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Into The Fire

Chapter Text

The Fire Lord's throne room remained ever so tinted by the dominant flames that surrounded him, intimidating all that entered before his daunting silhouette; but not Princess Azula, she gave up fearing the Fire Lord, her father, a while ago; not out of a lack of respect, but because she had grown to understand their relationship's nature. She would serve and learn and he would command, and one day when he gave up to the dust, she would take his place and do to her future children the same service. That was the nature of things, and knowing herself to be the one true heir of the Fire Nation, she had nothing to fear from the man that everyone else did fear.

"Father, I hear that you have summoned me this morning and I have come to you. What do you seek?" she introduced, her voice and tone formal and serious, however much she might have sought to take the simpler path of going straight for the question.

"Ah, my illustrious daughter; I hope that you would not be inconvenienced by my request, because it involves you travelling abroad."

"It is no worry father, I have little to do in the capital to begin with. What do you seek? Do you need me to berate little Zuko?" The Fire Lord laughed at her comment before returning to a more serious tone.

"I simply desire you to fulfil a diplomatic role to go to the formerly Earth Kingdom city of Ba Sing Se, and be my envoy- my eyes and ears in the city; I believe from some sources I have obtained that there is a growing desire for a revolt against my gracious rule, which is completely unacceptable. I have word that there is also the threat of former Earth Kingdom operatives in the city that might also seek to undermine my authority to gain power for themselves."

"So a 'diplomatic' mission to find rebels and threats to your rule in the 'great' city of Ba Sing Se." Azula commented, confirming what Ozai had just told her.

"The Fire Lord wills that you go to the city of Ba Sing Se as my representative, fulfil the customary duties expected of you and then you can crush whatever rebellion and or conspiracy that awaits you in there, and if this is achieved you will have greater respect from the highest ranked leaders in the Nation, which may give you more opportunities on the home front, which I know you would appreciate." the Fire Lord commanded, and the Princess bowed in response.

"I certainly would father; thank you for this opportunity to prove my abilities."

"You will leave by the weeks end, I will organise your Royal Barge to be stocked and supplied so you can go directly to the city without any unnecessary stops; I believe the quicker this issue is solved, the quicker we can return to focusing on the real issues that the Fire Nation currently faces, such as the threats from the Water Tribes."

"As you will" Azula curtly responded, turning from her father after bowing, and walking swiftly out of the throne room.

As the Princess walked away from the throne room she considered the situation at hand, being given an opportunity to prove herself to the Fire Lord and the cronies in power that still doubted her. With the threat of rebellion squashed, perhaps she could show the people of the Earth Kingdom a better path to peace and integration into the Fire Nation. Sure there would be resistance against such moves, but what choice would they have with no other hope? Would they turn to the Northern Water Tribe for help, who had remained holed up in the North Pole the entire war, and had done little to try and help the Earth Kingdom or their sister tribe, which had already been practically squashed by the Fire Nation, defeated in all but name, despite reports that their warriors continued to support Earth Kingdom insurgency, which she doubted would be of little help. What threat could they face to the Fire Nation's military might, let alone their grip on the Earth Kingdom?

Patiently waiting on an Earth Kingdom pier, the young Water Tribe Warrior was more excited than he had been in months; his father had supposedly gone to meet someone that would give their forces a prime target in the Water Tribe's war effort against the Fire Nation. For the past six months he had been with his father at sea, and they had been planning to return home for the southern summer when a causal night at an isolated tavern led to this great opportunity. It wasn't every day that people would publicly approach the Water Tribe warriors who were functionally outlaws in the eyes of the Fire Nation as long as they sailed in their jurisdiction. Supposedly a man from an anti-Fire Nation organisation had approached his father and given him details on a target that he believed the Water Tribe warriors could take down. Sokka could barely contain his excitement in front of his fellow warriors, who were far more uneasy about another mission at sea, for someone who seemed to be shadier than most the people that asked for their help, usually poor Earth Kingdom villages that had been harassed by the Fire Nation or remnant army groups of the Earth Kingdom which could use the arms and wits of the Water Tribe's men. Sokka turned to the highest ranking man at the pier, a strong sturdy tribesman called Gilak, whose booming voice usually intimidated his fellow soldiers, but Sokka respected him for his resolve and determination in battle, and decided to probe him for what he knew of the mission.

"So Gilak, got any ideas about out our mission?" he questioned, making the usually cheerful warrior turn his face towards the young man in distraught.

"I don't know Sokka, I doubt that the mission is as easy or beneficial as whatever this client claims; but Hakoda thinks that this is a good way to make a move against the Fire Nations resolve in the war. If our target is as high up as he's guessing, we could be striking down entire military and intelligence operations in one fowl swoop; this could give the Earth Kingdom forces that remain the opportunity to make ground they mightn't have the chance to make otherwise."

"Yeah I think if that's the case, it motivates me even further; I want to make dad proud, I guess you might empathise there." Sokka replied, making Gilak chuckle.

"I do, Hakoda is a hard man to impress. I've been hoping to show my leadership skills in future battles; perhaps I'll have a chance soon enough."

"Good luck on that Gilak!" Sokka grinned, patting the mans pack as if he was the superior and more wise warrior, but Sokka knew Gilak was far more experienced, but they had similar relationships with his father, trying to impress him and work under him studiously to become better leaders and warriors.

Turning around Sokka could see his father walking down the pier with his lieutenant and best friend Bato, then shouting out to them, "Dad! Bato!"

"Sokka, I see you waited patiently instead of snooping in on the meeting like last time." his father commented, patting his son on the shoulder.

"Hey!" Sokka exclaimed in embarrassment, "I was just trying to get into the mood of spying; I'm pretty good at finding and interpreting information."

"Yeah, Hakoda he's right; maybe he should become a private investigator instead of a warrior?" Bato quipped, making Hakoda and Sokka laugh.
Hakoda turned to raise his fist, immediately gaining the attention of his warriors, and Sokka turned away from their previous conversation without an afterthought: now was 'mission-time' for Sokka.

"My fellow warriors, today I have learned of an immense opportunity that awaits us; I have gained intelligence and backing from a client who says that a highly ranked Fire Nation official will be sailing through these waters in two days time, and as such we will intercept said vessel, which has been stated to be alone but filled with skilled guards for the officials status. This may bring a chain-reaction to weaken and disrupt Fire Nation's war-effort, which I believe is in the best interests of our tribe. As always, I will ask for majority support on such a venture before setting out, so my men: what will it be?"

Sokka and most of the men confidently called out "Yeah", although a number of them didn't respond, showing their disagreement.

"What seems to be the issue with this plan men?" Gilak questioned loudly, drawing attention of the disagreeing warriors.

One raised his arm, "We were meant to be going home today, back to our families and homes that we have missed for half a year. Isn't it best that we go as soon as possible?"
Another man raised his arms, nodding at the previous speaker, "We cannot get too absorbed into this conflict with the Fire Nation. What if we attack the wrong person and word gets out the Southern Water Tribe is a threat; the raids could start all over again. We could inadvertently doom our tribe!"

Hakoda nodded at the speakers, smiling at his men, "This mission is dangerous yes, but if we are not willing to make the sacrifice of our time as warriors, we may never see a Southern Water Tribe like we want to see it, prosperous and free from the threat of the Fire Nation. The war will wage on no matter what, but if we have the chance to turn the tide in favour of those who oppose the Fire Nation, we should do so without a second thought."

"This is the victory we have been waiting for!" Sokka shouted out, standing high on his feet, "Will you sail home while the world burns? Or may you fight like men and take down the monsters who burn our villages and kill our women and children? Those who destroyed an entire race of benders? What will it be?!"

The men shouted in fervour and Sokka grinned at his father, who smiled back before shouting alongside his fellow warriors.

"To battle!" they cried, "Defeat the ash-makers!"

Sokka knew his words had an influence and pushed their drive to save their people, and he knew even if he might have exaggerated the present threat to their tribe, the world needed heroes, and if they were non-bending warriors from the most desolate place in the world, so be it; they would drive a spear into the heart of the Fire Nation if that was what it took to stop the beast. Now was not the time for cowardice, he believed, Sokka saw it as a time of honour and bravery for the sake his nation and the world.

The orange clouds of a sunset laid upon the calm seas that a small Fire Nation vessel tread through, but it's captain was not nearly as calm as the seas that he sailed upon. Prince Zuko, who had been banished for five whole years now, ultimately had his fury guided towards one goal that entire time. The Avatar, the Last Airbender, someone who had been missing for over a century now, and Zuko doubted that he would ever find him. The War as a whole would depend on the Avatar remaining hidden and unable to conflict with the Fire Nations interests; Zuko at this point doubted whether that the Avatars hiding had benefited him at all, despite the frustrations that would have been abound if he had shown up. The Prince's Uncle stood by him, as he always did, holding his cup of ginseng tea, ever worrying for his nephew.

"Prince Zuko, you have been thinking a lot as of late. May I ask what is on your mind?" he asked, but this drove him further into his thoughts.

Five years had gone by, and what? The Comet had already past, the damage was done; Prince Zuko was no more, his title worthless in a world he had no place. His uncle called out for hope, a new outlook, something to keep his mind off the pain he had forced himself into; that would do no use, there was no hope, not of the good kind anymore; but for once, the Prince's anger and pain could finally be directed. Zuko had long prided himself on duty to honour and his desire to be an honourable Prince of his nation, but with the last strings of hope broken, he simply saw what he should have seen all along: an abused little boy, his face maimed by his own father, thrown from his home to wander the Earth for the rest of his life. He was expected to prove himself by bringing home a man no one had seen in a hundred years, and if he couldn't do that, he would do what he truly desired. Zuko was now for Zuko, and what did Zuko feel? Pain; Anger; Suffering at the hands of those who shouldn't have abused their power. Honour or no honour Zuko would set it right, he would make himself into the man his father wanted him to be, not because he wanted his worthless approval anymore, but because he wanted to return home and make his father would feel something for once, the same feeling he had felt when he knelt before his father, crying for mercy. He would tremble before his own son, and finally he would feel the power that his father claimed he had himself, the power of fear. Zuko left his trance of thought, and turned his head, looking at his Uncle.

"Uncle; I will do it." Iroh looked at his nephew confused.

"What do you mean nephew, by 'it'?" Zuko chuckled and pulled a smirk.

"What you've wanted me to do ever since you saw him sitting behind the flames." Iroh, taken aback, looked at his nephew in fear.

"Your father? What would I want you to do with your father?" Iroh stood looking confused, although Zuko knew it was just a mask to hide the truth he had slowly unveiled from travelling with his Uncle this entire time.

"Uncle, you left the side of the Fire Nation long ago, even if you are still called General and sit upon this ship chasing our nation's greatest enemy. It is about time I do the same."

"You mean to betray the Fire Nation?" Iroh questioned, "To oppose the Fire Lord is an act that will not go unnoticed, especially by his own son" Zuko turned back towards the orange sunset, speaking without a rasp, almost as if to cut out his emotion.

"I don't just mean to oppose the Fire Lord, I seek to destroy him and everything he stands for; I have sat for too long on this damned boat and done nothing while the world burns..." Iroh contemplated Zuko's statement before placing a hand on his shoulder.

"He is your father Zuko; at least consider that, before... Making a rash decision" Zuko chuckled at the last part, turning to his Uncle and hugging him.

"Uncle-" Zuko whispered, "you are more of a father to me than he will ever be."

His uncle broke the hug after a moment and held his hand on his nephews shoulder.

"I may be able to help you, Prince Zuko;" he conceded, "but it may take time to get the resources organised to achieve your goal."

"Patience, patience is always the key... That's the kind of thing you would say isn't it?" Zuko asked him, chuckling as he thought to be speaking like the very man before him.

"Perhaps nephew;" he chuckled. "I am just glad that you have not lost your way, and have chosen a new path no matter the detriments it may bring you."

A moment of silence passed between them as Zuko looked toward his own future. He knew what he had to do, but considered what he should do, now he was going down a path of no return.

"You know what Uncle? First things first, I'm going find that bastard. And this time I will show him the proper respect for a... What is he now?" Zuko asked his Uncle, who was somewhat confused by the rambling but understood the character he described.

"Admiral- Admiral Zhao. I see you don't let your grudges go as easily as I might like them to..." Iroh replied.

"That is true, but the man needs to first be taught a lesson of respect; one day he is going to be it seems, so I'd better do it myself before my father grows tired of his arrogance."

Chapter Text

The sky was dark and gloomy, and the seas rough, much to the Princess' displeasure; she sought to arrive in Ba Sing Se as soon as possible, and perhaps she could find a sense of security away from the rough seas. Azula didn't think that this diplomatic mission would be of much use to actually appease the people of the city, but her father sought her out of the capital to deal with growing threats there, although this was perhaps for more mysterious reasons that she was unable to know at the time. Despite her proficiencies for lying and deceit, Azula didn't seek to plot her way to the throne; she valued loyalty above all else, and if someone shyed away from that, they were dishonourable cowards. This to her mind, brought a degree of respect to the few who remained to oppose the Fire Nation, holding their own against the greatest empire the world had ever seen. Soon enough they would disappear, just like the Air Nomads before them; the Water Tribes were weak and under pressure from Fire Nation raids, and the Earth Kingdom, or what was left of it, remained under Fire Nation domination. Now she was the sword of her nation, striking her face into their minds when to think of what to fear, despite her mission itself being focused on the nonviolent intimidation that she brought with her father's reputation behind her.

The Princess was unable to continue her sleeping in such rough seas and had thus turned to reading a book compiled to detail information about the city she was about to visit; it's history, being long and arduous, was a bit of a strain to understand, and it's size just as incomprehensible: The biggest city in the world, three walls and a massive palace to top it all off. Supposedly it also contained a massive underground labyrinth that remained from the cities layered growth, to the Princess' surprise. The Fire Nation's Caldera City had similar structures, although they had been built for military purposes rather than the natural development of a metropolis. A knock hit her door, and she answered abruptly.

"What is it?"

The guard opened the door slightly and cleared their throat, clearly fearful of the Princess' potential response.

"Your highness, the ship is not fairing well in these rough seas; the helmsman recommends that we move closer to the coastline."

"That is fine; tell him to move closer to the coast, make up the time with a bit more engine power."

"Of course Princess," the guard bowed slightly, before quietly shutting the door. She turned back to the book, returning back to the chapter about the "Crystal Catacombs" that intrigued her. Supposedly the catacombs had been little explored by the new Fire Nation occupiers, and were believed to be the hiding spot of earthbending rebels and as such the military avoided sending anyone in without good reason; perhaps she could change that and lead an expedition herself? Finding some rebels would clearly enhance her reputation and help her gain further favour with the aged military men who perhaps doubted her abilities, being sexist as they were. The flicking of a page was interrupted by a banging sound, clearly coming from the side of the ship.

"What in the name of-" she exclaimed, hearing an even louder banging sound that violently shook the Royal Barge.

Standing up the Princess grumbled and released fire from her palms; Perhaps it was more dangerous on these seas than she had initially thought. Looking out the window, the princess gained a better look at the deck and it's current happenings; although darkness had clouded the deck of the Fire Nation's Royal Barge, this clearly wasn't the case moments after a large explosion rocked the ship. Firebenders rushed out to the deck, looking for their attackers with little luck, the dark waters disguising whoever had created the explosion, if they had been from off the vessel at all. Suddenly a number of darkly clothed men appeared on both sides of the ships, catching the firebending guards unaware, leading to a number of them being unable to defend themselves from strikes to their heads by blunt clubs. The Princess was immediately aware of who their opponents were: warriors from the Southern Water Tribe, non-bending weaklings who had to rely on such crude methods to fight someone. No one else would send a squad of non-benders into battle and expect them to defeat some the best trained firebenders in the world. She was already frustrated enough with the situation, and the fact her men would be easily beaten by such underdogs made her furious; they would learn well to regret the day they tried to fight Princess Azula of the Fire Nation.

Wearing his warriors armour and face paint, Sokka felt ready as ever to finally fight the ashmakers. They were going to pay for everything they had done, and finally his father had almost divinely given him the opportunity. Supposedly they were attacking this ship because some one high up commanded it and capturing them would hamper the Fire Nation's efforts in conquering the remains of the Earth Kingdom. Even without Ba Sing Se, the tide could be turned, and finally Sokka could do his part and make his father proud. The firebenders they fought weren't prepared for their arrival and the weather made it so much sweeter for Sokka, knowing their firebending they relied on so much would be barely functional in such poor conditions.

Sokka swung his club at a guards legs, clipping his shins and forcing him to the ground, where he quickly felt the thrust of his foot to his jaw, knocking him out cold. Smirking at his small victory, Sokka threw his trusty boomerang, flinging out past the firebenders, confusing them with it's rapid motion, and using that small distraction whacked another across the side of their head with his club, before his returning boomerang struck another guard right in the back of the head, falling to Sokka's feet; right where he would need it. His father called out to him in the midst of battle, making him turn around to see his father with a bone dagger in hand.

"This may come in handyǃ" he shouted, throwing the dagger into Sokka's hand, which he grasped with his left hand.

Sokka turned to strike another guard with it's hilt, this one far more prepared, right in his hand; breaking his move to hit Sokka square in the forehead with a ball of fire. He flinched and cried out from the pain before grabbing Sokka with his other hand in an attempt to settle the warrior into a single position where he could beat him with his fire. Sokka grabbed the firebender with his own hand and grinned viciously, thinking even he could set fear into their eyes, before headbutting the guard, hearing the hard break on his nose. The guard fell back, dazed from the hit when Hakoda returned to Sokka's side with his spear, stabbing the guard in the shoulder and thrusting him across the deck.

"Thanks for the help Dadǃ" Sokka exclaimed.

His father grimaced at his son's near rabid enthusiasm in battle and held his hand on his shoulder.

"Sokka, you will go with the others to capture the target; we'll hold the deck."

Sokka nodded clearly at his father, whistling to the men, signaling that they would make a break for the bridge's door, where they would be able to reach their target. Sokka was followed by another four men, and they raced towards the door, where a single guard stood with his fists prepared to fight them; expecting a club or spear, the man wasn't prepared when Sokka's boomerang struck him in the side of the head. Sokka chuckled at his work, before turning to his men; finally he was a leader of something, he though to himself.

"Let's do this." he stated bluntly, before kicking the door open somewhat dramatically. He smirked as he looked down the hallway and saw a figure before him; a teenage girl, probably about his age, wearing black armour with golden outlines around it's plates, topped with a golden flame headpiece.

"Wait what... We're capturing a girl?" Sokka remarked, his voice clearly showing his disbelief in the situation.

"A girl you say? We'll see about that." she replied, smirking with the same grin Sokka had when fighting the firebenders.

She thrust a wall of fire down the hallway, Sokka turning his pelt coat towards it in and attempt to block her powerful attack. His comrades pulled out their own weapons and made a battle-cry, which Sokka joined as well. Aware that the hallway was too narrow for them to all run down, the biggest of them- a dark haired warrior, from a village Sokka hadn't heard of until they met, decided that it'd be best if he were the 'meat-shield' as per say. Screaming at their opponent he charged toward her with two clubs in his hands, quickly discarding her first fist of fire with them. She chuckled at the warriors attempts before kicking a blast of fire straight at his head, causing him to fall and trip over his own feet backwards, head first colliding with the metal floor.

Sokka decided he'd rather go before his other men and pulled out his boomerang, making their opponent laugh at him.

"And what is that supposed to be? Scrap metal you hope to cut me with?ǃ" she shouted with the same smirk, making Sokka grumble in frustration, before his own smirk returned.

Sokka never had a good strategy in his pocket, but had all the tactics anyone would need to beat an arrogant firebender. He ran towards her with his spear in hand, quickly thrusting it at her head, missing her by quite a distance, almost making her laugh. But that distraction gave him enough time to suddenly stab his boomerang straight into the metal wall, before thrusting himself nearly horizontally, his feet guarding him from any potential attack, forcing his opponent to try and basically burn his shoes off, which wasn't too helpful when he struck her square in the chest with his flying feet.

The Princess for one didn't approve of uppity Water Tribesmen kicking her in the chest, but she certainly appreciated the opening he had given her, as she quickly able to return to her feet and throw a fireball toward his face, which he was barely able to block with his arm-guards. She sought to strike the man down for his insolence but couldn't help but notice the youth in him; he was probably own her own age, and even then as a non-bender, could even try to go toe to toe with her, the most prodigious firebender of a generation. The warrior pulled his weapon out from the corridor's wall and smirked at her with arrogance, his own self-confidence mirroring her own.

"Give up now and I won't really hurt you." Sokka proclaimed, trying to see if the woman would notice that she was outnumbered in this situation.

"No thanks, I'd rather hurt you!" she shouted, throwing a vicious wave of fire at him, making Sokka trip over his fallen comrade and fall to his knees.

"Shit!" he shouted from the burns he could feel on his arms.

He pulled out his club once more to protect himself from his opponent, who punched another fist of flames towards his head. He growled in anger before rushing to strike her legs, in a quick attempt to force her down, like he would to his other opponents, but simply hit the walls as he crouched in pain before her; she laughed at him before striking him in face with a blast of fire, flinging him back along the corridor ontop of his fellow warrior. One of his comrades threw a spear to his side and screamed at him as to encourage.

"Show no fear!" making the young warrior smirk in confidence before arming himself with the weapon.

The Princess laughed at the warriors feeble displays of courage and threw a barrage of fireblasts at him, which he was able to surprisingly deflect with the motion of his spear circularly. She raised her fingers in motion to bend lightning at him, knowing the warrior had no real defense against such an attack. He raised his boomerang as to throw it at her while she was preparing her attack; but it was too late and his weapon was struck with a powerful blast of lightning, shocking him and flinging him down the corridor once more, hopefully for good. The warrior grunted as he tried to recover from the attack that he never could have expected and his attempts were little use when he felt the strike of her knee to his jaw, and slumped to the ground unconscious; the three warriors behind him shouted for their fallen brother, and as such she learnt the fallen man's name - Sokka; Sokka of the Water Tribe. What a pity it was that he had to be fighting her in this hallway, it might have been more fun in the open.

When he came rocking back into consciousness, Sokka could only notice one thing clearly, that being that his jaw stung as if it had been broken; he tried to move it in a chewing motion, and to his expectation, increased the pain sharply. Pushing his body off the metal plate floor, he pushed himself against the corridor, mostly unaware of his current surroundings. Noticing that the hallway was now quiet he looked to his left to see all of his men, knocked unconscious with a plethora of burns on their clothes and skin. His entire squad had just been taken down by some crazy firebending bitch, and Sokka's mind turned to the idea that he owed her a broken jaw to fit with his own. His vision and coordination were clearly off par now, and the sides of his head stung despite not being injured. He thought he might perhaps had been concussed, but that wasn't what he focused on now. His father and all the tribesmen were out there, and for all he knew they could all be beaten or worse, seeing what had happened to himself already. That was enough to get Sokka to slide his back up the wall and grab the corridor walls with both his arms, trying to lift himself back to his feet.

"F-fucking... I'm going to fight that one again." Sokka proclaimed to himself, looking back down the hallway to find his boomerang, seemingly undamaged from the lightning strike he had been hit with.

"Well at least you're still okay boomerang; someone ought to make it out alive!" he joked to himself, trying to improve his mood in the dire circumstances.

His legs ached as he stepped one foot at a time toward his boomerang, before he had to arch downward to reach it, bringing more pain to his back. Although this might not have been the worst possible outcome of his fight with a firebender, Sokka was certain it was the most immediately painful. He grabbed the boomerang swiftly and pulled himself back up, and thought to try and focus on the goal: beat the shit out of some firebenders and maybe get out alive. He brought his smirk back, finally feeling some pride in this moment of defeat.

"It'll take more than lightning to kill me you ash-maker scum!" he shouted, before pacing down the corridor as quickly as his legs would take him, shuddering to a stop at the door. He didn't want to make too much of an entrance onto the deck, especially if his men were in trouble. Slowly turning the metal lever he pushed the door slightly ajar as to look out the gap, perhaps to take a quick glance at the deck; Sokka saw exactly what he didn't want to see, knocked out firebenders and water tribesmen, with a couple of firebender guards standing over them. Sokka took a deep breath, knowing that he might not last too long against any remaining firebenders, so he decided it'd be better to go out screaming than simply being knocked down by his enemies.

"Hey you fuckers!" he screamed opening the door with a loud kick, swiftly throwing his boomerang, knocking out an unaware guard before swinging out his club and charging at the guards in front of him; the guards on deck turned around, and as did the remaining tribesmen, who cheered in relief when Sokka came in swinging with his overtly distracting arrangement of attacks. He swung his club swiftly at another guards shins, his head clipping the club as he fell down. Another two guards came to surround Sokka, who decided to attack one by throwing his club at him, while the other tried to reach him; the guard obviously forgot about the warrior's flying boomerang, which returned to it's owner by clipping his head before careening into the ground. Sokka rolled in a somersault to grab his boomerang while the other remaining guard grabbed Sokka's own club as a weapon, leaving Sokka to defend against an attack he'd usually use himself; the guard swung the club at Sokka's turned head, in an attempt to knock him out unaware, but Sokka had intentionally provoked the guard to use his club, he was able to barrel roll across the deck before flicking the boomerang straight into the left side of the guards helmet, sending his body head first into the deck.

