin, when he proclaimed the Avatar to be the greatest enemy of the Fire Nation. Therefore, you could consider that I have committed treason." she explained what sounded like a self-indictment of wrongdoing, but really, it was just her justifying the logic that a potential traitor would be using.
The officers looked among themselves, seeming clearly concerned by what she was saying, and not because she could be punished, but because of the opposite. She was gloating about her crimes, trying to prod some reaction out of any traitors, who would clearly disapprove of her alliance with the Avatar.
When the table fell silent, she continued her exposition, obviously unsatisfied with the reactions so far, "I don't think I've gone into much detail about my other plan, but now ought to be a good time to explain it." she added, pushing her chair out, before she began to walk around the table, with her hands behind her back, "I'm going to travel to Ba Sing Se, and with the assistance of any Earth Kingdom rebels I can find, I will utterly annihilate the Dai Li." she emphasised, the expressions on the officer's faces shifting, some of them clearly pleased with the news; however, that was before she began explaining what she would do afterwards.
"And with them gone, I will allow the people of the Earth Kingdom to establish a new, representative government for themselves, so that they might be united under a common interest to protect themselves rather than the worship of a dynasty that has only brought ruin to their country." she explained, the officers looking amongst themselves with unsure faces.
"A new government?" one of them asked, "So, you want to get rid of the Earth King?" one of them asked, and she made an aloof smile as she continued to pace around the table, back toward her seat.
"I will not allow the rule of the unworthy." she stressed by pointing a finger up, before she put her hands behind her back, "That new government will be my ally in the war against Ozai, and once we have destroyed him and his cronies, I will make sure, by investment and trade, to ensure that the Earth Kingdom can have a taste of the prosperity we have abused for the past hundred years to try and subjugate the other nations. That will only make the Fire Nation stronger and more prosperous than it already is, and will provide me with the respect and authority to make me the greatest Fire Lord in history." she explained, her little arrogant claim at the end almost making Sokka want to laugh, despite the fact he actually agreed with her; she was going to gain the respect of the other nations, and with that, she could ensure a new age of peace, the kind that he had hoped for his entire life.
"And what do you have to say to that?" the Water Tribesman addressed the officers at the table, "Will you argue against our plans?" he asked, trying to prod some kind of response out of them.
"We have no right to coerce our Fire Lord." one of the officers spoke up, clearly not wanting to anger Azula, "We are but her humble servants."
"You are my subjects, and I am willing to hear your advice." the Princess stressed, obviously not wanting them to remain silent despite their views, "I will not change my aims. My father will be defeated and the Earth Kingdom shall be reformed; these are things that are necessary for the future I believe is right for our nation." she declared, before crossing her arms, "Are any of you willing to tell me that you don't believe my plan is right?"
The table was silent for a few moments, and the Princess sighed, before turning to Ty Lee, "Could you go get the document for me?" she asked her friend, who nodded; Sokka knew that Azula already had the letter on her, so she was actually sending her off to signal the earthbenders to begin their 'attack'.
She rose to her feet and paced over toward the entrance of the room, the guards opening the doors for her, before shutting them behind her; the officers had eyed her, seeming confused by what Azula had been referring to.
"Your highness... did you find something?" one of the officers asked her, his nervous tone suggesting that he might not like what she was about to tell him.
"I have found evidence that indicates that there are some among you who are willing to cooperate with my father." she admitted, a half-lie, given that the letter was addressed to Admiral Zhao, and not any of the men present, "So, I would like to ask you all a question." she declared her intention, rising to her feet, "Which of you spoke with Admiral Zhao about capturing me and sending me to my father?" she asked, the men on the table glancing around at each other; their faces said enough- most of them knew about it, though what their opinions were was left vague, "This is not a declaration of treachery, I simply want to know who he spoke to."
A few of them raised their hands up, and Sokka scanned around, noting that Colonel Jinchi didn't do the same; one of those officers with his hand up grimaced before dropping his hand, "He had us meet and discuss it, and he told us what his plan was."
"And none of you thought to tell me?" she asked, and the officers glanced around themselves, clearly afraid for their safety, "Is anyone going to answer me?" she questioned them again, clearly frustrated by their refusal to respond.
"Because it would have been a bloodbath, your majesty." one of them conceded, "The Admiral was intent on capturing you, and if we had intervened, ships could have been sunk, this base could have been destroyed in the fighting." he warned her, and the Princess crossed her arms.
