The dungeon in the compound was dark, but that wasn't an issue for Azula, who could create a torch with her firebending; so, as she had interrogated each of the officers, they had been lit up solely by her blue flames, and she could use it to great effect, to intimidate them and threaten them with her bending. Most of them gave the same kinds of answers, and she didn't think that the whole process gave her much insight into what her father's forces intended to do. It was clear that the officers were in agreement that betraying her was in the best interests of themselves and their men, though they obviously didn't want to do it alone, as their reactions the day prior had indicated; they were all so afraid of her, that they all begged, in one way or another, for her mercy.
She hadn't hurt any of them badly, with only a few fireballs thrown to scare them off when they got angry and tried to firebend at her. Azula knew that harming the prisoners wouldn't help her figure out their exact plans, and by the time she had reached the last cell, she had understood some consensus that formed between all the officers. They wanted to get rid of her out of fear of Ozai's forces, not actually because they were patriotic and thought she was going to ruin their country. Self-interest, clearly, was the motivating factor for most of them, though some were confident enough to slander her efforts, and she shrugged off those comments. In the end, it wasn't their opinions she cared for, so any mocking comments or insults about her relationship with Sokka, or decision to cooperate with the Earth Kingdom was dismissed.
At the very least, they had given up the names of some of the subordinates that were in agreement with their plan, and Azula knew that she would have those men vetted before she decided to act against them. As a precaution, she decided to write all their names down, so that when she dispensed her orders to her subordinates at the upcoming meeting concerning the fight with her father's forces, that she could ensure those men were relegated to duties elsewhere in her domain, so that they couldn't backstab her in the field of battle.
The name of the officer sitting in front of her, the last in the line of seven who she had interrogated thus far, was Major Wushi. He was one of Colonel Jinchi's lieutenants, and from what she could read off his file, she knew that he was a veteran soldier who had taken part in her father's assault on Ba Sing Se during the passing of Sozin's Comet. He didn't seem very abrasive, and had responded to her basic questions with the same kinds of answers; he didn't know much about the plans of Ozai's forces, other than the basics, which everyone, including herself, understood easily enough.
"So, Major, what do you have to say for your crimes?"
"I didn't do anything." he retorted calmly, with his chin high, suggesting he was confident in his actions, "I had to run, because I thought that we were about to be surrounded by the enemy. I might have had a chance if I went with the Colonel."
"But that was a lie." she reminded him, and he almost laughed.
"I will give you this, Princess Azula, you know how to play people." he conceded, narrowing his eyes at her, "And that cost me my freedom, and my job."
"I understand why you did it, and your logic is not flawed." she acknowledged that despite the fact that she hated her subordinates betraying her, they had good reason to do so, "You all might have faced a better chance running to your new masters, if that had been the real circumstances."
"It is nothing personal, your highness." he conceded, "And I know that you won't free us, but I hope that you might give us an ounce of mercy, after all the mercy you have given to the savages who you now call you allies."
"I am no hypocrite." she assured him, before turning her eyes away, "Or, I try to not be one." she clarified, knowing that she had acted hypocritically many times before, but she tried to deny it as much as she could; she wanted to be right, and it just angered her when that was not the case, "You and the others will not die, or face a mock trial. I will allow you all to live, if only to remind you of who I am, and what I stand for." she stressed, "I stand for a united Fire Nation. I might enact punishments upon my enemies, but you aren't my enemies. You're fools. Fools who chose the right time to make their mistake."
"The right time?" he furrowed a brow, "But you just said we might have had a chance, if we had really been facing the invading forces."
"No." she retorted, "I would have had you all killed on the spot for insubordination and treachery." she warned him, before gesturing to the bars of the cell between them, "So, rest easy knowing you chose the right time to reveal your duplicity."
"There is no duplicity. We have always been loyal to the Fire Nation. The title of Fire Lord is thrown around these days like a ball in a playing field." he argued, "So, as I said, it was not personal. Your father is the Fire Lord, whether you like it or not."
"Not for long." she warned him, "I will not stop at Yi Province, or Shengchang. Do you understand what I will do for my country?" she asked him, "That speech was not a farce, like the shelling and disguised guards."
"You might win." he conceded, "But I do not count you as being lucky, Princess Azula. Do you forget what happened a year ago when you decided to lead us westward?"
"I failed." she acknowledged the fact of the matter.
Once she might have furiously tried to burn someone's face off for stating that obvious fact, but now, all she could do was accept the suffering and failure for what it was; she had received an opportunity for her to become free, and she had seized it, despite her unwillingness to give up her ideals at first. Those ideals weren't destroyed, but merely evolved; Ozai's teachings loomed over her, and even now, she wouldn't deny the ways in which they drove her decision-making and ideals, but just as much as them, she had Sokka and the Southern Water Tribe to thank for imparting their ideals to her. She hadn't accepted those at first, but just like Katara, the annoying, hope-bashing sixteen year old girl who couldn't help but frustrate her, they had grown on her.
"And you may fail again." he warned her, "For the sake of our country, I hope that failure doesn't entail anymore ships sinking or cities getting shelled."
"Oh, I agree with you wholly, Major." she smiled, rising up to her feet, "I won't fail again, and if I do, I will do so with dignity, and pride in standing up for what is right for our country. I am not a good person, and I will never claim to be such." she warned him, "Good people don't tolerate the idea of murdering their own father, or betray and trick their own subordinates." she acknowledged her flaws, "But I know I am right. If I was wrong, nobody would have stood beside me in that hall. You all would have tried to run."
"Perhaps you are right, your highness." he conceded, seeming to be genuinely agreeing with her, "Even if I know my mistakes, and I will stand by them." he added, narrowing his eyes at her, "I just hope that you do the same when the people of our country call you a coward and fool when the Fire Nation is reduced to a fraction of its former glory."
"If they do, then I will be the fool that will ensure their families do not lose any more sons to a pointless war, and make sure that their taxes are not spent any longer for the goal of destroying whole peoples. I would rather be that fool than... whatever you want to be." she defied his comments, knowing that she would not give in to the demands of those who would like to see the world burn again, and again, all for the sake of a dream that could never be fulfilled.
"Well, are you done declaring your nobility and infallibility?" he asked her with a sarcastic, unamused tone, "I'd prefer to wallow in my cell without that."
"No." she refused, "I have another question."
"What?" Wushi asked her, seeming more than a little annoyed by her.
"Who else do you know of that agreed to Zhao's plan?" she asked, and the Major furrowed a brow.
"I've heard you asking the others. Haven't you got enough?"
"You have subordinates, Major. Friends, even." she reminded him, "I will not be apprehending them, but I will not let them stand in my way if they might betray me in battle." she warned him, "I will prove my ability and resolve, and perhaps they will second guess the decisions of a real fool."
"The Admiral, or the Fire Lord?" he asked, clearly unsure if she was referring to the man who devised the plan to capture her, or the one behind it all.
"I don't think my father's a fool." she admitted, "He might be arrogant and overconfident in his abilities, but so was I." she conceded the similarity they shared, "Zhao simply doesn't know when to give up. His foolishness cost us a battleship."
"If I recall correctly, you were the one who commanded said ship toward the Northern Water Tribe."
"To stop him from killing one of the most powerful spirits in the world." she emphasised the reason for her decision, "I made a mistake in trusting him, but as you can see, I have learned from my mistakes."
"I see you have." he conceded, before turning his eyes away, "And I have mine."
She turned around, deciding that her interrogation was over, and paced towards the door of the prison, where she could see Captain Renshu standing, having been watching most of the interrogations already. He had his helmet on, so it was hard to gauge his feelings on the matter, though on the basis of professionality, she knew that it was better that was the case. When she reached him, she indicated towards the door.
"We're done here, Captain." she declared, and he followed her as she pushed the door open, stepping out into a far better lit part of the compound; she glanced toward the nearby staircase, which would lead them out of the basement, and she began pacing toward them, the Captain not far behind.
"Your majesty... I must admit, there was little gained from the interrogation. Would you like the men to use more straightforward methods?" he asked her, implying he thought torture might give them better answers.
"I think you might be overestimating their knowledge, Captain. They have been here the whole time, or at sea. They have had little opportunity to gather intelligence on Ozai's forces, and it's clear that handing me to them would be their last resort to save themselves." she acknowledged what she had learnt, "We don't need to do anything more than we have."
"Their disrespect was disgusting." he spoke his mind, a bit more clearly than he had in his first words, "I am surprised you were able to restrain yourself."
"I have learned to temper my offence from the words of men whose opinions do not matter." she explained her basic reasoning for not getting angered by their insults, "They will no longer play a role in this war, though I would prefer if they could be rehabilitated, I do not think that is possible."
"Rehabilitation is not something our nation tends to consider." Renshu admitted, "Other than for petty criminals. These are men committing treason against their Fire Lord in the line of duty."
"Their treachery... despite being infuriating, is understandable." she argued, "I wish for them to remain out of my way, and seeing that they're not a threat, I request that you don't... unnecessarily punish them."
"What do you mean, your majesty?"
"Your authority in this compound is strong, Captain. I know you don't want harm to befall myself, or any of your men... but you should not have to take out your frustrations on foolish officers. Take it out on the men who will try and kill us out there." she gestured in the direction of the hills that surrounded the base, "Those who want to destroy this base and wipe us out."
"You're... not usually this calm, your majesty. Do you really not care for their actions?"
"I do not derive my dignity from what a few men think of me, I derive it from what I achieve, and my ability to affect change in this world." she argued, "They are nothing." she declared, "We, unlike them, are going to do things."
"Everyone will be waiting up in the meeting hall by now. They'll want to hear your operation plans." he reminded her of where they were going; as much as she'd prefer to wash up in preparation to leave the base, she knew that actually handing down her orders was a far higher priority.
"Today is the day." she acknowledged, knowing that as soon as the meeting was over, her subordinates would start mustering the troops, and by midday, they would be leaving the base, aiming to reach the rendezvous point with the local soldiers who would be evacuating from the province's towns, "I best not keep them waiting. I do not have a reputation as a tardy Princess." she argued, and the Captain jerked his head back, as if he were about to laugh, but restrained himself.
"The last report from the Governor's men came in yesterday morning." he reminded her, "So, at this rate, they'll all be out in position within the next few days."
"That's what I understood from the message." she nodded, recalling that later messenger who had come back after she sent the first on his way; he had explained that her orders and plans had been accepted by Governor Boei, and he was proceeding to order his men to evacuate all their occupied towns, "Ozai's men will be moving through the province at this very moment. I just hope they don't suspect when they find the towns empty."
"They might just think the Governor is a coward." Renshu suggested, glancing ahead as they made their way down the hallway, heading toward the main stairwell, which they'd climb to reach the meeting room, "But if they do, then they won't suspect what's coming."
"If the man leading them is anything like those I met in the war council meetings, then... we won't have much to worry about, barring the number of men they bring our way." she conceded, "Officers like them are arrogant and confident in the ability of the Fire Nation's forces to overcome all odds."
"We're Fire Nation." the Captain reminded her, and she held back a laugh.
"Oh, but we're terrible, foolish traitors, aren't we, Captain?" she asked him, with a jokingly exasperated voice, and that was what finally got him to let out a laugh, "They don't think of us as their fellow countrymen, just criminals. Mutineers, collaborators, and race-traitors."
"I guess we might be those things." the Captain conceded, making her scrunch her lips up, realising there was an unusual implication made by his words.
"Oh, so have you been bedding Earth Kingdom girls, Captain?" she asked him with a smug face, making him lurch forward in shock.
"N-n-no, I have not, your majesty." he assured her, though his nervousness and averted gaze suggested that he mightn't be speaking the truth.
"I don't have reason to care for your private matters, Captain." she assured him, "We'll pretend I didn't ask you that."
"Yes, let's do that." he agreed to her proposition as they began to pace on up the stairs.
She couldn't help but turn her mind back toward the thoughts that might have been going through the heads of those who genuinely believed in her father's cause; they were thoughts that might have once been the norm to her, but now, they were nothing but foreign. She once abhorred the idea of acting against the great mission of Fire Lord Sozin, or assisting the other nations in any matter, let alone working with them or, dare she even think about, falling in love with someone from them.
Sokka and her relationship, even before she had truly accepted her feelings for him, had changed her ideas about what the other nations were to her. She couldn't just treat them all as being below her; she realised that she ought to judge people on their abilities and character, initially emphasising the former over the latter, though she had come to value the latter far more now that she was trying to organise a resistance against her father. She couldn't fight them with powerful arseholes who had no honour or dignity; she would prefer a swathe of honourable allies over competent, but untrustworthy warlords.
"There is nothing wrong with understanding the other nations." she acknowledged, the Captain turning his head away, "It took me longer than it should have to reach that conclusion, but I did."
"Uh... yes." he mumbled, obviously still uncomfortable over her prior question; part of her wanted to apologise, but she was far too amused by his reaction to just give up.
As they approached the entrance of the meeting room, her guards stationed there opened the doors for them, and Azula quickly ran her fingers through her hair, not wanting a single strand out of place; she was there to get things done, and make an effort to emulate the perfect leader she used to imagine herself as. Her idea of the perfect leader was ever so slightly different nowadays, but she did not change her core principles. Be calm, focused, and resolute; the words of her subordinates might offer some interest in her decision-making process, but the authority to decide what they would do rested with her. She already had her plan, so she could remain confident about what she would discuss.
Looking at the officers sitting on the table, their demeanour was understandably tense, given what had happened the day prior, where she had tricked their colleagues into revealing their loyalties; she had nothing like that intended for their current meeting, and instead, wanted to assure them of the tenacity of her leadership. She was not there to accuse anyone, but provide them with the plan that was required to protect themselves and their interests from Ozai's loyalists, who were closing in fast. If they had waited a few more days to prepare, perhaps the battle would not be out in the wilds, but rather, a mirror image of the lies she had wielded against her opponents only a day earlier.
The officers rose to their feet, and bowed to her, as was custom, though Sokka and Ty Lee did not bow, simply standing up from their seats; they were eyeing her as she approached them, moving to take her seat at the head of the table. She stepped up beside her boyfriend, whose eyes momentarily met her own before they darted down; she had warned him that she would like him to act seriously in their meeting, primarily because she was wanting to entrust him with a degree of authority over the army she'd be leading. The officers needed to see that he was a pragmatic and intelligent individual, and he would have his chance during the meeting to show that.
"Good morning." she addressed everyone, "You may sit." she allowed, and alongside them, she moved to sit in her seat, glancing back to see as the Captain took his position beside his fellow guard Shen, standing right behind her seat, giving off the image of authority she desired.
She gestured to one of the officers, Major Taka, "Major, the latest scouting report." she requested, knowing that would provide a good background to her exposition on her battleplan.
He nodded, and unfurled the document he already had in front of him, "Scouts have been travelling south into Yi Province since we received the Captain Xin, and we have made visual contact with the enemy forces. They are travelling northeastward, right in the direction of this base, and have moved to occupy the settlements of the province. This means that their numbers may be thinned by the time they reach the intended site of battle." he explained some of the things the scouts had learned in their operations, "The enemy has also enacted a scorched earth policy against the local Earth Kingdom populace, presumably in an attempt to stifle resistance and potential aid to rebel forces."
"What kind of policy do you mean?" Sokka spoke up, "Like, burning farmland? Houses? Grain stores?"
"All of those." he warned, "But not all of them. Simply those in the path of their army." he clarified, "It's clear they are intending to strike a fear campaign against the locals, and insure that they are too afraid to assist us, in the case that we end up in a drawn out campaign against this army in Yi Province."
"Well, Major, it is a good thing that I intend to avoid a drawn out campaign." Azula acknowledged her intentions, "The plan is to strike hard and shatter the enemy force. Mass casualties are almost certain, but that is necessary for our own campaign of fear." she acknowledged, "I will not slaughter or steal from the people of the Fire Nation or Earth Kingdom, but our goals require..." she began, before pausing, her eyes momentarily turning to Ty Lee and Sokka, "Extreme action is required if we want to prevent my father from enacting the slaughter that he intends against the people of the other nations, and any of those in our own that do not agree with his policies."
"The enemy, if the scouts' estimates are correct, don't outnumber us, but I assume we will not be sending every single soldier south to fight them." Taka explained, and Azula nodded.
"You are correct." she confirmed, before pulling her notes up onto the table, revealing them to those who were sitting before her, "Here I have a list of men that might be associated with the officers we captured yesterday. These men are not to join us on our campaign, nor should their men. We need other forces protecting our borders and ensuring there aren't attacks from other forces that mightn't be known to us yet." she explained, "So, we will be taking the minimum amount of soldiers on this operation. Our goal is to force the enemy back and shatter their morale, not to destroy and capture them. We have no space or desire for prisoners."
"I concur, your majesty." one of the officers, Colonel Baobi, spoke up, "We do not have the facilities here to contain a large number of prisoners. Shattering the enemy forces so that we may enter and occupy the colonies is necessary for our victory."
"Precisely." Azula smirked, glad that he agreed with her proposition, "So, the goal of our forces will be to achieve just that. The earthbenders will play a vital role in achieving that, as they have the ability to wield the very battlefield against our opponents, ensnaring them, and destroying or seizing whatever armaments they have, whether trebuchets, komodo rhinos or tundra tanks, will only further assist our goals. If we can provide arms to my allies in the colonies, then it will only be a matter of time before they are ours."
She then pushed the document toward the nearest officer, "So, I would like you all to read this document, and note if any of these men are under your command." she explained, "If not, the other officers who will be remaining here at the base will ensure these men are supervised and do not pose a threat to our operations, present and future."
They began to read the document, one by one, and Azula placed her hands together, realising that while they did that, it would help to explain who would be doing what, "Now, I have written up a plan detailing who will be taking what role in this operation. The plan is split into three parts: the scouting operation, to ensure the rendezvous site is clear and contact can be made with Governor Boei's soldiers, the set up and construction of our traps and defences against Ozai's forces when they arrive, and the battle itself, where we will attain our victory with the combined efforts of all our forces. After that, we will expel whatever forces remain, and seize their armaments." she explained the basic premise of the operation, and its constituent parts.
"And what of Yi Province?" Major Taka asked her, "There's going to be only a scattering of troops protecting the towns after the fight. Will we move in?"
"The specifics of that will be decided once we have achieved our victory, but I have decided that fulfilling my promise to the Governor can be achieved by sending a contingent of our forces to bolster their garrisons." she explained, before furrowing a brow, knowing that one thing could be achieved once she had found more territory loyal to her, "As soon as it is feasible, we will disassemble the encampment around this base, and those soldiers will move into Yi Province, and after that the other colonial provinces, whether those are occupied by Ozai's loyalists or Zuko's. If all goes to plan, the former provinces will be rather simple for us to take over, and we may use their industries to begin the production of the airship fleet."
"I assume the Earth Kingdom forces will take over the protection of our present territories, correct?" another officer, Major Huiyi, asked her; Azula turned her gaze to Jianren, who was sitting on the table, and had yet to speak.