"Take that!" he piped as he raised his fist at his small victory.

Sokka quickly retrieved his boomerang and saw that his entrance had reinvigorated his comrades fighting and defenses against the vicious attacks of the firebending guards, clearly working as hard as they could to take down the warriors, the weather obviously hampering their own bending; perhaps the spirits were in their favour today, if they had any care for their tribe to begin with. Sokka turned to see a shocking sight, an elite firebender, noted by his golden rimmed armour and helmet, had singled out his father Hakoda as their leader and was strangling him on the side of the ship, trying to throw him overboard. The sight of his father in such danger sent Sokka into overdrive and he quickly got to his feet, racing towards the two, knocking a guard out of the way with little effort.

"Dad!" he shouted in terror, as Hakoda turned to see his son sprinting towards him, Sokka armed with his bone dagger once more, ready to bloody himself for his father's sake.

The guard turned to Sokka, shocked by his sudden appearance, and more so when Sokka pounced onto him with a fist straight into his face. He retaliated immediately with a wave of fire hitting Sokka in the face, barely burning his face with the flames fading as quick as they came in the rain. Sokka smirked at him, grabbing his collar before stabbing him right in the shoulder, causing him to whelp in pain and knee Sokka in the stomach, making him reel back.

"You little shit!" the guard shouted, his demeanor clearly shifted from one of dominance to that of fury.

The guard swung another wave of fire at Sokka before sending a kick of fire at him, both of which he avoided by ducking to the side. As the guard remained unable to hit him, Sokka decided to make the best of his opponents anger and drop his weapons. He knew the guard would go all out on him now, without any means to defend himself. The guard raised his arms into a bending position, poised to strike, but was cut short by a strike to the head; Hakoda stood above the guard, with his own club, somewhat infuriated by his previous situation and knocked out he guard properly with a kick to the head. Sokka had expected his fathers response, because it's what he would have done himself

"Good job dad!" Sokka praised, patting his father on the shoulder before turning back to the battlefield.

"We can't win this with our weapons, but luckily I had a backup plan." Hakoda commented, his son grinning at the mention of another plan.

"Lemme guess- Sink this ship and all the bastards on board." Sokka confirmed, knowing that they had already a stash of explosives with them for the attack, planned to stop the ships engine; his father nodded in confirmation and Sokka realised the serious situation they and their men were in- they couldn't face capture, and a sinking ship was a good distraction to avoid it.

"Retreat!" Hakoda called out, signaling to his men to get back to their ships, handing Sokka his spear before patting him on the back, as if to grant him good luck; he smiled briefly at his father before turning back to the battle.

The remaining conscious warriors quickly diverted their attention to running across the deck and away from any battles they were facing; Sokka saw a few stragglers and took it upon himself to help, throwing his boomerang at a guard who had cornered a tribesman on the other side of the deck, slamming the guard in his nape, throwing him to the ground like rock. Sokka shouted again at the firebenders, to both quench his thirst for a fight and a desire to distract any remaining firebenders from their imminent escape. The remaining firebenders turned to him and formed a circle around him, preparing to all strike him at once; they moved into stance while Sokka stood there unfazed by their potential attack, unnerving them somewhat, knowing for certain what came next. Suddenly a blast shook the ship violently and the men lost their footing, and Sokka already prepared for the explosion, was able to knock out of the one men with his boomerang and throw his spear at another, forcing him to the ground. Sokka broke down laughing at the remaining soldiers who stood in shock, probably in disbelief from their situation; he presumed that Fire Nation sailors weren't well trained for potential disasters, as they were the only nation with a well designed and powerful navy; but that didn't make the mightiest steel vessels indestructible.

"You should have been going for the lifeboats guys!" he joked, before grabbing his returning boomerang.

The soldiers immediately ran down the deck towards where Sokka assumed their lifeboat was, where he could see one remaining figure in the rain. Her hair was falling down in the rain and her hands filled with blue fire; the blue-fire-girl, as Sokka thought of her, finally made her reappearance. He pointed his boomerang at her and jested.

"So are you here for a rematch?"

Azula glanced at Sokka with contempt and he knew that she must have been pretty angry; he had blown up her ship for one, even if only indirectly; but that didn't stop her from considering him responsible and the target of her current rage. How on earth would she get to Ba Sing Se now? By floating along in a cramped lifeboat for a few days? Not a chance.

"You will pay for what you've done, savage!" she shouted at him, before throwing a rally of fire blasts at Sokka.

The Water Tribe warrior was able to dodge her flurry of attacks rather easily. Firebending was surprisingly easy to ignore at a distance it seemed; the remaining guards and tribesmen on the deck quickly ran off with their lives, knowing for certain the ship was doomed, mostly ignoring the duel between the non-bending warrior and firebending prodigy. Sokka retrieved another bone spear from the ground, throwing it directly at his opponent, who simply grabbed the weapon and broke it in two. Realising that his water tribe weapons mightn't be as sturdy as he might have believed, Sokka chose to grab a Fire Nation guards spear on the deck, kicking it up with his right foot and grabbing it with his right hand, not fazing his opponent who was forming a whip-like formation of fire and stretching it to strike Sokka's side. Sokka barrel-rolled under the wave of fire and then charged at his opponent, hoping to strike her before she got any smart idea about using lightning. She side-stepped his attack and uppercut the warrior with a fireblast, sending him into the air for a few moments, before abruptly crashing back down on the deck. Sokka turned his head up towards Azula, who gazed somewhat disgusted at his bleeding mouth and nose, before he beared the most mocking smirk he could muster.

"I-I won..." he muttered, making her laugh at him.

"I'm about to knock you out and throw your body overboard; in what bizarre world have you won this duel?" she curtly replied, mocking him with a smirk of her own.

"You can't throw me overboard... If we are going overboard." he chuckled, making her realise her situation.

The entire ship started to tilt portward, and Azula stumbled and returned to her full height, realising that Sokka had been playing her in an attempt to let his men escape, while she remained on her own sinking ship; Sokka stabbed the end of the spear he held into the deck, as to keep himself upright while the ocean water rushed onto the ship's deck.

"I've been played by some fool! What a disappointment." Azula laughed, kicking Sokka's spear down before trying to race toward the bridge, to little avail when a wave rushed onto the deck and swept her off her feet; Sokka laughed at her before he realised the water would take him down too, being swept into the flooded portion of the deck.

"Ah shit!" he shouted, as his mouth was filled with somewhat distasteful ocean water.

Sokka pulled himself out from the water and attempted to wade across the deck, similar to his opponents prior attempt, but another wave flushed the deck, and pushed him back into the water. He instead decided to swim toward the bridge, slowly wading through the water, when he finally noticed Azula standing by the bridge, trying to hold onto the open entrance-way as the deck continued to rotate. As he neared the bridge, he saw heard another abrupt explosion under the deck, causing the ship's bow to start sinking directly into the water and the bridge subsequently was raised higher; he was able to more easily start climbing as the water receded, but his opponent decided to start throwing fireballs at him, at the moment when he could just as easily fall off the boat and drown.

"Come on! I'm just trying to not drown here." he shouted at her in desperation. He saw to his right the Water Tribe's vessels withdrawing from the ship, and tried to shout out to his comrades, "Hey! Guys I'm here!" he screamed at the ships, but to no avail, as they continued to move away from the sinking Fire Nation vessel.

Sokka decided at that moment he'd practically been given a death sentence, now all he could do is try and find some way not to drown in the water; he knew he was a decent enough swimmer, but in these stormy waters, he'd face it better trying to just climb onto the Fire Nation's life raft. He turned to see that his opponent was still trying to make her way to the back of the ship, and obviously had for the moment given up on fighting him. He decided to keep climbing along the deck as the water rushed up behind him, eventually making it to the door of the bridge; looking inside Sokka found little but a few discarded weapons, even one of his own, his spear. He decided to climb into the corridor and try and make his way up the ship's bridge, to at the very least afford him some time while the rest of the ship sunk under the water; maybe by then he'd find a way to signal his father and the others.

Sokka paced down the hallway, quickly picking up his spear, in case there was anyone left on the bridge that might try to cause him any problems. Looking down either side of the corridors end he saw little but more dark metal halls; not knowing his way around these ships he made an assumption that the ladder or stairs would be somewhere near the middle and took a bet going right. He paced himself through the somewhat more upright section of the ship before finally making his way to the ladder. Sokka was relieved at this sight but still fearful; what if his father had already left with their ships, and he considered Sokka dead meat fighting the remaining guards? He doubted his father would abandon his own son, but this was war and sacrifices like that could be made on a daily basis. Climbing up the ladder he finally made his way to the top of the bridge, where he assumed the vessel was commanded from. Here he could see little but some equipment that he clearly didn't understand, but he searched the chests that remained up here; the ship would have to have some kind of beacon or flare that could be set off for a potential 'accident' like this. Sokka rustled through each of them, feeling the sway of the ship's motion becoming stronger and his feet straining from the harsh angle he had to stand at. Finally he found a device that set off a flare and quickly paced himself toward the open balcony of the bridge. He realised how deep the ship already was with the bridge half into the water already, now Sokka was only a few metres above the water. Not knowing how the device worked, he pressed the device in various spots before it set off an explosion that flung a blast of smoke and fire into the sky. Sokka hoped that his father or another warrior saw his attempt to communicate, but at this point Sokka could barely see the Water Tribe ships, which were at least a few hundred metres away from Sokka now, too far for him to swim in this weather.

Realising his first plan had failed, Sokka decided to find something that would float; looking back into the bridge he noticed that the metal chests he had rummaged through to find the flare had been pretty toughly sealed; were they airtight? There was only one way to find out at this point, and he wasn't for one looking forward to it. He unpacked one of the boxes completely before locking it back shut, and kicking it down the bridge, where gravity did it's work and the chest fell straight into the water; looking out into the water he saw that it did float, and did his best to make his way towards the water. Suddenly the ship begun to tilt port-ward again, and Sokka fell to the side, slamming into the windows of the bridge. As his head ringed from striking the window, compounding the pains he was already feeling at the moment, he could distantly hear the cries of whoever remained on the ship; it scared him well enough that he was partly responsible for the potential deaths of those onboard. Realising that he was in luck that the window he laid on didn't break, he pulled himself up and tried to look out of the bridge for his makeshift flotation device but soon enough water had started rushing into the bridge- Sokka's time was up. The ship had finally started to go fully under the water and he had a few moments to climb out of the balcony door before the water flooded in, nearly pushing him back into the bridge. Sokka threw his arms forward and started to swim nearly violently against the rush of water flowing into the ship, and after a few moments of frustration he made his way out into the open waters, where he could now see no other boats; he could however clearly hear the Fire Nation life raft's engine rumbling behind him. He waded towards his metal chest and grabbed held of it tightly. Luckily the waters here, unlike down south, were actually not too cold at the moment and he could tolerate floating in the rough waters; He tied a rope he had in his belt to his wrist and the other end to the chest, making sure he wouldn't drown in case he eventually passed out. Sokka noticed the life raft behind him smoking away and realised that he could try and at least follow it somewhat. His paddling motion became almost natural, as the fear became less dominant and his mind fogged with the desire to just keep his body moving and soon enough despite his best intentions, he had fallen asleep on top of the chest, his body numb and cool in the ocean water.

Chapter Text

The touch of his skin to the moist surface of the beach made Sokka wake from his daze, realising that he had finally made landfall; lifting his head he looked upon a long stretch of sand that went on for as far as his eyes could see, with trees backing behind it, fading into a dark green haze. Sokka rolled onto his back, relieved he hadn't ended up drowned at the bottom of Eastern Sea, but didn't like his outcome any more this way; he wasn't being nursed back to health by his fellow warriors, but alone, dirty and hungry on some Earth Kingdom beach. He could only hope that he was near some civilisation that wasn't full of Fire Nation soldiers so he could at least try and get himself out of this shit-show of a situation. Sokka saw more debris to his side, noticing the lost helmet of a firebending guard; he thought to himself that he was lucky he didn't wash up next to a dead firebender, never less a live one.

Sokka pulled himself up and started crawling up the beach away from the wet sand to the dry and flowing sand dunes of the beach; he immediately realised that his remaining armour was of little use, and discarded his chestguard, armguards and shinguard, placing them beside him in the sand. Looking in his belt he had little of use for this situation, except for a few pieces of seal jerky, and they were all soggy from the swimming he had to endure to reach this beach. He pulled his boomerang out from it's holster on his back and smiled at his reflection in it, happy that he at least had his trusty boomerang for this journey; looking back to the beach he noticed that his spear was lying down a few metres from where he washed up, next to the metal crate he had been floating on.

"At least I might be able to kill something to eat; that's gotta count for something!" he proclaimed to himself.
Sokka stood up and decided it would be best to at least try and find some food, or fresh water, as it was still morning and he had a full day of looking for some civilisation that he could take refuge in.

He realised after the adrenaline of the heat of battle and the fear of drowning, his entire body was pretty sore from the beating he had gotten from that firebending woman he faced on the ship; he winced as he tried to move his jaw again, amazed that he had even been able to speak at this point. Sokka walked a short distance across the sand to reach the tree-line, which fell into a seemingly endless forest, sparse enough for him to be able to navigate but not dense enough to determine it's massive size from his view.

"Well shit. At least I have a sense of direction, got that one thing going for me at the moment." Sokka bluntly commented, making himself chuckle at his own poorly timed humour.

Sokka looked up at the sky to get his bearings, noticing that it was only early morning at the sun was behind him, going out toward the water, which allowed him to pin down where he had washed up within the Bay itself. If the sun was eastward, then he obviously had washed up on the west coast of the Bay, meaning he was somewhere between Ba Sing Se and the south coast of the Earth Kingdom, which would certainly have a different foliage to this forest; it was humid and full of ferns and bushes, clearly hotter than most places he had visited on his journey to the Earth Kingdom. Sokka for one didn't enjoy the hot weather too much, but could tolerate it none the less, his clothing that he wore under his armour being light and not overbearing in such climate.

Sokka returned to the beach and grabbed his shinguards and armguards, putting them on and hoping that anything that tried to kill him out in the forest wouldn't be smart enough to go for his chest. He left his chestguard in the sand, hoping maybe to somehow get it back, but it he thought of it being a burden outside of battle. He turned back toward the forest and slowly made his way into the dense foliage, scanning the ground for any tracks, unable to discern anything that he could describe as human footprints, which was both a blessing and a curse; no shipwreck survivors seemed to be around, but not any natives either. The local people would likely take better to a Water Tribesman like himself calling for refuge over some elite firebending soldiers who'd try and raid their village if given the chance. On the ground he could see the small footprints of what seemed to be rodent-like animals, something Sokka thought he could easily catch and eat for his breakfast, if given the chance to find one prancing in the forest.

Trained for ice and snow, hunting dangerous animals on the ice and docile fish in the water, Sokka wasn't adapted to hunt such creatures with ease, but with experience and skill came adaptability, and he counted on that to at least try and find food. Sokka held the spear as a temporary walking stick, as his legs and feet still hurt from the fighting and swimming that he had to endure last night, and knew he had to quickly manoeuvre it if he wanted any hope of catching some food.

Sokka soon came across a grassy clearing in the forest, bordered by a large cliff-face that seemed to block off any westward travel. He looked upon the clearing and noticed there was a few puddles of rainwater; it seemed moderately safe to drink, so he decided to go with it and take a sip with his hands. The water refreshed him and washed the dried salt and sand from his face, making him feel somewhat cleaner.
Immediately realising that he would need clean water to ensure he didn't get sick while by himself, he took it upon himself to walk back to the beach, trudging along with his spear as a walking stick again; he made sure to follow his own footprints and check for any new animal ones. Although it took him longer to get back there, he was where he needed to be; Sokka grabbed the metal chest he had floated on to the beach and dragged it back through the forest by rope, slightly to large to carry with ease. Now he had an idea for getting fresh water, but it would take a bit of work, and with luck he might find food along the way.

The day was young, but the Princess wasn't any closer to getting home; sitting on the beach, solemnly considering her options for survival; she knew that Earth Kingdom villages remained around this region that she had been shipwrecked in, but was unsure where they were located. Knowing certainly that Ba Sing Se was to the north, that was the direction she ought to head if she ever hope to get back home alive; she knew earthbending rebels, or worse could be in store for her if she simply showed up in a Earth Kingdom village at random, especially not without her guards, who she was certain were having a mental breakdown, possibly believing the Princess had died on their watch. She wouldn't blame her own men for the outcome of the battle though, that was the doings of the Water Tribe savages she most valiantly tried to deal with; their young leader, who she remembered his name to be Sokka, had been a thorn in her side, purposefully distracting her with a duel to stop her from escaping with her men. Who at that time probably should have tackled the bastard or something; she had fallen into his trap, and decided it should be best to avoid tact savages like him again.

Azula had come to the conclusion that she had failed at her own game of manipulation and tact, and dearly paid the price for it; so as such she would now have to wander through Earth Kingdom wilderness with little hope of rescue, she decided it would be a better idea to find something to eat and get back to some semblance of civilisation. Her armour had already been shed when she fell overboard, and was forced to swim back to the surface, lest she drown at sea; she had been trying her hardest to get into position to fire at the enemy ships, to at least get some even outcomes for the battle, but being flung off when the entire ship decided to careen sideways; she didn't even get a chance to burn them with her fire blasts dissipating in the rain. So now she remained with little physical defense from wild animals or whatever else gloomy lived in the forest she was about to enter.
As she stood up she felt a sharp pain in her right ankle, which she had struck into the deck hard after the ship went under; the pain was quite severe and she already knew this would slow her down for the meantime. Azula paced herself slowly into the forest, noticing that there was little to no visibility a hundred metres in front of her; she considered climbing a tree to get a better view of the area, but she feared that with her ankle as it was she could just as easily fall off and get herself hurt even further.

"Why did it have to be the ankle of all things?" she asked out, jokingly even toward whatever spirits there might be. She knew spirits were usually associated with forests like this, and though maybe it could actually respond; perhaps give her some directions to the closest village. The thought of it made her chuckle; she would survive the forest with her pure strength and wits, as she always did.

After a few minutes she came across a small stream, which seemed to flow quickly enough for her to find it drinkable; the Princess grabbed a mouthful with her hand and gulped it down, fearing the taste; although it tasted quite disgusting to her, it interested her more than having to drink sea-water again. Along the stream she saw the tracks of animals and thought if she could try and hunt them. She filled her hand with a ring of fire, thinking that she could perhaps carefully cook the animals alive and not burn them to a crisp; her fire was powerful and though she had learned to moderate it, she had no skill in cooking, never mind doing so with firebending.

Azula noticed a slight tinge of smoke in the air, attuned to the smell of fire from all her bending training, glad that she hadn't noticed the smell of burning human flesh, which she had, disgustingly enough, a fine nose for at this point. It smelt like a wood fire, perhaps a fireplace or campsite. Maybe someone had survived the shipwreck, or it was some Earth Kingdom travellers in the forest; she could only hope it was one of her guards or the likes, someone who she could simply order around; Azula joked at her own thought pattern, immediately thinking of the pampering a possible encounter could give her. The Princess followed the stream towards the smell of smoke, eventually diverting back into the forest toward it; she pushed leaves and branches out of the way in an attempt to try and get a better look at the upcoming fire, but couldn't see much but the smoke stack and what seemed to be a grassy clearing.

Azula sneaked up behind a large boulder in the clearing, still unable to see whoever was making the fire; she could distinctively hear the sound of boiling water from where she could see the smoke; she had a true traveller in her midsts, someone who was knowledgeable in surviving, perhaps she could get them to help her. Or she could hold them to ransom for their water. Which would still get her what she wanted, and as such she decided on intimidation over people-pleasing, which she certainly wasn't in the mood for; standing up from her hiding position she moved into a firebending stance and shouted at the figure who had their back turned from her.

"Hands up or you're going to get burnt to a crisp! I'll be needing that water." she demanded, with as much gusto as she could muster given her circumstances; then she heard a voice- his damned voice.

"So you do want a rematch after all?"

Sokka turned around at looked at the woman he fought last night. She looked worse for wear and if it came down to it he could probably run away from her if she really did try to burn him to a crisp; but Sokka was tired, and preferred a diplomatic route if anything to get him out of his constant feuding with the powerful firebender.

"Okay, maybe not a rematch, how about a friendly argument instead?" he asked her.

Although his voice might have been in a joking tone, he was certainly preferring an argument over a battle with her again; last time they properly fought he got knocked out cold along with the rest of his squad.

"Argue? Pfft- you'll lose either way!" she proclaimed, shooting a fireball directly at his head, which Sokka dodged with relative ease.

"C'mon, I need my water more than I need to fight you!" he argued, trying to see reason with the already aggravated Princess.

"Not going to happen! That water's mine now savage!" she shouted, running towards his metal chest, which at this point was filled with the boiling water Sokka needed dearly; she made it a few steps before her foot twisted almost unnaturally and she fell straight on her face, falling into a muddy puddle; before she even had a chance to complain verbally he could see her struggling to keep her rage and frustration in.

"Argh! I'm going to make you pay for that!" she screamed, shooting a wave of fire at Sokka, who stood now some distance away, learning his lesson from the corridor. He was able to duck from the fire, but in the process fell in the mud himself.

"Well that's just grand, now we're both covered in mud; is that what you wanted?" Sokka complained, pointing to her clothes, which were formerly red, but now with a mix of brown and orange splattered across.

"I will never surrender to the likes of you!" she proclaimed near dramatically.

"C'mon I wasn't even asking for a truce, I was just asking if you wouldn't kindly steal my water." he asked her, trying to make a smile that didn't seem sarcastic or mocking.

"Urgh... I'll get you somehow." she told him, pulling herself out of the mud, before pointing her fist at him as if to firebend a blast.

"Hey put that down; arguments involve words not fists." he demanded of her, throwing down his own weapons in an attempt to appease her.

She lowered her fist slightly, staring the warrior down with mixed feelings; Azula didn't even consider that she could trust the likes of him, seeing that he was trying to probably capture her back in the corridor of the ship, and he blatantly tricked her into not escaping when they fought a second time.

"How about you stop being a devious bastard and spill the truth, before I beat it out of you?" she demanded.
Sokka looked at her confusedly, unsure what she meant by the 'truth'.

"The truth of what exactly? Why I'm boiling water? To survive and not get dehydrated, that is." he explained simply, hoping that she wasn't being any more stringent about her idea of 'the truth'.

"That's now. Back last night- the ship; why did you attack my vessel?" she demanded once more, somewhat more specifically to Sokka's liking. He jested at her.

"Don't you mean daddy's ship?" which further frustrated Azula.

"I'll have you know that was my personal transport and it was extremely expensive; you're lucky I don't need any kind of insurance."

"Wait... So someone else will get you a new ship?" he asked, somewhat confused by her explanations.

"Yes, the Fire Lord himself wouldn't want his own daughter going around the world on her own two feet." she jested at him, as if to flaunt her position of power;

Sokka simply reeled back and fell to the ground in shock.

"So you're telling me you're the Princess of the Fire Nation?!" he asked her, his voice cracking.

"Ugh... You peasants are blind aren't you; the royal ornamental headpiece, the blue fire? Don't people know who I am?" she asked him, somewhat offended that he didn't even know who she was.

"I'd heard of a Fire Nation Princess, but I had no idea you were her and we were attacking you." he explained, confusing Azula somewhat.

"So you're telling me that you had no idea that the person you had been trying to take captive and destroy the ship of was the Fire Nation Princess? I thought you were leading that attack?" she questioned.

"U-uh... Nope lady, that ain't me; I'm just a warrior of the Southern Water Tribe doing his job." he bluntly responded, making her chuckle.

"You humour me with you lack of knowledge; are all warriors as dim witted as you?" she asked him, her implication of his idiocy making the warrior blush.

"Hey! I'm not stupid; I was one of the people planning the attack that successfully sunk your ship, even if that wasn't the real intent in the first place."

"And what did you plan to do? Capture me and hold me for ransom, without even knowing who I was to begin with?" she questioned, "You're pretty dumb if that's the case." making Sokka further frustrated with her breaking down of his planning and strategies he had worked so hard to make.

"Well 'Princess' I don't think I'll even consider sharing my water if you're going to cut down my self-image." he responded, making her laugh at him.

"I'm still taking that water, I just want to shove it down your throat you're a worthless strategist before so." she added, mocking and intimidating him at the same time.

"You're the one tripping in mud; I think I can walk away and I won't expect you to be following quickly." he stated, smirking at her in view of his apparent 'victory'.

"I doubt you can walk away if you're on fire!" she shouted, throwing a volley of flames at him.
Sokka knew well enough he'd have to fall down, so he skid forward and pulled himself to the metal chest, ready to grab it and run away.

"Isn't that a little too hot to walk away with?" she commented, smirking at him despite still being immobile in the mud; Sokka realised instantly his water was still boiling, and he'd have little luck running away with a very hot metal box.