"Well, you are lucky that I was thinking the same way." she conceded, "I always intended to hand over the Admiral to the Northern Water Tribe to avoid any conflict here, but I failed to see that he was planning to betray me as well." she conceded, "However, now I have a lead, and I want an answer." she declared confidently, rising to her feet, "Tell me which of you was in league with the Admiral; which of you is loyal to my father?" she demanded an answer.
The officers tensed up, and clearly, they were afraid to speak for themselves, "We were sworn not to discuss it among ourselves, your majesty." one of them warned her, "If anyone here is a traitor, they can only speak for themselves."
"Fine, I'll do this the other way." she narrowed her eyes, before pulling the piece of paper from her belt; everyone looked at it with confusion, before she unfurled it and showed its contents to the table, "Colonel Jinchi, I hereby accuse you of high treason for conspiring against the life of the Fire Lord." she declared as she pointed toward that very officer.
"Wh-what?" he gasped, looking at the document with a frantic face, eyeing his colleagues with fear, "Which of- how did you find that?!"
"Oh, guilty as charged." Sokka smirked as he rose from his seat, pulling his boomerang from his back, "Want him knocked out, Azula?"
"Guards!" she shouted out, "Apprehend the Colonel, take him to the dungeon. I want to question him later." she declared her intentions, and the two Imperial Firebenders standing by the door approached the officer, pulling him out of his chair, and he frantically looked her way.
"This is wrong! I've been framed!" he declared, and Azula placed her hands on her hips, not seeming to believe his words.
"And why should I believe that? You knew what this was the moment you saw it." she explained, before glancing at the other officers, "Though, now that I think about it, if Zhao explained this to most of you, you would know what it is."
"Yes!" the Colonel nodded frantically as the guards tried to pull him toward the door, "We all know what that is. Somebody must have put that in my office!" he exclaimed, and she crossed her arms, obviously trying to gauge whether he was trying to save his own skin, or whether he was actually telling the truth.
"Then tell me, Colonel, what my father's intentions in the Earth Kingdom are?" she asked him, pacing toward him.
"Why would I know? To conquer it?" he responded, sounding as if he was genuinely uncertain.
"No, to annihilate it, and make sure that if its people survive, that they are never free from our dominion." she retorted, "And who was the one person among you to call out my intentions to align with the rebels? To treat the Earth Kingdom as if they owed me their fealty?" she asked, the Colonel's eyes widening.
"Oh... oh fuck." he mumbled, obviously realising he had indicted himself by virtue of his prior statements; she pointed toward the doors, clearly finding his words enough of a reason to keep him imprisoned.
"Take him to the dungeon." she ordered the guards, before, as if Ty Lee had perfectly timed her signal, the building began to shake, and with it, came thundering booms.
"By the spirits!" one of the officers exclaimed with fear, and Sokka decided to follow in suit, acting as if Ozai's forces could be attacking them.
"What is that?" he glanced around, eyeing the Captain, who had been standing behind Azula's seat, "Captain, should we evacuate?"
"We have no idea what's going on." he argued, before Azula raised a finger toward Jinchi.
"Do you know what's going on?!" she questioned him with a guise of fury, the Colonel glancing around the room, clearly surprised by the turn of events.
"That's... shelling." he gave the conclusion they wanted him to, "They must have already arrived."
"Then why haven't any scouts come to warn us?" she asked the table, "Unless some of you thought it was a genius idea to just let my father's goons walk right up to the damned barricades." she accused them, and they glanced at each other with unsure faces, obviously concerned by what was going on.
"They probably caught the scouts, your majesty." Renshu gave his conclusion, "This must be the army... or part of the army, the messenger was speaking of." he argued, and Sokka rose from his seat, deciding to play his part well.
"We need to get out of here." he declared, "They're going to blast the compound to pieces." he gave his opinion on what might actually happen if they faced an actual siege.
Another 'shell' hit the building, and it shook once again, the officers rising up to their feet, obviously agreeing with his opinion. Azula thrust the doors of the room open, and pointed to the nearby stairwell, "We need to leave, now!" she demanded of everyone in the room, and the officers, guards and Sokka all followed her out of the room, two of the guards continuing to drag Jinchi along, the Colonel still clearly afraid for his own safety.
As they began to pace down the staircase, another 'shell' hit, and shook the whole building violently, Sokka reaching for the wall to stop himself from stumbling. He was impressed by the work of Jianren and his fighters, given the strength it would require to shake the whole building with their earthbending; he kept up his mask of fear, pacing behind his girlfriend as she led everyone down the staircase to the ground floor.