"Jianren. I believe you would be best to explain your own intentions." she suggested, and he nodded, before turning around to face the officers.
"My forces will provide protection for the local villages, which as the Princess explained to me, will be attaining self-government in the form of a Provincial Council. I am not their ruler, and I have never intended to be such. This base will be able to remain, seeing that it is necessary for the efforts of your naval forces to fight Ozai's ships, as well as the retain control over the coal mines in the hills to the east of here, where you source your fuel from." he explained what he knew from his and Azula's discussions on the matter, "If I am not mistaken, the fleet will be heading south into the Mo Ce Sea and Southern Sea to secure the other bases there." he explained, and Sokka raised his chin up, knowing that had to do with him; it was his work, after all, seeing that it would eventuate with the utter annihilation of the Southern Raiders.
"That is true. We will be taking other navy ports in the colonies." the Water Tribesman spoke up, "Once those are occupied, there is little reason for the Fire Navy to occupy this base, other than for the purpose of resupply." he argued, and Azula nodded, agreeing with his point wholeheartedly; their present base of operations was a nuisance more than anything, given its isolation, which only gave the benefit of distance between them and Ozai's forces.
"I concur." she agreed, "But we will have to speak with the navy officers about this. Unfortunately, they are not here, as this meeting does not concern them, and many of them are presently on a scouting operation around the port of Yingang, to see if said port can be brought under our protection." she explained the circumstances that would make it challenging to consider such a move; she would just have to wait until after they had expelled her father's forces to call on the navy to prepare for any future evacuation of the base.
"Until Ozai's forces are certainly defeated, it won't be easy to leave." Huiyi acknowledged the fact of the matter, "We don't have any assurances that your brother's former loyalists will join us, but they must be considering it."
"I will be sending messenger hawks to them as soon as we have secured our victory. Once they know of our strength, they will fall in line, or bow to my father. Either way, we will march west." she stressed her intentions, "As well as that, I will inform my uncle, and request his explicit support to claim the throne. I know that he has acted with secrecy before, but I don't think he will stand by and let my father take over the Fire Nation once again."
"Uh, Azula, the operation." Sokka almost whispered to her, reminding her to remain on topic.
"I apologise, I ought to keep this short and simple." she conceded, "Returning to the operation at hand, throughout it scouts must be moving throughout the wilderness, taking out any enemy scouts and ensuring that we have the upper-hand in terms of intelligence." she explained another aspect of her plan, "Major Taka, you will be taking the lead of those operations, and you will have full purview over the first aspect of the operation, and will be heading out first. With some mongoose lizards, you should be able to reach the rendezvous point quickly, and ensure that the whole area is scoped out before we arrive."
"It will be my honour, your majesty." he nodded at her, seeming thankful to have been granted such a key role.
"Regarding the second aspect of the operation, given that Major Chui's primary goal is building the defences of this base, and the construction of our new airship, I will request that Jianren and Sokka lead the construction of defences and traps when we arrive." she explained the next step, her boyfriend nodding, seeming a little uneased by the newly granted authority, but still with that same, serious visage he had put on for the meeting.
"And what of the battle itself?" Colonel Baobi spoke up, "I am sure that we will be fighting in a number of sections."
"Correct." she confirmed, "The aim is for the flanks of our army to be completely hidden, and rush and surround the enemy to ensure they are boxed in for the earthbenders to shatter." she clarified, "There will be six sections to the whole army, excluding the artillery battery, with two sections on each flank, and the other two at the centre with the earthbenders and whoever Governor Boei has sent our way. Who is commanding each flank will be decided when we arrive, but the flanks will have to have less mounted troops so they are better able to disguise themselves in the woods. So, Majors Zhi and Uma will be holding the centre." she explained the roles those men would be taking, before turning to face the other soldiers, "The rest of you can decide which flank you take when we arrive."
"That sounds simple enough." Major Zhi acknowledged, "And who is commanding the artillery battery?"
"Usually the engineering corps would be operating those, but instead, I will have some men come off one of the ships. They usually operate the navy's trebuchets, and I trust they will be able to do the work. They will be led by Lieutenant Commander Zhen, who I have already briefed on his role." she explained the situation concerning the artillery, which would be vital in ensuring they could gain the upper hand over the enemy; even with earthbenders on their side, they would need to pack a punch to get through their opponent's tundra tanks and their own artillery.
"So, is that it, your majesty?" Major Taka asked her, and she nodded, before gesturing to the doors.
"It is." she confirmed, "Gather the scouts and head south at once." she gave an order specifically to him, "You have my permission and express authority to acquire mongoose lizards." she clarified, snapping her finger, after which one of her guards stepped over to the Major offering him a sealed letter; she had already written all the sufficient commands and authorisations out before she had gone down to the dungeon, knowing that she wanted things to get done quickly.
"The rest of you, make sure that the officers on that document are not part of the fighting group, and get your men ready. We leave at midday." she declared, the officers rising to their feet, before they all bowed to her.
"All hail Fire Lord Azula." they proclaimed in unison, making her smirk with confidence; her actions the day prior, no matter how extreme, had certainly gotten her men to respect her authority far more than they might have otherwise done- Zhao was just one man, but half a dozen officers in the dungeon told them how seriously she took treachery.
As they paced on out of the room, Jianren turned to face her, seeming impressed by how easily she was able to command their will, "I know that you are the Fire Lord to them, but I am surprised how unquestioning they are now."
"What can I say, my trickery worked wonders." she smirked back at him with confidence, proud of what she had achieved, "I thank you for your assistance with that. Without your help, I doubt they would have revealed themselves."
"Hey, what about me?" Ty Lee quipped, "I was the one who actually chi-blocked them."
"No, you did well, Ty Lee." she acknowledged, "We all did our part, and now we have to do some more work." she noted the circumstances they now found themselves in; it wasn't traitors they were concerned about now, but a whole army marching on their way, intent on defeating her.
"More work is a bit of an understatement." Sokka warned her, "This is a whole army we're talking about."
"I know that, but fighting is still work. And to our luck, I am learned in the art of war." she assured them, before rising to her feet, "Though I trust in your practical experience, Jianren." she conceded the actual fighting that the Earth Kingdom rebel had done; she didn't know how long he had been struggling against her nation, but he certainly seemed like the kind of person who knew what fights to pick, even if he had been defeated by her group back in the woods.
"Thank you, Princess." he acknowledged her compliment of sorts, "I will go order my fighters to get their things ready. When we leave, we'll be prepared to travel all the way to this rendezvous without a stop." he declared his intentions, making Azula chuckle.
"You don't need to take it that seriously. We will have to camp along the way." she assured him, before she turned around to face Renshu, "Captain, could you go make sure the komodo rhinos are ready and stocked with supplies? Take as many of the guards as you think is necessary." she gave him permission, knowing that delegating that work to him would give her time to rest before they had to muster their forces.
"Of course, your majesty." he bowed toward her, before eyeing Shen, "You can come along." he ordered him, before glancing around the room, "All of you." he stressed, and they all followed him as he moved toward the door.
Jianren twisted his neck a little as he stretched, obviously not liking how long he had had to sit down for in the meeting room, "Well, I'll see you when we muster." he acknowledged her and the others before he strode on toward the door.
"You don't think there's time for a spa session, Zula?" Ty Lee asked her with a whisper, making both her and Sokka snicker.
"We went there last night." she reminded her, "If you feel unclean, go shower." she suggested, "You have the time."
"I mean, not much, it's not far from midday now." Sokka warned, "So, hurry up if you want one." he told her, pointing to the doors.
"Eh... I think I just want to relax for a bit." she admitted, Azula scoffing.
"We'll be sitting down on saddles all afternoon. Are you really that averse to riding?"
"I don't really like it. Remember when I was stuck with Sokka the entire time?" she reminded her of what she had had to endure on the way to Shengchang.
"Hey, I wasn't that bad." her boyfriend defended himself, "You just kept going on about the clouds."
"I mean, they were the most interesting thing around." she defended herself, the Princess rolling her eyes, finding the whole conversation to be a little stupid.
"What is the point of arguing about this?" she asked them, both turning to face each other with unsure looks.
"Eh, it passes the time." Sokka conceded, and Ty Lee let out a snicker.
"And I don't like sharing a saddle."
"I don't think anyone does." Azula argued, before gesturing to the doors, "If we're going to talk about this, could we at least do it somewhere that isn't so dark and gloomy." she argued, "Every single military complex reminds me way too much of Mai."
"Eheheh... you're right." Ty Lee agreed with her, "I could go for some sun too." she agreed, "How about we go off to that balcony on the third floor? There's a nice view there."
"Sounds better than in here." Sokka agreed with her, rising to his feet, "Wanna go?" he asked his girlfriend, who nodded; as much as she wouldn't like to admit her desire for things that weren't the throne of the Fire Nation or a glorious victory in battle, she had to concede that feeling the sun shine down on her skin was something she truly needed.
"Yes... but I'm not going to act enthusiastic about it. I can't have you thinking I enjoy anything that isn't fighting or arguing."
Aang found earthbending challenging, and not because when he trained, Toph shouted at and belittled him; he didn't really mind that, given that it motivated him to prove himself, and he was able to do that, but that didn't make it not hard. It was harder than learning waterbending, and far harder than learning airbending. His native element and waterbending both had the same common principle at heart, which was about flow and smooth motion. Waterbending was all about directing energy and strength around to one's advantage, while airbending was similar in focusing on altering the currents of air around him, using it to propel himself or create things like air scooters, or even tornadoes, if he tried hard enough.
He didn't find it that hard to adopt the mindset of a waterbender, but he certainly did find the mindset of an earthbender to be far more challenging. He was used to moving out of the way of threats, or bending them back against his opponents, which usually worked to his advantage. With earthbending however, he couldn't just grab a rock Toph throw at his head and spin it around himself to throw back at her; rocks weren't like water or air- they didn't have flow. They were thrown, and they hit things, either breaking them or breaking themselves; he could stop them, but that required him to apply equal force to her throws, and that was something foreign to him. It wasn't like waterbending, utilising an opponent's strength against them, it was simply stamping one's foot down and giving all one has.
Even though Aang wanted to stop their training already, he knew that he had to keep up his end of the deal; Toph came to train him, leaving New Omashu, and joining him and Katara on a rather dangerous journey across the Earth Kingdom, that could lead to even more dangerous battles that she might otherwise not want to partake in, despite her love for fighting. He kept his footing steady as he grabbed the boulders she threw his way, and didn't falter when he had to throw them back at her. He never ended up hitting her, given she was fast enough to shatter the boulders into dust when he tossed them her way. The boulders had been getting progressively larger, and he was struggling to keep it up. Earthbending, more than any kind of bending he'd practiced before, was exhausting, though, he tried to keep himself composed.
"Are you good there, Twinkletoes? Need a little... water?" Toph prodded him, and Aang glanced to their right, toward the stream that they had decided to camp beside; he could waterbend himself a drink, though that would likely be a little uncomfortable, and he might accidentally splash himself in the face.
She reached her hand out toward the stream, and he furrowed a brow, knowing for certain that she couldn't waterbend; he could, because he was the Avatar, and now, all he could do was eye the stream with confusion.
"What are you-" he began, before suddenly, a stream of mud spurted out under the streams flow, and Aang thrust his hand out, knowing he had to stop it from hitting him.
He felt himself grasping all of the water and mud at the same time, and Aang blinked for a few moments, realising that he had just bent two elements at once. It was a little hard to tell, but he proved it as fact when he raised his other hand, tearing the water out of the mud, and he flicked that water right at Toph, who quickly raised up a wall of earth to block it.
"Oh, good one." she spoke up, "But not fast enough!" she declared, before shooting out a portion of the earthen wall at him.
Aang dropped the dusty remains of the mud, and he ducked right under the block of earth she had sent his way; he realised as he turned his eyes back toward her that that mightn't have been the best choice, as she seemed more than a little agitated by his dodge.
"Wrong move!" she shouted at him, "That was airbender-thinking." she warned him, before he felt his feet get stuck in place, Toph bending them into the ground.
He tensed up as he realised she was going to earthbend at him again, and Aang glanced down, unsure if he could bend himself out of place in time; when she broke off another piece of her wall to toss his way, Aang took a deep breath, before he bent the earth beneath him so that it was liquid, like quicksand, and dropped himself into it, falling underground for just a few moments while she bent the wall right over where he would have been standing.
He held himself there for a moment, before bending the earth underneath him up, blasting himself out of the quicksand and up into the air; Toph's expression, now that he could see it, was one of shock and surprise as she picked up another piece of the wall, aiming to bend it at him. When he landed back down on the ground, he moved right back into his fighting stance, throwing his left hand forward when she shot the piece of wall out, causing it to halt mid-air as both of them tried to bend it.
"Okay, I'll give it to you, that was actually pretty impressive." she conceded his skill, which only made him grin before he threw his hand down, forcing the piece of wall into the ground, shattering it into dust.
"Can we just... take a break?" he asked, "We've been practicing ever since we landed." he argued, and she sighed, before crossing her arms.
"Fine." she allowed, before pacing toward him, "I bet Katara will want help with the cooking or something, so we might as well stop now."
She strode past Aang, and he followed after her, making their way toward Appa, behind which sat their small campsite; Katara had just been resting after their flight and had been gathering some wood for their campfire, which they needed to cook their dinner. They paced past the flying bison, and Aang stroked his fur, patting his cheek before he approached his friend, who was sitting by the already lit campfire for warmth. They were camping up the hills, so it was a little colder than it might have been otherwise at that time of day, and the wind didn't help with that.
"Oh, the fire's pretty nice." Toph observed with a pleased tone, sitting down beside the campfire with her, Aang sitting across from them both as he eyed the bags of cooking equipment.
"So... are we going to make dinner?" he asked, and Katara smiled at him, obviously glad he'd brought it up.
"Yep." she confirmed, "I just wanted to wait for a bit so you could take a break and help." she suggested, and both he and Toph nodded, though the Earth Kingdom girl was a little displeased about it.
"Well, once we're done with preparing the food, we'll go back out and do some sets." she suggested, before raising her hands up to feel the fire, "Did you want me to make something to put the pot on?" she asked, "So you don't burn yourself touching a hot metal pot?" she added, the Water Tribe girl scrunching her lips up.
"I wasn't going to-" she began to defend herself, before nodding, obviously not wanting to start an argument, "Thank you, Toph." she conceded, and the Earth Kingdom girl grinned with confidence before she raised her hands up higher, bending up a circular platform of dirt, which she solidified, ready to have the pot placed on it.
Aang stood up, and stepped over to pick up the pot out of the bag, dusting it off with a shake before he paced over to the campfire, placing the pot down on the earthen platform, leaning in between the two girls as he did so.
"You can get your head out of our faces, Twinkletoes." the Earth Kingdom girl suggested, and he heeded her advice, sitting back down on the other side of the campfire, before he furrowed a brow.
"Wait, don't we need water in the pot?" he asked, and Katara shook her head.
"Well, it depends on what we want to cook. If we're going to fry things, then we can just pour in some f- wait... you won't eat it if it has animal fat, right?" she asked, and the young Avatar nodded.
"Sorry." he conceded, "So, will you make some rice instead?"
"Not much of an option with such a fussy eater." Toph quipped, and she pointed to the nearby stream, "Waterbend some into the pot." she suggested, and Katara looked at her with confusion, as if it was weird to ask that of her.
"I mean I can do it." she conceded, "I'd prefer if you asked more politely." she admitted, and the Earth Kingdom girl snickered.
"I was actually asking Mister Avatar, seeing that he needs to practice all the elements he knows."
Aang cocked his head toward her, surprised that she was actually asking him, but he didn't find issue with the idea, and accepted her suggestion, rising to his feet and moving into a waterbending form. He immediately reached into the water, drawing out a thin coil of water which he pulled toward him, spinning it around himself before he dropped it as softly as he could into the pot; a small smile formed on his lips as he realised he was actually a rather skilled waterbender, though he tended to forget it at times, given he was focusing so much on his earthbending at the moment.
"Good job." Katara congratulated him, before she raised a hand up, indicating in the direction of the cooking bags, "Toph, could you get a bag of rice?" she asked, and she rose up to her feet, pacing on over to the bag of rice, which she picked up and held between her arms, as if she were hugging the bag like a doll; Aang wanted to laugh, but he held himself back, knowing she might react badly.
She heaved it over to the campfire, kneeling down as she placed it down beside Katara, "Put it in." she told the Water Tribe girl, who turned her way for a moment, perhaps expecting Toph to do it; she didn't specifically request it, perhaps so she could get out of it.
She did actually pick up the bag, giving into Toph's demand, and she poured some of the rice in, the little grains making another splashing sound as they entered the pot; the Earth Kingdom girl furrowed a brow, glancing back toward the bags.
"What's next?" she asked, and the other girl tilted her head in the direction of the bags.
"Some dried vegetables. We can cut them up first, though." she explained, and Toph smirked.
"Oh, you trust me with a knife?" she prodded her, and both her and Aang looked her way with confusion.
"Uh... yeah." the Avatar confirmed, though he was second-guessing his opinion after hearing the question itself, "But, if you ask it like that... maybe not."
"I'm just kidding around, Twinkletoes." she grinned at him, before she paced over to the cooking bags; Aang followed after her, deciding he could help and cut too, so they could save some time and get back to training.
"Maybe the blind girl shouldn't go looking for knives." she conceded, and Aang almost blushed, realising he ought to actually help her instead of just letting her reach unknowingly into the bag.
"Yeah, yeah, I can get it Toph." he assured her, but she didn't listen, reaching in anyway; he cringed for a moment as he stood beside her, ready to help, but instead, he just watched her eyes widen, seeming pleased rather than pained from having her fingers sliced.
"Aha!" she grinned, pulling the blade out, and began expecting it, obviously confused by the blade; it wasn't that weird for Aang, given he'd seen the knives a lot of times, though he didn't like the fact they made weapons out of animal bones, "What is this?"
"Some kind of bone." the Avatar clarified with a little distaste, and both of them turned around to face Katara, who would have the answer, seeing that it was her knife.
"It's made from the femur of a seal." she clarified, before gesturing for them to come back.
"Get the veggies, and we can start cutting." she asked the pair, both turning back around to retrieve what they needed.
Aang reached into the bag, drawing out another knife, before the two of them picked up some bags. They carried their bags over to the campfire along with the knives for slicing, and suddenly, though not unexpectedly, Toph stomped her foot down, creating a platform on which she could cut the pieces of vegetables. Katara glanced at her for a moment, seeming impressed by her move, though her eyes darted back to the bags.
"Aang, watch the water." she asked the Avatar as he moved to sit down beside Toph, and he looked toward her with slight confusion.
"Uh, you know what's going on, Toph?"