Sokka considered his options, he could run away and lower the chance of getting his face burnt off, or he could stay and wait for the water to cool down, and have a chance of getting water or getting his face burnt off. He decided that the water was far too precious for a petty feud with a woman who he practically should have considered his worst possible enemy.

"Fine then woman; I'll try and reason with you not to burn my face off." he responded, sour in defeat.

"See... Now you can do my bidding until I see that you have fulfilled the debt, and you'll be safe from my devious plans to burn you alive." she declared, looking at him with the same devious smirk as before, trying her hardest to achieve dominance in their battle of words.

"Yeah... Okay, I'm not doing that. I'm trying to get out of this forest alive and not your personal servant; 'savages' don't like control, let me tell you that one right away." Sokka proclaimed, standing back up above her, although his height gave him no power of intimidation over the confident Princess.

"Trust me, by the end of all this you'll begging to serve me; I seek to inspire action, via fear, gratification, whatever means your fancy." she commented, snarkily smirking at Sokka, making him blush in frustration.

"I'm not helping the ash-makers, and certainly not helping you, unless you've got some plan or idea to get me out of this forest." he proclaimed, before turning his head away and crossing his arms.

"How about you use your proclaimed ingenuity and tact to plan a way out and I might help you get food from time to time." she asked, not sounding sincere or caring in any sense.

"And yeah, by getting food, do you mean burning down the forest? That's the kind of shit the Fire Nation pulls all the time." he scoffed, not willing to look at her, not giving his enemy the power to even pull a face at him.

"I can hunt the animals with precision, something it seems you lack, if anything comes from my experience with your spear-throwing." she commented, making Sokka turn his head and scowl in anger.

"I am an experienced and trained hunter! I can find food with ease! I practically fed my village for three whole years; I'm not taking hunting advice from you."

She laughed at him, "There's a difference between finding an animal and killing it."

He turned his head back away from her and continued to scowl. He didn't trust the woman not one bit, he didn't even know her name; all he knew is that she was certainly intimidating, a smart-ass and one hell of a bender, who also happened to be Princess of the Fire Nation. Even if she kept calling him stupid, she wouldn't be here if it wasn't for his ploys; it made him realise that she was probably just fronting him with all that intimidation, trying to make him to her bidding by making him feel like he didn't have a choice. After standing there for a few minutes silently, he turned his head back and replied.

"I have a choice; I don't want to trust you, but if I give you some water, can you at least not kill me right now?" he asked, making her chuckle at him.

"I'm not one for murder honestly, but I am dehydrated and you have the only clean water I have seen today, so I guess I'm okay to share, even if it's with a savage like you." Sokka laughed and smiled at her somewhat genuinely.

"Well that's a start; I feel like this is the start of a productive relationship." he stated, pulling out his hand to give her a handshake.

The Princess reached out and grabbed his hand, resisting the irritation to burn it and get away with his water.

"My name's Azula by the way, I'm assuming you're Sokka." she curtly stated, as if to be polite, but shocking Sokka with her knowledge.

"Wait- how do you even know my name? I didn't say it." he stood back, somewhat confused.

"Your friends cried out your name when I gave you a beating last night, I assumed that they were talking about you and not the oaf that I knocked out in two seconds flat." she replied, smirking at him again.

"Huh... I don't know whether to take you calling him an oaf as a compliment on my fighting skills or an insult against my people." he commented, making her laugh at him.

"You'll just have to figure that one out on your own." she chuckled, looking down to the metal chest of water, "I think the water is going to be cool enough to drink now."

"Let me test that..." he interrupted, dipping his finger into the water before quickly responding, "Yep, it's fine."

"You just placed your finger, which has been in the mud and spirits knows where else, in your just purified drinking water." she stated in shock, unable to grasp his lack of cleanliness.

"Not just for drinking, but cleaning too!" he commented, pointing his finger up as if specifying the factuality of his statement.

"Yes, and I would love to to be dehydrated or ill in a days time because you want to clean your hair with that water." she sarcastically commented, pulling the water towards herself with her hands. "I'll take responsibility for the water if you're going to act like a foolish child with it!"

"Hey come on! I'll make more if needed." he declared, attempting to persuade her of the cleaning use of the purified water.

"No, you can clean yourself in a river; that's the first rule of this deal now, no use of the water for anything but sustenance." Sokka looked at her with a face of contempt.

"Are you serious? You're making rules when we're trying to survive in the middle of nowhere; is this what you're like with everything?" She laughed at him and grinned deviously.

"Uh why yes. That is exactly how I am, and this case will be no different from any other."

"Well I'm going to find something to eat, I'm assuming you'll tag along, seeing how 'precise' your firebending is." he mocked, making her look at him with frustration.

"I will show the animals my fire, unless you'd like it; your choice savage." Sokka looked at her with contempt before giving up on frustrating himself, stopping his mouth from blabbering further.

The two walked away from the grassy opening and back into the forest, Sokka leading silently, as he liked to when hunting; studying the tracks he noticed that a hoofed animal had come through, stepping where he had dragged the metal chest through earlier.

"Aha! These are fresh." he proclaimed quietly, trying to make sure Azula wouldn't decide to start mocking him again.

Sokka signalled Azula to be quiet, before he started to follow the trail of hooves; crouching in the bushes, he noticed the animal had left droppings, fresh like the recent hoof marks.

"We have to be getting close, if we're lucky it's going to be sleeping." he chuckled to himself.

Continuing to follow the tracks, the two ended up at a small stream, the same that Azula had drunk from earlier; Sokka glanced down the creek and saw a hog sipping from the stream. Azula quickly stepped in front of him, holding out a dagger formed of fire, she smirked at him and made him lower his spear with her other hand.

"Savage. I'll handle this." she mocked, trying to make him sound more incompetent that he actually was, and Sokka cringed at the feeling of being emasculated at hunting.

"Come on! You've never done this before." he argued, making her hush him.

"Shut it, this is just like chasing weak non-benders like yourself; except animals are less dull than you." he jested, before moving toward the hog.

Sokka grumbled, unable to make a response before she slithered away to try and kill the animal; Azula made sure she was hidden from view before aiming a precise shot of fire at the animal's head, sure that she wasn't planning to eat that, even if it was cooked. The precise blast jabbed the hog in the head and made it squeal as it's face burned. The hog caught sight of Azula and careened away from her, rushing through the stream to calm it's burns before going toward the forest again. Sokka stood up behind her and grumbled.

"Now look what you did! It's just going to run away."

Sokka jumped up and ran toward where he last saw the hog and javelined his spear into the forest, hoping to get a lucky hit this time; but he heard simply a thump and no squeal, denying him the food he most certainly needed. Sprinting across the stream he followed what he presumed was the grunting sounds of the hog, following it into the forest.

"Where are you, you little runt." he called out.

Then he heard another squeal, turning around and going toward it. He noticed he had lost Azula, and hoped she just stayed where she was instead of trying to find the hog as well. He reached a ledge, where it seemed the hog had fallen down, where he could notice blood on the ground. Sokka jumped down the ledge and then heard it's cries again. Sokka pulled out the bone dagger, hoping to catch it by surprise, when he realised upon seeing the hog that it had broken it's forelegs and was barely able to get away.

"Well at least you can't get away from me now."

He stood over it, and decided to be quick with it; unlike fish and other 'dumb' animals, he felt a bit guilty killing the small beast, but he had to do it anyway. He had learnt well enough from his father than the plants in these lands could very well be poisonous, so this really was the best option. Looking at it's body he noticed burn marks, meaning Azula's fire attack had actually worked but only enough to cause superficial wounds on the creatures head. Sokka stabbed the animal in it's chest before tying a rope around it's hind-legs and throwing the body over his back. Disgusted as he was, the thought of all the tasty meat he would get from the animal made him feel better than he rather would.

Sokka made his way up the ledge and back towards the stream, which he could easily direct himself to with the sounds of water. When he arrived he immediately noticed that Azula was simply sitting waiting for him to return with the animal.

"Ah I see my progress into making you my personal servant has progressed: now you retrieve my food for me." she jested, as if she had done all the work in hunting it down.

"Excuse me, the hog was still alive last time you saw it; I was the one who had to chase after it. What about you?" he questioned, making Azula pull a frown.

"It's not my fault my ankle is not working how it should; I can barely walk as it is." she defended herself, pointing to her uncovered foot, which was clearly red and swollen from the walking she had already done.

"Okay maybe you shouldn't claim your hunting prowess when you're nearly incapable of walking." he argued, trying to point out that he had done most of the work at this point.

"Fine; you'll have to carry me." she demanded, smirking at him again.

"As much as I'd like to, that's a definite no from me; I'm carrying our food, remember?" he remarked, his sarcasm clearly frustrating her.

"Excuse me? Are you just going to make me walk back to your makeshift campsite then?" she questioned, trying to make him feel guilty for his inaction.

"That's right Princess; it's not happening, just follow me and get back alive. I don't want to some how get blamed for your death." he remarked, before turning into the forest back the way they had came.

"Are you sure you know where you're going?!" she shouted out at him, Sokka making no response other than to wave his hand in dismissal.

Returning to his campfire, Sokka decided to prepare the meat while Azula hopped back to camp. He cut the hog open and removed most of its organs before cutting off the parts that he found to be most useful, such as the ribs, legs and back meat; the process of butchering was a little less disgusting for Sokka than actually having to kill the poor animal itself. By the time he had laid the meat over the fire, Azula had finally made her way back to the clearing, sweating and frustrated by Sokka's nonchalant dismissal of her injuries.

"I was about to set you on fire for leaving me back there, but then I smelt the meat; you can cook?" she asked him, making Sokka chuckle.

"Not really, I'm just making sure I don't get food poisoning, which is worse than any burnt meat for me."

"Oh so you're saying you're fine with eating burnt meat when you specifically argued against firebending under the account that I'd burn the flesh of the animal- hypocrite!" she declared, making Sokka squirm at realising his flawed argument.

"Okay whatever, you win that one." Sokka yielded, making Azula smirk at him again in victory.

They sat in silence for a few moments before Azula commented.

"It actually smells pretty good; although I'm unsure if that's just the desperation and starvation making me lose all sense."

"Can you go a minute without making fun of me?!" Sokka shouted, falling on his back, trying to ignore her constant remarks about his incompetency.

"Oh but it's so fun; you're reacting just like my brother would, and that makes it even better." she laughed.

Sokka decided to ignore her for the moment, so he pulled the well-done meat from the fire, and took a quick bite from it, relishing in the flavour and texture of his favourite kind of food. Azula tried the same, but squirmed at her first bite, still doubting it could be any good; her grimacing disappeared as she took another bite, and turned to Sokka.

"I'm no savage, but I will, while under duress, eat your savage food." making Sokka laugh at her and offer her more meat.

"C'mon you don't have to constantly make fun of me; just say that you like it." he asked her, making her turn her face away and raise her chin in contempt.

"I will not give you gratification until you grovel, peasant."

"Fine; I hope this sharing of a meal will decrease your chances of trying to set me on fire." he remarked, making Azula laugh at him again.

The two of them continued to eat the meat Sokka had prepared, and soon enough it was gone bar a few scraps, leaving Sokka filled and glad that he hadn't starved in this damned forest. He turned away from the campfire and decided to walk back to the beach, maybe look for anything that had washed ashore with them; even just to get a short break from the Princess, who was simply ecstatic having no reason to continue walking around, although she wouldn't say so herself. He thought to himself that he was going crazy actually communicating with and helping the Princess, who was practically his biggest enemy bar the Fire Lord himself; she was the daughter of who most thought to be the most evil person that walked the Earth, yet he was able to actually find a situation where he wasn't going to try and fight her for some idea of honour or righteous justice against her nation. Whatever the case, he was at least glad he was actually alive and she wasn't going to just kill him on the spot, which he feared she could do at any moment. Did he trust her? No, he probably never could; but could he bargain with her to save his own arse? Hopefully.

Chapter Text

The battering of waves against the wooden vessel's hull came to a slow halt as it entered port, and the room remained silent as ever. Chief Hakoda was unsure whether to be fearful or in grief at this point, because he had every reason to believe that his son had drowned at sea. He could spill a story claiming that he died a heroic death for his men to escape and to distract the enemy from making their own, but Hakoda saw through the false glories and ideals of heroism here; his own boy, probably died crying for help in the waters as the boat went under, and he could've jumped in to try and save him, but his men held him back, telling him that Sokka's sacrifice was his own and that jumping into the Eastern Sea to try and save him was just going to doom him too. But could Hakoda live with the consequences of his actions? A mission to capture some Fire Nation higher up had left them with half as many men as they begun with, and his son was amongst the fallen. He didn't even know if they had taken down the target, or they had gotten away none the less; but Hakoda had to report back to his client, the one who had paid them to make the attack on that Fire Nation vessel, and he didn't even know who he had been trying to capture. He heard a knock on the door, and was quick to respond.


A deep voice responded, "My chief, we have returned to port; will you need time before going to client?"

"No Gilak, I want to look the bastard in the eye and tell him what he did to us." Hakoda stated, his voice more stern and angry than it had been in years.

Hakoda got off his hammock and walked out of the door, meeting his comrade face to face. Gilak kept a warm face to his chief, holding Hakoda by the shoulder.

"My brother, don't get yourself too worked up; for all we know your son and the others could have made it ashore." he explained, trying to assure his chief that not all hope had been lost yet.

"I don't know where my son is- or my own lieutenant; Bato was among those who didn't return to the ship."

"Just go and talk to the guy, we'll get paid and we can go back and look for them, seeing the storm has passed." Gilak assured again, Hakoda turning away and frowning.

"I'll just give him a peace of my mind" walking away toward the roof exit of the ship, "I will be back within the hour, then we set out on our search."

"As you will." Gilak responded, acknowledging Hakoda with a traditional Water Tribe warriors salute.

Hakoda climbed aboard the deck, his fellow sailors weary from battle and many of them injured. They tried not to talk to him, either fussed enough with their own struggles, losses and trauma or fearful of aggravating the chief. He walked down the plank, acknowledging his warriors keeping guard, who nodded back at him. Walking down the dock he walked past a number of Earth Kingdom fishermen, their boats damaged from the storm that his ships had to endure as well, before reaching land; he was relieved to have finally returned to solid ground away from the troubling waters, especially after his most recent experience in battle. Climbing up the hill to the inn where his client awaited him, he couldn't help but turn his mind back to the loss he had experienced; Hakoda felt as if he had failed his son, his men and the whole tribe; he had dishonoured them by leaving so many to die, though perhaps not intentionally, but certainly being causative of their possible deaths.

Opening the door of the inn, he saw he was amongst the lowest of the low, the Earth Kingdom's criminal vagrants and pirates, the kind of people that would be shunned from his tribe if to ever act in such ways to his people; the chief coincidentally felt himself among them as an equal today, after his actions at sea had made him surmountable to a murderer and traitor to his tribe. He walked up to the client, an aged man, wearing a brown cloak, with a clear scar across one of his eyes; the man wore his hair unfashionably out and short, not common for either the Fire Nation or Earth Kingdom; perhaps he was a traitor as well? Sitting down on the seat next to him, Hakoda dropped his head down, feeling still ashamed of his actions and unwilling to look the man in the eye.

"So I see you have returned; did you capture the assigned target, Chief Hakoda?" he asked, his voice harsh and unforgiving.

"I did not, sir; I have reason to believe she drowned." he bluntly explained, making the man curl his eyebrow and question him.

"How did such a travesty unfold? Did your men throw her overboard?"

"No, the vessel sunk- along with half of my men." he responded, his grief and anger suppressed momentarily.

"Oh well that is certainly a tragedy; but I assure you it was worth every man if she did die at sea." the client responded, grinning as he thought of his own victory.

"Worth it?" Hakoda shouted, "My men died for nothing; we didn't capture any girl, we didn't even touch her; I sunk the damned ship because I thought me and my men would be defeated and captured by the Fire Nation."

"So, you saved them from a face worse than death." the client concluded, "I would say you succeeded in helping me even if not in the manner intended."

"I don't want your money;" Hakoda spat, "I want each family of each man who died given reparations for their sacrifices."

"That can be achieved Chief. I recommend that you consider your assignment complete, don't go on a wild goose chase for the girl."

"I don't intend to; I do however intend to find my son." Hakoda replied, standing out of his seat and turning away from the client.

"So your son is amongst the fallen; I do feel pity for your tragedy, but know that if he died, it was for a greater cause." making Hakoda turn back and slam his hands on the table.

"For what cause?! All I see is a variety of dead sailors and some Fire Nation girl drowned or escaped." he shouted, making the client shake his head in disappointment.

"We are a humble group, all we seek is peace and balance; you my friend, have helped us work towards that goal."

"By doing what exactly?" Hakoda questioned, his rage growing from the seemingly worthless words of 'peace' and 'balance' coming from the man's mouth.

"Killing the Crown Princess of the Fire Nation." he stated blankly.

"I- we what?" Hakoda asked, "The target was the Princess? The crazy powerful blue firebending Princess?"

"Yes, the very same." he client confirmed.

"You have no idea what you're doing; we might as well hand ourselves into the Fire Lord. Once word gets out that the Water Tribes attacked the heir of the Fire Nation... We'll be run to ground by raids and invasion." Hakoda explained, growing angrier and more fearful by the minute.

"You made a decision that will effect the outcome of this war; hopefully the Fire Lord is dealt with before your people can even feel his wrath." the client claimed, not soothing Hakoda's fears one bit.

"I'm leaving tonight and I'm going to find my lost men, I want the reparations at the docks by then; I have no desire for wealth, but my men deserve better than to go home empty handed now."

"It is fine Chief, your men will get their reward. Truly, I do recommend against crossing us, or you will find that you know nothing of suffering; we do not deal kindly with treachery against our cause." the client confirmed, standing up as well, before lifting a hood over his face and turning away from Hakoda. Before departing the inn, Hakoda left a final comment.

"My own dishonour to my people outweighs my desire to betray you just yet."

Sokka sat on top of a sand dune, watching the clouds go by, trying to relax his mind after the strenuous day he had to endure: fighting a battle on a Fire Nation ship, escaping said ship while it was sinking, and then trying to survive in the forest with a sworn enemy. Endurance towards arguing of all things was what he was lacking, which he found humourous as he had prided himself on his own wit, before meeting the Princess of course, who happened to be more witty and tricky than he had ever hoped to be.

Looking out to the sea, he had no sight of any vessels, the coastline itself lacking in any civilisation probably of little interest to passing ships. Sokka sketched out in his mind all he had seen so far in the forest, trying to map out the scale of the place if even possible. He realised immediately he had no idea how far he would have to walk to get out of the forest, nonetheless find a village or town along the way; knowing that the Earth Kingdom was the largest of all the nations and the most expansive in wilderness and unexplored places, he wasn't surprised that he was far from anything or anyone.

"And to top it all off, I'm stuck with the snarky Queen of Wit." he added, speaking his thoughts out loud.
Looking down on the dunes he noticed his chest-guard remained on the beach, and Sokka decided he was physically able of wearing it and being able to fight at the same time once again. He walked down the dune and picked it up, dusting off the layer of sand that had built up over the day.

"You're coming with me buddy" he murmured at it, as if he wanted it to know that he hadn't intended to abandon it.

Sokka waded his way back through the forest, and made his way to the grassy clearing easily now, his thought-up map of the forest making it easier for him to get back. Azula was sitting by the campfire still, nearly asleep after her meal, reminding Sokka that he had an enemy in his midst, even if she was calmly sitting by a campfire without a bother in the world.

"You're back." he grumbled at him, before wiping her eyes, "I see you got your armour back? Anything else happen?" she questioned, making Sokka begin to regret coming back.

"No, nothing happened. No more questions and arguments for today, I'm through with that." he complained, making Azula chuckle at his frustrations.

"Oh so you have given in; the proud warrior bends his knee to the Princess, unable to continue his fight." Sokka rolled his eyes at her, slightly offended but too tired to bother giving a real response.

"Whatever... I hope you're appeased for the moment; I don't want to have to start running from fire balls again." Azula smiled at him, although Sokka doubted positive intentions.

"I don't want to hurt my servant now, that would just be counter productive." she jested, Sokka crossing his arms and turning away from her.

"I'm not a servant!" he shouted out into the forest, relieving himself of his anger for the moment, "I hope you learn one day that you can't just make fun of everyone."

"There might be a day like that, but I hope it's when I'm senile and unable to put two words together." she laughed, making him feel like his point of view wasn't really getting to her.

"Please, just shut it already; can we have a conversation that doesn't involve you making fun of me?" he asked her, not expecting a kind answer.

"What would be the fun in that?" she asked, only half seriously.

"How about learning about each other's cultures or something like that; you are an ash-maker after all, and isn't it wise to know one's enemy?" Azula grinned at him.

"Now that's an interesting idea. however I would like an equal share of information, not just a beat down for details on the Fire Lord."

Sokka huffed and sighed, "Fine."

"So did you know there's a secret passage into the Fire Nation Royal Palace?" Azula proclaimed, her voice imitating a stereotypical teenage girls.

"Wait- what?"

"Not that I would tell you, that's a Fire Nation secret." she smirked, making Sokka pout.

"Well that's just grand; got anything else you need to hang over my face like bait?" he questioned, making Azula grin further.

"Yes, I happen to know everything about the Fire Lord, as much as any person could, and therefore you could say that I am your means to an ends." she stated, making Sokka's jaw drop.

"Awww... Come on, there's nothing you can tell me? Didn't you say you wanted to persuade me; spit out some facts that make me flip sides or something?" he jested at her, making Azula ponder his question before returning.

"There's many things you savages don't know about the Fire Nation, like our all powerful industry and technologies that benefit all our subjects." she proclaimed, making Sokka pull a face of disgust.

"I take it back, I don't want to hear your propaganda; I would rather be chased around the forest by you with your crazy firebending than take another line from that book."

"Are you sure about that? My ankle might not feel so good, but I could probably make your life living hell with what I've got right now."

"Try me." Sokka touted, making Azula feel angry at her injuries for their unintended effects; she could no longer set annoying people like Sokka on fire.

"Urgh- you are luckier than you'd think." she confirmed, making Sokka smirk at his small victory.

"Not that lucky, I ended up with you." he admitted, making her look at him with disgust.

"You're far worse: a stinking savage from the South Pole; I couldn't think of anyone more uncultured and distant from my world."

"Cultured-ness is from a personal standpoint, Princess, don't take yourself on a pedestal just because your daddy is the ruler of the world." he argued, his insults humouring her more than offending.

"You do realise you are referring to the Fire Lord as 'your daddy'; you are infantilising the most powerful man in the world."

"Trust me, I mean to offend." Sokka jested, mocking her serious tone of voice.

"Sorry savage, you simply make yourself sound like an idiot."

"Well isn't this great; we still ended up arguing, despite my positive intentions." Sokka sighed.

"You didn't even tell me about your savage tribe, though what you'd tell me wouldn't be of interest to me; it's simply so distant from everyone else that you could all just sit around while the world fell to the Fire Nation and not bat an eye." she explained, making Sokka feel that she really lacked an understanding of his world.

"You can thank the Fire Nation navy from taking us from that mindset; destroying our pittances of 'civilisation' as you would call it."

"Really? So I'm meant to accept that your people have ever had a degree of civilisation to speak of?" she questioned him, infuriating Sokka further.

"What?! Do you doubt that the Fire Nation hasn't been plundering my nation for decades, taking it's benders and mercilessly killing tribespeople?"

"No, I understand that the Southern Raiders as they are called, dealt with a threat, and did so effectively; that is how war is done, by making your enemy too weak to fight back."

"I've proven you wrong then- we sunk your ship, and had a chance of capturing you; you're one of the most highly ranked people in the Fire Nation, yet your guards and sailors couldn't protect you or your vessel from 'savages'!" Sokka proclaimed, his smirk returning.

"That's why I ought to take you down is it? Kill you right now to make sure you never pose a threat to the Fire Nation again?" she asked him, making Sokka tremble, but the smirk remained.

"You could certainly; but you won't, I don't even know why, but that's good enough for me."

"Oh really, so are you going to carry me out of this forest?" Azula quipped, making Sokka laugh at her.

"Unless there's some urgent situation which is involving some deadly animal, I think I can dodge carrying you."

Sokka and Azula had joked at and threatened each other for most the day, but now they had been around each other long enough, Sokka begun to doubt if she was really as deadly and evil as he had originally presumed, however his personal sense of patriotism and fervour of hate towards the Fire Nation meant he would never admit such a thing to her face, or anyone's for that matter.