She pointed in the direction of the docks, where they would have to head if they were actually going to evacuate, and shouted with a commanding, near furious tone, "All of you, go to the docks!" she demanded of the officers, "We need to leave before they collapse the building on top of us."
They all began making their way down the hallway, and on cue, the guards disguised as soldiers rushed down the hall, their fake injuries and frantic expressions more than believable, "Your majesty!" one of them called out to the Princess, "The enemy is assaulting the encampment!" one of them warned, "They've got tundra tanks crossing our defences and trebuchets pelting the walls!" he explained, and the Princess feigned fury.
"We need to act at once." she declared, "We need to call on the earthbenders." she decided, turning to face Sokka, "And the navy ships." she decided, glancing at the commanders, "Get to your ships and get ready to bombard the enemy." she ordered them, and they frantically nodded, before suddenly Colonel Jinchi firebent, breaking from the hold of the Imperial Firebenders, and he made a break for the front entrance of the compound; it wasn't just him, a few of the other officers followed after him, clearly not wanting to try and remain by the Princess's side when defeat sounded certain.
"What are you doing?!" she accused them, firebending toward them to try and stop them from running away; some of them were firebenders, and were able to bend her flames away, but they hadn't looked behind them, as Ty Lee was already ready to stop them.
The master chi-blocker leapt about, paralysing the fleeing officers as Azula, Sokka and the Imperial Firebenders all moved in suit to apprehend them. Flames were tossed about, heads struck and screams echoed as the officers were quickly beaten before they could even try to escape from the compound.
"Argh!" Colonel Jinchi screamed out, as he patted down his burning robes, trying fruitlessly to scamper away with paralysed legs, "We need to get out of here!" he exclaimed in fear, and Azula stomped her foot down on his leg, stopping him from pulling himself away.
"Not so fast." she warned him, before she turned to face Ty Lee, "You can tell them to stop now." she suggested to her friend, who let out a laugh.
"Uh, sure, Zula, I'll go tell them." she assured her, pacing off with a pleased look on her face to go tell the earthbenders to stop their fake shelling.
The Princess then eyed the officers, who were being shackled by her Imperial Firebenders, "You don't realise how much of a mistake you made." she warned them, trying to hold back a laugh, Sokka pacing up beside her and patting her on the shoulder, both glad and impressed by her trick.
"Oh, that was far easier than I thought it'd be." he admitted, before turning to face the other officers, who clearly, from their own fearful faces, seemed to be on their side, "Sorry about that. There is no siege." he clarified, and the captured officers glanced up at them all frantically.
"There's no-" one of them gasped, before glancing around, "You bastards!" he accused the guards dressed as soldiers, who in return began to laugh.
"Oh, you fools." Yi mocked them, "You thought that you could run off and join Ozai's forces. You thought wrong." he retorted, and Azula turned around to face the innocent officers.
"You can rest easy. This was a test, and it worked. Jinchi was not the only traitor, obviously, and you are all my truly loyal subjects. You would have stood by my side in the face of overwhelming odds, and I thank you for that." she acknowledged, speaking honestly with a pleased voice, "Unlike these fools." she gestured to the beaten and shackled officers, "Take them to the dungeons." she ordered Renshu, who picked up Colonel Jinchi himself.
"It would be my honour, your majesty." he assured Azula, "Let's go, men." he ordered his fellow guards, who dragged the six captured officers away, and the Princess stood beside her boyfriend with crossed arms.
"I knew it." she smirked, "And now we have proof that the traitors have been dealt with." she declared, before turning to face her subordinates, "You may return to your posts as soon as the exits are unblocked." she explained, "We all have much work to do before we face the real battle, and trust me, we will be far more prepared than this."
"Sorry... unblock the exits? Were we stuck in here?" one of the officers asked, and she raised her chin up.
"It was a necessary precaution. I didn't want any of the traitors calling on their subordinates to assist them." she explained her reasoning, "Now, we are safe, so there's no reason for them to remain blocked."
"Th-thank you, your majesty." he then bowed, and the rest followed.
"I am simply doing my job." she assured them, raising her hands up to emphasise her lack of hostility, "I thank you all for your loyalty." she smiled at them, "Together, we can free our country and bring a new age of peace to our nation. Trust me when I say this is only the beginning." she stressed, before she glanced back, hearing some footsteps pacing in their direction; Ty Lee made her way around a corner, and came back to them with a relieved look on her face.