"No idea." she conceded, "I've got a table to cut them on." she explained, tapping the platform, though Aang was able to look back and see that the Water Tribe girl was actually retrieving a cutting board, which made sense, given she would otherwise be cutting on a dirty slab.
"I thought you could use a cutting board." she explained, waving something heavy in her hand.
When she placed it down in front of the Earth Kingdom girl, who touched it to feel its texture; Aang wasn't used to being around somebody who used their senses in a very different way. Unlike him and Katara, she came to understand things through her earthbending, and when that was not sufficient, her touch.
"What is this?" she asked, and the Water Tribe girl tapped it with a smile on her face.
"A few pieces of bark sewn together from one of the few trees near my village. My Gran-Gran made it herself." she proudly told her, and the young Air Nomad furrowed a brow, finding what she had just said to be absurd.
"Wait, there's trees at the South Pole?" Aang asked her, perplexed by the idea there could be trees at a place that was so cold.
"I think it was from some spiritual site, but nobody actually knows what it's purpose is."
"Don't you have sages to tell you stuff like that?" the earthbender asked the other girl, whose heartbeat increased pace upon hearing that specific question.
"Toph... there are no sages." she clarified, "They all died or got taken by the Fire Nation. Whatever they knew, not enough people remembered it, so nobody's really sure what any of the old spiritual sites are for. I've seen a temple before near one of the villages, but it was just an igloo with some offerings inside. They don't even know the name of the spirit they're giving it to."
"That's... worrying." Aang admitted as he drew out his own dagger, ready to start cutting up the vegetables, before turning to face the girl beside him, realising they only had one cutting board between them.
"We can share, right?" he asked Toph, who nodded, and he put a vegetable down onto the board, and began to slice it up, though his mind quickly returned to the threat of the spirits.
He didn't know much about his role as the Avatar when it came to spirits, but he knew that sages, monks and gurus were the kinds of people who would be able to communicate with and solve problems concerning the spirits, given their attunement to the natural world and spiritual sites, which were important to the various spirits that inhabited their world.
"If nobody can deal with the spirits, bad things might happen if the Southerners disrespect the spirits."
"Well, I don't know what we could do to achieve that." the Water Tribe girl admitted, sounding dejected as she sat herself back down by the pot, "We're barely getting by."
"Not for long." the young Avatar spoke up, sure that things would be changing for the better; his friends were set on helping the Southern Water Tribe, and even if he didn't think their ideas for the Southern Raiders were humane in the slightest, he could agree with their ultimate aims, "Sokka and Azula are going to help your tribe recover. You'll get back what you lost."
"I don't know how you're planning to get waterbenders back." Toph admitted, "Ask some northerners to come over and join your tribe?"
"I was more thinking just waterbenders being born and not... taken." Katara admitted, before she snorted, "Maybe Azula will give us one."
Aang was a little confused by her joke, unsure how Azula would get her hands on a waterbender, though Toph's cackling suggested that there was more to what she was saying than what he understood.
"Ahaha! Good one, Sugar Queen!" she beamed at her, seeming proud of her comment.
"I mean, it's true. If they're in love... they'll get married and have some kids eventually. Might take ages, but that's how life goes." Katara argued, before she scooched herself closer to both Aang and Toph, "Do you ever think about what it'll be like when you get older?"
Toph raised a brow as she put some vegetables down on the bark board, readying the knife in hand, "Sorry, me?" she asked with a confused expression.
"Well, it's just a general question." she shrugged her shoulders, "What do you think you'll be doing?" she asked, before chuckling, "I mean, other than being a master earthbender and the Avatar."
"Huh." Aang mumbled, "I don't really know. I want to... I guess I just want to try and keep the Air Nomads going somehow. People should be able to remember us... I mean, not just Bumi."
"Ah, yeah, that guy's ancient." she conceded, before continuing to cut through her vegetables, "I don't really know anything about the Air Nomads... other than what Aang's shown me. Vegetarians who hate violence and like joking around, and they don't take things too seriously."
"Eh, there were serious Air Nomads too." he conceded, "We're just less serious than the Fire Nation and all their... rules." he explained, not thinking the rules and principles the Fire Nation had come to define itself by were reasonable in the slightest; he might have only been twelve, but even he could see the craziness of the whole plan that Fire Lord Sozin had.
"What, you don't like rules? Me either." she smirked as she continued cutting through the vegetables, "I never want to follow anybody's stupid rules. I mean... some rules just have to be followed, like the rules of war." she argued, and Aang narrowed his eyes at her.
"Uh... yeah, I mean, war shouldn't happen in the first place."
"Fighting's just a natural part of this world." Toph admitted, before scrunching her lips up, "I'm just frustrated it isn't just for the fun of it."
"Greed." Katara mumbled, before turning her eyes to Toph, "What do you want for your future?"
"Something better than what I've got." she admitted, before she stopped cutting the vegetables, "Things are better than they used to be... but I used to have a home. Now I just have... this, really."
Aang glanced down, understanding how she felt quite well, "I know what you mean."
"It isn't the same." she conceded, the young Avatar wondering how bad her family could have been to warrant just upping and leaving her life all together; Aang had fled the Southern Air Temple, but he had never intended to not return.
He was going to come back, and try and bargain with the monks, so that he could stay with Gyatso, "Yeah, it isn't your fault you left." he conceded, shaking his head with frustration; he continued chopping the vegetables on his side of the board, just hoping he could get it out of his mind.
"It isn't." she agreed with him, "I- It was unfair."
"Yeah, things are unfair." Katara agreed, "I think we all know that. But we can make things fairer together." she contended, making Aang smile; he really did love her optimism- he had been as hopeful as her, and bright-eyed about the future, before he learnt about his role as the Avatar and the weight of that responsibility.
"I hope that the next Avatar doesn't have to deal with all the stuff I have." he admitted honestly, "They should have a normal life."
"Why are you saying 'they'?" Toph turned to face him, "They're going to be you... maybe with a different mind, but isn't that how the Avatar spirit works. It's still you." she asked, and Aang chuckled.
"Uh, I guess they will be me." he confirmed, before he thought back to what he knew from his past lives; even if they were gone from the world, he could still feel his connection to them and their lives, no matter how long ago they might have been, "I can... I can remember things." he admitted, "From them, but only when something reminds me."
"Like Kyoshi Island?" Katara asked him, and he nodded, knowing that was a good example.
"Yeah, like Kyoshi Island." he confirmed, before eyeing the chopped up pieces of vegetable in front of them, "You want this poured into the pot?" he asked, and she shook her head.
"It's not really necessary yet." she admitted, "I'll let the rice cook." she decided, before gesturing back toward Appa, "Go and do your training. I'm sure you want to learn more forms."
"Yeah, I do." he nodded, rising to his feet, before eyeing Toph, "Wanna show me something new, Sifu Toph?"
"Well, I don't know if your twinkle toes can handle it." she admitted, crossing her arms, obviously sounding skeptical of his abilities; he was unsure if she was being truthful, or just trying to prod him into arguing back.
As much as he didn't want to get agitated, he decided to play along, "Oh, I can handle it." he argued, before he smirked, "And I won't airbend." he explained, and she turned his way with confusion as he began to pace backwards, toward Appa; he had something in mind, and just like his funnel of water at the North Pole, he thought he might have a chance to impress Toph this time.
When he got close enough to Appa, he thrust his foot down, forcing the earth to shoot out as he bent it away from the surface; it propelled him up into the air, and Aang did a backflip over the bison's saddle, before he landed on two feet on the other side of the saddle, facing away from Appa and right back in position where he was before when they were training.
"Wow, good job, Aang!" he heard Katara cheer him on, and he grinned, realising that he had actually done what he set out to do.
"Stealing my moves, Twinkletoes." Toph acknowledged him as she paced around the flying bison's head, pointing a finger toward him accusingly; he thought she was annoyed, but her next words proved otherwise.
"You're already going ahead of what I want you to do." she conceded, seeming impressed by his move, "But even if you can do a jump, can you fight?" she asked, and Aang tensed up, knowing exactly what those words meant.
He immediately pushed himself back into the air with an earthen platform in an attempt to avoid her hits, and he cringed as he saw a piece of earth get thrown his way. When he dropped back down to the ground, Toph was pointing at him accusingly, ready to hit him again.
"No flying!" she warned him, and he grinned at her sheepishly.
"What flying? That was all the earth, not me." he argued, before he had to block a pillar of earth with his own wall, "I didn't fly!" he shouted back at her, and thrust his right fist forward, sending the earthen wall toward Toph, who broke it in two, causing it to collapse to either side.
"Is that all you've got!" she shouted back at him, really getting into her whole drill-sergeant act; she then thrust her left foot forward, creating a pillar which almost knocked Aang off his feet, though he was able to guess where she was aiming.
Nearly falling flat on his face, Aang stabilised himself by anchoring his feet into the soil, before he pulled up dirt from either side of himself, creating two shields of earth; he smirked, realising he was becoming a lot faster and confident with his earthbending, even if it wasn't anywhere near as well-formed as Toph's. She could create solid projectiles and defences at a whim, while he still had to force the earth to compress to make anything useful out of it. He could just toss dirt at her, but that would be rather embarrassing; he was meant to be an earthbender, tossing massive rocks, not whipping around dirt like he was waterbending.
He drew his earthen shields forward as he spotted her between them, moving into an earthbending form; suddenly, the ground beneath Aang gave way, and he realised she had tried to trap him again. He immediately kicked his right foot into the ground below him, stopping it from liquifying, and he then created a pillar with his left foot, pushing it, and then, himself, right out of the hole Toph had made.
When he landed back onto solid ground, he picked up the shields, and threw each of them at her, one after another, the Earth Kingdom girl shattering them effortlessly before she shot two pillars out of the ground, aiming to hit Aang in the chest. He raised his hands up, creating his own pillars at the same moment, which caused both pairs to collide with each other and shatter, creating a small explosion of dirt and dust, which inadvertently blinded him.
That concerned Aang, because he couldn't see, but she still could sense exactly where he was. Deciding that he would have to move, he created a platform of earth underneath himself, pushing himself up a little higher, which allowed him to get a good spot to jump from. Instead of trying to jump away, as he had first considered, he realised that with a big enough projectile, he might be able to beat Toph then and there.
He reached for the nearest boulder he could see, near the edge of the woods, and dragged it toward himself as he jumped off the platform. Toph was already breaking it apart with her bending, and when he was midair, he lopped the boulder at her, the move unexpected, distracting her as she raised a wall to defend herself. He then landed right on that wall, Aang's good sense of balance stopping him from either falling back, or down on top of her.
The young Avatar smirked at her, and just cocked his chin up, "Hey." he addressed her, as if they weren't even sparring, and she threw her fist up to hit Aang with a fragment of the boulder that she had shattered.
He flipped right over her, dodging the fragment with ease, before he picked up two fragments himself when landing behind her, tossing them at Toph, who was able to block the attack with two arm-guards of earth that she had picked up earlier.
"I'm impressed." she conceded, "You handled that a lot better than I thought you would. Too much dodging, though." she warned him, obviously knowing that he was relegating back to his old airbender strategies to get around her attacks.
"Well, I got around you." he argued, crossing his arms, "Are you actually going to teach me something instead of trying to hit me in the nuts with those pillars?" he asked, preferring if they actually practiced some forms rather than forcing him to frantically defend against her earthbending.
"I was never trying that." she argued, "I wanted to get you in the stomach, so you were winded, and had to give up."
He nodded, getting that was a far more reasonable strategy, and he glanced down, realising that she hadn't, for once, tried to ensnare his feet, "Huh, you didn't do it."
"Well, I'll give it you, Aang, that jump trick actually worked, and I don't think you airbent once." she conceded his skill, "But being light on your feet means you're not ready to pack a punch."
"Show me, then." he requested, genuinely wanting to see whatever forms she could teach him; they were still stuck at the basics, and Aang was looking forward to being able to use some of the crazy moves she did, not to mention her seismic sense.
Toph raised her hands up, visibly contorting the walls and debris around them, before she dropped her hands down, breaking them apart and throwing all the remains into the ground. Instead of remaining a haphazard mess, their sparring ground had been quickly fixed up. She gestured to his head, and he tapped his forehead for a moment, unsure what she wanted.
"Blind yourself with that headband." she told him, and he glanced at the headband which he had tied around his wrist, seeing that he didn't need to wear it when they weren't around other people; he untied it and drew it around his face, covering his eyes and tying the fabric by the back of his scalp.
Touching his hair, he was once more reminded of the unusual fact of having hair; even though he'd been growing it for a few months, he still wasn't used to the fact of having something on his scalp. Aang turned his attention back toward Toph, waiting for her to give some directions.
"So... am I going to learn how to sense with my earthbending?" he asked her, and she audibly stepped closer.
"Yeah, you are. Right now, you can't sense much, because you haven't gotten used to focusing on the earth around you. You can feel it through your shoes, right?" she asked, and he blinked a few times, still unable to see, pushing his feet into the dirt, wondering if he could make anything out.
Obviously, the earth was there, and he knew he could bend it, but that wasn't what she wanted him to do; she just wanted him to sense through the ground, and feel the earth.
"Let's try something out." she spoke up, before audibly stepping away; he tried to sense where her feet were going, but was unable to make anything out yet.
She seemed to stop, and she whistled out to him, giving indication to her location; he turned to face her, and wondered if he could actually sense her like she could obviously sense him.
"I'm guessing all you feel is the ground, right?" she assumed correctly, the young Avatar nodding; he felt a little embarrassed, but knew that was a stupid feeling to have when it was pretty obvious she was the only person who could use seismic sense to begin with, or at least, at the extreme level that she did, "So, I want you to feel the ground, and tell me which way I'm stepping. Your left, or your right." she gave him options, and he scrunched his lips up, wondering if he could even do it; he might hear her footsteps, but she was too far away for him to tell which way she was going.
He waited for something to happen, just feeling the earth, waiting for any kind of vibration or movement; he could feel things, but it was erratic and random, barring the grumbling he could hear and sense from Appa's stomachs nearby, which made him want to laugh. Otherwise it was probably just the wind, or the shaking caused by the nearby stream. That was 'louder' than anything Toph's feet would do as she stepped around, and a few moments later, she spoke up.
"Which way?" she asked, and he shrugged his shoulders.
"I can't sense your feet." he simply told her the truth.
"Okay, but can you sense this?" she asked, before suddenly, he felt the ground shift beneath him; he was about to jump out of the way, afraid she might earthbend him off his feet, but he quickly realised that she hadn't earthbent near him at all.
He glanced around, finding the point where he was sure she had earthbent, and gestured toward it, "You're there, right?" he asked, and she made a clap.
"That's right. Earthbending is always easy to sense." she explained, "That's why I was always unbeatable at the Earth Rumble. I could sense all my opponents' moves so easily, it was hilarious."
He furrowed a brow, waiting for her to do something else; he could feel something ahead of him, though it wasn't like the stream or anything else he'd sensed in his general vicinity. He realised that it might actually be Toph, so he waited for the sensations to move somewhere else. He could not figure out where they were distance wise, but he could certainly figure out the direction, and he pointed to where he last sensed the unusual sensation.
"You're there." he pointed, "But I don't know how far away."
"Hmph." she mumbled, "That's... about right. I couldn't figure out distances for a while. It takes practice. But you could sense where I was." she acknowledged, sounding rather pleased about that development, "Can you block?" she asked, and the Avatar immediately pulled up a wall of earth in front of himself, which he could sense being shattered by some kind of boulder.
He then sensed, and heard something right behind him, and he pulled the earth up, trying to make sure she couldn't hit him with another pillar or something of the likes. Instead of hearing something collide with the wall, he heard a shriek and a thumping noise, and he recognised the voice at once.
"Katara!" he exclaimed, before taking the blindfold off, realising that his wall had just knocked his friend off her feet; presumably she was going to watch their bending practice, but had just gotten whacked off her feet, "Oh... I'm so sorry." he tried to apologise, getting rid of the wall as he saw her dusting herself off.
"I probably should have said something." she admitted, "You thought I was a rock or something, right?"
"Y-yeah." he conceded, and a few moments later, heard Toph cackle loudly; he wasn't surprised that she found it funny, but he couldn't, given how close he had been to actually hurting his friend.
"Good reflexes!" she congratulated him, not what he wanted to hear when he almost hurt Katara purely by accident.
He approached the Water Tribe girl and offered her a hand, "Maybe you should sit on the saddle to watch." he suggested, and she grimaced, before he glanced around to see Momo, who was sitting nearby, covered in dust, presumably from his sparring with Toph.
"Momo... what are you doing, buddy?" he asked the flying-lemur, who jumped into the air and flew onto Toph's head, making the stout Earth Kingdom girl cry out in shock and try to whack him off.
"Argh! Get off me, you stupid thing!" she demanded, and both Aang and Katara cackled at her reaction, watching as she threw her fists around at random as the flying-lemur flew around her.
"Ahaha!" the young Air Nomad cackled, before he threw his right hand forward, creating an air blast which almost hit Toph off her feet, but more importantly, scared the flying lemur away, making him fly off to the nearby trees.
"What was it doing?!" she asked out, seething with rage, "You stupid thing!" she shouted out, pointing around as she presumably tried to sense where he had gone.
"I think he was just playing around, Toph." Katara assured her, "But your reaction was hilarious."
"Oh, I'll show you something hilarious." she retorted, and Aang stepped forward, not wanting her to do anything brash.
"Come on, Toph, don't get mad. Having a good laugh isn't bad." he argued, before indicating back toward where the campfire was, "We can go have dinner now, right, Katara?"
"Uh, yeah, it's cooking away. It'll be done soon." she assured them, and the Earth Kingdom shook her head, clearly agitated as she paced toward them.
"Tell your lemur to get some manners." she suggested to Aang, who tried to hold back a laugh, letting out a muffled snicker, "And stop laughing!"
She continued pacing along past him, intent on reaching the campfire where they were cooking; he turned around, noting Momo sitting in one of the nearby trees, trying to rub the dirt and dust off of his fur.
"Sorry, Momo." he apologised to him, knowing that he had ignored him all afternoon and accidentally got him dirty with all his earthbending; he turned around, and paced after Toph and Katara, making his way back to the campfire, where they were now sitting, the Water Tribe girl stirring their vegetable and rice stew.
"Sorry, Toph." he apologised to her as well, knowing that he ought to have been a little more helpful that blasting her with air.
"Don't apologise." she retorted, sounding rather agitated, "Just leave me be." she demanded, and the young Avatar sighed.
"Fighting doesn't help us... especially when it's not practice." he conceded as he sat himself down, "Thanks for showing me how to see with my feet."
"You didn't get far... but I didn't in a day either. It took me years to get a grip on my seismic sense." she warned him, "Earthbending isn't easy for everybody."
"I'm the Avatar." he assured her, "I'll handle it."
"And what about firebending?" Katara asked him, "Are you going to put all your effort into that too?"