Princess Azula had for one, not had a good day, as she would typically describe it; as she usually didn't end up shipwrecked with some alien savage from the other side of the world every day, and she didn't necessarily find him to be the issue at the current moment. He was a weak, arrogant non-bender who acted like he was just as good at her, even though he probably knew she could beat him to a pulp without a sweat; but they both unspokenly knew the benefits of their 'productive' relationship, as both would rather survive with another person, no matter how disgusting it may seem to associate with their kind, than be stuck in a forest alone, and in Azula's case, her ankle meant that she could easily injure herself further if she was forced to overexert herself, which she would certainly do without her new 'servant'. She mocked him with the title she had bestowed upon him, but Azula saw it as an honour to give; to serve the Crown Princess of the Fire Nation was more than a job, it was a privilege, and just because they weren't in society at the moment, didn't mean that her name and title didn't carry weight in the end: she could save the poor savage from being thrown in prison once she was able to contact Fire Nation authorities... If she was feeling particularly forgiving at the time. The Princess jested, she mocked, but she did not see the need to lie straight to the face of the Water Tribe warrior, at least in the matters that most presently concerned the two of them. Azula decided that she'd had enough sitting around, that was for the lazy noblemen who would rather sit around and wait to be rescued, the Princess would rescue herself, with the savage's assistance if necessary.

"Savage- It is time we move." she declared, standing above their campfire, making Sokka look at her in shock.

"You're kidding me, we were just washed up today; there's enough meat here for a good few days if we ration. What's the rush?" he questioned.

"So the great Water Tribe warrior is lazier than the pampered Princess; how does that sit with your ego?" she mocked, before slowly trudging her way through the mud of the clearing, away from Sokka and their campfire.

"Hey!" he whelped, "I'm just as eager to get out of here, but I'm not stupid; your ankle's probably broken! Are you going to hobble all the way to whatever village is around and hope that the local villagers aren't going to kill you for being Fire Nation?"

"Well... I'm expecting you can carry me in necessary, and I believe it won't be hard to disguise ourselves; look at the mud on your clothes? Do you even look like a Water Tribe warrior?" she questioned, more serious in her tone now.

"Urgh... I guess you're right; but if you get caught by some crazy earthbenders, don't blame me."

"You're my servant now, I expect you to protect be from other peasants like yourself." she replied, making Sokka face palm himself, probably realising the futility of arguing with the Princess again.

"I'm going to get my stuff packed, and we'll leave in a minute." he conceded, making the Princess smile, receding herself onto one of the large rocks scattering the clearing.

In a few moments Sokka had quickly tied up the metal chest and slung the connected rope over his shoulder, sitting alongside his current assortment of weapons.

"Hopefully we find an easier way to carry water- I'm not carrying this box for days on end." Sokka grumbled, making the Princess chuckle at him.

The two walked away from the clearing they had called home for only a few hours before heading northward alongside the escarpment that lay to their west. Luckily for them, there was little large foliage along the escarpment, and made it easy for them to go between large rocks instead of wiry trees, eventually reaching a point where the escarpment blended back into the flat, shapeless forest, leaving Sokka and Azula without any clear direction to go.

"North or east?" Azula asked.

"Uh, probably east; if we head back toward the coast, at least there might be fishing villages."

"I've seen on maps, most of this coastline is cliffs and escarpments like the one we were just following; I don't think there will be many villages on this coastline."

"So north then?" he questioned, unsure if the Princess had any better idea than he did.

Azula considered her options, either to head straight north through the forest, where they would eventually come to reach rivers, which usually housed villages or pathways to them, or to head back to the coast, perhaps by luck find a boat and try to signal one. The second option, although viable, Azula clearly doubted many ships would come along this desolate coast, and even if the Fire Nation sent ships to look for her, it could be weeks until a message would lead to boats arriving here.

"North- Let's be quick about it, maybe there's somewhere we can take shelter for the night."

Sokka nodded in agreement, although still concerned that they might make the wrong choice, there were chances of being found by passing ships or travellers, but wherever they go they might accidentally miss others. The two walked through the thick foliage, which slowed them down considerably, and soon enough they both had to take a break to drink, siphoning small amounts out of the crate to drink as they continued through the dark and foreboding forest. Soon enough they saw orange glints fall through the canopy, signalling that they had been walking for a few hours at least, as it was now reaching sunset. The Princess continued to march on despite her ankle injury and even tried to pace faster than Sokka to prove her resolve, unwilling to be weakened in her determination to get out of the forest because of a relatively minor injury; it wasn't like she had her foot nearly torn off by some rabid animal, an experience the Princess guessed that Sokka could have had back at his frigid and dangerous South Pole. The two didn't communicate much other than to ask for water and hog-meat or to guide each other through the forest; finally they arrived at a new clearing, this one seemingly had been occupied, unlike the previous one. There was what seemed to be a cave coming out of an rocky hillside, and the cave had a what looked like the remains of a wooden door on it, and the stumps that torches had been placed on.

"A mine? What's this doing out here; it doesn't seem like there's much nearby, we haven't smoke or seen evidence of other people yet." Sokka asked, genuinely hoping for Azula to ingeniously decipher the story behind the mine.

"It's probably long abandoned; it looks like it was probably made by earthbenders, a long time ago. Maybe there's a old mining settlement nearby?"

"That'd be helpful, but how can we find it? All that's here is thick bushes and trees."

"Villages, even long abandoned ones, need water, so if we can find a stream, it might be near it."

"Ah! Find the sound of water, and we find the miner's village!" Sokka exclaimed it realisation.

Sokka paced himself ahead into the forest, swerving between the trees, stopping for a moment to hear out for water, but heard nothing, before racing further into the forest.

"Savage! Get back here!" Azula called out, trying to remind him of her inability to run, forcing herself to hop along, grabbing trees as a support, slowly making her way toward where she last saw Sokka. Looking down she noticed his boots distinctive prints, and decided it would be easier to track him like they had the hog, instead of panicking and hurting herself further; she'd personally wanted to chase him down and throw a fire ball at his thick skull for his brash escape into the forest, but she couldn't do much but call out and remain agitated for as long as she pleased.

"Sokka where did you go?" she grumbled to herself, already too tired to keep yelling.

Azula continued following Sokka's tracks, and before long she heard the rushing of water, quickening her pace, when she heard him call back out.

"I found it! It's here!" as if to get her to follow by sound, before he turned around and realised she had tracked him from his prints.

"Always remember to cover your tracks... Unless you want to be found." she commented, before turning to see what she had been hoping for.

Two haphazard rows of old worn down and decrepit houses laid across the stream, which was bridged by a rotting set of planks which Sokka was standing on, his face shining with hope and glee.

"So you did it, and only because your legs are moving faster than mine." the Princess grumbled, still frustrated that Sokka had excitedly ran off into the forest without considering her injuries.

Sokka led them into each house, checking them for supplies, which they lacked for the most part, but wasn't really able to find much other than rotten furnishings, leading them finally to a larger structure, perhaps the village's hall, which was made of stone bricks rather than the more usual wood. Looking inside they saw little supplies but it was far less damp and rotting than the other structures, and it had an old fireplace, ready for them to use.

"Somewhere nice for me to make my food for a change; I prefer not to cook in mud." Sokka commented, grinning at the little help he had found in the village.

"Ah yes, the savage has standards. That's a new one." Azula mocked again, still unhappy about his previous run off into the forest.

"Hey come on now, don't you at least appreciate that we have some of that 'civilisation' that you love?"

"Urgh... Fine, yes I'm happier here than sleeping in that grassy clearing." she admitted, shrugging off his attempts to try and make her mood improve.

"Now that we can rest, how about we check your foot?" Sokka offered, hoping to get back on Azula's good side.

"Are you a physician? No- I don't think you'll be of much help." she commented with contempt.

"I know battle medical care, twisted and broken ankles aren't really that uncommon."

"Oh yes, the wise and well-learned Water Tribesman; that must be a first." she mocked, making Sokka scrunch up his face again in frustration.

"Shut it will you, it will only take a minute." he grumbled, moving his hands to take her right boot, making her flinch, not used to being touched without a direct order.

"Did I tell you to take off my shoe and look at my foot?" she questioned, making Sokka shrug her off.

"I'm trying to help, just calm down."

Sokka pulled the boot slowly off her foot, sliding it off as slowly as he could, trying not to hurt her ankle any further; she flinched with the air touching her foot, and stared Sokka down as he went to examine the foot. He felt the ankle lightly with his fingers, trying to feel a break if there was any.

"I think it's just dislocated, but your walking has probably inflamed the joint. You really do need to stop walking as you have..." Sokka commented as he looked at her foot.

"Appreciating the touch of a Princesses foot?" Azula questioned him, making Sokka blush and take his hands away.

"What?! No! I'm just examining your foot!" he yelped. The Princess was quick to make fun of his reaction.

"You're so easy to rile up, I hope you've noticed that now."

"And there we go again, disregarding my abilities and making me look like an idiot." he complained, turning himself away from the Princess.

"Well I've enjoyed it; I believe your duties are done for the day, servant. You can return to whatever leisure you please." Azula joked, although Sokka took the statement seriously, standing up and pacing himself to the fireplace to distract himself, trying to avoid any further mockery from the Princess.

Azula laughed at the warriors inane reactions to her mocking and jests; even her brother Zuko had less humorous reactions, probably because he was much less willing to argue back and try to justify himself. Even though she had only known Sokka for a day, she found his company tolerable at this point, even if only for comedic benefit; she had no real desire now to just burn his hair off once she had the chance, although she was ready to prove herself to the boy, as if she could make such a chauvinistic Water Tribesman bend his knee one way or another to her, the entire world could follow suit. She was destined to be Fire Lord, and the Fire Lord was now the undisputed ruler of the world; what was the harm of getting to know its denizens and gaining their respect?

The small dark steel vessel struggled it's way into the small wooden dock, where curious onlookers gazed upon the vessel they witnessed; shipwrecked sailors of the Fire Nation's Navy had arrived at port, and this made the locals even more confused, as it was refuted that no one could even sink a Fire Nation vessel, let alone board one. As the dazed and tired soldiers made their way onto the pier, the local Fire Nation garrison rushed to their aid.

"My comrades! A Fire Nation vessel has sunk?! How could this be?" the commanding officer of the garrison questioned the many men, silently standing dazed before a royal guard stood out from the crowd of survivors.

"I am the highest ranking member of the crew, so I speak for them now. We were attacked by Water Tribe ships; they tried to capture our commanding officer, and we were winning the battle on the deck, but before we could defeat the enemy, they set off an explosion which sunk our ship, along with much of the crew. The enemy forces made it away, and our commanding officer was amongst the missing."

"Wait... You're royal guards; who was your commanding officer?!" he asked out fear.

"The Crown Princess herself; the Fire Lord will have our heads for this disgraceful failure of duty."

"By Agni, I hope that she survived; if she drowned, who knows what dread this could bring to our nation."

The royal guard sighed, "Yes- because we know who would be heir then, don't we; the banished prince himself." the distaste towards the Prince was noticeable in the guards words, making the commander tense up.

"U-uh yes," the commander mumbled, trying to change the topic, "I assume you will all need another vessel to go search for the Princess, and another to take the wounded to somewhere to be treated."

"That is our duty, and your assistance is appreciated Commander."

"It is my highest honour to help the Royal Family." he proclaimed, "We will send out messenger hawks at once, so to alert the nearby fleets of your wreck, perhaps they can assist in your search" The royal guard bowed instinctively at the commander and signalled the rest of the crew to ready themselves to leave the pier.

The crew and garrison walked up the pier and toward the local Fire Nation military base, which caught the gaze of many on-lookers. A hooded man stood by the end of the pier, cloaked by a dirty rag, keenly observing the procession of soldiers; he turned to the villager next to him, and smiled.

"Thank you for the cloak, I didn't want the guards to recognise me." he affirmed, patting the villager on the back.

"No worries friend, any freedom-fighter against the Fire Nation is welcome in my village. Will you need a place to stay?"

"Ah perhaps only for the night. I need to find a way back to my comrades at sea." he conceded, the villager smiling back at him.

"What was your name again? Sorry, I just realised I forgot to ask." the villager asked with a smile, the man turning back to him and returning the smile.

"Bato- Bato of the Southern Water Tribe."

Chapter Text

The day was drawing to a close, but Prince Zuko was just as invigorated as if he had just gotten up, ready for a new day. He knew this evening that he would make the action that would set him down the path he had avoided all these years, but his anger and frustration with his father and the world had led him here; no longer would he be the banished prince, a title forced upon him, but a force to be reckoned with, one with no allegiance to the Fire Lord or his vision for the world. He could see the port on the horizon, where he would meet the man he had wanted to face for some time now; he had appropriated his crew a year earlier for his war effort against the Northern Water Tribe, leaving Zuko and his uncle stranded in the Western Earth Kingdom for months before his tired and battered crew returned, without any victory at the North Pole. 'Admiral' Zhao had been a thorn in his side for years now, and Zuko was probably the same in his own eyes, some kind of obstacle to overcome on his march to the Fire Lords inner circle. His uncle had confirmed from sources that the Admiral was at port here during the winter, as his campaign was of little use while the waterbenders had the upper hand; The Admiral had spent nearly 2 years fighting against the Northern Water Tribe, yet despite claiming his high title, had little results to show from it. The former General Iroh stood by the clearly aggravated and tense Prince's side, holding a firm hand on his shoulder.

"You should calm yourself Prince Zuko. If you truly want to show the Admiral who is the greater man, you should arrive calm and collected, facing him with your mind set on a goal, rather than fury against him." Iroh commented, making Zuko lessen his shoulders and turn to his uncle.

"Thank you Uncle, I mean to achieve a victory here today, to show the Fire Lord my determination before bringing myself before him." Zuko responded, his voice not revealing his inner anger and fury towards the Admiral and his father.

"If your will is strong, there is nothing that can stop you now; but my nephew, remember to maintain perspective, or you will end up just like the man you seek to defeat." Iroh guided, holding his hand firm.

Prince Zuko returned to his room and donned his armour, specifically deciding to remove any regalia that signified his title. He sought to face the Admiral as an equal, not as some mythic Prince who stood above him; Zuko was no longer bound by that, unable to see why he had ever held his position as needing unearned respect. He wanted to be seen for who he was as a man of his own making, not as his father's son. Prince Zuko donned a black cloak over his armour, as to even cover the armour set he had been given for his journey, disconnecting his mental identity from that of the banished prince he had been shaped into, but to be Zuko, a man who had seen the world. He had seen the world and watched those who didn't deserve power relish in it, now trying to show his determination against the leader of it all- his father. Returning to the deck, he saw that their vessel had arrived at the port, where the Admiral had been awaiting in sight, by his war-tent that sat on a hillock nearby; looking at his Uncle he confirmed his desire.

"Today we show ourselves, for who we truly are Uncle. Are you sure you want to do this?"

"I have followed you to the ends of the earth nephew, this is simply another journey, with a much more definite end in sight."

The two men walked down the boarding plank, acknowledging the ports overseer, who had personally come to see the Prince and Former General arrive.

"Your royal highnesses, it is a pleasure to have you at our port today; may I ask why you have come to visit? Do you seek resupply or a break for your men?" Zuko calmly smiled at the man, covering his true emotions, holding his hand on the shoulder and pointing to the Admiral's tent.

"I have business to attend to with the gracious Admiral Zhao; if you would like to you could accompany me and my Uncle to his quarters." The man looked at the Prince in fear, realising that the Prince didn't have positive intentions for this encounter with the Admiral, despite his smile and seemingly upbeat composure - he knew all to well of the public conflict between the two men, as did most of the Fire Nation military.

"No your highness, I have other duties to attend to. Do you still need a restocking of your vessel?" he asked, trying to avoid the situation that was likely to unfold with Zhao.

"Yes that would be immensely helpful, thank you for your support on our quest." Zuko replied, his fake demeanour not cracking before the man, even if they both knew the Prince's face was lying.
The Prince and his companion walked down the dock, before climbing the hill, where the Admiral was quick to greet them, with a fake demeanour to match the Princes.

"Ah, Prince Zuko and General Iroh, it is a pleasure to be of your company; may I ask for why you have stopped by this port?"

The Prince smiled at the Admiral and prepared himself for a short and concise speech. He knew whatever he would say to the Admiral he would eventually relay to the Fire Lord, so he sought to make the words not too threatening or vicious.

"Admiral Zhao, I have spent 5 years at sea, looking for the Avatar, as my father Fire Lord Ozai requested of me, as for me to return home with my title and honour restored; I am here to tell you that my quest is over, and the man I seek to find now is my father, as to give him a message."

"What message would that be? I don't presume the Fire Lord seeks to speak with his banished son."

"That his time is up- your time is up. You all, the murderers and thieves you are, will face your reckoning."

"Did the Avatar return to stop the war? Is he going to fight us to the death?" Zhao jested at the Prince, trying to mock his determination and ability.

"Did you mishear me Admiral? This is your reckoning- an Agni Kai, at sunset. If you try to run away and warn my father or simply try to arrest me, I will not rest until your lifeless body lays before me; trust me, you will be far easier to find than any mythic Avatar." Zuko proclaimed, "So what is your choice? A battle with me or certain death?"

The Admiral laughed at Prince Zuko, "Are you serious? I will thrash you like your father did, and you will get no mercy the same."

"As will you. This is fair, no surprises; all is laid before you, so what do you say Admiral?" Zuko calmly replied, disguising his fury with calm words to give the Admiral a false sense of security.

"Fine, at sunset in the firebending sparring grounds." Zhao confirmed, smirking at the Prince, truly doubting the abilities that he possessed. Because he had been touted as being so much weaker and less intelligent than his prodigious sister, the Prince was almost always underestimated by people who knew them both; Zhao was no exception, and he would face the consequences of his bias.

A dark cool wind fell through the old mining village, sending shivers down the spines of its two sole inhabitants; Princess Azula, an immensely powerful firebender, could ward off the cold, but found the temperature somewhat uncomfortable for sleeping, so sat up by Sokka's campfire to enjoy the natural heat and save her energy from firebending. Checking her ankle, she could see the inflammation had clearly lessened over the time she had slept, but she doubted she'd be able to do much more than hobble around the next day. She doubted Sokka would want to leave such safety like this village to continue their journey on foot; perhaps he might hunt, but she doubted he'd want to leave the relative safety of the village. Knowing that she wouldn't have to walk brought her some relief, but she would never say to the warriors face that she wasn't willing to keep walking until their feet were in the East Lake, such a lie she planned to espouse to him if he showed any sign of laziness, even if to make sure that they eventually got themselves to some form of civilisation.

Glancing over at Sokka she noticed he was clearly shivering from the cool winds; he lacked the warm clothing that she expected he would wear in his homeland, and knew that a lack of any bedding as well as lying on the cold stone brick floor would not do him any good either. She could hear him grunting as he tossed from side to side, trying to find a comfortable position on the floor, making Azula chuckle under her breath at his idiotic seeming struggles. Eventually he calmed down, and Azula closed her eyes, at least safe knowing she probably wouldn't be woken by Sokka rolling into the fireplace in his sleep.

After a few minutes she heard distinctive grunts, unlike the ones before, they seemed to form words, lacking much coherence to them, so Azula shuffled a bit closer to try and hear what he was saying, purely out of the curiosity of potentially finding his most innermost thoughts.

"I-I ... did-dn ... f-forget you." he mumbled, his eyes squinting as if he was trying to hold back tears "P-plea-se" he yelped out, still not moving, but his face clearly showing the dread he must have been feeling.

Azula grabbed his shoulder, trying to calm him down, but his mouth and eyes continued to tremble in fear.

"Sokka?" she asked, but only got a stammered mumble.

"I-I did it f-for you... L-like him" Sokka cried, the tears falling down his face.

Azula had no idea what he was thinking about, who he was talking to, but she decided to intervene in the best way she could: by shaking him awake; grabbing him by the shoulder and arm she shook the left side of his body, slowly waking him into a daze.

"Eeek!" he yelped, realising that Azula was right in front of his face, "Why'd you do that?" he mumbled in frustration.

"You were having a nightmare... I think." she explained, trying not to sound to concerned about his welfare.

"U-uh... Okay, yeah that probably explains all the weird things can remember from a few moments ago." Sokka said quietly in his realisation, before rolling over away from Azula, "I'd like to go back to sleep... Please." he asked, hoping not to go back into some argument or overly frustrating discussion with the Princess.

"Understandable... Have a good sleep, peasant." she replied, adding the last minor insult just to make sure she wasn't speaking too kindly to Sokka, knowing he might abuse such kindness for ulterior means, of which she could guess a few.

After a few moments silence, Sokka replied back, still rolled away from her.

"I really don't know how I'm going to explain this to my dad." he commented, making Azula chuckle.

"Which part? How you survived a devastating ship-wreck caused by his own hand, or the fact you have aligned yourself with the Princess of the Fire Nation."

Sokka chuckled, "I wouldn't go so far to say I have 'aligned' with you- I'd call it 'a relationship of fulfilling common interests'."

"And what would those be?" she questioned, trying to rile him up again.

"Hopefully just to get out of this forest..." he replied, glancing back over at her smirking at him, "Not as a servant." he bluntly stated, before turning back over.

"You keep telling yourself that, savage; I'm sure it'll come true." she sighed sarcastically, hearing no slight response from Sokka disappointing her.

She fell from her crouching position near the fire, falling back onto her back, her face turned towards the flames and Sokka's back. She truly hoped that she could make some effect on the boy in the end; his will and determination were strong, but she could undermine it in a more simple manner. She thought it couldn't be that hard for someone to actually appreciate her presence, especially in the given circumstances.

General Iroh sat tensely, holding his tea cup as his nephew silently meditated beside him, unsure how to advise his nephew in the given situation; usually his nephew was brash and arrogant in the lead up to such a fight, but he was unexpectedly calm, or at least trying to keep up the image of being so- the flames of his nephew's meditative candles rose and fall with every breath. Soon enough, as Iroh had expected, Zuko spoke to him, with a surprising level of deference.

"Uncle... I seek your advice for this duel with Zhao."

"I understand that you usually do not have to fight other firebenders, let alone one with the degree of pure power that Zhao has; but I must advise you with this: he is arrogant, far more than even your own father, meaning he overestimates his own abilities- he believes himself to be a firebending prodigy and master of the art, but he lacks refinement in his bending. If you remain true to your basics, you can defeat him when given the opportunity to strike."

"Thank you Uncle, I didn't want to go in there without your words of wisdom."

"You have grown much, Prince Zuko; you are no longer a young boy with little knowledge of the world and his own abilities, I can trust in you to analyse and plan from what I have given you." Iroh applauded, "You are wise to know when to listen and when to make your own decisions; but I guess you've got that one down pat, seeing as why this duel is taking place to begin with."

"Yes that is true Uncle, but I can't refrain from saying I truly despise the man; he makes me want to burn his face off every time he speaks, I hope that's not just me."

"Oh I do agree, he does have what one would call a punch-able face, and the insincere compliments to go alongside."

"There is a greater goal in mind and I know we both agree, it's for the greater good of the Fire Nation, and in the end, the world as a whole; even if I found the Avatar now, I would rather join him to defeat my father than to capture him to regain whatever my father likes to call 'my honour'."

"I am proud of you nephew; you have taken a leap of faith, away from the securities of your title, to fight for what you believe in- you can claim that over me, all I have done is be the pawn of those who you seek to destroy."

"What do you mean Uncle? You did all you could to try and make the world a better place; you help people everywhere you go, and I've never seen you fall folly to dishonour."

"I failed my own son by letting him die a pointless death; that is a greater dishonour than I hope you will ever know Prince Zuko. You are able to build on my mistakes, the mistakes of our nation, and try and drive us toward a brighter future." Iroh declared, making his nephew smile, but then turned away, almost in shame.

"That's what I hope for Uncle, but I can't ignore my own feelings, I don't feel in any way altruistic, or honourable in what I'm about to do: I will betray my father and the Fire Nation, as so to make it a better place- yes that's what I want- but I desire revenge against him, against those who I see as the real traitors, and that's something I know you don't approve of."

"Prince Zuko, I think it is time I taught you the true meaning of fire." Iroh declared, confusing Zuko.

"What? What does that have to do with my desire for revenge?"

"Everything Prince Zuko; your power and drive, it was made by the anger you felt, and now you have redirected it, but it is anger all the same. I don't mean to say that you should give it up just yet, those feelings of angst, betrayal and hatred; they power you, but they are not what a firebender should truly use to drive their bending."

"What then Uncle... What could power my bending?"

"Fire is not just burning and ashes, it is life, and it is within us all, and therefore it is part of our very being, firebender or not. If you can love life and the things in it, see it as your drive to bend, to use your fire to protect."

"I understand what you are saying Uncle... But I don't think I'm ready; what if I do end up facing Azula or father? Their anger and pride powers them, and my desire for revenge is the only thing I can think to counter that. If I defeat them, then maybe I could use my bending for good... But I feel far too gone now- look at me, I feel like I'm about to maim a man because of the petty wrongs he's done against me."

"Don't be so harsh on yourself Prince Zuko. I just want you to gain perspective, so you can make up your own mind when it comes to how you drive yourself; choosing goodness and love over hatred and anger is the next step in becoming the beautiful Prince you were always meant to be."

Zuko stood up from his meditation, and looked at his Uncle with a smile, "Thank you Uncle, I want more than anything that I can become more like you."

"With age and understanding comes wisdom, Prince Zuko; you will need time, but you will become better every day, as long as you stay true to yourself."

"5 years at sea did a lot to me, didn't it; I feel like a different person from the child my father banished." Zuko pondered out-loud.