"The earthbenders have stopped. They'll clear all the entrances now." she explained, and the Princess nodded, before she turned to face her boyfriend.
"Should we start our interrogations?" she asked him, and Sokka furrowed a brow, unsure whether that would be the best idea; they had just dealt with them and had them captured, so interrogating them seemed a little over the top.
He didn't think the officers would give up much information to begin with, while the chance of Ozai's men arriving and defeating Azula was still a reasonable possibility, even if they were going to do everything they could to prevent it from happening.
"Maybe we should let them sit in those cells for a bit, let the realisation sink in." he suggested, "They might just keep being defensive about it."
"Hmph." she crossed her arms, before turning her eyes back towards the officers, "You may all leave now. We'll deal with the prisoners, and when we need to discuss the operation in Yi Province, I'll call on you again." she explained, the officers all bowing to her again before they began making their way down the hallway, understandably cautious in their pacing.
Ty Lee placed her hands on Sokka and Azula's shoulders, leaning between the two of them, "So, that's dealt with. Now we can just relax for a bit, right?"
"The airship prototype still needs working on." he conceded, knowing that project would take some time, and that even with the engineers all working on it, he knew that he could offer his time as they began building the gondola and proper engine.
"But you don't need to work on it all the time." she suggested, "And I'm sure you can give up planning for a single afternoon, Zula." she gave her friend a token of advice, which she didn't seem to take well.
"You underestimate the seriousness of the situation, Ty Lee." she warned her, turning around and breaking her grip on her shoulder, "My father's forces mightn't have actually been here today, but soon enough, they'll be closing in, and we'll need a solid plan in place to deal with them, and make sure we don't just repel them. We need to shatter the invading force if we hope to move into the colonies."
"I agree with Ty Lee, though." Sokka admitted, "We can just relax for an afternoon. We've got things done... this is probably the most important work we've done in a while." he argued, and Azula smirked.
"You're right." she confirmed, "What we did today was effective, and I am thankful for both your assistance." she acknowledged, "Together, we can solve more problems like this in future."
"I just hope less people will be conspiring against you in the future." her friend conceded, and the Princess grimaced for a moment.
"As do I." she agreed, "But we can't be too optimistic. People are self-interested and focused on achieving victories for themselves. It's my job to make sure that their victories and goals are the same as mine."
"Well, you can't persuade everybody." Ty Lee argued, making Sokka snicker.
"This is Azula. She thinks she could persuade a wild animal not to bite her face off if it came down to it."
"I wouldn't do that." she retorted, "I'd burn them and make them my dinner." she argued, "There's been a few seals who've tasted my firebending because of that."
Ty Lee cringed at the mention of seals, "I can't believe you guys eat seals." she mumbled, and Sokka shrugged his shoulders.
"What can I say... seal jerky is the best jerky." he argued, before raising a finger to his chin, "And plus, we use the fat as fuel for our fires... because we usually don't have a really helpful firebender around to make flames for us down at the South Pole... or many trees or anything."
"I was useful." Azula confirmed, before scrunching her lips up, "Though, being valued only because of my element seems a little ironic, given what happened to your tribe."
"Yeah... it does seem weird in hindsight." he conceded, before glancing down the hallway, "Wanna go have a spa or something with Ty Lee? I'm sure you'll like that."
"No." she refused, "I'd like to actually do something. Lying around just doesn't suit me today."
Her friend grasped her by the arm, "But Zula, the spa's just waiting there to be used. Come on, Sokka's got a good point."
"I always have good points." he quipped, making both her and Azula snicker at his comment.
"I'm more inclined to use my mind for things." she argued, "Or my bending."
"Hmmm... so, sparring or Pai Sho?" Sokka asked her, and the Princess scoffed.
"I'm not playing Pai Sho." she argued, and he pointed a finger at her.
"But I bet you're good at it. You'll probably beat me and teach me how to play better."
"Even if I could, that's nothing like smacking you to the ground with a fireball to the gut." she argued, making the Water Tribesman grimace.
"Back me up here, Ty Lee. Getting hurt all the time isn't always fun." he argued, and she nodded along.
"Maybe you can try new things." she suggested, and Azula rolled her eyes before pacing past both of them, heading down the hallway without a word; both Ty Lee and Sokka looked at each other, a little confused by her sudden departure, "Where are you going?"
"To go beat my boyfriend at a game I don't want to play."