"Maybe not lightning generation." he admitted, knowing that ability to be scary, and to his best knowledge, very hard to master, "But the other stuff, yeah."
"And what about the glowing eyes stuff?" Toph asked him, "You know, when you go all crazy and bend all the elements."
"That isn't me." he admitted, "It's my past lives." he argued, "I don't have any control over it... and I don't know how to control it."
"Maybe you can ask them." the Water Tribe girl suggested, "I mean, you were able to speak to Avatar Roku, remember?"
"Yeah... but I think it's not as easy as them just saying... 'be wise', 'learn all the elements', 'meditate', and stuff like that. I've got to figure it out quickly if we have to really fight. Like Ozai, or the Dai Li. I can't just bend the elements and hope I win."
"I agree." Toph nodded, "That power is awesome, but obviously... without control, it's as good as an earthquake. Sure it might crush a lot of Fire Nation soldiers, but it can destroy cities and hurt innocent people too." she admitted, before letting out a deep breath, "I'm glad I'm not the Avatar."
"Just the greatest earthbender." Katara quipped, clearly mocking her claims of greatness.
"Hey, I am." she declared, pointing to her chest with her thumb, "But my powers only go so far... Aang's a whole different story."
"Maybe I can figure it out by myself." he admitted, "I mean... if I just have control over my emotions and stuff, maybe I can control it. It's when I freak out, that's when it happens."
"A controlled panic?" Toph asked him, sounding rather skeptical of what he was suggesting.
"Okay, not that." he shook his head, "But there has to be a way to control it."
"I believe in you, Aang." Katara smiled at him, placing a hand on his shoulder, "I'm sure your past lives will help."
"Belief isn't going to be enough to stop Ozai."
"Yeah, I think it'll take a whole lot of soldiers and some more of those airships." Katara argued, making Aang scrunch his lips up.
"Maybe I won't have to do all the work."
"I don't think that was ever the plan." the Water Tribe girl contended, "Azula's wanted to take charge the whole time. She needs your help, though."
"I'm ready." he assured her, before he reached his hand toward the campfire, wondering if he could try and bend it, "Maybe not to firebend... but to help the world. Yeah, I am."
The morning sun shone down on the path ahead of Sokka, who could only feel like it went on forever; the march south from the base had already taken them a near full day, with only a few hours spent at a quickly propped up encampment along the road before they continued their ride south at dawn. The only thing he had to keep himself awake was the meagre rations he'd brought with him, and some tea which Azula had had brewed for them. His girlfriend was ever so confident about their plans, and given their history, Sokka had a healthy amount of skepticism about the whole thing. He wanted for them to win, more than anything, but he was taking the time they had spent riding to consider the potential threats that faced them, and how they ought to be dealt with.
Assassins weren't just a possibility; he was sure that somebody was going to be sent to kill or kidnap Azula. If the treacherous officers had actually been in contact with Ozai's forces, they'd probably know what their general plan would be, even if the Princess had withheld the specifics from anyone, even Sokka, until the day they left the base. The danger was high enough that he had refused to leave her general vicinity ever since they departed the compound.
Usually, Sokka would give her some peace and alone time, but if somebody tried to murder his grilfriend, it was his duty to protect her. He knew that Renshu and the other guards had the exact same aim, but unlike them, he could chi-block and use his boomerang against potential assailants. Ty Lee was perhaps even more useful than himself, especially given that firebenders were far easier to chi-block than earthbenders, who could ensnare her with the ground around them, or waterbenders, who could trap their opponents in ice; he'd learnt the latter from his experience in berating Master Pakku, though Katara's timely assistance made sure he was able to chide the waterbending master without delay.
He wouldn't admit that the acrobat was a better fighter than him out loud, but he trusted her skills, even if she could be ditzy at times and a little too relaxed. She wasn't yapping on with random questions at the moment about things she saw around them, or Sokka and Azula's relationship, and that pleased him. The only benefit that came from anything like that was that it distracted them all from the situation they were in, though he was sure he couldn't just become unaware.
He had struggled to sleep that night prior, as he was constantly worried somebody was going to jump out of the woods and attack them. The only thing they had to protect them were a few patrols going through the woods and ahead of them at all times, and even then, they mightn't return quickly enough to allow them to prepare for a potential fight.
His paranoia was justified, yet he couldn't help but feel frustrated by it; despite everything that was happening, he wished he could be calm and carefree. If anything, their recent experiences with the treacherous officers and the letter to Zhao only made him wish for their fight to be over sooner rather than later. Not because he desperately wanted Azula to be Fire Lord, but because he wanted to return to his home, or at least, be somewhere where he wasn't constantly worried for his own safety and the safety of those he cared about.
His eyes darted over toward his girlfriend, who he had noticed looking at him in the corner of his eyes, and he forced out a smile, wanting her to think that he was as confident and easy-going as she probably imagined him to be. Her image of him was not something perfect, but he didn't want to be pitied, and he knew she didn't either.
"You're tired." she observed, before turning her gaze forward, "From last night?" she asked, and he scrunched his lips up, unsure whether that was the real reason.
"No." he refuted her observation, "I'm tired of all this." he argued, before shaking his head, "But it's necessary, so I won't complain." he added, knowing she might be concerned if he actually didn't want to continue their efforts to stop Ozai.
Azula's expression shifted to one of concern, and though she didn't utter a word, her eyes told him what she couldn't utter aloud; she knew that it was her choice, and her obligation to fight her father, and thus, she had been the one to bring him along. Staying at the South Pole had been an option, and if it weren't for the opportunity to thrash the Southern Raiders, he might have tried to argue for her to remain there with him, at least until they could ascertain Zuko's willingness to still apprehend her.
None of that mattered anymore, as Zuko was supposedly dead, and they were now in league with the Avatar, the one person he knew the 'bad Fire Nation' were going to furiously pursue and kill, if they had the opportunity. Now they knew that they were on Ozai's list of targets too, and it seemed that the Fire Lord personally had it out for him; Sokka might have been uneducated by Fire Nation standards, but it didn't take a genius to figure out what 'miscegenation' was referring to.
"I'm sorry." she uttered after a long bout of silence, and Ty Lee turned around, a little concerned by her pained voice, "I know this wasn't what you wanted." she conceded, "This isn't what I wanted. I wanted to just overthrow Zuko and be done with it."
"Life isn't that easy." Sokka acknowledged, and his eyes turned to the other member of their trio, who seemed more than a little concerned by her friend's reaction.
"Are you... are you guys alright?" she asked, and the Princess let out a little laugh.
"Oh, I'm alright, Ty Lee. We're not in prison, or dead. As long as we're free, there's a chance of victory... and we're going to seize it."
"A chance to get back what's yours." the acrobat rephrased what she aimed to do, and the Princess made a wistful smile.
"It's not mine." she admitted honestly, and perhaps, purposefully with a near whisper; she didn't want anybody else hearing that, for obvious enough reasons, "I have to earn my right to rule, and I will." she assured them, "I thought I was worthy once... but I was mistaken. Worth derives from one's ability to affect change and better one's country, and the world. Until I can do what I have set out to achieve, then I am just Azula."
"Wow... that was like... really inspiring." Ty Lee admitted, a hopeful smile on her face, "Don't you think so, Sokka?"
"Yeah, it is." he agreed, making a smile for both their sakes; he agreed with Azula, but her aspirations and desire to make good of her promises didn't change the present circumstances, "But hope doesn't get you out of a pit."
"Well, isn't that good news." his girlfriend smirked, "Because that's where our enemies are headed... and not a metaphorical pit in the slightest."
"Haha, that's a good one, Zula." Ty Lee commended her quip, and the Water tribesman let out a small chuckle; it was a funny fact, but that didn't change his mind on the point he was trying to raise.
"I trust your plan, but we can't... we can't just lose again." he admitted; back in Yu Dao, he was more worried about their safety rather than the fact Azula lost the Agni Kai, but now, he was far more worried about losing, because if they lost again, there would be very few safe places for them to hide, now that Ozai wanted their heads.
"We won't lose." she assured him, "If I didn't trust Jianren's fighters to get this done, I would have chosen another plan."
"Like what?" he dared to ask, unsure if she'd gone much further than considering how to protect the base with the men she already had under her command.
"We could have withdrawn from the base, but left it mined with explosives and traps to kill as many of the enemy force as possible. They would have mostly survived with an army intact, undoubtedly, but we could have moved up into the mountains to the east, where the earthbenders would be most advantaged with their skills." she explained her alternative plan, and Sokka grimaced, thinking about how things could have gone lopsided if they couldn't get away from the base far enough.
"How could you get thousands of soldiers into the mountains? Forget all the other Earth Kingdom rebels we'd have to worry about, just... well, what we're doing now is hard enough." he gestured ahead of them, and she nodded, seeming to have already considered that problem.
"I know that, but we wouldn't have brought everyone there. Those fleeing into the mountains are meant to be feigning weakness, and inciting the enemy to pursue. With the help of the fleet, we could have put much of the forces out to sea, only for them to land when the enemy had exhausted themselves trying to besiege our defences. They could have surrounded them on all sides and annihilated them with the trebuchets and tundra tanks that the fleet has ready to deploy." she explained the following steps of the plan, before narrowing her eyes, "But I am unsure if we would have had the fuel or rations to hold on for an extended fight. The men might have defected... and then even if we were able to cause thousands of casualties, that would not turn the tide in the campaign against my father. We'd still have to flee."
"So, this was the only straightforward option." Sokka acknowledged what she had just told him, "If we went that way, the morale of the soldiers would be even worse than it already is." he observed, and she nodded.
"That's why this victory is necessary. Without it, the officers will feel right to hand me over and discard my authority. It will not be worth anything if I let their men go to the slaughter for nothing." she emphasised the importance of the battle; it was less a battle against Ozai's forces, and more a battle against the drained morale of her 'loyalists'; they would only be loyal for so long, and to sure up that loyalty, somebody needed to lose, and it couldn't be Azula.
"I know." he agreed with what she was saying, "That's why I won't complain." he assured her, knowing that just droning on and complaining about all shittiness of the situation wouldn't do any good for either of them.
"Thank you, Sokka." she nodded at him, reassured by his words, "Your resolve to continue this fight is..." she trailed off, seemingly lost for words, "It helps." she decided to give a simple answer, and it made him smile; she needed him, and he needed her, and that very fact was enough to assure him that she was still the girl he carried through the streets of Yu Dao, who he saved from an arrogant brother and who he hoped to save from spiteful father.
"Oh... that's so sweet!" Ty Lee fawned at her friend's comment, making both her and her boyfriend roll their eyes, frustrated by her unnecessary comment.
"Thanks, Ty Lee." the Princess dryly responded to her, "I really needed to hear that." she sarcastically thanked her, which made her friend cringe.
"Sorry... I know you don't like me saying stuff like that..." she conceded, before beaming at them both, "But I'm right!"
"Can we discuss something other than my private affairs, Ty Lee?" Azula requested, though her tone made that much more a demand, her frustrated glare telling her friend to change the topic at once.
"Y-yeah, yeah, uh..." she mumbled, looking unsure what to say, before she turned her eyes back to Sokka, "How about you tell me another story, Sokka?" she asked, and the Water Tribesman narrowed his eyes.
"From back at the South Pole?" he asked, unsure if she was just asking for some tale about his past, or more specifically, about his Azula's time together, before she went off and found the Avatar.
"Yeah, like that seal story. That was funny." she explained, and he let out a chuckle, recalling that specific one he'd told Ty Lee some time ago, back when they were first travelling towards Shengchang, just before they had run into the Earth Kingdom fighters who were now helping them.
"Well, it was funny, other than me breaking my leg." he conceded, his girlfriend nodding in agreement.
"Carrying somebody with a broken leg across the ice fields is not something I want to ever do again." she gave her opinion on that incident, and he nodded, not wanting something like that to befall them again.
"That was the one time we tried to hunt seals alone." he reminded her, "And we're not doing it again."
"I'd prefer to not have to hunt ever again in my life." she argued, before turning her eyes away, "But that's just wishful thinking."
He realised that by saying that, she was implying they would return to the South Pole together at some point, given that otherwise, there'd be little need for them to hunt, unless they somehow lost all their coins and were unable to find any work to get more, in the case they ended up fugitives once again. They were still technically fugitives, but that didn't really mean much when they had an army behind them.
"Well, what other stories do you have?" she pressed her request, and the Water Tribesman let out a sigh; he could use a distraction, and a funny, if not merely fond story would get his mind off of the dangers that were constantly on his mind.
"A few." he conceded, before glancing toward his girlfriend, "Any stories you don't want her hearing?"
"I think you can guess which ones." she told him with an intended vagueness, Sokka understanding easily enough what kinds of stories that Azula would be embarrassed from her friend hearing.
"Okay." he mumbled, glancing up to the sky above them, wondering what Ty Lee would find interesting, or amusing; he'd spent a lot of time with his girlfriend back at the South Pole, and though there was a lot of mundane things that happened, some things came to mind when he thought of unusual or outright disturbing occurrences.
"Do you mind if I tell her about the nightmare story?" he asked the Princess, who cocked her head toward her friend, mulling over the choice before she nodded; she wasn't too pleased with his choice, clearly, but she didn't seem to disapprove either.
"That doesn't have anything in it she could or want to make fun of me over." she conceded, though her tone reminded him immediately of her distaste for the contents of her tale, "Go ahead."
"Nightmare?" the acrobat asked, "What kind of nightmares?"
"Oh, that would spoil the fun of it." he argued, before narrowing his eyes, "It wasn't actually very fun."
"Oh... so this isn't a funny story." she asked, the Water Tribe warrior scrunching his lips up; every story could be viewed as funny from a certain perspective, but the one he had in mind wasn't that amusing.
"Not really funny." he admitted, "Unless you're Azula, who has the weirdest sense of humour in the world."
"It's not that weird." she retorted against his accusation; Ty Lee eyed her friend, her expression suggesting she agreed with him instead.
"Eh, you do laugh at some unfunny stuff, Zula." she gave her opinion, before turning back to face Sokka, "How does this start?"
"Well... it was a few months before any of the Southern Raiders or Avatar stuff that this happened. It was back around the waning bit of summer, so it was still light out, but never too bright. Kind of like a sunset or sunrise." he explained, before furrowing a brow, "People in my village talk about midnight sun madness, and I thought at first, that was what she had got, not being used to the whole 'no day or night' thing we have down in the South Pole for a good part of the year."
"I was not crazy." the Princess retorted, and he raised a hand, wholly agreeing with her.
"I know that, but back then, I had no idea what was going on." he reminded her, his gaze turning back to Ty Lee, "She had woken up sweating and afraid, but she didn't explain it, and I thought she had just had a bad dream." he explained what had first set off his suspicions, "But it wasn't just one time. It kept happening over and over for a whole... uh, I guess you'd call it a week, but remember, the sun doesn't set, so we slept whenever we got tired, not when it was dark."
"So, Azula was getting nightmares." she made an observation of what had happened, "But why?"
"I had no idea. I first thought midnight sun madness, but she didn't seem to be ill or delirious. She was off though... I thought maybe there was something bad she'd seen, so I asked, but she told me she was fine."
"But were you?" she asked the Princess, who shrugged her shoulders.
"Other than being stuck at the South Pole, yes." she clarified, not actually giving away where his story was going.
"Aw... so I just have to listen to find out?"
"That's the whole point of this." he smirked, "I'm reeling you in with something interesting."
"Azula gets nightmares, she says she's okay. That just sounds like usual Azula not saying things that make her feel uncomfortable."
"Well, you're right." Sokka confirmed her suspicions to be true, and the acrobat's eyes widened.
"Wait, really?" she asked, before furrowing a brow, "But what wouldn't she want to talk-" she began, before pointing at him, "Okay... continue. This is getting interesting."
"Okay, so back to the actual plot, and not your interruptions." he warned her casually, before going back to his story, "I asked her more than once, but got the same response, so, without any real answers, I asked my Gran-Gran to talk with Azula, and try and figure out if there was actually something wrong with her."
"Oh..." Ty Lee mumbled, turning her eyes to Azula for a moment, who was silent and straight-faced, perhaps just wanting to not-spoil the story for her; she turned her eyes back to Sokka, and gestured toward him, "What did she say?"
"That Azula was perfectly healthy, and that it probably had to do with her family, or something from before we met, if she wasn't going to talk to me about it." he explained, before smirking, "But I wanted answers, so I decided that the best way to find out would be to drag her along on a fishing trip, and ask her then, when she couldn't go anywhere or just deflect the questions."
"Harassing her for answers." she observed, "Don't think that ended well."
"Well, she got annoyed at first. She thought I was calling her crazy or something, but I tried to tell her I just wanted to know what she was thinking about." he explained, remembering Azula trying to use the fishing-spear against him to try and threaten him; he just grabbed it off her, and as much as she liked to fight him, she gave in, not wanting to capsize the boat by accident.
"And she didn't hit you, did she?"
"No, I didn't." the Princess conceded, before smirking, "But I tried."
"So, I asked her, guessing what it could be about. Zuko. Her uncle. Her childhood. Her mother. Maybe even Ozai. Or something about you or Mai." he listed off the things he had guessed her nightmares to pertain to.
"And what was it?"
"It was Ozai." he admitted, before turning his eyes away, "He kept coming to her in her dreams, and they had conversations. They never ended well, obviously."
"Was it the same one again and again?" she asked, and he shook his head; Azula couldn't recall all of them that well, being dreams, after all, but they were all about different things- different failures, more specifically.
"No." he clarified, "One of them was, about us... actually." he admitted, recalling that one most starkly, given how it went, "She had returned to the palace, and freed him from prison, wanting him to retake the throne. I was with her, obviously, and Ozai... well, he interrogated us both, and I can't remember exactly how it went, but there was some fight, and... well, we killed him."
"Oh..." she mumbled, turning her eyes to Azula, "So, you've already thought about all of this?"
"My mind considers most scenarios, whether consciously or not." she conceded, "That was the worst one, but there were others."
"One was a battle... Instead of us fighting Ozai together, it was... well, you can guess."
"Azula and Ozai fighting you guys?"
"Not us. Zuko and Iroh... I think Mai might have been there too." he explained, the Princess nodding to confirm.
"And... what happened?" she asked, nervous about what happened; Sokka and his girlfriend both turned to look at each other, and the former decided to give the answer she might have been unwilling to address.
"Another dead Ozai."
"Is that what these all have in common?" she asked, the Princess' eyes turning away; perhaps the story wasn't the best one to give, but at the very least, it told Ty Lee the truth- the Princess did not decide Ozai was her enemy when she aligned with Avatar, it was set long before then.
"No." she shook her head, "One of them was worse. I died instead."
"At the village." she admitted, "It made no sense, but... the emotions felt real. I don't ever want to feel like that when I'm awake." she stressed, "I won't let him control me. I can't fear him."