"And you will return home a man, and one that should be respected for his own merits- you will make your own honour today, Prince Zuko." Iroh commented, smiling at both his nephew and the upcoming travesty that was about to befall Admiral Zhao.

Iroh was not a cruel man, but he believed that the Admiral had deserved wholly what was coming for him; one does not abuse ones own powers for ones own benefit and act above all men without getting a solid beating from time to time. He couldn't help but think Zhao was getting off lightly, for if it had been Zuko's father that he had disrespected, he would be losing more than his pride today.

Chief Hakoda stood at the helm of his personal ship, nearly all of their men on deck, prepared potentially for another battle as they raced towards the site of their attack on the Princess' ship around a day prior. He feared the worse for his son and best friend, who were both amongst the missing; if they had both been lost to the sea, he couldn't even comprehend how he could go on living without a sense of complete shame and dishonour- to abandon the men who remained on the sinking vessel, as the Princess, he presumed, fired volley after volley of flames at their vessel; his own men had to cry out to demand he withdraw, fearing their opponents could set their boats alight once they had gotten onto their own lift raft. It was a reasonable fear, and Hakoda certainly preferred losing a few men to his entire crew, but the pain was just the same; if he could have risked his men to save his son, even just to save his friend, he might have actually done it, even if was going against the safety of his loyal tribesmen who would just as easily give up their lives to save their comrades instead. He felt like a stain on his people, who continued to follow him now into a danger zone, with little to no second thought.

"We have to save anyone left!" they had cried out, "They would do it for us!"

Their desires didn't make Hakoda's any less self-serving or desperate; he hoped Bato and Sokka remained safe and steadfast, but he couldn't not get the image of his head: their bodies laying at the floor of the Eastern Sea, alongside the damned Royal Barge, a grave amongst their comrades and their enemies.

The darkness of night didn't stop one of his men from distinctively calling out, "Chief! I see debris!"

Hakoda immediately latched onto hope rather than his nightmarish despairs, "Full sail, get the torches out! Look for bodies, living or dead." with his last word making him shudder in fear again.

He knew men could easily survive at sea for a day floating on miscellaneous objects, but he also knew his men had endured a tough fight against the best firebenders the Fire Nation had to offer; they were more than skilled at fighting their kind, but after many of them were incapacitated or worse, Hakoda feared few would be able to easily hold themselves afloat.

"We've found one!" one of the sailors called out, throwing a rope into the blackness as Hakoda could see it, racing down the deck to see which man they were pulling from the water.

"Kassuq!" one of the tribesman called out. He had heard of that name, one of the men from another village; Hakoda knew little about every single one of his men, but he knew their names and where they were from, in case the worst came to be for them while they fought in distant lands.

"Thank you my brothers!" Kassuq panted, raising his arms onto the side of the boat, which were grabbed by his fellow tribesmen.

"Are there any others?" Hakoda asked him, now hoping for the best.

"Yes my chief! There was at least fifteen of us in the water last time I checked." the man grinned in hope, knowing that he and his comrades were duly saved from the ocean's wrath.

One of his sailors called out in joy, "It is a blessing from the spirits that so many could have survived!"

Another commented, more disdainful of their situation, "Especially after the beating we got from those firebenders..."

"Get back to your stations men, and get the ropes ready. Signal the other ships!" Hakoda commanded, his men quickly getting Kassuq to sit on the deck while the rest of them scattered to the sides of the boat, looking out for the other survivors he mentioned.

One by one, they found each of the men Kassuq spoke of: fifteen tribesmen had survived a whole day floating in the waters, which Hakoda noticed had clearly calmed since the battle last night. That meant, if he had been counting correctly, only ten of the tribe were still missing. He knew by the time they pulled the last of the fifteen out of the water, that his son and best friend were still amongst the missing, bringing a sense of dread back to this face; but he knew there was still hope, they could have washed ashore, and Hakoda knew from his frequent expeditions through the Eastern Sea that they weren't too far from the Earth Kingdom coast as it was. He hoped Sokka used his powerful wit and tact to survive out on his own, as he might be; regret still filled his heart, and Hakoda knew though the deed had been done, he doubted whether his son could ever forgive him for leaving him helpless on the sinking Fire Nation ship.

After his men had cleaned up their brothers and given them new clothes to wear while their old ones were dried and cleaned, he spoke to each of them below deck, asking if they had heard or seen his son or Bato after they had withdrawn the ships; most of them didn't know much, too focused on trying to escape the threat of the firebenders picking them off in the water, and then finding something to float on; but one of them- named Aujaq- had some positive information.

"Yes! Yes! I remember your son being on the deck- I saw him after I was washed off- He was fighting the Fire Nation woman!" he explained.

"The Princess?" Hakoda asked.

"Wait... She was the Princess? By the spirits that explains a lot."

"Yes- uh, you were saying they were fighting."

"Yes my chief! Sokka was holding his ground against her blue fire, but they were forced to stop when the ship started tilt; the last I saw or heard of your son was him climbing into the bridge, that unusual pagoda-looking thing they had in the centre of the ship."

"Did you see or hear anything from the bridge after that?" Hakoda questioned, Aujaq thinking over what he had seen.

"U-uh I was pretty distracted by finding something to float on; I did of course after the bridge fell sideways into the water, and a lot of cargo fell out- that's how most of us were able to find something float on. I heard a lot of voices and shouting when that happened, I think your son was probably inside the bridge at the time."

"Well that means he could have found something to float on, like you and the others did?"

"Yeah I would say so; I remember a metal box being flung out into the water before the bridge went under, it nearly hit Noada over there, maybe he was using one to float."

Of one the tribesmen, who Hakoda presumed was Noada called out in frustration, "That gave me the biggest fright in my life! Not the bloody firebenders, a spirit-damned box."

Hakoda chuckled "Thanks for the stories men; I think you're giving me some hope."

"We're just as hopeful Chief, I really do hope your kid's okay." Aujaq affirmed, holding the chiefs arm in the traditional fashion of respect.

"My Chief!" a tribesman called out from the deck, "We can see Fire Nation ships approaching!"

"Damn it." Hakoda grumbled, frustrated by the quick turn of events, "Get the men ready, call out a retreat. We need to get out of here!" he called out, his subordinate nodding and calling the same back onto the deck.

"What about the search?" one of men he questioned asked.

"I hope the others are alive, but right now protecting you all is my duty. And I seek to continue that duty for as long as I can, not dead at the hands of a swarm of Fire Navy ships."

Hakoda knew he would have to leave these waters, and didn't know how long it would be until he could return. He only hoped Aujaq's optimism was well placed and that his son had really made his way out of the ship alive. Sokka was a smart kid, and he knew how to survive, hunt and fish, probably better than most his fellow tribesmen actually, having to be the primary hunter for their village for a whole three years while Hakoda was away with the other men in the Earth Kingdom; Hakoda trusted that his years of hunting and fishing with his sister had been spent well gaining skill, and that Sokka would easily be able to trek back to some place where he could somehow find his way to notify Hakoda of his survival and get back to him. He hoped and believed Bato could do the same- he actually had to do something quite similar a few years prior in their first round in the Earth Kingdom, crossing all the way from the west coast to the east. He trusted in them more than any other men he knew, and he hoped more than anything that they would return to their tribe alive and well.

The orange haze of sunset covered the sparring field, where two firebenders two were facing back to back, a few metres apart, kneeling in wait for the duel to begin; General Iroh stood on the side of the field, alongside a plethora of Admiral Zhao's subordinates, waiting anxiously to see who would win the duel. Iroh believed in his nephew's skill, determination and raw power, but he knew he would need to be tact to defeat such a blunt firebender as Zhao; The Admiral had trained under the former Admiral Jeong Jeong and was believed by many to be just as skilled. Nevertheless Iroh knew he lacked the refinement in his bending that his nephew clearly built up over the course of his training, which Iroh believed Zuko would use to his advantage. Iroh knew that firebending came from the breath, as he regularly reminded his nephew, and without losing breath from unnecessarily powerful attacks, Zuko could simply defend from his opponents furious blasts, until he was too weak to defend from Zuko's smaller more efficient attacks; although Iroh was unsure if that was how Zuko would tactically fight, he believed himself that to be the most effective way to win the duel. But he knew his nephew loved to plan ahead, and was sure he had already figured out his own way to defeat the Admiral, just as Iroh was sure he was imagining how to finally defeat his father in the same manner.

Zuko slowly stood to turn to his opponent, as was the tradition in an Agni Kai, before shedding his shoulder garment, staring Zhao down as he did the same; he waited for a few moments, thinking out his battle-plan again, before the gong sounded, which declared the duel had begun. Zuko started to pace forward toward Zhao, and as did Zhao at the same time, and couldn't help but smirk. Now it is you Zhao who will learn respect, and suffering will be your teacher, Zuko thought to himself, his fathers words echoing his thoughts, making him shudder inside, unwilling to show such emotion in a duel.

Zhao took the first move, sending a strong blast of fire toward Zuko's head, which the Prince was easily able to sidestep, before making a smaller blast of fire at the Admiral's shoulder, as to throw him off balance; Zhao only barely dodged the move, countering with a kick of fire to try and get Zuko off his feet, but making little progress when Zuko guarded the move with a deflecting blast. Now frustrated at Zuko's defensive movements, Zhao sent a barrage of blast after blast at his torso and shoulders, making the same movements that Zuko had done to him before; in the succession of blasts, Zuko was able to duck and sideswipe Zhao with a low strike to to his waist, forcing him to stop throwing his hits at Zuko to dodge.

Zuko understood that the goal of the Agni Kai was to burn your opponent, and Zuko knew that Zhao wouldn't concede easily. Make the burn worth your struggles, he heard his Uncle's voice echo in his mind, knowing very well he was silently waiting to the side of field, unable to and unwilling to speak when his nephew was in such an intense duel. Standing his ground, he simply deflected Zhao's incoming blasts, which seemed to infuriate the Admiral even further; the Admiral's mouth opened and his teeth gritted as he increased his barrage of fire blasts, attempting to take Zuko off balance with a number of blasts toward his feet, which Zuko avoided simply by sidestepping or deflecting the fire with his own bending.

Seeing that the Prince was not burnt by his barrage send the Admiral into a further rage- where was the overconfident, arrogant brat he had known to be Prince Zuko; his calmness angered Zhao, unable to grasp how any firebender could be so at ease in a battle for their own honour.

He shouted at the boy, "Do you have no desire to fight?! You are a weakling!"

The Prince simply stated, "It is you who is weak. Unable to fight for anything greater than your own vanity." The words infuriated Zhao further, throwing a hefty wave of fire at Zuko, who had to fall backwards to dodge it.

Thinking the Prince had simply fallen from his attack, Zhao raced toward Zuko and jumped, hoping to blast him square in the chest with a ball of fire, only to realise Zuko had somersaulted backward and and sent a blast right at his chest, making Zhao curl to the side in hopes to avoid being burnt, his fist crashing into the gravelly surface of the sparring field, making his knuckles bleed white. Grumbling in pain, Zhao swept his foot toward Zuko, hoping to catch him unaware, but he simply avoided the fire by jumping, sending a kick of fire straight at the Admiral's head; unable to get onto his feet, Zhao resolved to barrel roll to his side before turning to a crouching position, now feeling more on the defensive.

Zuko smirked at his opponent, who had by this point half-exhausted and inflicted physical injuries upon himself, his moves far too strong for his own good. He sent blast after blast toward Zhao's feet, who was forced to stumble backward, rising back to his feet, making him a much easier target to strike down. Zhao countered with another wave of fire, and Zuko swung the fire away and redirected it around himself in a ring-like formation of fire, from which he blasted through and struck Zhao's shoulder with a short clean blast, flinging him to the side, and clearly angering the Admiral again, the fury against Zuko overwhelming his current pain. Zuko raced toward Zhao, who raised his left hand in defiance to fire a stream of flames at him, but was stopped in his tracks by Zuko's foot deflecting his hand and fire stream away to the side. Before Zhao could react, Zuko's foot struck his opponent in the jaw, which Zhao saw as an opportune moment to grab it, unable to keep a clear hold when Zuko simply struck his right hand away with a small fire dagger, before uppercutting the him in the jaw again. Zhao was knocked into the air for a short moment, before he crashed back to the ground in front of Zuko. Taking advantage of Zhao's confusion and fatigue, he decided to comment on their battle, purely to drill it down in the Admiral's mind.

"Ah... So the Great Admiral Zhao is defeated; I would prefer mercy upon anyone, but seeing how you relished in, perhaps enjoyed, my own burning at the hands of the Fire Lord, I wouldn't have this any other way..." Zuko declared, making Zhao's eyes fill with fear.

Zhao had truly underestimated the Prince and tried his best to mutter, "Please... Don't do it."

"Who's the coward now?" Zuko mocked, before sending a charged fire blast into the right side of Zhao's face, making him scream in the horrific pain, and the onlookers gasped, fearing the worst, facing away from Zuko's direct blast into the Admiral's face; Zuko himself turned away from Zhao for a moment, the smell of burning flesh disgusting him, just glad that it wasn't his own this time.

Zhao's screams took a while to fade out, but by the time it did, Zuko looked down upon him in pity, as he mumbled back to the Prince, "T-the F-fire Lord... he won't stand for this dishonour."

Zuko almost laughed at his defeated opponent, but knew it'd be too cruel of him to jest now, and decided to rather warn the Admiral with his now accompanying burn, "You are finished Admiral Zhao, it's best you leave before the Fire Lord has your head for this disgrace."

Iroh looked upon the outcome of the battle in shock; he realised Zuko hadn't been exaggerating his desire for revenge. Giving your upon the customary burning of an Agni Kai was expected in the most serious of duels, but after the trauma Zuko himself had experienced, he never would have expected him to burn another in such a horrific manner; but then again, the retired General couldn't blame him for acting in such a manner. His nephew had suffered far to much to just forget about that pain that he had endured, and Zuko knew his banishment and suffering was meaningless now, which only made the memories more painful. He hoped the best part of his nephew would overcome the parts that even Iroh himself feared; for once he could see it, the resemblance, and it scared him more than anything- more than death itself- that his Zuko, was actually anything similar to his cruel, dare he say: evil father.

Chapter Text

The morning wasn't a time Sokka expected to spend doing much but sleeping, as the sun rose he clearly remained shuffling on the cold stone tiles, despite the fact that he was outside he was determined on remaining in the same position he was at the moment; it didn't take him long to realise that Azula didn't approve of his inaction during the early hours of day, as she grew more frustrated, shuffling around and glaring at him as he lay in an attempt to prolong his sleep, a hard task without any actual bedding. The darkness of the room was suddenly broken by the campfire suddenly rising up in blue flames, from embers that Sokka could barely see at the moment, making him shriek and cover his eyes in frustration.

"Time to get off your lazy arse savage!" Azula commanded, in a tone as if she was directing one of her guards.

"Really, did you have to blind me with the fire?! You could have just asked me to get up!" he shouted in anguish, covering his eyes as he turned away from the fireplace.

"Yes. Because I doubt you were going to get up anytime soon otherwise, and I'd rather not have to physically harm you to just get you off your arse."

"U-uh well thank you, Princess; I see that you're now- uh- seeing my usefulness, and have decided to not burn me to a crisp." Sokka mumbled, a smile returning to his tired face upon realising the possible good-will he had built.

"Just because you're useful doesn't mean I won't burn you to a crisp- my patience is just larger than my appetite for violence, that's all." she remarked casually.

"The world is a harsh place, it could use with some more niceness, y'know." Sokka mumbled, as he slowly dragged himself up to the fireplace, where he decided to recook the meat they had cooked yesterday, as to ensure that he wouldn't get sick from eating it.

Azula smiled upon her handy-work, knowing now that Sokka was being productive, she wouldn't fear that they'd starve to death just because he wanted a longer sleep; she knew next to nothing about cooking or food preparation and assumed that the savage, having the need to make food himself on a regular basis, would at least stop them from getting food poisoning or whatever other horrors await the unprepared cook.

Sokka realised she hadn't been doing anything herself and his face scrunched up into a frown, "Hey! You can't demand I get out bed while you sit around and do nothing."

She raised her hand and lit a small dance of flames around her fingers, making Sokka gulp in fear, "Yes savage, I need you to do the cooking. Feeling emasculated yet?"

"U-uh... I'm unsure." he murmured before turning back quickly to the fireplace, trying to ignore her comments.

"What do you mean unsure?" she questioned him.

"Well yes, I'm doing the cooking- but at least I'm actually doing something."

"Excuse me, but my foot isn't going to get much better if I walk around and do pretty much anything." she grumbled at him, her frown making him tense up again.

"Okay- okay, I'll stop complaining..." Sokka mumbled back, conceding once again to the Princess.

Sokka puttered away at the campfire, quickly re-cooking the hog meat and eating his portion, before walking over to Azula, who was sitting by the door, looking outside; he was unsure whether she was keeping watch or just trying to keep herself calm looking out the forest.

"Hey, so do you want some?" Sokka asked, making the Princess turn her head and look upon the brazened hog-meat he had offered, before sighing.

"I guess it wouldn't hurt... I presume?"

"Hey! My cooking is not that bad. Remember we're avoiding food poisoning?"

"Yes, yes." she dismissed, grabbing the meat from his hands and quickly retreating to the ground, sitting away from him again as she ate.

Noticing that Sokka remained nearby, she quipped back, "A little privacy. Go find yourself something better to do than oogle at me."

"U-uh... Yeah I'll do that" Sokka grumbled, confused by her remarks and seeking something more than an argument that degraded his self image- again.

"We need to find some more food if we're going to keep walking, so I'll go look for tracks; I could set up some traps." Sokka remarked, looking out the crooked doorway to see the abandoned village and forest beyond.

"Well the savage proves his use again. I hope your plans are actually going to get us food and not have you walk around the forest all day."

"Hey! I can hunt. You saw first hand yesterday!" he argued, making her dismiss his comments again.

"Well the traps aren't going to make themselves! Go on." she commanded, making him further frustrated.

"You've really got to learn how to ask nicely" he mumbled as he walked out of the house and down toward the stream.

"Excuse me?!" he could hear her call out, but pretended she hadn't said anything, knowing full well she wouldn't be willing to move much further than to get a drink of water with her food in the condition it was.

"Taking the easy way out. Running away!" she shouted again, although she was actually unsure if he heard her this time, and decided to retreat back to the fireplace; she had proved her argument once again: he had a profound liking to cowardice, she believed, as if anyone would simply walk away from an argument without any due end.

Azula guessed that the climate or conditions were getting to his mood; yesterday she knew he would have been more than willing to shout her down if she made him look like a fool. The Princess knew she would get the support and admiration of the savage, and if they 'enjoyed' a few more days surviving in this hell-hole perhaps he would take to her in a better light. Azula didn't necessarily want to force him to follow her- she'd rather he chose servitude than have it thrust upon him- but if they were going to survive, let alone give him an opportunity to get back to his people, she knew he would have to eventually.

Sokka slowly made his way into the forest, cutting trees with his bone dagger as he went along to try and keep a set path; unlike the beach and the grass clearing which were quite distinct, once he was out of sight of the mining village, he was unsure if he'd be able to find his way back. Looking at the ground he checked for tracks, and was unable to find anything too recent, he did however find droppings of an animal- he didn't know what it was, not having much clue to what the normal wildlife of an Earth Kingdom forest was- he just hoped there'd be something out there small and stupid enough to get snared in a trap he could design with the means available, which Sokka admitted, was not bountiful in the slightest. He was amazed that he'd been able to even hunt the hog yesterday, probably more luck than skill on his behalf, although he refused to admit that to Azula; he was a skilled all-round hunter, probably one of the best, however that was back in the icy tundra of the South, not in this nearly alien land of pure green. Sokka thought back to the rope he had for the metal crate he had used for their water supply; perhaps it could be used to make a snare trap.

He trudged further into the green-blur of trees and bushes, finally finding some droppings, though by the least kind method, stepping on them. Examining the droppings, Sokka found than the droppings were of a relatively small animal, smaller than the hog he had killed; there must be more of these animals, and they'd probably go to the nearby stream to drink, which he could still hear nearby, although it was currently out of sight. He decided that he'd set a trap near the stream, closest to the droppings, and that he would leave some berries or something else he could find in the forest and leave them for the animal to eat; personally he'd prefer just be eating the berries, but he feared they could be poisonous- perhaps this catch could prove whether or not that was the case.
Sokka made his way back along the stream, where he eventually reached the village again, distinctively standing out of the normally green forest with its stone architecture, not surprising for a settlement in the Earth Kingdom; Azula was sitting by the stream, probably waiting for him to get back, so she could frustrate him again with her constant commands and complaints about his inadequacies.

She glanced over at him, and didn't even try to smirk at him, her foot laying in the stream, probably trying cool it down, "So... Did you actually find anything?" her voice sounding actually concerned, at least from the scale of sarcasm and mockery Sokka had observed in the past two days.

"U-uh I found some droppings-" he started, but she immediately interrupted.

"And? What is edible about animal droppings?" she mocked, Sokka immediately disappointed by her mirage of concern for his ventures.

"Argh- no! I found them nearby the stream, where I think some small animals might go to drink. I think we can get another animal in a similar way to the hog, but his time I have a planned trap."

"A trap? I hope it's better than the one your people set for me, although I'm starting consider that they may have succeeded."

"What makes you say that?" he questioned her, his voice clearly showing disbelief.

"Did you get all respectful of my abilities all of a sudden, or are you gasping in horror because you thought your plan was brilliant?"

"The first one, actually." he conceded, "I thought you were the almighty-blue-fiery-Fire-Nation-Princess, not someone who could be defeated so simply by my 'savage' kind." he mocked, the eloquence of his title for her making Azula break down laughing.

"Oh yes- that is true, but I don't think the plan was to defeat me."

"Really? Then what were the Southern Water Tribe's finest warriors doing by trying to capture you?" he questioned, his sarcasm masking a genuine desire to find out what she had theorised.

"To get me right here- in the middle of nowhere." she simply stated, making Sokka chuckle.

"No I'm pretty sure we were getting paid for you, so I don't think the Chief would just as easily let you drown if it was essentially a bounty hunt."

"Aha! The savage breaks the truth; so you were getting paid! By whom?" she shouted, almost in glee that Sokka had finally cracked and given her the information she desired.

"U-uh; I seriously don't know- that's my dad's business."

"Ah what I disappointment, I should have captured your father and he and mine could have had tea over discussing his dealings." Azula joked, making Sokka laugh as well before replying.

"Yeah- your men were trying to do that exact thing, but of course, we're here and my father is spirits-know-where away from this place."

"Okay- I sidelined your entire 'plan' just to get intelligence- what are you exactly going to do to get these mysterious animals?"

"I'll need some berries or something to get them in the trap, which will hook it by a rope and leave it hanging for me to take back right here, hopefully for our dinner." he explained, the Princess nodding at his plan.

"Well I see no obvious holes in your plan... So I'd best leave you to your savage workings while I wait around for the day to pass by, and my foot to perhaps actually heal somewhat."

"Thanks." Sokka grumbled, aggravated by her dismissals of his hard-work, and her own laziness; but he felt he shouldn't press the issue.

Sokka went into their current 'residence' of sorts and took as much water as he could to drink, before heading out with the bare essentials- the rope he needed for the trap, his knife for killing the animal when he caught it, and of course his trusty boomerang for protection. He acknowledged Azula before he left, thinking of something for her to do while he was gone.

"U-uh, would you mind getting some water from the stream and boiling it, so we can have some more water." he requested, making her raise her eyebrow questioningly.

"I hope you're not going to use this water for cleaning you hair; the stream is good enough you know." she jested at him, making Sokka twitch his eyebrows in silent frustration before turning around and waving off her claims.

"Please- just do it for your own sake." he asked in desperation, hearing a sigh of approval from the Princess, who got up from the stream and started to slowly hop her way back to the house, quietly mumbling in approval, "Thank you."

Sokka walked northward this time, back toward the abandoned mine, looking around for the berries and other plants he had seen the previous day while walking through the forest. After a few minutes trudging uphill he made his way to the abandoned mine, which as expected, was silent as ever, ominously standing as a gaping hole in the otherwise bland escarpment; his instincts told him the mine was dangerous, and he heeded their advice, turning right around and heading another way, pulling out his bone knife again as to mark the trees as he had earlier. He looked on the ground and checked for more animal tracks and noticed a few sets that were running away from the stream, which Sokka presumed headed either to a food source of the animals he was hunting, or their own den, which would be just as useful in setting his trap; glad to have experience on his side, Sokka made his way through the bushes and saplings that covered the forest floor toward what he presumed was a sloping hillside. Along the hillside he saw various burrows, but not any food, and Sokka guessed this was where the animals slept; he realised that it was still early in the day and figured they might not have eaten yet, so he plotted a course back toward the stream, pacing as quickly as he could given the thick foliage.