"I think we have a good reason to be afraid... but I agree, Zula." Ty Lee spoke up, trying to sound confident, "We've got to look at the bright side, and not just be consumed by negative emotions."
"Negative emotions drive me." Azula retorted, and Sokka glared her down, knowing that was a lie; maybe some of her drive came from her fears and anger, but it wasn't the sole thing keeping her in the fight.
"Come on." he prodded her, "That's simplifying things."
"And so is saying that you're tired." she gave a comparable thing he had uttered himself, "You're frustrated with everything that's happened, and I am too. We all are. But we have to act."
"And the why is important, right?" Ty Lee chimed in, "You have positive reasons too."
"And you have negative ones." she argued, "I bet... there's only one person in the world you'd like to see suffer, and we don't need to say his name." she reminded her of her own feelings about Ozai, given what had happened to Mai and Zuko; Sokka grimaced, not thinking that very kind of her to bring up.
"Y-y-yeah, I don't like your dad. He's a terrible guy. I hope we win, and he never gets to hurt anyone again." she argued, and the Water Tribesman turned to face his girlfriend.
"Was that really necessary?" he asked her with a near whisper, sympathising with Ty Lee's unease about feeling such emotions; Sokka was not somebody who enjoyed being overcome with anger, unlike Azula, who seemed to relish in it, when it did arrive.
"Well, I'm just addressing the truth, Sokka. Are you afraid of the truth?"
"No." he immediately refused, his feelings on facts and knowledge already set firm; his feelings on purposefully prodding one's friends about serious, if not disturbing, matters, were a little more open to change, "But I don't think reminding Ty Lee about that is going to help her. I guess she doesn't want to be angry at your dad, or anyone."
"I don't." the acrobat softly responded, obviously not wanting to argue with her friend.
Azula seemed a little annoyed from being in the minority, and she turned her gaze ahead, deciding not to respond; Sokka sighed, hoping that his concern for Ty Lee's mental wellbeing was the one thing that annoyed her.
"Fine." she finally responded, not sounding as annoyed as he expected she might be.
"Fine?" he questioned her back, "What's fine?" he prodded her, wanting a straight answer.
"I won't ask about what bugs Ty Lee." she clarified, sounding exasperated, "And stop asking me stupid questions. You know what I meant." she warned him, the Water Tribesman crossing his arms.
He raised his chin, realising he had the perfect response, "Fine."
"I will shoot you in the head with a fireball, Sokka." she threatened him, and he knew her well enough to know she'd carry through with it.
"How about we don't fight while riding?" Ty Lee proposed a solution, and the couple eyed each other, both nodding; Sokka didn't want conflict, but neither did he want Azula ignoring their emotions- she didn't have to care about their every concern, but he thought she ought to be considerate about what worried them.
"Sokka's just being antsy because he's tired." his girlfriend argued, and he sighed, realising that she might be right, even if he wasn't giving up his point just yet.
"Yeah, I am tired." he agreed with her, "And I want you to... please, just not talk about him. I want him dead as much as you do, but that doesn't mean he should be on our minds all the time."
She looked at him blankly for a moment, before nodding, seeming to appreciate his words more than he expected she would, "You're right, Sokka. A lot of the time, you say stupid sentimental shit, but today, you're right. It's just a distraction. The battle is the real thing we should be thinking about."
"Thanks, Azula." he acknowledged her acceptance before he leaned forward on the saddle, almost ready to lie himself down on the neck of the komodo rhino, though to do so, he'd have to climb off the saddle proper, "I wish there was some easy way to sleep on these things."
"We're not sleeping now." the Princess warned him, "We need to remain aware."
"Yeah..." Ty Lee agreed, before turning her eyes to Sokka, "More stories, please?" she requested, making him roll his eyes.
"Yeah, I'll choose one that isn't so... worrying."
"I'm not worried about dreams I had half a year ago, Sokka." Azula argued, "You shouldn't be either. Our intentions are resolute, are they not?"
He looked at her for a moment, realising that she was right; the nightmares might have been concerning at the time, but their plans had changed, and now, there was a concerted agreement between them, and most of the people they had recruited to their side. They had things to do, and unless something went terribly wrong, they weren't going to change their aims.
"They are." he agreed with her, and she smirked, clearly relieved by his assurance.
"Good." she simply replied, before gesturing toward Ty Lee, "Now, go, feel free to entertain her with another story."
"Uh... yeah." he mumbled, considering what he ought to tell Ty Lee about, "Well... there's other stories that are more funny."
"Oh, like what?" the Fire Nation girl piqued her head up, her near grin telling him she was eager to hear whatever he had to say.
"Well, this happened after that seal hunt where I broke my leg." he explained, "I couldn't do as much work as usual around camp, so Azula stepped up to do things I'd usually do."
"So... uh, fishing and hunting?" she guessed, the Water Tribesman nodding.
"Yep, that's right. With her firebending, she was pretty useful out on a hunt, if she could... uh, you know, not create crevasses in the ice." he conceded, reminding them of what she had done back on the seal hunt.
"I wasn't trying to do that." the Princess defended her actions, "I was trying to get that seal so we could have something to actually bring back to the village."
"I know, I know." he assured her, before chuckling at the thought of what she'd done without his supervision, "But you see, Azula didn't get much... training, really. She just went out with my dad and a few others to go find some seals to kill, and she got a little to eager again... but instead of using the club, it was her firebending this time.
"Uh, what did she do?" Ty Lee asked, and he turned his eyes to his girlfriend, who did seem a little embarrassed, already knowing what he was going to say.
"Well, she tossed a fire stream right at some seals, but instead of hurting them, she just pissed them off, as well as spraying up a bunch of snow, making it harder for the other hunters to see." he explained, "Now, this is what Azula told me, so I'm unsure if this is how it actually went down, but supposedly, one of the seals came at her, trying to bite her arm, and she shot a fireball into its mouth, knocking it right out."
"Then I guess the hunters... uh, you know." she euphemistically suggested, probably not too fond of the idea of hunting animals like seals; Sokka, on the other hand, found no problem with it, having eaten seal meat and used seal fat for fires all his life- they were necessary for his village to function, perhaps even more so than fish.
"Well, that seal was a goner, but the others were still angry, and tried to bite at the other hunters. They fended them off, and Azula was able to scare off most of them with her bending. I would have preferred whacking a few of them with my boomerang and taking them out with a club, but she just loves her firebending."
"It's far more effective than your crude instruments." the Princess argued, and he snickered.
"Oh, really?" he asked her, knowing that she had picked up some skills when it came to spears, "And you don't use spears?"
"Not at the moment, no." she argued, "So shut up about it, unless you'd like to spar me when we reach the rendezvous point." she warned him, the Water Tribesman waving his hand at her casually, not that concerned about it.
"Why would you spar me when you have other stuff to worry about?"
"To get my mind off of those things." she contended, and Ty Lee nodded in agreement.
"Sparring is a good distraction." she agreed with her friend, "Maybe we should do some when we get there."
"But Sokka does have a point. We need to focus on our work. Once the defences are set up, then we might have time to spare for some training." the Princess gave her thoughts, "What do you think, Sokka?"
"Eh... as long as I get some rest before then." he gave his condition, "Sleep is good for the mind and body."
"But what happened next?" the acrobat spoke up, referring back to his tale about the seal hunt.
"Oh, Azula helped drag the seal carcasses back to the village, and impressed everybody." he acknowledged, "Though the warriors were a little worried about her accidentally melting the ice below their feet." he added, knowing that firebending wasn't something that his fellow tribesmen liked, and many of them disdained it greatly; he had himself, until he met Azula, but he couldn't dare say he actually liked it- he was impressed by her skill, but that was about it.
"I didn't." the Princess declared, "I learned my lesson from the first hunt." she argued, and he nodded.
"Yeah, you did. Quick learning is just her thing... and I'm a little jealous, honestly." he admitted, before scrunching up his lips, "If I learnt as quickly as you, I'd have already led the warriors to destroy the Southern Raiders, and then learned how to use their ship engines to create heating for our new homes in the South Pole, made out of the ship's parts."
"Well, you're going to do that, aren't you, Sokka?" his girlfriend asked him, implying that he intended to do that; he did, but he had a lot of work to do before he even considered thrashing his tribe's sworn enemies.
"I will, but I've got to make your airships first, remember?" he reminded her, Azula pursing her lips up.
"I hope that we reach Shengchang by the end of the month. Then we can finally start the work that is required to end my father's reign." she declared her aspirations, and Sokka smiled, hoping that they could be that quick; the faster they moved to the colonies, the quicker they could actually build up some support that wasn't a bunch of soldiers following her for rather questionable reasons.
"Getting those locals on side will help a lot." he admitted, "And then we'll finally see if that Mister Takumi has the resources I was promised."
"Eh, you Fire Nation people have a bunch of rich guys sitting around twiddling their thumbs. Maybe there's others who would like to get a- uh- what do you call it?"
"A subsidised contract." the Princes clarified what he was referring to, "If there's one thing industrialists love, it's getting the government to pay them for their work."
"Yeah, well, that's better than us having to wait around for them to build their own weapons." he argued, knowing that with the airships, they'd have a real advantage over Ozai's forces, "The colonies won't have to worry about Ozai, and they'll have their pockets full of coin."
"Not really." she admitted, "You know ban can come in paper as well, right?"
"Paper?" he narrowed his eyes, "Like money that's just paper? How is it worth anything?"
"If the National Bank says it's worth anything, it's worth anything." she argued, "That's how governments work... or specifically, central banks."
"Uh huh." he mumbled, wondering how they could somehow exploit that system, "Well, if you can just make money with those guys, I guess the reparations aren't a worry." he argued, and the Princess grimaced.
"Uh... do you know-" she began to ask, before shaking her head, "You haven't had any formal education with any of this."
"Economics." Ty Lee recalled, "Boring!" she declared her feelings on the subject, and Sokka snickered; he really didn't know much about it, and not out of a lack of interest in how trade or industry worked, but merely from a distinct lack of it down in his home.
"What's the actual problem with just making money?"
"Inflation. Money is worth less. So, you don't really solve anything, you just make everyone else poorer. I mean, anyone who uses ban to exchange goods."
"So... taxes." he gave his best assumption on what would be required for their aims.
"Precisely." she assured him, before smirking, "The best part is, we don't even need new ones. Once I have a hold of the tax offices in the colonies, instead of letting that money be sent to my father's coffers, all that money can be used for our war effort and eventually, rebuilding the Southern Water Tribe and the Earth Kingdom." she explained her plans, "Obviously, some of it will be spent on the actual people who gave it to us. The colonies need more infrastructure if there is to be... integration."
"So, like new roads and stuff, for merchants from the Earth Kingdom to use?" he guessed, and the Princess nodded.
"Exactly." she confirmed, before raising a finger to her chin, "You seem to know a lot about this for somebody uneducated on the topic."
"I mean, I get how trading works. My tribe does it alot, and did it a lot more back when... we actually had a government."
"I don't recall the Southern Water Tribe being rich." she argued, and the Water Tribesman grimaced; as much as he'd like to argue in favour of his people, he knew that they were never the greatest or richest nation, even if one just considered the wealth of individuals, rather than comparing whole nations.
"Okay... that's true, but we know how to make good deals." he argued, and the Princess chuckled.
"As do I." she acknowledged, before grabbing the reins of her komodo rhino, "I think we'll make some good deals together."
"Deals sound better than dangerous battles." he mumbled, and Ty Lee nodded along in agreement.
"We could use some more diplomacy." she agreed, "Are you going to find your uncle?" she turned to face Azula, "You know, the guy everyone in the Fire Nation will look at and be like 'oh wow! you should be the Fire Lord now!'" she acted out what she thought people might think of Iroh, and both he and Azula snickered.
The Princess rolled her eyes, seeming skeptical of her suggestion, "People might believe in my uncle's leadership, but I doubt they'll all go begging him to be the Fire Lord now." she argued, "And I will contact him as soon as I can." she admitted her intentions, "As much as I despise that fat, tea-obsessed fool, I know he's the better firebender between us. If anyone has a chance against my father, it's him... not to mention all the support he'll bring to our side."
"But what if the messages are wrong?" Sokka dared to suggest, knowing that the possibility of Zuko and Mai being alive was, despite being unfounded, seemed realistic, given what he and Azula had done themselves to evade the young Fire Lord and his men; he could do the same to escape Ozai, and perhaps, he could have faked his and his wife's death, "About Zuko and Mai." he clarified, Ty Lee's expression becoming more worried upon hearing it.
"Then things will not go as I want them to." Azula admitted, before sighing, "Cooperation is inevitable at this point, if he is alive."
"But... what happens once Ozai's gone?" her friend asked nervously, "Are you going to have another Agni Kai?"
"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it." she refused to give her a straight answer, "Who knows, perhaps he might forfeit the throne to me when he realises how great a leader I am."
"If he's anything like you, that's not happening." Sokka warned her, and the now unusually dour and concerned Ty Lee nodded, confirming that his assumption was correct.
"You're right." she confirmed, before turning to face her friend, "Please... if that's really what's going to happen, don't fight him."
"Why?" Azula narrowed her eyes at her, "Because you think I'll lose?"
"Because I think I'll lose you for real." she admitted, "I don't know if he'll kill you, Azula, but he'll definitely throw you in prison. Prison sucks, and I don't see you escaping easily, no matter how smart you are."
"You're right." she agreed, "That would be a frustrating situation... but I've been prepared for it ever since I left the South Pole. But that won't happen anyway." she contended, her confident tone suggesting exactly what Sokka didn't want to hear.
"I agree with her." he spoke up, turning his eyes to his girlfriend, "If he's really alive... do you have to fight him? He's not our enemy, not really."
"I know he's not." she agreed with him, a surprise in and of itself, "But he's standing in the way of our goals. I don't want to kill him, and I won't."
"You promise?" Ty Lee asked her, and the Princess nodded.
"I won't... at least not on purpose. Reflexively shooting a lightning bolt into the chest of anybody trying to burn my face off is a habit I've developed." she admitted, making Sokka facepalm.
"You know how that went last time."
"He can't redirect it when I'm right in his face." she argued, before crossing her arms, "That's if we have to fight, which I don't think will be necessary."
"He won't give up, Azula." Ty Lee warned her, and the Princess rolled her eyes.
"That's not what I'm talking about." she retorted, "I won't have to fight that Agni Kai." she stressed, "If I succeed in gathering the support of the colonies, and build my airship fleet, I'll force him to submit. He knows strategy as well- I don't think a man who made himself Fire Lord in a matter of weeks would just let himself fall to a barrage of bombs from the sky."
"I still think we can negotiate." Sokka admitted his thoughts, recalling what Master Pakku had said; no matter how much he disdained that smug northerner, he knew that he was right about the conflict between Azula and Zuko- it needed to end, "We have to end this fight."
The Princess turned her eyes to him, seeming suspicious of his intentions, "Do you think this can end with a happy little tea-party, Sokka?"
"Eh, if you're uncle's there, then definitely." he concluded, and she face-palmed, obviously not liking the thought of that.
"I hate my family." she grumbled, and he snickered.
"But he's like the actually likeable one." he argued, "Your uncle saved our butts, remember?"
"Well, not personally, but I trust what you told me." she conceded, before sighing, "I wish I could have heard his reasoning for myself... that was a foolish move on his behalf."
"No, I don't think that was a mistake, Azula." Ty Lee admitted, "Even if it makes sense to make you their prisoner, do you really think your uncle's going to want you to sit in jail?"
"If he thinks I'm a threat." she argued, and Sokka shook his head.
"That's not how he was thinking, though." he suggested, getting a brief, but useful insight into the mind of the Dragon of the West, who contrary to the scary war stories his father told about the Fire Nation's most feared general, happened to be a rather kind-hearted and almost completely nonviolent individual, "Your uncle doesn't want to hurt you- or us. He just wants to help us... even if I don't trust him that much, I can trust him to keep us all safe."
"That doesn't mean much when he's Zuko's right-hand man." she argued, and the Water Tribesman glanced away, wondering if he could at the very least, persuade that old general to see the light of Azula's development as a leader; she was far less naive than she had been when they first met, and so was Sokka.
They both grew, and now, he was sure that together, they could lead the world out of chaos; persuading one more man, an affable one at that, to be their ally, perhaps even beyond the fight with Ozai, couldn't be too hard.
"You're better than ever before." he argued, not trying to kiss her boots by saying it; she really had, and she needed to know it, "You're ready to be the Fire Lord. I know it. We all know it. And he'll see that too."
She smiled at him for a moment, that break in her usually skeptical mindset and annoyance when it came to anything Iroh warmed his heart; it proved that he was right- she could accept her 'enemy', and he could accept her.
"Maybe you're right about him." she admitted with a soft voice, before she cleared her thought, returning to her visage of seriousness that she loved to give off, "You have to be. We need his help."
"Wow, you actually said that." Ty Lee gasped, and the Princess crossed her arms.
"I am capable of introspection, you know?"
The afternoon sun shone down through the canopy of the woods, Ty Lee's eyes focused on the poorly hoisted tent she had just made; she knew that she'd likely be staying out in the wilderness for a few days while they fought the invading army, so she knew she'd probably have to redo it. She wasn't in the best mood, but that was mostly because she was bored after their long ride into the hills south of the base.
They had only just made contact with Governor Boei's men, and at that very moment, Azula was speaking with them, and that left Ty Lee without much to do other than set up her tent, along with Sokka, who had put up his own beside hers. They were camping right by the edge of the woods, near a cave that was where Azula and her subordinates would be planning out the operation. It was also a good place, in the Princess's words, to avoid getting hit by trebuchet fire if the fighting went the way they didn't want it to.
The Water Tribesman, having been used to living in tents for most his life, made a far better one, and Ty Lee turned around, awkwardly leaning toward him with a request in mind, "Hey, Sokka... could you help me with my tent?" she asked, and he blinked a few times, before chuckling.
"Uh, yeah, no problem." he assured her, kneeling down beside her tent, "You're... uh, I'll fix it up." he decided, before pulling the canvas off of the top, moving to fix up the wooden posts that held it up.
"So... uh, are you happy we're finally here?" she asked him, and he furrowed a brow as he fixed the posts into place.
"I mean, I'm relieved. I cannot deal with riding for any longer... it's just nerve wracking." he admitted, "I didn't know if some scouts or assassins might attack us at any moment. At least now we're here, and we can prepare."
"Yeah, I agree." she nodded, "I just don't want to sit around any longer. I've been stuck on my butt all day."
"Hmph." he mumbled, before turning his eyes behind them, eyeing the Imperial Firebenders, who were setting up their own tents, "Maybe we can go for a little scouting trip." he suggested, gesturing toward the rocky hill that the cave dug into, "There might be a good place to spot from up there... plus the view will be great."
"Good idea!" she beamed at him, patting the Water Tribe warrior on the back, "You're never this light-hearted."
"Hey, I just want a distraction." he defended his actions, "This doesn't make me all cheery like you and Aang." he warned, making the acrobat giggle; she wasn't that optimistic, at least with their present situation, but she always wanted to make the most out of a situation.
"Hey, you can relax, Sokka." she assured him, tapping him on the shoulder before she paced over towards the guards, "Did you guys want to go scout around here?" she asked them, before gesturing up toward the peak of the hill, "There's a lot we could see from up there."
"It's not really necessary." Renshu spoke up as he pulled his head out of his tent, rising up to his feet as he eyed his comrades, "But... if you all want to get some exercise before we have to take watch, we could do it." he admitted, the other guards glancing amongst themselves, a few of them nodding along.
"Yeah, we need some exercise after what, a whole day on those komodo rhinos?" Shen asked the other guards, "My arse is hurting like hell from sitting on that damn saddle."
"I don't think you were sitting correctly." another guard warned him, and his comrades all laughed at him; the now embarrassed Shen stepped closer to Ty Lee and turned his eyes to Sokka.
"So... uh, right now?" he asked, and the Water Tribesman nodded.
"Yep, we might as well. I don't want to walk around in the dark, as well, I can't just make a torch with the snap of my fingers." he explained, Renshu letting out a snicker, before he did just that, snapping his fingers to create a small torch on his right thumb, before snuffing the flame out.
"I don't want the Princess blaming us if you trip over and break your leg." he gave his own reason to agree, making Ty Lee purse her lips smugly at the thought of the seal story, fresh in her mind from having talked about it that morning.
"Well, the ground won't just suddenly collapse from our weight, right?" she directed her question to the Captain, though Sokka clearly understood what she was implying.
"That was her fault." he warned her, the Captain looking at both of them with confusion.
"What are you two on about?" he questioned, the Water Tribesman shaking his head as he gestured toward a pathway that would lead them up the slope of the rather steep hillside.
"Nothing. We can go this way. I don't think it will take long." he explained as he began walking, the guards moving on after him, and Ty Lee did the same; she strode right behind the Water Tribesman as he made his way up the rather narrow path that led up the side of the rocky hillslope.
She glanced down behind her for a moment, wondering how Azula was going with her meeting; she hadn't invited them to come to it, given that she wasn't actually making any decisions yet, and simply listening in to the reports Governor Boei's men had for her. She didn't know what exactly Azula wanted her to do, given Sokka would be going off to work with Jianren and the earthbenders to build all the defences and traps they'd prepare for the invading army.
She knew that the Princess might need some protection, but the guards already provided that; the only thing Ty Lee might be able to bring to the table was chi-blocking some serious opponents, but even then, she didn't imagine they'd be sending out the greatest firebenders in the country to come fight them. It was foot soldiers in the colonies, not Imperial Firebenders, or trained assassins; she didn't know much about the latter, other than that they were far more dangerous than any of the soldiers that they expected to fight.
"What am I going to do?" she asked Sokka, who glanced back momentarily before continuing his way up the hill.
"Whatever Azula wants you to." he gave her the answer she already knew, and she slumped her shoulders over, hoping that he'd have said something a little more informative.
"But... what is that?" she asked him, and the Water Tribesman pursed his lips upward.
"Well, I mean, you're sneaky, athletic and good at fighting benders." he listed off her skills, "I mean, you're better than me. Way better." he conceded, before furrowing a brow, "There's some things you could do that nobody else would even dare to try."
"Like what?" she prodded him, really eager for an answer now, "I want to go back to her with a cool plan. So... give me something." she requested, and the Water Tribe warrior shrugged his shoulders, an aloof smile on his lips.
"Use your imagination, Ty Lee." he suggested, before increasing his pace.
"Come onǃ" she raised her hands, frustrated by his refusal to give her an actual idea, "I know I can kick butt, but I need to direct that butt-kicking somewhere." she argued, before glancing back toward the guards, "Do any of you have an idea?"
Renshu, leading the group, standing almost right behind her, seemed amused by her prodding of Sokka, and he raised a hand up, "What kind of danger are you willing to get yourself into?" he simply asked her, and the acrobat clenched her right fist, and pointed it up the slope, in the direction of Sokka.
"If it means we win, then I'll get in danger." she gave her opinion resolutely, "I know how to avoid getting hit." she argued, before smirking, "Have you seen my flips?"
"I think he's trying to ask if you can dodge a dozen fire streams at once." Sokka clarified what the Captain was trying to ask her, and she furrowed a brow.
"I don't want to be in that situation." she conceded, "So, I'll just have to avoid that."
"Well, that's the kind of danger you'll be in if you try and take down the enemy from the inside." Renshu warned her, and her eyes widened as she realised exactly what they were both getting at.
"So you want me to chi-block and capture the enemy general and his men?" she asked, the Captain nodding.
"Well, yes. That's the fastest way to break the enemy's morale. They can't do much if they don't have anybody to guide them in battle. Who will tell them what to do if they retreat?"
"Nobody." she smirked, before chuckling, "Or maybe all his subordinates will just have a fight over who gets to be General next." she suggested, guessing that's what might happen if they captured the enemy general and forced the army to retreat.
"Uh, yes, that's what we have Agni Kai's for." he clarified, and she blinked a few times.
"But what if some of them aren't firebenders?"
"Then they won't be the next general." he bluntly responded, the acrobat turning her eyes back up toward Sokka.
"Huh, they must really not like non-benders." she mumbled, and the Water Tribesman scoffed.
"Tell me about it." he grumbled under his breath, obviously agreeing with the sentiment that it was more than a little unfair; they were both non-benders, yet they were more than capable of defending themselves- they were all just talking about how she could go and capture the enemy general of all things, and she couldn't bend at all, "That's the one good thing about my tribe."
"Oh, no discrimination?" she guessed, and the Water Tribesman held back a laugh, before shaking his head.
"No benders." he clarified, "Remember, Katara's the first one born in my village in a whole generation. And I don't even know if there's other benders in the other villages. There might be a few, but none of them would be trained." he conceded, "So, nobody makes themselves out to be better because they can bend. Because the Southern Raiders would come for them if anyone knew about it- they're a liability." he admitted, sounding pained as he said it, "Even Katara."
"Uh... yeah." she mumbled, a little unnerved by the idea of what that organisation had done; hunting down a whole group of people just because they could bend a certain element just didn't sit right with her.
The worst part was, from what she could tell, was that Katara being a bender had led to some bad things happening to Sokka and his family, though she didn't ask or know enough about it to comment. Azula didn't really go into much detail about that when they discussed it, other than mentioning that they lived with Sokka's grandmother and father.
Whatever had happened was clearly the fault of the Fire Nation, and it made her feel a shred of guilt, even though she and her own family had very little to do with such things; Azula, on the other hand, certainly did, given that it had been her grandfather who had made the Southern Raiders. She only knew that because of school, but she was careful to remember that now, knowing the hatred that Sokka held toward them. It wouldn't surprise her if he hated Fire Lord Azulon, though that hatred wouldn't do him much good, given the old Fire Lord had been dead for seven years.
"I'm sorry." she admitted, even though she knew she wasn't at fault; it wasn't her apologising for herself, but for the Fire Nation, "I don't even know what happened with all that, but I know it was our nation that did it."
He turned back to face her before blinking a few times, seeming surprised by her apology, "You don't need to apologise Ty Lee. I'm far past just hating any ash-maker because of it." he assured her, before turning around, "Azula has done me and my tribe a lot of good." he argued, "That's proof enough. She might be royalty, but even she could prove that the Fire Nation are just as human as the rest of us."
"Hey, the feelings were mutual, boomerang-boy." Renshu quipped at his comments, making the Water Tribe teen chuckle.
"But not anymore." he argued, "I know you guys love me." he proclaimed, the guards letting out some unamused huffs upon hearing that, before he began to dash up the slope, which had become a little shallower as they had climbed closer to the peak of the hill, "Come on, let's keep moving."
Ty Lee continued on up the hill after him, winding around the trees that dotted the slope, as well as stepping up over the rocky step-like formations that lined the slope. When they reached the part of the hill that was actually covered in soil, it was a lot easier to walk, and the slope dissipated as they neared the top, the acrobat glancing behind her to make out the road they had been taking up into the hills, and realised how far they had travelled. She could no longer see the coast, which sat right by the base, and that told her they had really travelled a long distance in the past two days.
"Wow, that view." she whispered to herself, wondering what they might see on the other side of the hill, which would be looking out in the direction that the enemy would be coming from.
She paced on after Sokka, who had stopped by a tree, and was leaning up against it; she stepped closer and furrowed a brow wondering if his short run had tired him, "Are you already tired?"
"I mean... it's already the afternoon." he reminded her, before glancing down, "That slope was steep."
"I think there's going to be a lot more climbing for the next few days." she conceded, knowing that the battle would probably not be as fast or as easy as Azula wanted it to be.
Ty Lee was not an ace of strategy, but she understood from her small knowledge of the Fire Nation's historical fights against the Earth Kingdom that battles were usually not quick. She, and anyone that wasn't living under a rock, knew about the six hundred day siege of Ba Sing Se under the command of Azula's uncle, the Dragon of the West, and though the details of the siege weren't of regular discussion in the circles she frequented, the fact of it was understood. The battle was always going to be long and hard because the Earth Kingdom would never just surrender to their forces.
So, it was no surprise for her to learn about how long and drawn out the civil war was becoming. Some might have thought that Zuko taking the throne and defeating Azula would be the end of it, but just like with the Earth Kingdom's hundred year defence against the Fire Nation incursions, each side was assured of their own superiority and clearly intended to fight to the last man, if necessary. That didn't give her a very nice image of the coming months, where she expected Azula would lead her forces west to go and take the colonies, and then, after that, the homeland. She could only hope that her airship plan really would turn the tide, because if it didn't force her father's forces to give up, then Ty Lee was unsure what would.
"Hopefully, we can avoid doing too much." he acknowledged, "But we need to be ready. If the attackers are as determined as I'm guessing they are, it won't be easy." Sokka gave his thoughts on where the battle might go, and even though he didn't give any details, it was in line with what she thought.
"I think so too." she nodded, grimacing as she stepped past him, "I want to be an optimist, but even then... I know what we're heading into. Maybe not as well as Azula, but without any of that training, all I know about is the body-counts of these battles. We learned about them in school."
"That's... unsettling." Sokka admitted as he moved to follow after her, continuing on up toward the peak of the hill, "Did they tell you what the Fire Nation was doing?"
"Yes." she mumbled, knowing that in hindsight, the things she was taught at school were disturbing, "And we believed it was good."
Even if she hadn't really been invested in the war, or really cared about it until things really started to go out of hand with Ozai and Zuko's civil war, she had never really learned about the Earth Kingdom's side of things. There were a few members of the circus who were Earth Kingdom, and explained some things, but she was sure that they left out details, if only to avoid agitating any Fire Nation patriots in the troupe. She knew quickly enough, as she got older, and grew her knowledge independent of the things she had learned at school, came to understand the truth about the war. It was ugly, and it was never going to end easily.
The war might have had some tangible justifications to it, but that was nothing compared to the chaos it sowed. In her short conversations with the members of Jianren's group, she had learned of the lives of the fighters, and they were just depressing; most of them hadn't even formally trained to fight the Fire Nation. They were just peasants, most of them from villages that were destroyed during the course of the war, with nowhere to go, and no real support from their country. They fended for themselves, and did questionable things to try and fight her own country; she knew that they were justified, but she just wished that things could have gone a different way.
"I wish this wasn't happening." she admitted, and Sokka tapped on her shoulder, with a concerned look on his face.
"The war?" he asked her, and she sighed.
"All of this. People are killing each other because of some stupid decision some guy made a hundred years ago. And now, we all bear the consequences of it. It's just dumb."
"Yeah, it is." he resolutely nodded, in firm agreement with her, "I couldn't say it better." he conceded, before gesturing ahead of him, "Look." he suggested, and upon turning her head around, she realised what he was referring to; she was too taken up by her thoughts to realise that they were now looking at the view she had been waiting for.
They could see far out into the valley, and by the horizon, she could see smokestacks, probably from the closest town or village. Closer afield, she could see the winding path that the road took, cutting through the woods as it made its way down from the tall, imposing hills, into the low, undulating valley. The enemy would have to climb all the way up that road to reach them, and perhaps, that exhaustion would come to their advantage. Fighting somebody when they were half-asleep would be a lot easier than facing an alert, eager soldier.
"It is a nice view." the Water Tribesman conceded, "But there's not much to see but trees and some hills." he admitted, and she nodded.
"But that's the thing." she argued, "We're hidden here. The army coming our way might think they'll face us, but they can't expect us to just be hiding here. We have a base that we need to defend, not some random hills with no farms, villages or anything that Azula ought to care about."
"But the road is important." he observed, "That's why we're here, because this is the only way they're going to get a large amount of soldiers close to the base without using ships... and we have more than they do."
"I think that's why they're coming this way, Sokka." she warned him, "They really want to stop Azula." she added, more quietly, knowing that she couldn't let that happen, "Maybe I should go and catch their leader. Nobody can stop her then." she decided, the Water Tribesman turning to face her with a slightly concerned look.
"You don't have to follow that idea." he admitted, "It'll be dangerous."
"But it will work." she conceded the merit of what he and the Captain had proposed to her; she turned her gaze back down to the path, watching as Renshu and the others paced up the slope, all seeming a little exhausted from the journey up.
"Ah... that's a nice view." one of the guards mumbled, noting the expansive vista before them; Ty Lee thought it was quite pretty, but her thoughts of what lay out in the wilderness in front of them kept her thoughts dour.
"And there's an army out there." Sokka warned them, the Captain nodding as he approached them.
"That there is." he acknowledged, "But we will be ready. There's no way we can lose this fight."
"Well, I sure hope we don't." Ty Lee whispered, knowing what might await them if they failed, "So... do you think they're going to try and capture Azula?"
"If they're stupid, they might." he quipped, "The Princess is arguably the most powerful firebender alive... so I don't see why anyone in their right mind would try to capture her. Even if she lacks the experience of a battle-hardened general, she is no fool. The only reason she has failed before is from trickery... and we are more than hand out our own trickery now."
"These hills make it hard for them to sneak up on us." Sokka conceded, "They can only come up the road, or march around through one of the passes... which I'm assuming we'll have manned soon enough."
"That was what the Princess said." Renshu noted what Azula had explained to them earlier when she had called on her subordinates to take up positions on the passes that lay between each in the tall line of hills, knowing that the enemy might send scouts or even whole flanks through them to try and surround their forces, "We'll see soon enough what the enemy's capable of."
"And we'll show them." the Water Tribesman whispered, before he sat himself down on an uncovered rock, Ty Lee standing up beside him as she wondered what they might do next.
"Still more work to do today." he mumbled under his breath, before glancing back toward the Captain, "Do you think we'll be able to ready the defences before they try and ambush us?"
"Hopefully." he conceded, not sounding too confident that it would actually be achieved, "There's nothing to say that there aren't soldiers already waiting for us in the woods... or spying on us as we speak."
"I mean, not up here." Sokka argued, "How could they get up here without us noticing?"
"And did we see the bounty hunters coming?" he asked him in return, the Water Tribe warrior grimacing.
"No, no we didn't." he admitted, before turning to look back over the valley.
"We just have to be ready." Ty Lee admitted, knowing that even if they could be ambushed, they could prepare for that eventuality, "We know what can happen, so, nothing will surprise us."
"Just about." Sokka agreed, "Though, if Zhao suddenly appears out of nowhere to get his revenge, having broken out of that Water Tribe prison, then I'll be pretty surprised." he admitted in jest, making the Captain and the other guards laugh.
"Yeah, that would be unexpected." Renshu admitted, before furrowing a brow, "Though he did escape Yu Dao, after Zuko's forces started chasing everyone down."
"And you did too." the Water Tribesman reminded him, "I hope you're more competent than him."
"At fighting, definitely... at command, perhaps not." he conceded, "I just lead her highness's guards."
"And all I do is chi-block and try and pretend like I know anything about engineering." Sokka joked, making Ty Lee shake her head with disappointment.
"What does that make me?"
"The one with a positive outlook." he admitted, making her blink a few times, realising that despite their aspirations, Sokka and Azula certainly weren't as positively-minded as her; even if she didn't want to be consumed by fear, and now, her disdain toward Ozai, she was finding it challenging to maintain that old mindset that had always kept her cheery and upbeat, "Well, I hope you still have it." he added, "It might get annoying, but you keep us from being downers."
"I try." she smiled at him softly, trying to keep up that visage as best she could, "Your auras a little better now."
"Compared to when?" he retorted, "When we were bored out of our minds on the komodo rhinos?"
"Uh... yeah." she confirmed, and he chuckled.
"Yeah, I'm not a fan." he acknowledged, rising to his feet and turning to face Renshu, "Well, Captain, I guess we better go back and talk with Azula. She'll probably want to discuss whatever she talked to those soldiers about." he decided, the Captain nodding, and once he began pacing away back to the path down the hill, he momentarily turned back to face Ty Lee, "You coming?"
She nodded, and turned her eyes back to the view one last time; she eyed the smokestacks in the distance, and wondered if it was from fireplaces, or from a more sinister source. It could be the enemy army, or even a village they'd burned down, something that disturbed her. She'd already heard about what Zhao had made Azula's soldiers do to the surrounding Earth Kingdom villages, so she was more than willing to believe the invading forces would do the same.
She turned around and then followed after Sokka and the guards, who were moving in a single-file with haste; obviously, they didn't want to waste any time when they walked down back to the camp, and she agreed with the sentiment. Though they had spent the entire day on saddles, and that by itself had tired her, she wanted to actually get some things done, so she was more than willing to go speak with Azula and see what they'd be doing next. It would be a while until dinner and sundown, so they still had some time to prepare things before most of the soldiers would inevitably have to sleep, while some would remain on night duties, guarding their positions and waiting for any signs of the enemy army.
As they made their way down the slope, she got a good view of the other side of the hill, noting the rather expansive encampment they had set up around the road, mostly hidden from view by the canopy of the forest; they didn't have any campfires set up yet, and she was sure they'd try and minimise the number, given that it would give an illusion that there was a lot less people than there actually was.
She followed the others down the winding path that led them down the rocky and haphazardly shaped hillside, and eyed down to note that Azula was standing now outside the cave she had been having her meeting in, now speaking with a couple of the officers commanding the sections of her army. Her gaze turned up to see the group making their way down the hill, and when they approached the base of it, Azula seemed to finish her discussion, presumably ordering the officers to do whatever duties she intended for them. She turned around to face Sokka, who was leading the group, and then eyed up the hill.
"Did you see anything up there?"
"Just some smokestacks." Sokka clarified, "I don't think they're nearby yet... maybe some scouts, but they'll get caught pretty quickly." he argued, and she nodded.
"I have assigned Major Taka to that very task, but you already knew that." she explained, crossing her arms as she eyed the guards and Ty Lee, "The Governor's men have told me more about the advancing army." she admitted, Renshu stepping forward to stand beside the Water Tribesman.