Finally arriving at the stream a few minutes later, he checked around for anything he could use as bait, but found nothing, once again. He thought that if the animal burrowed it would be smaller and than most might look for food that is closer to the ground that most, so guessed that small shrubs could be what it ate from; Sokka grabbed some of these shrubs and cut them up with his bone knife, laying them near the stream where he sought to plant his trap. Sokka quickly set up a snare trap by tying his rope to a smaller tree's branch before making a noose to place over the bait. He then tied the rope to a stick which he stabbed in the ground in the noose, ensuring that the rope would release and tie what ever animal lay within if the stick was disturbed. Sokka, though proud of his quick trap building, realised he now had to wait out an animal to befall it, and as such crossed the stream and decided to rest himself on the branch of a larger tree, above ground so he might have a chance at napping; Azula had already ruined his sleep and he was certain whatever predators roamed about this forest would likely do so to if he was to sleep on the forest-floor.

After sitting around for a few minutes on the tree branch he decided to start quietly playing with his bone knife, knowing that it's properties in detecting sounds were pretty interesting, as well as useful; he hadn't found much use for it of late, as being near the stream would drown out any sounds that might intrigue him. He would stab it in to the tree and lay his head at the end of the knife, waiting until he heard something interesting. Soon enough he had just fallen asleep on the tree branch, unaware of his surroundings or situation anymore; he was glad to get some rest at least, the tree itself was actually more comfortable in his eyes than a cold stone floor.
Soon enough Sokka heard a loud thump and a screech, immediately waking him from his daze, raising his head to see a small animal caught in the trap. Jumping from the tree he raced to examine his catch and was surprised simply by how small it was; nothing comparable to the hog he had caught, despite that itself being a runt. Sokka was happy nonetheless that his trap had worked, and quickly quietened the animal by stabbing it. He again didn't really like killing such animals that were actually comparable in their emotion to people, he even compared the screech it had made to the screams of men he had heard in battle when injured. Suddenly out of nowhere he heard a human voice, and it wasn't Azula's; gruff and somewhat old sounding.

"What was that?! Something to eat maybe?" he heard the voice call out.

"Ergh- shut it Yang! We're just a few minutes away from the stash and hideout; once we get there we can go look for food." another voice spoke, more angry and frustrated than the last.

Sokka immediately scrambled away from his trap, ripping down the rope as quickly as he could before racing into the trees, trying to avoid being seen by who he assumed were not the kindest of folk. Soon enough, as Sokka peered back, six men appeared out of the greenery, glancing around for the animal they had heard. They were all donning what Sokka guessed was the outings of Earth Kingdom soldiers, although they were cloaked and covered for camouflage in the forest; he knew well enough the Earth Kingdom's armies were practically disbanded by this point- the Comet had taken care of that- and he knew no soldiers would have a hideout in an area with practically no Fire Nation presence- deserters, he presumed, unless they had stolen the uniforms from dead soldiers, which would probably be worse. It soon came to Sokka the seriousness of this situation; these men weren't just passing through, they were going to camp at the same village they had set up their camp at, and he presumed they wouldn't take kindly to outsiders, especially a firebender, if they were deserters from the army like he expected. What they would do to avenge their comrades- Sokka knew all too well the hate men carried towards the Fire Nation, especially when their villages had been destroyed, their families torn apart by war. Sokka decided to hook the animal over his shoulder with the noose tied to its feet still, and pulled out his trusty boomerang; he knew it would come in handy, but this was probably the worst situation it could be used for.

Azula sat by the fire, waiting for the water to boil over the flames; she had already tried to speed up the fire with her bending, but she decided it would be best to preserve her energy instead to heal. She glanced over at her foot and was relieved to see that the swelling had faded mostly, but she knew that the injury would likely have to be healed by a physician properly once they reached civilisation. The little food they could already gather wouldn't be enough to get her foot to just heal- Azula was glad that Sokka had at least figured to get this crate for their water purification, so she could be certain she wouldn't be getting ill from it- as long as he didn't try to clean his hair with it. She could hear the pattering of feet in the distance, signalling to her that Sokka would be returning in a moment.

Hearing footsteps from outside relieved Azula, knowing that Sokka would be back with some kind of food; she knew well enough already he was stubborn as a mule- having tried to defeat a firebending prodigy twice in combat, despite being clearly outmatched- and he wouldn't come back until he had hunted some food down. She was clearly proved wrong when she heard an unfamiliar voice in the distance.

"Alright boys, we're back; time to set up camp. Huang! You go check out the mine, see if anyone's been playing with the loot." a man commanded, his voices strength showing his sense of confidence.

"Somebody's 'home', it seems." she mumbled to herself, realising that somebody had been using this village as a campsite; that explained why their current abode had a prepared fireplace and was much cleaner than the rest of the houses- somebody had actually been using it- and they were back.

She crouched, moving herself against the wall, trying to use the element of surprise against the incoming intruders, although she probably should have been considered the intruder herself- what was she to care what some Earth Kingdom peasants thought they owned though- they were probably bandits or some other miscreants who were plundering for their 'loot'. The incoming footsteps became louder, and then then stopped, and she could see the shadow of a man peering into the room, Azula luckily being covered by the thick door frame.

"Someone's here guys! Just real recent-" he called out before suddenly being knocked off his feet by Sokka's club, which Azula used as effectively as could be expected; hopping over to the man she kicked a short blast of blue fire into his revealed face, making the man scream in cowardice.

The rest of bandits, as Azula saw them, prepared their weapons and called out to her, trying to intimidate "You're outnumbered kid; don't make this harder than it has to be."

"Kid? I'm far more than that!" she called out, smirking deviously as she did, although no one was there to see it.
Azula immediately stood in a basic firebending stance and sidestepped to the doorway, revealing herself for a short moment while she shot a volley of fire blasts at the intruders, quickly counting their numbers- four left that she could see- one of them had been sent to the mine, and she didn't doubt he'd be back soon.

One of the men commanded the others, "Get her boys! We could use taking this one alive!" making Azula shudder in disgust- so they weren't just thieves, they were probably rapists too.

Two of the men, who she presumed were non-benders, raced toward the buildings two out-facing window holes, and swung themselves in. The two men were both armed with swords and had a multitude of knives on them as well- she ought to take note of that; Azula held Sokka's club in one hand and charged a ball of fire in the other, poised to strike the two men. One of them was more eager to take Azula down, racing at her with his blade and ready to swipe at her- too eager that he forgot his footing, letting Azula quickly strike his feet with a short blast of fire making him trip over them and fall flat on his face, while the other one prepared to throw one of his knives at the Princess. The blade quickly flew past her, but Azula was easy to dodge- enough knife-throwing from Mai had made her practically impervious to the small projectiles; he still swung his sword at her, the blade facing inward to block a potential fire-blast, which equipped him better than his friend when Azula struck him square in the chest with a blast of fire. Azula was just ready to beat the man silly with a barrage of flames but was interrupted by a brick striking her on the left side of her ribs and flinging her across the floor- so one of them was a dirt-thrower; the leader, an earthbender, raised another brick with his bending and prepared to throw it at the Princess' head, but she was quick enough to barrel roll out of the way.

"Is that all you've got?" she smirked, quickly grabbing Sokka's club once more, which she had previously discarded- and using it to smash the next brick to pieces as it aimed for her head; it would take more than simple earthbending to defeat the Crown Princess of the Fire Nation.

She used the club once more to strike at the still conscious knife-thrower, who had tried to leap at her with his sword again, deflecting him to the side, but unable to get him unconscious- perhaps she didn't have the brute strength that the savage used to defeat his enemies with his blunt tool. The man furiously slashed his sword at her, barely missing her forearm, before she punched him in the head with a fire blast, knocking him into the wall; she looked out and saw the leader and the other swordsman she had quickly dispatched of, preparing to attack her simultaneously, while the fourth man was no where to be seen. She knew well enough from strategy books that if you didn't know where your enemy could be hiding you were as good as dead- she disregarded him from her thoughts and prepared two fire daggers for her enemies: one for each head.

"Come on girly, give it up!" the leader shouted at her, believing he had some power of intimidation over her- he was a tough, brutish looking man, who she guessed was the kind of man who would bully peasants for a living- not a real leader like herself.

Azula dashed up toward the two men, sidestepping a rock the earthbender had thrown toward her, before slashing the swordsman's blade and face with her fire dagger, forcing him to stagger back and realise the fruitlessness of the battle- she had just cut his sword in half with her firebending. The earthbender pulled out a hammer- a usual weapon for earthbending soldiers- and directed a blast through the ground to her feet, forcing her to somersault away and try and regain her footing. The earthbenders movements followed her own, forcing Azula to simply jump her way through the window to dodge the wave of stone tiles, her ankle dislocating as she landed, making her whelp in pain; he was going to pay for that one.

She decided that she had enough of the earthbenders silly attacks and raised her arms in motion to make a lightning-strike at her enemy, who stood at the doorway, prepared to break the ground underneath her; before she could even move her chi energies in place, she was struck in the side of the head with the blunt end of a spear, knocking her down to the ground. The fourth man had appeared and quickly reversed his spears position as to prepare a stabbing motion, which Azula tried to stop by grabbing the end of the spear at setting it on fire, but he was still able to thrust it at her head, making her flinch back. The earthbender still made his move, which destabilised the ground beneath them in an attempt to trap Azula, which she was able to avoid by kicking the other man in the chest- moving them both out of the earthbenders line of fire.

Azula grabbed the spearman by the neck and threw his head into the wall of the nearby building, before rolling out of the earthbenders line of attack once more. The man stared viciously and angrily at her, but also with pride- he still thought he could beat her, of all people. As Azula prepared a kata to strike the man, he was able to hammer the earth below them, causing Azula to be flung off her feet and broke her stance, leaving her vulnerable to the mans attacks. He and the swordsman stood in stance, and raced toward her, now able to deflect her desperate attempts at blasting fire at her, before the earthbender used a wave of stone and brick to cover Azula to stop her from bending, making her whelp in fear and pain. In the face of her first real potential defeat, she smirked none the less at the men, who believed that victory was certain- she couldn't escape from them now, let alone run away.
"Why are you so happy? Did you want to lose girl?" their leader chuckled, genuinely amused by her reaction.
"You've made one key mistake-" she responded, her voice cold and calculating now, "you thought I was alone."

Sokka raced through the foliage of the woods, trying to stay away from the stream; he could hear the deserters trudging through the stream, the water splashing giving him a good idea of their location. Getting close enough to the village, he strung the animal up on a tree which he marked with his bone knife; he couldn't run into a potential fight with a carcass over his shoulder- no matter how much he knew he needed the meat to feed himself and Azula. Peering from behind a thick tree-trunk he looked out toward the stream, where he could hear the splashing in the distance; he could hear the muffled speaking of the men, but Sokka knew well enough that he should rather stay away than try and pay attention to their conversation. As Sokka made his way toward the village itself, crouching by some bushes, the conversation became clearer.

"Alright boys, we're back; time to set up camp. Huang! You go check out the mine, see if anyone's been playing with the loot." a voice commanded, Sokka assuming it to belong to their leader.

Sokka looked out over the bush and saw who he presumed to be Huang, walking away from the village; he knew well enough that interrogation was a quick way to information, and it would be easy enough for him to capture only one of six men. As he walked back into the brush he glanced to check if he could notice any signs of Azula- he saw none; hopefully Azula was hiding and she wouldn't get into too much trouble; she couldn't reasonably take them all on- some of them could be earthbenders. Sokka quickly paced himself up the hillside toward the mine, where he knew that Huang was planning to check their loot; he looked out over the bushes and couldn't see him, but his footsteps by the stream were still quite audible, even at this distance. Within a few moments Sokka arrived at the clearing where the mine was located, and stayed himself between a rock and a bush to cover himself from any potential onlookers; Huang took a few moments more to show up, having run himself up the hill. The deserter looked around for signs of human activity and spotted Sokka's tracks from earlier in the day- Sokka should have known better than to cover them up. Huang glanced out into the shrubbery with a face of fear, and quickly dismissed the potential of an onlooker, arrogantly thinking as Sokka might have himself in the situation; Sokka wouldn't wait to take the opportunity, as soon as Huang's back turned, Sokka threw his trusty boomerang right into the side of his head, knocking him out cold.

"Aha- gotcha!" Sokka shouted in glee, realising he had just got himself a potential captive.

He prepared the rope he had from his trap and strung the noose around the mans feet before tying it quickly to a tree branch- he knew it wouldn't hold the man long, but as long as he was disoriented, Sokka could intimidate him. However he was interrupted by what he thought to be distant shouts, the sound muffled by the ambience of the forest; Azula had done what she did best, beat up enemies of the Fire Nation.

Sokka sighed audibly in frustration before glancing at Huang's unconscious body, "All I wanted was some spirit-damned intel from you bastards, but she just haaaaaaaad to complicate it."

Running down through the forest toward the stream, Sokka's mind rushed with the potential scenarios that could have unravelled at the village: Azula could have been captured; she could have beaten the entire group out cold; she could have ran off and they were chasing her down- there was a lot of potentials, and not enough solid facts. Glancing out along the stream, he saw none of the deserters running about, meaning that they weren't heading to the mine, he'd at least have the element of surprise. Sokka run as fast as he could, but realised that he was already weakened enough from a lack of food and not really having hydrated himself enough- he was in no shape for a real fight, so he hoped that his boomerang would do most of the work. The sounds of fighting became more clear as he got closer to the village, and the sound of crashing and thumps proved one of his theories- the deserters had at least one earthbender, and Sokka knew that any bender would be better than none against Azula of all people. He finally made his way to the village, where he could at the moment see none of the men- he guessed they were probably along the 'street', or looking in the houses. He crouched behind the wall of the closest house, and tried to eavesdrop on the current fight, but all he heard was audible grunts and sounds of pain from both Azula and the men; but then of all things, he heard laughing- Azula's laughing.

"Why are you so happy? Did you want to lose girl?" one of the men laughed, probably unknowing of the Princesses intentions, not so dissimilar to Sokka himself.

"You've made one key mistake-" he could hear her reply, her voice with the cunning he most certainly had come to disdain, "you thought I was alone."

That was Sokka's not-so-subtle order to attack, which led him to quickly roll out into view, checking the deserters form with a glance- two men seemed to be standing at the moment, meaning Azula had already beaten up three others. He shouted out at the men, as to draw their attention away from Azula, before his boomerang swung out of his hand and hit one of the men in the head, his body being flung to the ground like he had done to Huang a minute earlier, although his shouting made it clear that he was still conscious, and in great pain because of it. The other man, who had been holding a sword over Azula, grinned at the firebender deviously before trying to strike her, but Azula quickly swung her feet with a firebending move to blast the man in the face, forcing him to fall to his back. Sokka raced toward Azula and the two men, pulling out his dagger, and decided to go for the swordsman, who he could tell from his actions in the few moments he had seen him, was incompetent but capable of staying conscious in a fight- unlike the other men he saw scattered through the village. The swordsman held his blade to guard from Azula's fire blasts and Sokka's blade swipes, but was unable to hold his ground- Sokka's dagger slicing his hand and forcing him to drop the sword, leaving Azula to simply uppercut him with a fire-charged fist, flinging him into a wall, this time clearly knocked out.

"Well I see you got to work with these guys- I missed out on a serious show of firebending prowess, did I?" Sokka introduced, his tone clearly showing mocking her abilities, as he saw her knocked to the ground at the mercy of the enemy just before he joined the fight.

"It's not my fault my foot doesn't work right now! Shut your mouth savage, you could have at least helped."

"I did actually, I was about to take one of them captive, but I heard the fight all the way from the mine- I knew you'd got into something like this." Sokka explained.

"What good would a captive do when we're trying to survive in this damned forest?" Azula questioned, her tone harsh and aggravated.

"U-uh well we could use some directions; we still have no idea where the closest village is." he replied, Azula's anger calmed for the moment.

"We should get the hell out of this village; get your crap, and we leave- I don't want to deal with what happens when these assholes wake up." Azula stated bluntly, her serious, condescending tone replaced by one of genuine fear and concern.

"Fair enough- I got some meat by the way, hung it up over that way before these guys showed up and interrupted by hunting session."

"Really- you're actually competent at setting traps, that's one-" Azula jested, interrupted by a grunt and shaking of the ground.

The two turned to the earthbender, angry and now reeling back into consciousness, pulling his hammer out to fight them.

"Aw, c'mon man!" Sokka complained before realising he didn't have his boomerang at hand to knock the man out, "Shit!"

The earthbender grinned with evil happiness, he would have a chance to kill the bastards who had beaten up his crew; he threw his hammer to the side to get Azula off her feet, forcing her to back up and prepare her attack again- a firebender worked best with offense, and he sought to take advantage of a weak stance. Sokka was lighter on his feet and jumped to the side, and threw his dagger in desperation- a weak imitation of his boomerang's graceful flight, missing the man by a wide margin; the earthbender responded by flinging a brick from one of the buildings right at Sokka, striking him in the chest, his arms guarding against most of the hit. Sokka was flung to the ground, writhing in pain from the blunt strength of the injury, while Azula turned to face her opponent once again, taking a quick stance before sending a blast at the man's head, which he was able to dodge by leaping forward toward Sokka; he immediately regretted it as Sokka climbed to his feet with his dagger at hand. The earthbender swung his hammer at Sokka and Azula, the weapon striking Sokka's dagger away while he was trying to hit the man, and Azula thought quick to even the odds- she kicked up Sokka's boomerang with her good foot and grabbed it with her hand. He saw her movements and held his arm out as the earthbender readied another attack; Sokka kicked the earthbender in the knee, forcing him to drop his weapon to the ground as Azula threw the boomerang into his hand. Without a second thought- his survival instincts driving- Sokka cut the man's throat clean open with the boomerang's sharp edge, the earthbender's eyes in utter fear as he felt the blood come down his chest

"Fucking spirits!" Sokka shouted in realisation, turning away as the man clinged at his throat, trying to hold the blood back, before falling to the ground without a whimper.

Sokka fell to his knees, as Azula heaved in relief from the outcome of their fight, "What did I just do..."

"You killed someone; first time?" Azula replied, not caring if his statement was rhetorical.

"Blooded- that's what they call it down south." Sokka explained, covering his eyes as to hide the corpse from his view.

"Huh- you beat me to it." Azula said in realisation, making Sokka uncover his eyes and look at her in confusion.

"You've never done it? You of all people?" his voice in disbelief; she was the lethal Princess Azula, not someone who would just beat up people with firebending but kill with it.

"I'm one of the threaten first, kill if I have to types, really." she blatantly described, making Sokka reel back.

"Well that's fucking done- I say we get out." he affirmed, pulling himself off the ground.

"Exactly." Azula said with a sigh of relief, picking herself up and checking if the other men were getting close to consciousness.

"Sorry but it seems you won't be able to interrogate anyone today." she sighed at him, and Sokka was unable to tell whether she was making a joke on his behalf or genuinely disappointed.

"I'll get the meat, you get what's here, meet me downstream." he ordered, and Azula herself was surprised he was so willing to command.

"Not getting uppity after your blooding, are we Sokka?" she jested, and his face turned almost to laugh, but kept it's seriousness.

"We don't have long, I hope you're ready to walk."

"Run- I'll run." she stated, as if to one-up him.

The Princess was shocked as Sokka was about the turn of events, but she was willing to cover that with unwanted jests and mockery. Fear was all they had now, and it would drive them to do anything, even kill people; and Azula had even admitted that she wasn't the killing type, ruining another aspect of her image to the savage. It was now time for them to survive together, because that was the only way they'd get out alive.

Chapter Text

The rocking of the sea thumped against the cabin, causing it to shake slightly with every wave crossed; the Fire Nation vessel was moving with haste, away from the threat the Fire Navy would face against the now renegade Prince Zuko and his crew. Iroh pondered their current situation, sitting at his table, awaiting his nephew to return from his current training session; the Prince had absorbed himself into his firebending training after his bout with Zhao, perhaps to distract himself from his deed. He thought that Zuko might be just as disturbed as he was from his actions, especially after Zuko's experience at the hands of his father; perhaps it was a way of coping with the pain, by releasing it on some one else. Whichever way Iroh tried to justify his nephews actions, it just furthered his own fear- he believed that Zuko couldn't be anything like his father, not like Azula- who had the face of her mother but the heart of her father- but a loyal son who tried his best to act honourably in the interests of his nation, not out of pure hate and drive to dominate, as his father did.

Iroh decided to prepare some tea, as he thought it would soothe his fears and perhaps his nephew's temper, lest it get the best of him during his training. He could hear the thumping and echoes of fire blasts nearby, signifying that the session was still well in motion; Iroh would take his time with the tea, preparing it to be just right- like art or strategies in Pai Sho. He prepared some ginseng which he had stored for occasions just like this one, and put in his teapot; he knew that the longer the ginseng infused for, the better soothing the tea would be. He sat the teapot by his table and filled it with water, before slowly boiling it with his firebending- lightly, not to boil the water quickly, but to simmer it. Suddenly a knock hit the door, and Iroh responded at haste.

"Yes- what is it?" he called out, standing up to prepare for a conversation, which he didn't mind having at the time- he was a bit lonesome in his thoughts.

"General Iroh, a messenger hawk has arrived for you- it's classified."
The former general opened the door to greet the sailor, bearing a somewhat confused and fearful face, "Thank you friend, I will read it immediately."

"I sure hope it's good news sir..." the guard murmured, returning himself to posture once he realised he had spoken, "Sorry General, I just got lost in my thoughts."

"It is really no problem, every man should think about the little things in life from time to time, gaining perspective on your situation is the best way to make light of it." Iroh commented, making the man make a curt smile as he handed out the message, which Iroh received with his own smile.

"Thank you sir, I'll uh- head back to my duties."

"That would be best- uh actually, could you fetch my nephew? I've been meaning to have a talk with him."

"U-uh yes, I'll get the captain right away-" the man responded with haste, but Iroh clasped his shoulder.

"Make sure he's not in the middle of his training, ask afterwards; he doesn't take kindly to interruptions."

"Yes sir." the man finished, bowing slightly before marching himself down the hallway, leaving Iroh alone again with his new message.

Looking down on the message, he noticed it was marked for his eyes only, but not with any signifier of being sent from the Fire Nation military or the palace- meaning it was probably from one of his friends in the Order.

Opening the letter he began to read: "Esteemed Grand Lotus Iroh, I bare news of great importance to our ultimate mission- the Crown Princess has gone missing after a shipwreck in the Eastern Sea, and I believe that it is in the best interests of our organisation that he make use of her absence by gathering support for your nephew Prince Zuko. We already know of what you told us of his plans, and these align with our own- please do what you must to ensure the right path is followed for his sake, and for the sake of the world. Best wishes, from a friend"

Iroh gasped at the realisation of what this message meant- he had no idea that Azula was out of the capital at the time, no intelligence had been received until this very message was received. It was suspiciously unmarked, and Iroh feared the worst of this- what if one of their own had taken Iroh's plan to establish Zuko as the Fire Lord as a good enough reason to take down his own niece; Iroh didn't think highly of her, but he didn't want her murdered for any cause- she was still family, and he thought in his right mind that she could be brought into the fold if the opportunity provided itself- she was a pragmatic and prodigious girl, not megalomaniac conqueror like her father, even if she tried her best to be in his likeness.

Returning to his tea, he sat by heating it, continuing to read over the words that were spelt down before him; there was a chance that Azula was dead, even if she was skilled enough to escape the travesty of a shipwreck. The real blame would be on Iroh, and it was his obligation and honour to protect his family- could he even tell Zuko. He would have to now, Zuko was one of them: he opposed the Fire Lord as much as any of them, and he had more the reason to support their cause than most in the Fire Nation. He might not have been responsible in the same manner, but he should be privy to their actions, not just on the side-lines- Iroh would not make his nephew a pawn after all that had happened, to him- to the world; every one who was willing should be ready to do what they must in opposition to the absolute evil and megalomania of the Fire Lord. His brother had continued and worsened what had been a hundred years of fighting in the span of the seven years of his reign; Iroh couldn't believe that his little baby brother had become the monster that had maimed his own son because he felt insulted in a situation where he was clearly in the wrong to begin with. His train of thought was interrupted by a short knock on the door, before a face peered into the room.

"Uncle? You wanted to see me?" Zuko asked, sincerely confused by his Uncle's urgency.

"I wanted have some tea with my favourite nephew!" Iroh piped up with a grin.

"I'm your only nephew- and that's it? Tea?" Zuko asked back, somewhat confused by his uncle's demeanour.

"Oh not just that, but the conversation that comes with it- we do need to talk." Iroh replied, his tone more serious than before.

"Uncle, you could have just said that- didn't you say that you liked me taking you seriously." Zuko complained, making Iroh laugh at him.

"Ahhhh- that is true, my nephew; but in life you always need a bit of laughter on the side, it keeps you smiling."
Zuko sat himself down opposite to Iroh, and made a small but significant smile back, "Alright Uncle, what do you want to talk about?"

"Trust me Prince Zuko, you are not going like the contents of this conversation- that's why we have good tea to counter it."

"Always one with the spiritual energies- aren't you?" Zuko chuckled, joking more to himself than to make fun of his uncle.

Iroh held his hand on Zuko's shoulder and sighed deeply, "I have received some new information from my associates."

"A-ah, those Pai Sho guys- right?" Zuko questioned, making Iroh chuckle.

"Yes, my friends that like to play Pai Sho, and also happen to be part of an international organisation that seeks to re-establish balance."

"So does this have something do with our plans, to face my father down and show him my worth?" Zuko furthered, making Iroh reel back into his seat- he didn't know how to put what came next lightly.

"They have told me that your sister's Royal Barge was sunk in the Eastern Sea, en route to Ba Sing Se."

"Wait what?!" Zuko grew louder, fearing the potential outcome of such an event.

"She has gone missing- and my associates believe this provides us with an opportunity that there is currently an undisputed successor to the Fire Lord, that being you."

"That's assuming she's dead?" Zuko asked, his voice trembling with fear over the scenario- another dead or missing family member wasn't what Zuko wanted out of this entire affair.

"Well- dead or not, remember how your father took the throne because I wasn't in the capital?"

"Uh yes- that's when mum disappeared..." Zuko's voice now more solemn.

"Nephew- you are currently the only person who can physically proclaim themselves Fire Lord if your father was to be removed from power." Iroh explained, making Zuko reel back into his seat.

"It's a little unfair, wouldn't you think Uncle? I want my birth-right, but even Azula deserves a chance at proving herself." Zuko considered, making Iroh nearly spit his tea out.

"Prince Zuko, your sister could only prove her worth to your father by acting like him- with complete malice and ruthlessness; you're actually doing her a favour here by making sure your father can't force that situation- do you want to fight her?"

"U-uh... I don't even know anymore..." Zuko sighed, "I don't even know if half the things she did to me- however bad- she wouldn't have done if my father hadn't expected it of her; it would be dishonourable to treat her like him, she is really only following orders- like any soldier in this war."

"That is wise of you Prince Zuko, if I was in your position, I don't know I would have made the same decision- because she has gone missing you won't have to make it." Iroh explained to Zuko, making him smile back at his uncle.

"Uncle... I only want to do what is best for the world- and everyone in it, including my sister. I just hope that she gets out of all of her troubles alive- I don't know how I would forgive myself for treating her as I did if she really did die." Zuko's tone growing more solemn and fearful as his continued, making Iroh pat him on the back.

"Let us drink this calming ginseng tea, and perhaps play some Pai Sho, that would keep your mind off it." Iroh suggested with a wide grin.

"For once Uncle, I do agree with you on that; tea and Pai Sho doesn't sound that bad- my old mission doesn't scare me anymore, neither does this one."

Iroh smiled at his nephew and drank a sip from his tea cup, and thought of Zuko's words; a lack of fear should not be mistaken for courage, Iroh might have said, but he knew his nephew's confidence in facing his father was more vital than any words of wisdom Iroh could give, other than a few involving firebending tactics- of which he had a few in mind. Ozai was drawn to the cold-blooded fire, just like Iroh was once, and he is told to use it with swiftness and power- something Iroh knew exactly how to counter.

Swiping the sweat from his forehead, Sokka lay his back on a thick tree trunk, glancing out to check if anyone had been following them. Looking out into the forest, he saw little but the green foliage that had surrounded them ever since they entered the forest two days prior; Sokka was disoriented and somewhat dazed- fighting an earthbender had taken a toll on him. Azula was much more keen to get moving, but her ankle injury meant that she grunted nearly every time she took a step; Sokka had offered to carry her, but she was unwilling to listen to him and let herself seem any less than battle-ready. Pulling out his bone knife he stabbed it into the tree, listening for the vibrations to try and detect if anyone was coming up behind- he got nothing; unlike when there was nearby a stream, there was nothing that would wash out the noise, so Sokka was certain they weren't being followed just yet. He glanced over to Azula, who signalled to him with an aggravated grunt that they ought to keep running, making him sigh in frustration.

"For spirits sake- there's no one following us; even if someone had tried to follow us from the camp, we've been running for most of the afternoon." Sokka complained to her, making Azula shake her head in disagreement.

"You are an idiot if you think they're not coming after us- we killed their leader, and beat them to a pulp." she argued.

"That doesn't mean they weren't down for at least a few minutes, before they could even organise a hunt- which would take 5 confused guys a lot longer than us to run off in the forest and disappear for good."

The Princess heaved her chest, and sighed, "Let's go savage." and started to walk away into the forest, forcing Sokka to quickly put the dagger out of the tree and pace himself behind her.

"You're really going to keep up the tough act aren't you?" Sokka commented, making her glare back at him and cover her fingers with flames.

"Watch it there- you might burn your tongue." she remarked, the blue flames lighting her face a ominous shade.

"Come on! This is what I'm talking about, you're not actually going to do anything." Sokka complained, trudging behind her with his eyes focused on her still flame filled hand.

"Are you so sure about that? You follow me around for a day and you think I'm the most virtuous person on earth- I'm your future Fire Lord."

Sokka chuckled at her, "Okay Mrs. Evil-Overlord-of-Doom Junior, I'll remember that you're heartless and evil!" mocking her clear attempts to win him over.

"Oh- what a tragedy, how will I ever sway the savage to my side?" Azula jokingly asked, dropping her flame filled hand and continuing to walk on further ahead.

Walking through the forest, the two made their way from the valley of the mining village, climbing uphill toward a ridge-line, the incline becoming sharper, making Azula start to make slight sounds of pain. She eventually came to rest by a log while Sokka continued to trudge behind, noticing that she had finally taken a break.

"So are you going to stop now?" he asked her, making her dismiss his claims immediately.

"No- I am simply resting my foot, and then we'll be on our way toward whatever civilisation lays beyond this wretched place." Azula affirmed, making Sokka sigh and pulled the animal carcass off of his shoulder.

"At least can we cook the meat, I've been carrying it this entire way- I'd prefer it in my gut than on my back."

"F-fine, just be quick about it; those bastards might be just down the hill for all we know."

Sokka quickly unpacked his knife and got to work on cutting up the carcass, removing its skill an inedible portions, before turning back to Azula, who quickly prepared a fire with a short blast to some kindling; within a few minutes they had prepared all the small animals meat and Sokka handed Azula some to eat, which she begrudgingly complied to, as hungry as he was at the time.

"See that wasn't that bad; now if you demand to walk, I don't have a good excuse against it." Sokka told her, smiling to affirm that he was trying to get back on her side; Azula dismissed him, getting back on her feet and pointing up the hill.

"We better keep going, I'm not sleeping right here in the mud." she argued, her tone more concerned than aggravated now.

Sokka nodded and they continued their way up the hill, winding along in a zig-zag motion before they reached the top of the ridge, where they gained sight of the next valley as well as a clear view for miles on end.

Azula pointed toward a smokestack on the horizon, "That's a fair bit of smoke, maybe it's a village and not bandits this time." she considered, Sokka agreeing with her.

"Yep, I bet that'd have to some village- there's got to be some decent people somewhere." he remarked.

They then slowly made their way downhill, following the same zig-zagging motion toward the base of the ridge, where they found another stream, Sokka immediately racing to it for a drink. He turned back after a few mouthfuls.

"I'm guessing you wouldn't want me to wash up right now?" he asked, assuming the worst reaction from something she had already complained about.

"Knock yourself out... on some pebbles." she tried to joked, making Sokka laugh at her.

"You cannot be serious- that's the best you can come up with?"

She fumed at him, "Don't you act all high and mighty, your humour is a peasant's art."

He laughed again before returning to a pout, "But can I? I really need to clean up after all of the shit we went through today."

"Would have it been worse if you really did go through shit?" she asked him, making Sokka pout in genuine sadness.

"I can't believe I'm saying this, but yeah- that was horrible- I don't want to have to do that again; I'd take hog-shit any day over that." Azula then laughed at his situation, not taking pity after what she herself had to deal with.

"Go on, I'm not waiting more than 10 minutes." making Sokka beam with hope.

"That's all I need!" he proclaimed before racing down the stream away from the Princess, turning back to shout again, "No peeking!"

Sokka raced out from the Princesses sight, before finding a relatively deep portion of the stream, which was harder than Sokka expected- there wasn't much water to speak of. After a few minutes he finally reached a slower part of the river that ended in a short rapid- leading Sokka to quickly discard his armour and then clothing, hanging them over a tree branch before going into the water with just his underwear, which itself was simply a cotton loincloth- the most expensive article of clothing he owned; he chuckled at the thought of it as he rushed himself into the water, splashing up the riverwater over his body, cleaning off the left over sand and mud from his two day adventure in the forest. He had to also clean his bruises and other injuries, mostly burns he had received during his duel with Azula actually. His forearms felt somewhat looser after the water touched them, his muscles being tense after the shock of the earthbenders strike; he didn't want to have to fight an earthbender again- they were tough, and found bad step on his behalf and he would end up with bruises all over. Sokka was just glad he could take a moment to rest after all the stress of surviving the day- although he assumed ordinary shipwreck survivors wouldn't have to deal with Earth Kingdom deserters.

Azula didn't want to continue stressing over the earthbender and his gang, but she couldn't help it; she had no guards- just Sokka, between her and the brute strength that those men had to face her with. Firebending prodigy or not, she still feared pain and sufferring like all other people- even if she didn't show it. She knew after a few minutes sitting by the stream that they should at least keep moving- she knew from the smokestack in the distance that they could get to that village within a day or so, and the less of a chance she had sleeping rough, the better she would feel in the end. Azula guessed that the ten minutes she had offered were up, so she simply pulled herself up and started to stumble downhill along the stream- she would find Sokka and pull his ear for taking so long- or maybe she ought to burn his hair to teach him a lesson.

It took her long enough to get down the hill that she expected him to be dressed and ready- but she knew not to expect much of the boy, he was slow to do anything- if his sleep patterns were suggestive. As she came to a bend in the river, she saw him still prancing around in the water- but Azula's might was diverted to something else; he was shirtless, standing behind the mid-afternoon sun- the shadows of his body showing his defined features- she had joked about his intelligence, but not his physique, and now she had been proven right not to. She had thought of him as lanky and somewhat nimble- a bit like herself, but he was certainly well built for someone of his young age- she now realised there was obvious reasons why he was able to swim to shore while many others could not. Sokka turned his head up and his face was filled with utter shock when he realised she was watching him.

"Argh!" he nearly squealed, stepping backward awkwardly before falling into the water, "I told you no peeking!" he shouted at her in frustration and embarrassment.

"Oh, well how about next time you actually clean yourself in an orderly fashion- it's been more than ten minutes! I was coming to berate you, and as such I will!"

"Aw come on!" he shouted back in desperation, "It took me a while to find this spot, you can't expect everyone to be in and out just like that" he explained, making Azula laugh at him.

"You're a slow savage, I wonder if your physical and mental speeds are connected some how?"

"Aw nice one," he said with sarcasm, "you're really trying to be nice aren't you."

"That wasn't a joke- you're really into taking your time with stupid things like this. We ought to keep moving!" she shouted back, her face red with frustration and embarrassment.

"I need to get dressed, gimme a minute" he grumbled, standing back up and walking toward his clothes, before looking back at her and frowning, "and stop looking at me! C'mon, I actually want to get dressed without you ogling at me."

"Who said I was ogling?! I was here to make sure you actually do what I tell you." she grumbled at him, pointing her finger toward the clothes as if to order him.

"Ah, your words tell me orders, but your eyes say otherwise."

"What?" the Princess questioned, her voice becoming more angry, "Don't act like you can read me peasant. I worked hard to become as stoic as a rock."

"Really?" he mocked as he remained turned away, pulling his pants up.

"Yes; I am a skilled liar, trust me."

"U-huh, so I should trust that you can lie to my face- I don't buy it." Sokka argued, putting his shoes and shin-guards on, now sitting on a low tree branch, turned back to Azula, "-And you're still looking at me! Turn your eyes away from me woman!"

"Are you a little embarrassed?" she mocked him in a babying voice, "Who's a little boy who can't do anything without the Princess telling him?"

"Aw come on, just look at something else! A tree, the stream, some rocks- just not at me!" he complained, grabbing his shirt and chest-guard, hanging them over his shoulder.

"So after all that, you're not putting your shirt on?" she questioned him.

"Nah, I've got to wait to dry- don't want to have an itchy and uncomfortable shirt."

"-I think all the mud is a bigger worry than any water you're going to get on it, crybaby."

"Ah- that too! You're giving me arguments here, now who's the stupid one?" She raised her hand with flames again, making Sokka reel back and pull a smile of concession, "Ah- I'll just shut up now."

"Good, now we can keep walking until we can't- I want to get to that damn village peasant! Hear me?" she commanded at him, making Sokka just wave his hand, "Whatever- just give me some fair sleeping time."

"Oh- sleeping time? Make sure you don't oversleep, or I will." she smirked at him, making Sokka grumble in contempt.

"Urgh- I swear- you're just the worst sometimes."

"This is the thing you hate me for now- ruining your sleep schedule, maybe I'm making progress." she spoke, as if to talk about her thoughts, to catch Sokka off guard.

"Ah shut it you- let's just go." he dismissed, pulling up his weapons and walking ahead of Azula in the direction of the smoke-stack.

Continuing through the forest, the two survivors walked between the dense foliage in a haphazard fashion, walking toward where they thought a village to be- somewhere northward, although neither of them knew really how far- they had no sense of scale in such a foreign environment. Sokka would usually be able to tell distance on a ship because of the scale and the horizon, which was always the same distance away- no matter what. After a few hours, the sky again turned orange- signalling the closure of the day; by that time they had reached another stream, this one leading to a small set of waterfalls- Sokka pointed out a stone outcrop near the falls.

"We could camp there, it's clear and clean- no mud this time. Fresh water nearby- you can't get better than that." Sokka argued to Azula, who simply waved his claim off.

"Yes we can, a village would suit our needs more than some waterfall- a bed, however small- is still that, a bed."

"Well Mrs. I've-lived-my-entire-life-in-luxury, suck it up- this better be an experience that you can use to gain perspective on the sufferings of commoners."

"Most commoners don't drudge through random forests- they go on paths and know where they're going- unlike you."

"Or you! You don't know how far the village is from here; it could be a day before we reach it." Sokka argued, making Azula concede.

"You're in luck that my foot is sore again- I'll take your stupid waterfalls."

"Aha! I knew you'd come around eventually. I'll get us a fire started, don't want to get cold out here, not fun."

"You could put your shirt on, for one." she suggested, making Sokka realise he had been walking around with his shirt and chest-guard over his shoulder.

"Ah crap, well-" he put the shirt on, "no time is better than the present."

"I can't believe you forgot about that- seriously." Azula chuckled at him.

"Whatever, you just sit down and let me get the fire going." he dismissed her, walking into the nearby brush to break off some kindling.

Azula sat on the edge of the stone outcrop, looking down the stream, which looked like it went on forever- she couldn't even see the ocean from here, meaning they must of gone well away inland; their journey had taken them quite the distance, but she didn't feel much closer to getting somewhere clean- or safe. Sokka came back soon enough, she turned back to face him; his face was full of confidence again, as it was when he actually accomplished something. He dropped a bundle of sticks in front of her, and pointed as to offer to her.

"Do what you do best." he simply put, sitting a bit aback from the bundle before Azula set them alight.

"Are you cutting down my value as a person to simply my ability to burn things?" she questioned him, making Sokka laugh.

"It's your best quality!" he said sarcastically, making her smirk.

"You're not the first person to tell me that one." she chuckled, before pushing a small but powerful blast into the bundle of sticks, setting them alight with a near-explosion, catching Sokka off-guard.

"Okay that was a bit more than I expected."

"You wanted fire- you got it." she smirked at him.

Sokka and her sat around the fire for a while, not talking much other than to recount to each other what happened on their end with the bandits they had faced. Sokka was not surprised by Azula's smack-down of most of the men she had faced, and joked that he barely needed to come in and save the day- although they both knew he had saved her arse, despite the fact they both disdained each other furiously. He asked her again, just to certain.

"So you're going to burn me if I sleep in? Is that it?" he asked, actually hopeful that she would give him a kinder response this time.

"Just because you fought some Earth Kingdom peasants for me doesn't mean that you just get a free pass to sleep in- you'll need to do a lot more than that."

Sokka heaved his shoulders down and fell onto his back, "Seriously? What worse of a situation could we get into that would get me a 'sleep-in' pass?"

"Nothing that would concern you until it hits you in the face..." Azula told him, her wording making Sokka scrunch his face up in confusion.

"So you're not telling me because you don't want to scare me- or you're keeping your damned Fire Nation secrets."

"National security is a big deal for the Fire Lord, savage; I will actually try to do my job competently- unlike you."

"How was I meant to know I was going to fight the most powerful firebender alive, barring 'daddy' himself?" he added, mocking the Fire Lord as he had prior, making Azula scrunch her face up and look at him in disappointment.

"You're an idiot- but I'm sure you already knew that.", she then thought back to a day earlier, when Sokka had been sleeping restlessly, "You can't claim you need your sleep as much as you do, you were keeping me up with your rambling."

"Oh-" Sokka replied, looking at Azula with a sense of realisation, "so, yeah- but I don't even know what I was talking about- I can't remember." he conceded.

"Well it sounded like you were having some emotional breakdown- over somebody."

"Wait what? Was I crying?" Sokka asked, in fear that his masculinity had been tainted by his own subconscious rambling.

"Uh yeah- who's the big man now?"

"I might have cried, but I'm not the one who walks around with a broken ankle and acts like there's no issue."

"Being stoic is my nature." Azula confirmed, making Sokka slam his hand into his forehead.

"I doubt it- you wouldn't get all pissed off and fall for my ploy on the boat if you were." he argued, making Azula's face tense in offence.

"You were destroying my ship! I had a right to be annoyed." she argued, making Sokka chuckle at her again.

"Yeah- I don't think you're emotionally stale as you think you are; can't blame you though, the upbringing must've been crap- and I mean real crap- I lived at the South Pole-" before she interrupted him with her hand set on fire.

"Shut it savage- you don't know the first thing about what you're talking about!"

"No I get it really- big tough Fire Lord dad makes you be an emotionless husk so you can obey like some kind of slave."

"I'm not a slave! I'm the Crown Princess- I will be Fire Lord."

Sokka chuckled again, less fearful of her fire-hand now, "Nothing to be ashamed of really- fear drives everyone, even me- I was scared that my tribe was going to really be destroyed by the Fire Nation, so I came out to fight you guys- then I ended up riiiight here."

"Shut up, I don't want to hear your stupid ramblings about fear and other things I don't need." she dismissed, turning away from Sokka and lying down.

"Well everyone needs to talk to other people- that's a thing-" he pointed out to her, "you can go crazy walled off by yourself." Azula glanced back over at him and her face contorted into that of anger.

"I don't want to talk to the likes of you- not when I have a choice." she snidely called back, turning herself away from him.

The two remained silent then by the campfire, not a word was spoken after, and soon enough the embers died out, leaving them in the dark, where they could do nothing but fall asleep, still disdaining each other's opinions and status- but not each other. Respect was a hard thing to earn for Princess Azula- standing up to oppose her will was something that she found frustrating if not infuriating, but it was nearly admirable- Sokka had no reason to be kind or forgiving to her, as did she to him; the Water Tribesman wanted to understand her, or at least he was trying to, and that was more than most people had done for her.

The morning sun gleamed down to the forest floor, as two wanderers continued their march through the woods, although only one remained on their feet; Azula begrudgingly decided to allow Sokka to carry her until they got to the village they had been hoping to reach, knowing that her foot injury wouldn't heal unless she stopped walking. Sokka sadly threw off the remains of his armour, knowing too well that they were slowing him down, leaving them beside a stream, somewhere he'd hope to one day retrieve it- although he doubted he would; they had started walking at first light, Azula immediately shaking Sokka awake, who was glad not to have seen Azula's threat of setting him on fire fulfilled.

"I can't believe I let you carry me..." Azula mumbled to herself, holding her head away from Sokka, trying to not focus on the fact she had given into his begging- she was glad that he had decided to help and serve her, but she would have preferred her dignity remained intact.

"C'mon- we'll get there quicker than if you hobbled along on one foot, and this gives you time to heal."

"I don't need to heal- I need to get out of this damn forest." she corrected, making Sokka sigh in disappointment; he had hoped Azula's mood would improve after he helped them move quicker, even 'serving' her in a manner that she might have desired, but no- she wouldn't have her self-image tarnished by giving into help.

For a while they continued down through the bushes and foliage, keeping on track of where they saw the smoke coming from, before they arrived at a stream, where Sokka decided they should rest for a moment; Azula was more than glad to get on her own two feet and away from Sokka, who already smelt atrocious after the exercise he endured carrying her the whole way.

"Thank the spirits that you get tired- you really stink." she commented.

Sokka frowned, looking at his sweat drenched shirt, "Hey! I've been carrying you this entire-" he was interrupted by the realisation of the smell coming from his chest, "Argh! I take it back!" Sokka squealed, quickly taking off his shirt and wagging it in the wind, trying to drain the stench.

"That won't do much idiot; I thought you knew how to clean." she mocked.

"Ah- my body, not my clothes." Sokka admitted.

"Let me guess, that's 'woman's work'." she snidely told him, frowning at his sexist world-view.

"Hey! I do some work, the women do some, it's all fair really." Sokka tried to justify, making Azula nearly spit at him in disgust.

"You savages are really that backwards- and here I thought the Fire Nation was sexist."

"Well you do have woman-warriors, don't you?" Sokka asked.

"Yes- you're looking at one idiot." she affirmed, "Now are we going to get going?" she asked him, standing back on her two feet, making Sokka smack his hand on his forehead.

"Oh no you don't- I already told you walking is going to be bad for your foot." Sokka shouted in frustration- he did not want to have to deal with her prideful antics again.

As he paced over toward her she squealed at him near horror, "You're not even dressed you barbarian!"
"Shut it!" he commanded, making Azula squirm and frown in a rage of fury- she would not be undignified again.

She sent a short fire-blast at his head- which he dodged with ease before tripping her, grabbing her by the back and picking her back up, making her shout back at him in anger, "I'll get you back for this utter indecency!"

"Let's just go Princess, I'm sure we're not too far away." he told her in a more calm voice.

"Don't you give me that tone! I'll have your head you bastard!" she shouted at him again, forcing him to turn his head away as he started to walk down along the stream.

"Just be quiet for a second- I'll move quicker if we're not arguing." he explained, trying to defuse her anger- just to make her shout at him again.

"You be quiet! I demand to be treated with the proper respect."

"You're not a Princess in the middle of an Earth Kingdom forest, only just some crazy, deadly firebender." he commented.

"Did you just call me crazy?" she confronted him, her face bearing the stain of his insult.

"Ah well- I uh-" Sokka mumbled, before going completely silent, gaping his mouth in shock.

"What is it you fool?" she asked, somewhat confused by his shocked appearance, before jutting her head to right, seeing what he was: an Earth Kingdom village, in the distance, surrounded by an array of green and yellow fields of crop.

"We actually did it." Sokka proclaimed in amazement.

"Thanks for the ride." Azula commented with a smirk, before raising her foot to kick Sokka in the head, making him drop her into the mud below, before she quickly somersaulted back to her feet.

"Hey! What was that for?" he asked, his jaw pained again just like after she knocked him out on the ship.

"To remind you who's boss!" she shouted in triumph, before turning and running through the fields toward the village.

"Get back here!" he shouted, to no avail as she continued running- as if she had no foot injury- at all.

"That woman's mad..." he sighed, before trudging himself toward the village as well, relieved but frustrated- knowing too well he wasn't done with Azula's demands, insults and antics just yet.

Chapter Text

Eyes gaped at the sudden appearance of a woman draped in red, mud covered clothes, stumbling into the village with a slight limp. This village seemed to not have many visitors, let alone people that came out of the forest- looking as if they had been thrown about by angry earthbenders; Azula was not surprised by their reaction, but decided to run with the best story she could make up on the spot.

"Ah! I found civilisation at last!" she piped up, pulling an exaggerated smile of relief to the villagers.

"Uh- " stepped in one of the villagers, an older man with a long beard and top-knot, "who are you- and why are you covered in mud? Did something happen in that forest?"

"Yes- indeed something did happen; my travelling companion and I found ourselves shipwrecked on the coast south of here- we have been walking for days to find a village like your own."

"Wow!" a young woman called out, intrigued by Azula with wide eyes, "So you walked the entire way through that forest-"

The man interrupted her, turning back to Azula, "We try not to go to far into there, it's quite easy to get lost."
"I simply ask that we have some place to rest and recuperate before find our way back to a bigger town- perhaps a port."

"Ah yes- there's uh- a port not too far down the road from here, half a days walk north-east. I'm sure you could find passage there- where were you going exactly?"

"Ba Sing Se, I have business there." she curtly responded.

The man's face became paler at realising he might be dealing with someone out of the ordinary, "Uh yes, but why would you go there if the Fire Nation is occupying the city; I've heard it's become rougher these past years."

"Well, I was called there for business- confidential I might add- I wouldn't want to spill my 'employers' secrets..." Azula bluffed, trying to cover her royal identity with as much smoke as she could.