"Your highness, how much danger are we in?" he asked, his tone not sounding nervous, though Ty Lee couldn't be sure about his emotions; he was the kind of person, like the Princess herself, to cover up his emotions and act serious and professional, no matter the circumstances.
"The enemy numbers in the thousands, but we are advantaged by their occupation. The Governor's men report them moving into each of the major towns and looking to root out any hiding soldiers and punish sympathisers to our side."
"Eh, so whoever made those posters." Sokka noted, making her chuckle.
"Well, there can't be that many people who are outright trying to support us, which is good. The enemy will be wasting their time and resources looking for Boei's soldiers and sympathisers to our cause, or simply, opposers of Ozai." she explained, before crossing her arms, "The core of their forces are moving this way, and the Governor's men believe they'll be here within a day, so we must act at once. They have tundra tanks and sections of cavalry that are already scouting ahead. To our luck, these woods will be hard to cover on a mount other than by taking the roads, meaning that we'll have some time before they could even attempt an ambush."
"And what if they try it?" Ty Lee asked, the Princess gesturing to her boyfriend.
"Sokka will be setting up traps to prepare for that eventuality." she stressed, before turning her gaze specifically toward him, "You ought to speak with Jianren about planning the defences right away." she warned her boyfriend, who nodded, though he seemed a little frustrated by it.
"I just hope we have enough time." he conceded, before glancing around, "Where are they?"
"The Earth Kingdom forces are already setting up some cave-in traps along the length of the road." she gestured in the direction of said road, "You can't miss them."
"Which carts have the explosives?" he asked, recalling the caravan of supplies and weapons they'd brought along with them, primarily for arming the artillery battery they'd have ready to pound the enemy forces with.
"Are you going to make bombs?" Ty Lee asked, and one of the guards snickered.
"Ah, yes, bombs." he recalled, and the Princess rolled her eyes.
"That wasn't even Sokka's idea." she warned them, presumably referring back to when the Water Tribe warriors had attacked her ship back in the Eastern Sea, where she and Sokka first met.
"I know how to make bombs though." Sokka spoke up, "I helped Dad and the other warriors make them back when we were sabotaging Fire Navy operations." he clarified, before smirking, "We can make some real good traps with some blasting jelly."
"The carts at the end of the caravan are carrying blasting jelly and the other material you'll need." she explained, before raising a finger.
"Get Jianren's fighters to do the heavy lifting for you. That'll save time." she suggested, the Water Tribesman nodding, before he began to pace off in the direction of the road, turning back momentarily to wave to them.
"I'll see you guys at dinner." he farewelled them, and Ty Lee waved back at him.
"Good luck!" she grinned at him, the Water Tribesman chuckling at her cheery wave before he continued to pace off to find the Earth Kingdom fighters.
Azula stepped closer to the Captain, and everyone's attention turned to her, as it was quite clear she was going to speak, "We need to prepare an escape plan." she admitted, the guards glancing amongst themselves, unnerved by what she had just said; Ty Lee wasn't surprised by what she was hearing, but she was more so concerned that she might not have an actual plan.
"What did you have in mind, your highness?" Renshu asked her, and the Princess narrowed her eyes.
"I believe that we will need to find a path out of here that the other soldiers cannot find. If we are betrayed in the thick of battle, I will not have us falling into the hands of my father's bootlickers." she explained, before tilting her head toward the cavern she had been in earlier, "Come with me."
With that, everyone moved after her toward the cave, forced to crouch down slightly as they made their way through the entrance; once inside, Ty Lee was able to properly make out the small meeting area she had set up, with a few propped up tables, lanterns and some cushions that sat around the table, along with a large piece of fabric hanging from the cavern roof, marked not with the insignia of the Fire Nation, but a seal that she had not recognised before. She knew that Azula had had some of her attendants, who joined them on the mission to set up their headquarters and provide service for the Princess, but she didn't imagine they'd have put so much effort into it.
"Wow." she gasped, "So, they just set this up since we go here?" she asked, the Princess nodding, before she gestured for a pair of servant girls to approach her.
"Yes, your majesty?" one of them addressed her, as they both knelt down in deference.
She gestured toward the entrance of the cave, "I need you two to keep an eye on the entrance. If anyone comes there, tell them to wait and not enter." she gave them a clear direction, which made sense given her intentions; they were going to see if there was a way out of the cave system other than the entrance they had taken.
The two girls rose to their feet before bowing, and they paced over to the entrance, Azula glancing around the cave before she indicated to a few passages that ran off from the main cavity they were standing in.
"The scouts might have already checked in here, but we ought to go over these tunnels. If any of you find paths out, I want to know. We should have every one of them blocked except one, and I only want the earthbenders doing it. Nobody else can know about where we might have to escape to."
"Should we have explosives set up, your highness?" Renshu asked her, "If Sokka and the earthbenders are mining the road, then it wouldn't be much more to put some in here in case we need to flee."
She nodded, before gesturing toward one of the tunnels "We will, but first we ought to find all the exits, and then, one will be selected. We will split into three groups, and take each of these tunnels. Once all paths have been investigated, return here." she explained, before glancing behind her, toward the servant girls, "They will watch for us, and hopefully, nothing terrible happens while we're looking in here."
"Like a cave in?" Ty Lee asked nervously, not liking the sounds of getting stuck in a cave, even if that would in theory keep them safe from the enemy forces.
"No, like an ambush." she retorted, "A cave in we can handle, but the enemy attacking at this very instant? No." she stressed, before eyeing the guards, "Split up." she ordered them, before grasping her friend by her forearm.
She understood that meant she wanted to come with her, and with that, the two of them, followed by a pair of guards, made their way into the nearest tunnel, the Princess lighting some flames in her left palm, which she raised to light up their path. Azula led them along, making her way through the winding and haphazard tunnel, which became rather narrow, forcing them to walk in single file. Quickly enough, however, they reached an opening, where Ty Lee noticed that there was a small stream, though it was barely flowing, and she could only notice it by the water reflecting the light of the blue fire.
"This might flow down out of the caves." one of the guards suggested, and Azula nodded, obviously agreeing with the idea.
"Let's go both ways." Ty Lee gave her own thoughts, "It must leave the caves, but it has to come in too."
The Princess gestured to their right, which was the uphill direction, "We'll go this way." she decided, "You two, check down that way. If it connects with the other tunnels, wait for the others." she gave her directions, and those two guards lit their own torches in their hands as they made their way down the shallow sloped tunnel, following the flow of the small stream.
Without a moment of hesitation, the Princess began pacing up the tunnel, Ty Lee forced to keep up pace behind her, listening out for anything interesting; she could only hear the sound of the water flowing in front and behind them, though she could distinctly hear a splashing noise ahead of them. She didn't realise what it was until they made sight of a small pool of water, and what looked like a waterfall, though it barely flowed, and was only a little taller than either of them. The Princess eyed it for a moment, and then turned her gaze back to Ty Lee.
"Help me up." she suggested, the acrobat scoffing at the thought of helping Azula up when she could just climb up herself with ease.
"I'm better at climbing." she argued, before she leapt up onto the ledge, pulling herself over it; she glanced around, noting that the stream continued to flow on down via a haphazard, stair-like formation, and right by the top of the stairs, she could see some light, presumably coming from outside.
She turned around, and offered the Princess a hand, Azula's expression suggesting she was a little annoyed by Ty Lee's behaviour, though she accepted her hand, and with a little jerk, she was able to pull her up to the ledge. Climbing up beside her, the Princess eyed up through the cave, noting the same light she had.
"Well, that's the way out." she noted, before furrowing a brow, "Perhaps this would be the best path out. If we block it, then nobody could follow us out this way." she suggested, the acrobat nodding; though she didn't like the idea of climbing up a rocky staircase to get out of the caves, she knew it would be a good way to lose any pursuers, especially given her own skill at climbing.
The pair then began climbing up each of the ledges, quickly moving up each one as they drew closer to the light; eventually they were able to see out to the outside, looking at the source of the stream, which happened to be a small pond sitting between two of the hills in the range. Ty Lee glanced up at the sky above them, forced to raise her hand up to block the glare, before she turned back to face her friend.
"So... are you okay, Zula?" she asked her, unsure how she was feeling, given their earlier interactions hadn't given much indication to her feelings on the present situation; the fact they were looking for escape routes told her clearly enough that she was feeling paranoid about potentially losing the fight, no matter how sure she was that they would be victorious.
"Yes." she retorted, "I'm fine." she stressed, crossing her arms, "We will win this battle."
"I know." she assured her, not wanting to seem doubtful herself, "But you know... stress can get to you. I like to relax after a long day like this."
"There's no spa out in the wilderness, Ty Lee." she warned her and the acrobat let out a giggle.
"I know that, silly." she pat her shoulder, "But we can just relax. You know, look at the sunset, meditate. I don't know what."
"There's no time for that." her friend warned her, her serious, cold expression telling her that she wasn't going to be persuaded to think otherwise, "We need to prepare." she warned her, "I want every exit we won't use blasted shut with explosives." she decided, before turning her gaze back to the cave, "Let's climb back down."
"Wouldn't it be easier to go back from the outside?" she suggested, the Princess shaking her head.
"And let people know about this entrance? No." she snapped back at her, "We can't let anyone... and I mean anyone, abuse our knowledge." she stressed, "Let's go." she ordered her, before she paced back down into the cave, climbing down the highest ledge back down into the darkness.
"We can just... not speak about it." she suggested, and upon not getting a response from the Princess, she dejectedly sighed, and stepped back into the cave after her.
"We won't speak about it." Azula spoke up as she lit flames in her palm once more, "This cave might be the one chance we have to escape, so we can't let anyone else know about it."
"Who can we trust?" Ty Lee asked, unsure who exactly fit into her group of trustworthy individuals.
"Anybody who despises my father's side as much as you do." she declared, "So, Sokka, the earthbenders, and maybe Renshu."
"Maybe?" she blinked a few times as she climbed down from the ledge, following her down, "What do you mean? Can't we trust the guards?"
"They were appointed by my father. Even if they're outwardly loyal to me, I don't know each and every one of their motivations."
"But they've helped us before. You remember the battleship, right?" she reminded her of when Zhao had captured them, presumably by gassing them and throwing all of them in cells, though they hadn't got a chance to get that information out of the Admiral himself.
"I do." she nodded, "We can't let anything like that happen again." she stressed, "I would rather die than be the prisoner of my father."
"Y-you don't actually want them to... you know?" she asked, nervous upon thinking she'd actually want them to kill her over any kind of surrender; Ozai might do terrible things to them all if he captured them, but that didn't mean it was reasonable to find death a suitable alternative.
"Of course not. I will fight to my last breath to keep us safe, Ty Lee. You can rest easy knowing that."
"When I'm with you... I find it a little hard." she conceded, her friend stopping her climbing to turn her eyes back toward her; her expression was less angry and serious now, but simply solemn.
"I'm sorry... but I have to do this. I can't let them win."
"I can't either." she acknowledged, knowing what the spies had said about Zuko and Mai.
If they were dead, then Azula was the one who had to take their place and defeat Ozai, and she was sure that it was necessary. The kind of world her father would create was not one Azula would tolerate, and neither would Ty Lee; once she hadn't cared about the war and the fate of the world, but now, all she could imagine is what suffering would behalf her friends, and the people whose crime was solely being born into another nation.
"Then we agree." Azula stated the fact of the matter, "We can't give up."
"I never said I was a quitter, Zula." she assured her, before smiling, "I won't give up on you... and you won't give up on the world."
"I don't care about the world." she retorted, "I care about people." she stressed, implicitly referring to her, and everyone she trusted, and beyond that, the people who had done right by her, and maybe, even those she didn't know, but were innocent.
"Which people?" she decided to ask, hoping to get some kind of hopeful, positive answer; the Princess turned her eyes away, and her snarl suggested the opposite to what Ty Lee would have liked to hear.
"Not him. Not anymore."
Katara didn't doubt her waterbending skills, but she knew that bending water away from Appa during a storm wasn't a good idea, given how exhausting it was for both her and Aang; he didn't want to continue flying, and they decided that they would land at the first clearing or village they spotted. They had been flying over a large forest, and for the most part it seemed undeveloped and unoccupied, meaning that it was a lot less likely for them to run into the Fire Nation; she didn't want to land in a colony, knowing that the chance of getting found by Fire Nation soldiers was not something she wanted to contend with.
Even if they had fought well against Fire Nation soldiers earlier that week, that didn't mean she thought they ought to do that again; freeing the Earth Kingdom fighters was right, but they had only gotten more attention on themselves, and that forced them to avoid colonies and occupied villages out of fear of being attacked by the Fire Nation Army. Toph proudly declared she could beat any of them off, but seeing that they were looking for somewhere to camp, that didn't seem to help at all.
The rain rushed off away from Appa, as if there was a bubble around him, though really, it was just her and Aang deflecting the water, and she eyed over the edge of the saddle, looking down at the woods below; she couldn't yet see any sign of a settlement, though she could see a river below them. She turned her eyes ahead, only able to see the gray clouds and heavy rain that was bucketing down on them; Toph, unable to help with the present ordeal, was just sitting beside her, turning her head at the sound of thunder off in the distance.
"This... this isn't good." she admitted honestly, and Aang nodded along.
"Yeah, we need to find some place to hunker down. Hopefully there's a village soon. Even if it's just a barn, that'll work." he gave his thoughts, Katara grimacing as she looked back up at the bubble they had created around Appa.
"We can't keep this up for much longer." she warned him, before glancing back down at the river, "Does this river go anywhere?"
"Maybe that map Azula got... uh, I can't reach it over here." he explained, the Water Tribe girl's eyes darting to the saddle bags, which she reached her right hand into while keeping her left up, focusing on keeping the rain at bay.
She pulled out the first bit of parchment she got a hold of, and was disappointed to see it was the wrong map; she put that one in, and pulled out another, more pleased to see the correct map, which showed the north-western portion of the Earth Kingdom in detail, or more specifically, the primary Fire Nation colonies, which was exactly where they happened to be.
She traced her finger around the map, trying to discern where they were, only really knowing that they were flying over a large forest. Luckily for her, things like forests were marked out on the map, and she was able to make out a few large ones. Knowing where Azula's base was approximately on the map, and knowing that they had been heading in the direction of it told her enough about where they ought to be, at least vaguely.
Once she had pointed out the location on the map, noting that the river was indeed marked out, with a specific name given at their approximate location, "Gaipan Dam... that's where we are." she read it out, before narrowing her eyes, "A dam?" she mumbled, "Where is it?" she asked, Aang shrugging his shoulders.
"Uh, I can't see any dams around here." he explained, eyeing down below them as they flew along the course of the river, "This is just a river."
"There's a few villages and a Fire Nation colony to... the west." she gestured in that direction, "But we can't go there. I don't think it'll be safe."
"And it'll take too long." Toph reminded her, "Can't we just camp in the forest? The trees will block the rain." she argued, the Water Tribe girl glancing over at the woods, noting that the trees were indeed large and seemed to cover a lot of area; she was unsure, however, and would certainly prefer if they found some kind of settlement to camp at.
"Uh..." Aang mumbled, before turning around to face them, "I think I found the dam."
"Oh." she blinked a few times, before she scooched up on the saddle to get a better look; she eyed up ahead, noting that the river didn't stop at a dam, but rather, seemed to tear through a wooden dam that looked like it had been ripped apart some time ago, though there was clear signs of scaffolding and an abandoned camp on the riverside, "What... what happened here?"
"A disaster... that's sure." Aang mumbled, clearly concerned about what the breaking of such a dam might have caused.
Katara turned back around, deciding that she ought to roll the map back up and put in the saddle bag, knowing that they might be soon coming up to whatever settlement the dam might have attracted, or rather, been built for. She guessed the water might have originally been redirected somewhere, though she was completely lost on what purpose. Once she put the map back into the saddle bag, she turned around to eye back down at the river below them, noting how it continued flowing down into the valley, finally reaching what looked like a village.
Upon closer inspection, as the sky-bison drew nearer, she realised it wasn't a village at all; it was ruins, and they looked like nobody had lived in them for a good few years, with plant life overgrown over the village, which consisted of a broken, rotting set of walls, and a number of houses that were also breaking apart, presumably because of the dam that collapsed upstream. Aang, despite the uneasy look on his face, decided to lower Appa down and slow him, circling around the ruins before they landed down in the middle of the abandoned settlement.
Aang and Katara both glanced around at the ruins around them, and both of them seemed to be in agreement; the Water Tribe girl was disturbed by the sight of such a place, reminding her of the shipwreck near her village, only far more morbid, given it wasn't just a warship, filled with sailors, but an actual settlement, presumably filled with Earth Kingdom peasants, who in her eyes, were the ones seemingly most hurt by the war, at least at present. She kept holding off the rain, and eyed a hall that sat across from them, open enough that Appa might be able to step inside.
"Maybe we can shelter in there." she suggested, and Toph, obviously content with remaining on the ground, leapt off of the saddle and onto the ground, before she too realised where they were, able to sense around the ruins.
"Oh..." she mumbled, "This isn't... this place is long gone." she admitted, before she paced over to the hall, trying to get out of the rain that she had just jumped into.
Appa let out a groan, and moved slowly, but surely, into the hall, whose entrance could barely contain the sky-bison, forcing Aang and Katara both to duck as to avoid hitting the doorframe; glancing around inside the hall, she was relieved to see that the roof was for the most part intact, even if the building's walls were clearly damaged, and there was signs of the floor and roof rotting. She grimaced, before turning to face Toph, knowing she might be able to help them.
"Could you try and fix up the floor for us, Toph? Just make it into... ground?" she requested, the Earth Kingdom girl cracking her knuckles before she reached down and picked up one of the wooden floor panels, sticking her foot into the gap it left.
Suddenly, the building shook as the wooden floor was forced out of place and fumbled apart as a dirt floor took its place; Toph clapped her hands together, obviously proud of her work.
"That was a good idea, Katara." she admitted, before she turned to face the sky-bison, "So we're gonna have to share with Mister Furball here?" she asked, Aang nodding.
"Well, yeah, he can't sit out in the rain, and Momo can't either." he argued, the flying lemur climbing off of the saddle to investigate the ruins of the hall.
Katara turned around and reached into the saddlebags, deciding she would immediately start setting up their bedding, picking up one of the bags that held a tent, and she offered it to Aang, who took it into his hands before jumping down onto the ground.
"Oh... so we're setting up already?" Toph asked, "Good, I'd like to go to sleep sooner rather than later."
"Maybe we can just eat some rice crackers or something." the young Air Nomad boy mumbled, before he flinched, patting his hair with his free hand, "Ack!" he cried out, obviously surprised by a raindrop falling down through the roof.
"Aw... that's annoying." Katara admitted, "I guess we'll have to put the tarps up to keep us dry." she conceded, the Earth Kingdom girl letting out a humoured huff.
"Tarps? Pfft... imagine having to use those." she scoffed, before she slammed her foot into the ground, twisting her leg to create two stone slabs which shot up out of the ground, forming a stone tent of sorts, which was a little unusual in Katara's eyes, though she realised it was little different to how they would make igloos in her tribe, even if it was made out of dirt instead.
"Should we start a fire?" Aang asked, turning to face Katara, "We might get cold with the wind and rain... I mean, I don't airbend when I'm sleeping." he conceded, the Water Tribe girl scrunching her lips up.
"I guess we could take some scrap wood from in here..." she conceded, glancing around the large hall, noting some shattered furniture that was splayed over the floor which Toph had broken apart; she would have gone to grab some pieces, but decided that setting up the tent would be more important.
Climbing down off of the saddle, she carried two sleeping rolls in either arm, and took them over to where Aang was standing, having taken the parts of the tent out of the bag already; she knelt over, picking up the frame pieces, and began to line them up Aang taking another set, and putting them at the other end of where the tent would sit. She then picked up the canvas, though her attention was drawn by Toph stepping up right beside them.
"Do you want me to get the wood?" she asked, the Water Tribe girl smiling at her, glad that she was volunteering, though as she remembered Toph's distaste for forced work, she decided to give her an offer rather than a demand.
"If you want to." she left her an open option, and the earthbender simply shrugged her shoulders before pacing around the sky-bison to go collect the wood Katara had noted earlier.
She and Aang then pulled the canvas over the frame, and she picked out the bone hooks that would stick the canvas into the ground, her friend taking some too as she hammered them into the ground with her foot, before hooking each of them onto the knots on the edge of the canvas. Once it was hooked in place, she reached over and grabbed the tarp, flicking it over the tent, and she felt Aang tug on the other side.
"Well, we're getting really fast at this." he admitted, a tinge of pride in his voice.
"And I'm just glad you're not sleeping out on the saddle without a sleeping roll. That just sounds cold." she admitted, the young Avatar letting out a chuckle.
"I mean, I usually don't get that cold." he admitted, "Rain isn't that good though." he added, "Storms... worse." he mumbled, his tone not just uneasy, but outright fearful.
"Aang, are you alright?" she asked him, stepping around the tent so she could look him in the eye; he was scratching the back of his scalp, playing with his short locks, obviously not happy, "What's wrong?"
"I just... I stuffed up." he admitted, Katara narrowing her eyes.
"The tent is fine, Aang." she assured him, not wanting him to think he did a bad job, because he didn't.
"N-no." he shook his head, "It's not about the tent. Or anything... fixable." he conceded, his eyes turning up to the roof, "I'm not a good Avatar."
"Don't say that." she warned him, stepping closer, "You're just a kid. You shouldn't have such expectations of yourself."
"I- If I had the guts Azula had, maybe the Air Nomads would still be around." he admitted, "That's... that's just it. I can't face my problems head on."
"Is this... is this about what happened with the monks?" she asked, already knowing that he was uneasy and regretful about what he had done.
"Y-yeah." he mumbled, "I just... I can't make that mistake again. I always want to run when there's danger... but I can't. We can't." he admitted, and she grasped her hands on his shoulders.
"Aang." she whispered his name, "You're not alone. You're not going to face any of this alone." she assured him, the young Avatar making a small smile, before he hugged her the Water Tribe girl smiling and shutting her eyes for a moment as she embraced him; he didn't deserve the life he had been dealt, and she could only wish that things would get better for him, just like she hoped they would for her tribe.
"I know we like emotional support and all that, but I can't be carrying all the wood." Toph spoke up, Aang and Katara both turning to face her, the former cringing slightly before he nodded.
"Yep, yep, I'll go get some." he assured her, and Katara turned to face the spot of ground between the tent and the stone one Toph had created.
"I can start the fire." she explained, before she jumped up to grasp the edge of the saddle, "I've- uh- just got to get the spark rocks." she explained as she pulled herself up onto the saddle.
"Sounds like you're having a hard time there, Sugar Queen." the Earth Kingdom girl suggested with a smug tone, making her roll her eyes; she didn't want to complain about her comment, knowing that it might just spark another spat between them, and given how tired she felt, she was going to avoid that.
She reached into one of the saddle-bags, pulling out the spark rocks, before she leapt back down off of the saddle, Toph kneeling down by the wood she had just stacked up together.
"Don't you need kindling too?" she asked the Water Tribe girl, and she glanced around, unsure exactly what they could use as kindling.
"Uh..." she mumbled, before eyeing out the door that led out into the ruined village; she didn't want to go off into the storm, even if she could waterbend the rain away, "Maybe there's something in here that will burn." she suggested, the Earth Kingdom girl shrugging her shoulders.
"I can barely sense the broken furniture." she admitted, "Do it yourself." she suggested, her exasperated tone making it clear that she didn't really care; the Water Tribe girl paced past the stone tent to the other end of the hall, looking at what furnishings were there.
Just like on the other side, there were some broken chairs and a collapsed table, along with a few baskets, though they were all overturned and clearly empty. She knelt over and pushed some of the baskets out of the way, hoping that she could find something that would easily burn, and help her start the fire.
Upon finding nothing but dirt, dust and what looked like pieces of pottery, she let out a sigh, and turned her gaze to what looked like a cabinet, though it had been overturned, and its backing had already decayed. She decided to kick it in, hoping that would reveal what was inside, and she cringed at the snapping noise the brittle wood made as it was broken.
She moved her foot out of the way, before eyeing into what must have originally been a drawer; she noted that there were a few pieces of fabric and paper sitting inside, and she reached it, realising that they had all been ruined by the flood that must have rushed through the village. They were dry, however, meaning they could be burnt.
"I got something." she spoke up, pulling the paper out from the cabinet, noticing that it had some markings on it; of what she could read, all it told her was some scribbled notes, probably written by whoever was the village headman before it had been destroyed.
She wondered about the fates of the people who had been living there, and all she could do was cringe, feeling sure that it had to be the Fire Nation responsible. Why they would have destroyed a dam perplexed her, though there was the possibility it was a mere accident; it was possible they had just built it so poorly that it broke apart. That didn't strike her as being very Fire Nation like, knowing enough about them now to say with confidence that they strove for a perfect, efficient system when it came to their society, and making a terrible dam that ended up collapsing and destroying a village just didn't seem right.
She paced back over to the unlit campfire, where she could see Aang and Toph assembling the wood into some kind of shape so it would sit up; the former turned to face her, making a relieved smile as he saw the paper in her hands, "Paper?" he mumbled, observing what she had in her hand.
"Ah, you got it, Sugar Queen." the Earth Kingdom girl addressed her with a pleased tone, and she sat down beside her, picking the spark rocks out of her pocket.
She smacked them together a few times, before they sparked light, little embers falling down onto the paper; she then knelt down closer to the paper, blowing on it to make sure the fire actually started, and didn't just wither away. Her eyes brightened as she saw the flames appear, now beginning to burn through the paper. She pushed it into the pile of sticks, the light disappearing from view, though slowly, it began to grow brighter as more of the paper burned, and the wood began to do the same.
"Well, that's that." Aang observed, "I guess we can go to bed now." he admitted, Katara raising her arms up to stretch before she crossed her legs, ready to relax for a bit before she actually went off to bed.
"Hmph..." she mumbled, "I would make dinner... but I'm tired."
"Me too." he agreed, before glancing around the hall, "Momo?" he called out to the flying lemur, who piqued his head up, having been investigating the broken furniture, presumably for some food to eat, "You're hungry too, right?" he guessed, the lemur tilting his head before he made his way over to them, climbing onto Aang's shoulder as he eyed them, obviously looking for food.
"Rice crackers it is." Toph dejectedly conceded, "Sometimes I really wish we had a little variety. What about some jerky?"
"You ate the last of it yesterday." Katara reminded her, the Earth Kingdom girl sighing before she looked up at the saddle, "Aang, can you just get the crackers?" she asked, "I can't be bothered climbing onto the saddle."
"Heh..." he snickered, "I can do chores now." he joked, making her shake her head, seeming a little annoyed by that comment.
"I'm not lazy." she retorted, "It's just easier for you to get it, airbending and all."
"True." he agreed with her, jumping up into the air with ease, landing right on the saddle behind them, where he reached into the food bag and picked out some rice crackers; he then dropped back down, and offered each of them some crackers, which they accepted, before breaking another in half, offering that bit to Momo, who immediately began chewing on it as soon as he got his little hands on it.
Katara took a bite of her rice cracker, before she eyed the campfire, watching as the flames grew brighter, though it was quite slow; it was a relaxing thing to observe, no matter how destructive flames usually were in her eyes. She did need them to cook every day, after all, so she just had to come to understand them, just as she had firebending, though she only interacted with one firebender on a regular basis, who happened to have some rather odd views about bending, at least in comparison to someone like Master Pakku.
She remembered back to the golden flames she had seen Azula make at Kyoshi Island, and wondered if the Princess would ever be able to use those in combat; they might have been a momentary thing, appearing with her emotional response, but she would admit that they were beautiful, no matter the content of the argument she had had with the Fire Nation Princess. The whole oddity about Azula's firebending intrigued her as well, knowing that it might have had something to do with her Avatar heritage, though she couldn't be sure; perhaps she really just was lucky, though Katara was unsure to call her that considering all the bad things that had happened to her and her family.
"Whatcha thinking about?" Aang asked her with a mumble, the Water Tribe girl shrugging her shoulders.
"Firebending." she admitted the honest truth, "And how weird Azula's is."
"Yeah..." he mumbled, seeming to agree with her, "I don't know how she got those blue flames... but it must mean she's pretty special."
"Oh... yeah, that's a thing." Toph mumbled, "I remember that Bumi mentioned that once." she admitted, "Fire's supposed to be orange, but I don't really care... colour isn't real."
"I mean it is." Katara argued, "You just can't see it. It's... I guess it's like temperature." she gave her thoughts on it, "Colour can be cold, warm, hot."
"So what's blue fire like?" she asked, the Water Tribe girl turning to face Aang, who looked like he had an idea for that.
"You'd think it would be cold, but it's hot. Ice is blue and cold. Water is blue and cold."
"You've never been to hot springs before." the Earth Kingdom girl argued, making him chuckle.
"I have, actually." he argued, "Most water's just not as nice as hot springs."
"Anyway..." she mumbled, before scrunching her lips up, "But what's so interesting about blue fire anyway?"
"It's just different." Katara admitted honestly, "It just tells me there's more to learn when it comes to bending. Not just what you'd expect. I mean... I didn't think I'd meet somebody who can see with earthbending."
"Oh-ho-ho." Toph made an almost smug sounding chuckle, "So, you want to be like us? Have some really cool waterbending trick?"
"I mean-" she began, before turning her eyes away, "I don't need to be special."
"But you want to be." the other girl argued, before smiling, actually seeming to agree with the sentiment, "You know, I admire that. You want to push your bending... make something new. Not get stuck down in stupid dogma and tradition."
"After going to the North Pole, I can confidently say tradition sucks when it comes to waterbending." Katara conceded her thoughts on what had made her so unsure about travelling to the North Pole in the first place; without her grandmother telling her, she would have been in for a rude surprise when she reached the North Pole.
"So... what's your trick going to be?" Toph prodded her, clearly wanting an answer; the Water Tribe girl made a small smile, just hoping that if she was able to become unique, it would be with a power that could truly help her turn the tide when it came to a fight.
"I don't know." she admitted, "But that's what makes it exciting. There's still so much for me to learn... and I'm looking forward to it."
"You know, I like your attitude." the earthbender admitted, before turning to face Aang, "And what about you? I mean... we already know you have all your airbending and Avatar powers... but what else?"
"Well, actually I made my own technique. The air scooter." he explained, before tapping his forward, "That's how I got my tattoos... though, I think your thing's cooler." he conceded, clearly addressing Toph's seismic sense, which made her smirk.
"It sure is." she proudly declared, before taking a bite out of one of her rice crackers.
"You don't need to keep stroking her ego. I'm pretty sure she knows how good she is at earthbending." Katara decided to warn him, knowing that if their new companion's ego got too inflated, she'd probably just become frustratingly smug about it, instead of just cocky.
"Hey, I love it." Toph piped up, "I spent a good five years where nobody knew I could earthbend how I do. They just thought I was a small little blind girl who needed their help. But the only help I needed was from the badgermoles." she argued, sounding a little agitated by those memories, "But they're better than people. They don't judge... and they're blind like me."
"Hmm..." Aang mumbled, "If sky-bison can fly without gliders... and badgermoles can see like how you do... does that mean that airbenders can fly too? Like, even without a glider." he suggested a conclusion that could come from Toph's interesting way of learning bending.
"I have no idea 'cause I'm not an Air Nomad." the Earth Kingdom girl gave a blunt, yet true answer, "But... if my idea about bending is right, then yeah, maybe you could."
"That would be really... really cool." Katara admitted her own opinion on that; being just able to fly at a whim, without a glider, would make Aang's bending far more formidable, and make it far harder for him to be defeated in battle.
Lightning certainly wouldn't do Ozai any good if he could just fly out of the way; the thought of that battle made her grimace, though the suggestion that they might be able to find even more advantages gave her hope. Aang might have only been a kid, but he was somebody who learned quickly; quickly enough that she thought he'd have a good chance of being ready to face Azula's father sooner rather than later.
"What?" Aang asked, presumably confused by her change in expression, "Is it not as cool when you think about it?"
"No, no, I stand by it. Flying is cool." she assured him, "So is being able to see with your feet."
"I'm really stumped, though." Toph conceded, "I don't know what waterbending could do. Freeze all the water around you?" she gave an idea, Katara furrowing a brow, before glancing outside, realising that rain provided her with a weapon that was comparable to a forest fire for a firebender.
"Actually..." she mumbled, rising to her feet, "You've given me a great idea, Toph." she commended her, reaching out toward the entrance of the hall, causing the rain to stop falling and start collecting into a ball of water she formed just outside, before she crushed it together, freezing the water into a long, pole-like shape.
"Uh... Katara, what's that?" Aang asked her, but she didn't respond, keeping her eyes focused on the ice, as she began to break it apart into long, narrow poles.
She then approached the poles, pulling them apart so they surrounded her in a semi-circle by the entrance of the hall; she could hear the other two shuffling around as they rose to their feet, and both of them gasped as she shot the poles, now effectively dense javelins made out of ice, out into the surrounding structures, breaking through walls and even impaling into some pylons and trees.
"What was that?!" the Earth Kingdom girl exclaimed, "It was like everything shook around us... but not here." she explained what she had sensed.
"She just shot some ice spikes through all the houses in the village." Aang admitted, his voice a little nervous.
"Oh, that's... cool." she snapped a finger, making the others snicker at her pun.
"I didn't ever think of using the rain like that... there's so much water to use." Katara admitted her own thoughts, the other two stepping closer to her.
"I guess if we ever fight somebody in a storm, they're screwed." Toph observed, and the Water Tribe girl chuckled, knowing that in that fight, they'd win, unless somehow they were fighting another waterbender.
"I mean, if we fight touching solid ground they're screwed." she added, and Aang scrunched his lips up.
"And I can fly... so, yeah. I think we got everything covered."
"And there's Azula, who can shoot lightning." Katara added, knowing that ability was something not to be underestimated in a battle.
"Oh, this team is going to kick some serious butts." Toph cracked her knuckles, before patting the Water Tribe girl on the arm, "But let's go back inside. I don't want to get wet."
She nodded, and followed the other two inside, before she smiled, glad that she had people she knew she could rely on by her side, "Thanks for joining us."
"I mean, what else was I going to do. Refuse to teach the Avatar? I'm the greatest earthbender in the world. I have to do it."
"That's not what you were saying when I asked you." Aang crossed his arms, not seeming impressed by what seemed to be a hypocritical statement.
"I was playing tough." she quipped, "That's my entire thing. I thought you would have figured that out by now, Twinkletoes."
"I- uh, yeah, I guess you're right." he conceded, before smiling, "Thanks." he simply told her, his sheepish look making Katara giggle, finding it funny how nice he could be.
"It's not funny. I'm being serious." Aang argued, before shaking his head, "What am I saying? I love jokes."
"Not as much as Sokka." Katara warned him, the young Avatar scrunching up his lips.
"At least his sense of humour isn't like Azula's." he conceded one of Sokka's relative virtues in comparison to his girlfriend.
At least his jokes were always actually funny, while Azula's were mostly disturbing, and sometimes poetic, but mostly just unexpected, unusual or outright outlandish; what connected all that was that she found things that went against the order of things to be amusing. Though Katara knew she wasn't exactly the kindest person, it really seemed like her whole deal was that she liked things to be in order, and be how they ought to be, at least as she saw it. Though Katara didn't think she was the greatest judge of character or of the world, she was certainly better than the people who had been running her nation for the past century.
Unlike Katara, who preferred to talk about fighting for what was good, the Princess always spoke of what was right and just, even if she skewed the story to make out questionable actions as being great. Though, given what Zhao was going to do, and had done, she couldn't say she disagreed with Azula's point of view so far; all she knew for certain is that if she had met Azula before she had met her brother, then Katara certainly wouldn't have gotten along with her.
"She just finds disorder and absurdity funny... which I guess is a little specific, but that's that." Katara explained her thoughts on the matter, Toph humming in interest.
"But I guess she doesn't like all of that."
"She likes things to go the way she thinks they ought to." she conceded, "A perfectionist, as Sokka once told me."
"Heh, I couldn't care less about being perfect. Just about being strong enough to beat whoever wants to get in my way." the Earth Kingdom girl gave her own mindset, which was different, but perhaps had a similar eventuality to Azula's own way of thinking.
"And I just want all this fighting to stop." Aang gave his own mindset, "It'd really help if we didn't need to be tough, even if you guys are." he conceded, making Katara narrow her eyes.
"Aang, don't worry, you're strong too... and I'm not just talking about the Avatar state." she stressed, before tapping on his sternum, "You've got conviction, and you won't give it up, and you'll find a way to make things better than they are, no matter the obstacle. That's your strength."
"I-" he gasped, before smiling, "I hope I can do it." he admitted, before turning his eyes away, "I just want things to be... something like how they used to be."
"Things will never be the same." Toph warned him, making both Aang and Katara grimace.
She realised that part of her hope for what Azula had promised was her tribe returning to being richer and united, where their communities could work together and be the great big family they were always meant to be, at least in her head. He was the same, hoping that he could get the world he once knew back, even if the Air Nomads wouldn't miraculously return as if they had vanished, instead of facing a fate that Katara never would wish upon anyone. Not even the Southern Raiders, even if she certainly wanted to make sure they couldn't hurt anyone again; what she wanted more than any revenge was something better, and that idea of a future that Azula had spoken of to them was something that brightened her heart.
"But we can make things better... better than they used to be."