She heard a huffing noise and pacing behind her, knowing all to well Sokka had caught up to her after racing away.

"Ah- so I see you're already talking to the locals." Sokka mumbled under his exhausted breath.

The older man looked at Sokka in slight confusion, "So- this is your travelling companion?"

"Ah yes, this is my helper-"

Sokka interceded, deciding to quickly give himself a fake name, "The name's Amaruq." before holding out his hand to shake, which the man agreed to with slight confusion, before he turned back to Azula, who smiled at the man as best she could.

"Excuse him, he's a bit dim-witted- not good with social cues" she made up to try and cover his abrupt intercession, Sokka frowning slightly at her remarks about him being 'dim-witted' but cover his face with a fake smile quickly enough.

"He could help you around the village if need be, if you desire payment for your assistance."

"Uh- that would be most appreciated- uh sorry- you didn't mention you name?"

"Ah- Z-zaira, my name is Zaira." Azula bluffed, thankful she was able to bull-shit a name so quickly on the spot.

"Well Miss Zaira- I hope I can help you and your friend be comfortable for the time being while you stay in the village, I'll go ask around if there's anywhere we can bed the two of you- just wait around for a moment- Naiko! You can show our guests around-" signalling the girl who had interceded prior to step forward.

"Ah yes- I can show you two around; maybe you can tell me a bit about your adventures- it must be interesting going around the world!" Naiko piped up, with a smile on her face.

Sokka and Azula both bared fake smiles at the girl- they for one didn't want to spout their adventures for the obvious reason of being neck deep in the war as well as the relatively traumatic experience they had at sea. Naiko led the two through the village- passing by a number of old ramshackle houses and huts, made out of a variety of stones and logs, not unexpected for a poor and isolated village. She first pointed out the town's lake which they used for bathing and cleaning, as well as a spirit grove that the villagers prayed at- Azula herself found a former noble's estate to be the most interesting aspect of the tour; it had been abandoned in the past year because it's occupants and been forced to flee as they had been supporters of the local war effort, going eastward to the remaining Earth Kingdom held lands. This new information calmed Azula's fears that they were far from Fire Nation authority, which she knew was disparate anywhere in the Earth Kingdom far away from naval bases and the larger towns and cities; Naiko was actually surprisingly apathetic about it, simply claiming they had more land to use for their farming now the nobles had fled.

The tour ended at the local drinking house- or tavern as it might be called elsewhere- but this place had no bedding and not much alcohol either, just a bunch of middle-aged men lazing about in the early morning; Azula admitted to herself she didn't know much about the daily life of the peasantry, but she assumed there would be a lot more hard work involved and less lazing about- then again they didn't have the same obligations and duties like herself. Sokka smiled to and thanked the girl who guided them, making Azula twitch herself for a moment before interrupting him.

"Now S-Amaruq, we need to go meet with that man- he'll have us somewhere to stay for the moment."
Naiko intervened, smiling widely at the two of them, "Yes- come this way- I'll show you to Gang, he'll have got something for you."

Entering the drinking house they saw Gang- the man from before- talking to a number of villages, and pointed out Sokka and Azula as they entered.

"Ah here they are- the shipwrecked travellers! My friend Xu here has some room in his barn- he should be able to set you both up for the night." Gang explained, the man they presumed was Xu waving curtly at them and lifting his drink.

Xu smiled almost dopily at them, "No worry friends- always here to help travellers in need- you two sound like you've been through a lot, how about we get some stories?"

Azula decided she wasn't feeling too comfortable and made an excuse "Ah- well my ankle's very sore, I'll need to lie down for a while, but I'm sure Amaruq can give you all the details." before Sokka looked at her with slight contempt.

"You're the better bullshit artist..." he mumbled to her, as she turned to ask Naiko for directions.

"Shut it- now Naiko, that's your name right?" she asked out, trying to ignore Sokka, "I'll need some directions, I'm sure you can help me get to Xu's place."

"Ah yes- just this way" the girl grinned, grabbing Azula by the arm and taking here out of the room; Sokka tried to make a short wave, but Azula disappeared behind the door and he was left alone- well not really, but he knew it would be weird without her after all shenanigans they had to deal with over the past few days. He turned back to the men sitting by the bar, all drinking- despite the hour of day.

"So boy- what went down? You say you got shipwrecked- must have been during that storm a few days back- hell of a night to be on the water." Xu asked, figuring out as much as he could on the spot.

"Ah- yeah it really was- our ship wasn't faring well you see," he told, trying to make up a story that missed the entire issue of them having a battle and sinking the ship, "so by the time it was actually sinking, me and A-Zaira, we got out in time and were able to float until we washed ashore."

"Wow, do you know what happened to the others on board?" Gang asked, curious to the seeming tragedy they were being told of.

"No- not a clue, I hope we can get some information once we reach that port- perhaps someone sailed through." Sokka thought out loud, genuinely wanting to know what happened to those who didn't make it back to the ship like him.

"Then we ended up walking through the forest- luckily I knew how to hunt, being from the Water Tribe and all- and it took us about two days walking to get here."

"Damn kid- doesn't sound like you've had a good week, barring being stuck with a woman- can't tell if that's a good or bad thing actually." Xu waffled on, going from empathy to out right joking in the span of a sentence; Sokka could tell he'd probably already had too much to drink.

"U-uh yeah- she's tolerable; I don't think I'd have got out of the forest as easily without her constant nagging." Sokka joked, making the men laugh in cohesion, before Sokka further explained "We're just conflictive- I'm lazy and sensical, she's determined and crazy."

"How long have you know each other?" one of the other men asked, intrigued in their relationship.

"U-uh, well we- uh-" Sokka mumbled, unsure how to plot their story now- he had only met her a few days ago, and knew little about her, would it be sensible to tell a tale about them meeting some place else.

He decided to make a kind of middle ground that Azula could probably bull-shit upon if need be, "I mean I don't know exactly how long- we met on the ship, and then we've only really got to know each other since we shipwrecked."

"A-ah... I thought you two were more than acquaintances." the man admitted.

"Wait- oh spirits, you didn't think-" Sokka thought out loud, his face paling in embarrassment and fear; he trembled at the thought that people really think he and the Queen of Snarkiness were some kind of 'thing'.

The men began to bellow in laughter again, realising his embarrassment, "Ah kid, we're just teasing ya." Xu admitted, patting Sokka on the back.

"Ah- well how did one of you Water Tribesmen end up on a boat this far from the poles?" another man asked, older and less drunk that the others.

"U-uh I work as a ship-hand actually- the work pays better where people can actually pay you." Sokka made up again, making the men nod in agreement.

"The Poles are mysterious places to us boy, the only things we've heard is that it's cold and days and nights last the whole year." Gang mentioned, making Sokka sigh in relief; at least they wouldn't figure out that he was from the South and a lot of people- even random Earth Kingdom farmers- knew the Southern Water Tribesmen only came north to fight the Fire Nation.

"What's with all the weapons though- that's a lot for some one who works as a ship-hand." one of the men asked, punching a hole in Sokka's story, which he quickly tried to cover up.

"Ah- well these are my traditional weapons, from my homeland- they are good for practising my skills and remind me of where I came from."

"So you can use 'em, whassa the weird metal thing? Some kinda curved knife?" one of the men asked, his slurring making his words near unintelligible.

"My boomerang- it's my most prized possession- and it's my weapon of choice." Sokka explained, pulling it from its sheath for the men to look at, their eyes focusing on the unusual weapon.

"Huh- what does it do? Just looks like a weird knife to me." Xu asked, somewhat confused.

"No- you throw it and it comes back." Sokka explained, the men's eyes opening in amazement.

"Wait what? It comes back, like if you throw dog a stick?" one of the men asked.

"Ah- I guess so- It's more throwing it away and then it glides back in a circle." Sokka tried to explain in more detail.
"Can we see it?" one of the men requested, making the others slam their hands on the bar in excitement.
"I don't see why not..." Sokka smiled, happy he'd been able to show off and wow his new acquaintances.

Azula stood looking upon her and Sokka's lodging for the night- a somewhat stinking barn, filled with hay- she guessed Xu had bedding that they could use- she certainly didn't expect to be sleeping on straight ground for a third night in a row. Turning to Naiko, she asked the girl for a bit of information.

"So, this is where I'm sleeping?" she asked her- in the least aggressive tone she could make out.

"Yes- I'm sure Xu has bedding; did you want to know anything else?"

"Ah- yes Naiko, I'm curious as to what you actually do?" she questioned, Naiko reeling back in a slight offence and fear in the girl's dismissive tone.

"I work at the mill with my family, it's my break at the moment- luckily I got to meet someone new and interesting like you- and your companion." emphasising at the end, making Azula twitch her eyebrow again.

"Are you really that enamoured with boy- you've literally had half a conversation with him."

"O-uh I find him interesting- just like you- both travellers from places I've probably never heard of..." Naiko excused herself, blushing slightly.

"You probably have-" Azula mumbled under her breath before realising she had to keep her image up, turning to the girl with a smile, "Thank you Naiko- your assistance and guidance was most helpful- I'll be sure to ask you for any more information if I feel like it."

Naiko smiled back sincerely (unlike Azula) and nodded curtly, "Yes, be sure to see for me at the mill, I'll be there most hours of the day; have a good afternoon Zaira." she slightly bowed in deference, before turning around and walking back down toward the centre of the village, waving to Azula as she disappeared into the distance, making Azula force a wave back- she didn't enjoy the niceties of small talk as much as she assumed Sokka would.

Walking into the barn, she immediately found it far too dirty to sleep in- not that she would need to in the middle of the day; Azula decided that it would be far easier to just lay outside to rest- the sky was clear- she wasn't going get rained on. Lying down Azula's mind crossed the days events- all of the labours she had undergone would hopefully be worth it in a days time when she reached some Fire Nation officials who could take care of her needs- it had been far too long since she had a bath, or any kind of cleaning for that matter- she was still wearing her mud covered undergarments which luckily for her were fine enough looking to wear outside- it made her mind cross the thought of whether Xu had a bath- she could easily enough bathe herself, she had her firebending to heat the water- and she would do it without hesitation if it were not for the threat of another walking in on her. Azula was half asleep when a shadow covered her view, and she could tell from the dirty blue garbs that it was her 'companion' and not their host or some other Earth Kingdom peasant; he was even more exhausted looking than before, and she couldn't tell herself if it was from drinking with those men or labouring away like she had expected of him.

"So you got to sleep- while I carried water around all afternoon."

"Ah- don't complain too much, I couldn't have done your work with this bad foot." Azula smirked, excusing herself with the injury he had been berating her about.

"My argument is broken again- is it?" Sokka sighed, before sitting down beside her.

"What story did you speel to the men at the bar, Amaruq?" Azula asked, using his fake name to remind him of their false identities."

"U-uh I just told them that we met on 'the ship', we were ship-wrecked in the storm- which is true, and that we survived in the forest, and headed overland to find a village."

"Well let's hope they don't know of or speak with those Earth Kingdom bandits- they'd be a nuisance if they got the people up and about knowing they were harbouring a firebender."

"That would be- well it'd be fucking annoying, if I'm going to be completely honest." Sokka admitted, making Azula smile at his agreement.

"Yes, I'm glad we're on the same page with that- I'd thought you'd go soft wanting to help the poor 'Earth Kingdom' soldiers who lost their war."

"Not really- they seem like they've abandoned their honour and tried to use their 'skills' not to defend their country but to ravage it- that's the worst thing a man could do to his people." Sokka explained his opinion, making Azula curtly grin at realising that Sokka had aligned with her interests almost perfectly in their situation.

"Don't get too happy- I'm not going to just swear fealty to the Fire Nation after seeing how dickish Earth Kingdom people can be!" he piped up at her, making Azula frown slightly before dismissing his comment; she knew she'd win him over soon enough.

A few moments later, they heard a call from down the path, and looked over to see a somewhat drunken Xu returning from his afternoon errands, "Ah my new friends- it's boomerang boy!" he proclaimed in a stupor, reminding Sokka of the show he put on to the amazement of the men.

"I know this is probably a bad time to ask, but could you show us where you've got your bedding and all- I don't think the lady's going to approve of sleeping on the ground again." Sokka asked of Xu, who looked at him and grinned almost jokingly back.

"Ah yes- don't you worry about a thing." he told him, winking at Sokka as he said 'you', as if to jest at him like before about being 'acquaintances' with Azula.

"Thank you very much." Sokka held a hand out- but his face remained less positive in frustration after Xu's remarks; Xu shook his hand sloppily and guided the two of them into his house, a stone cottage with the barn annexed to the side.

"A-uh d'bedding is-ah stored under me and m'wives bed." he explained, his words slurring perhaps unintentionally from his drunkenness; Sokka quickly went to the bed and pulled out the blankets and thin roll up mattress, probably used as extra layers for Xu's own bed.

"Thank you Xu, again- it's really kind to offer your space and things for us." Sokka thanked, patting the man on the shoulder.

"N'worries my friend- nothing wrong with a little love in the world." he jested again, elbowing Sokka, much to his disapproval.

"We'll see ourselves out- where do we get food?" Azula intervened between the two, Xu stumped for a moment before recollecting his thoughts.

"Ah yes- food! You can go down to Gang's house- he's the baker, ought to have something spare for y'all to eat."

"Thanks- we'll do that." Sokka acknowledged, walking out of the house as quickly as he could- he didn't want to find out the other embarrassing things Xu would joke about while drunk.

The two walked down the path back to the village, returning to where they first arrived- which happened to be Gang's bakery. The sky was getting low and it looked like he was just about to stop working for the day; Sokka called out to him to get his attention.

"Hey Gang! We heard you have food!" Sokka bluntly requested, Gang's head peeking out from his kitchen.

"Why of course- I'm the baker, and you're my esteemed guests." he remarked, smiling courteously at the two of them.

"Well- I wouldn't say esteemed-" Sokka commented, interrupted by an elbow to the side from Azula- telling him to shut his mouth, as per usual.

"We are very grateful for your generosity." Azula curtly stated, making a short bow, which Sokka copied in unison.

"Ah- you're too kind- you've had a rough few days, it's the least an old fellow like me can do."
He handed them a loaf of bread each, each of them thanking him in response with their best imitations of Earth Kingdom bows; he appreciated it and was near flustered; Sokka was about to thank him for the company at the bar, but Azula grabbed him by the arm and they were on their way.

"You've had enough social interaction today- we can't have you blabbering too much." she remarked, making Sokka cross his arms in frustration as they walked back towards Xu's place.

"Aw- you're such a meanie- really; could you go a day without being all-above-every-other-person-alive and be nice for a change." he asked of her, making her genuinely laugh at him.

"Ah no savage- my title gives every right, and my merit as well- you know what happens to those who cross me."

"Not exactly- I never crossed you- I was never your subject- I'm an enemy combatant." he refuted, genuinely not knowing what Azula did to the people she didn't like; he had a good enough guess however.

"Combatant! Ah- you're piss-weak at fighting- I beat up most of those bastards yesterday." she laughed at him, making Sokka's face scrunch in frustration.

"You're lucky I haven't tried to haul you away as my prisoner; I happen to be forgiving and kind on the matters related to the war that killed my people and that's been going on for like- how I don't know- a century?" he explained to her, and she nodded in agreement.

"That's why it's so much more fulfilling to see you do my bidding!" she jested at him, making Sokka's face go red with anger and embarrassment.

"This is why I don't like talking to you!" he nearly shouted, going his separate way as they arrived at the barn- walking off to sit in the grass, making Azula chuckle at his behaviour.

Azula walked into the barn, dismissing Sokka's frustration and prepared to set up her bedding; pulling out the roll up mattress she immediately noticed that it was a single mattress- meaning they would have to sleep in the same bed. She cringed at the thought but got to work anyway, clearing away the hay from an area near a work-bench- it had a small gate separating it from the rest of the barn, ensuring that the livestock wouldn't accidentally walk into their bed while they were sleeping. Laying the blankets on the bed she sighed with relief, knowing that she would at least have a good sleep for the first time in three days; her previous bed was at the bottom of the Eastern Sea at the moment, so she hoped her current bed would not face a similarly bad fate- she needed to actually sleep well after her recent experiences. She walked out from the now set bedding, and looked at Sokka- he was sitting on the grassy knoll, looking out on the village an at the orange haze that was forming from the falling sun, behind Sokka, giving him an orange hue.

"So are you over your tantrum?" she asked him, hearing a gruff dismissing sigh- she responded by walking up behind him and sitting down.

Hearing her sit, he turned to her- his face contorted into one of chagrin, "Here to berate me about being a weak little servant again?" he asked, his tone genuine and serious.

"No idiot- I just wanted to talk." she dismissed his claim, making Sokka gasp sarcastically.

"And what about? Your secret tunnel in the Fire Nation capital- no- the wealth and prosperity your people are bringing to the Earth Kingdom? What else could you further say to make me feel like your friend." he asked her, his tone spiteful and dismissive, "These people here, they treat you with respect and deference- do you think you deserve it?"

"No- I don't think I do." she admitted, making Sokka genuinely look back in shock.
"Wait what? Where did the domineering and ruthless Fire Princess go?" he asked sarcastically, pretending to look around for her.

"These people are Earth Kingdom- I don't think the Fire Nation has anything to do with these people. Why should they respect me if I don't have any actual power over them- I don't have an army to force them to pay tribute, do I?"

"No you don't... But one day- maybe not tomorrow, but eventually- the Fire Nation will come here and force their 'progress' on these people- just like they did to mine." he explained, Azula nodding at him.

"It's an inevitability- you don't see it the same way as the people of the Fire Nation would- they are going to win, and if the world submits- becomes one nation, we will all be better off because of it." she explained.

"That's some pretty flawed logic- the Air Nomads weren't given a chance to join in your march of progress- they were annihilated."

"The Air Nation is gone- they won't be back again, and now there are three elements- if the Water Tribes continue to resist- there will be two."

"I know that well enough- my mum's dead because of it."

"What? Oh- so you're angsty over your mother being killed by the Fire Nation? That's why you're doing all of this." Azula replied in realisation.

Sokka growled back at her, "Shut up- that's not all of it- my fight is an honourable one, to protect the world from the likes of you."

"It's not like I've killed anyone- I haven't actually!" she exclaimed in frustration, making Sokka almost sigh in relief, although Azula was unsure if it had been sarcastic or not.

"Well isn't that great for the world- but I'm sure thousands will die on your commands once you take the throne- is that an inevitability you will tolerate?" he questioned her.

"I don't know- it depends on who needs to die." she admitted.

"What kind of statement is that? When do people ever need to die?" he started shouting at her in anger, shocked that such words could be uttered about human lives.

"How about when you're about to have your chest caved in by a hammer?" she asked him, reminding him of his 'blooding', as he had called it.

"A-urgh!" he frustratedly shouted, "You're right- I guess you're actually right for once." he admitted.

"For once- I've been right most of the time actually." she corrected him, making Sokka sigh.

"No- you're right about something serious this time." he admitted to her, making Azula reel back in appeasement- Sokka actually wanted to admit she was right.

"So does that change your mind?" she asked him, making Sokka grunt in anger.

"No- I am forever loyal to my nation- as I guess you will be to yours." he told her, before looking out onto the horizon, "I guess this journey will change me, maybe for the better."

"Why is that?" she intruded, making Sokka sigh again, his constant 'down-attitude' making Azula frustrated in and of itself.

"I never want to kill anyone again- within reason; I know well enough that you probably won't try to kill anyone, and that's enough to keep my mind at rest about fearing letting you go."

"So you've given up on your duties as a warrior?" she asked him, trying to mock him for his weak attitude.

"That wasn't my job- my job was to follow my father's orders- and I don't think he'll mind if he gets his son back if the enemy gets away."

"Families important to you- more than your quest against the Fire Nation?" Azula questioned again, Sokka turning to her.

"You're not evil- firebenders might not all be evil- if that's the case, why should I treat you like you're not even people."
he told her, smiling at her genuinely now.

"Wow- was that an underhanded way to say I'm a nice person?" she immediately questioned him, souring Sokka's mood instantly.

"U-uh no- I still can't trust you for the life of me. So now I've speeled my stuff, can you speel yours? I don't know anything about your nation other than the fact you believe that a global war brings progress."

"Not just yet Sokka- not until it suits the situation." she smirked, making Sokka look at her in dismissal, but no longer angry, and looked back out in wonder at the orange and pink haze of the dying day.

As the day drew to a close, Azula was secretly happy that Sokka was so willing to make dialogue over their issues- mostly political and moral- where she was able to actually show him why his arguments were flawed and somewhat revanchist; she knew deep down that maybe Sokka was right about the Fire Nation and their march for progress being wrong- killing people and taking their land, but she had no real idea how it could be done otherwise- how could the war end in peace if the nations themselves could not be at peace with the outcome. Perhaps if the relationship Sokka and Azula had built for themselves in the short time they had known each other could be extended to the rest of the world- so maybe, just maybe there could be peace- lasting peace.

Walking along a haphazard track, the morning sun peering just over the horizon, five Earth Kingdom deserters filed along, all tired and pained from their battle two days prior- they had gone east to a nearby village to recuperate, intimidating the villagers into helping them- not that they really had a choice in the matter. Their new 'leader' Huang- the only Earthbender in their squad- held his shoulders high at the front, looking out to see if the next village was anywhere nearby; the path itself was old and not well travelled, and the villagers themselves only had vague estimations on how long it would take to travel, let alone when injured. Huang knew that his injuries were the most superficial out of the the group, only having been incapacitated by a weapon that Yang described as a flying blade, although it didn't necessarily cut; he had missed the fight in the village, where a firebending woman beat the shit of his comrades- they had no chance against her- the only one who could face her, their former leader Bao had paid the ultimate price in battle- they found him with his throat slit- the Fire Nation wench and her blade-throwing ally had killed their hero- he had guided them away from the troubles and sufferings of the war and gave them a life- it might not have been the most honourable life, but for what did they care- the Fire Nation didn't have honour, so what was point of them having it too?

Huang knew they hadn't been to the upcoming village before, so he knew that they could foil the villagers with an act of them being guerrilla soldiers, who were in desperate need of resupply. Such a farce was partially true- they were soldiers fighting the Fire Nation, but they had no King or commander to tell them what to do, they would take what they needed for their own sake- their duty was to slaughter as many of the bastards as they could, and then maybe buy themselves some retirement package in Ba Sing Se- if they'd be allowed in to begin with. Huang himself hadn't seen a real battle in over four years- the last one he fought was against a massive Fire Nation force with his battalion- most of which were slaughtered, Bao and him were the only ones he knew that avoided capture or worse by the Fire Nation.

The other village had known of their origin as deserters, due to them previously stealing from the village on their return journey from the Si Wong Desert- they had been trading with sandbenders captives and goods they had taken on a raid on a Fire Nation colony on the shore of the West Lake- it had been a tough fight and they had lost a few men- but that was against Fire Nation villagers and a small garrison, not a firebender and a single nonbending warrior; they had been bested by amateurs at most, although Huang had heard from Yang of the girl's blue fire and that scared him- that was something unknown to him, a soldier of nearly ten years- he had fought countless firebenders, powerful and weak- none bore blue flames.

Following the track, the group finally made it to a clearing where they could see the multicoloured fields of grain- they had found a settlement, from what it seemed- perhaps these people would be more forthcoming in information- the two could have gone over the few valleys between the mining village and this area- Huang considered it likely- they couldn't have reasonably gone south- there was nothing much in that direction within a few days walk.

"Do ya think they've holed themselves up somewhere 'round here Huang?" Yang asked him, pointing out the village in the distance- dozens of houses packed together amongst the fields of grain and grass.

"Probably mate- we're gotta find those bastards and teach them a lesson." he smirked back, Yang replying with the same face- revenge was sweeter when it involved your friends.

Walking up into the village, they noted it was empty at such an early hour, but decided to door knock anyway- most of the villagers quickly called out to go away at such an early hour, but one opened the door.

"Ah- soldiers of our great nation? Why do I have the honour of receiving you at such an hour?" he asked them, acting as courteous as possible in front of who he presumed were veteran soldiers; they were so, in a way.

"My friend- we seek out enemies of the Earth Kingdom- they ambushed our men when we were scouting and killed our commander- they stole our supplies."

"Really?! Who would dare efface our nation's beloved soldiers?" the man responded in genuine shock.

"A firebender and her Water Tribe lackey-" Huang begun to explain, wanting to give a good story so the villagers would back them.

"Wait- you say a Water Tribesman? There's one in this village right now! He came with a girl looking for shelter after a shipwreck- that girl's a firebender?!" the man gasped in shockingly realisation.

Huang looked at the man with a smirk and responded, "The woman's far more dangerous than the boy- it's paramount that we find and capture her- for the security of our nation."

"Of course- they're staying with a villager- I don't know which one exactly- you're going to have to ask around." he admitted, Huang looking back to his men.

"Tell the villagers what I told this man- ask about the Fire Nation girl and Water Tribesman- we'll have them in our grasp soon enough!" he ordered, his men nodding in agreement before racing off into the village to look for awake villagers to interrogate.

Not too far from them had been Naiko, who was fetching water from the village well for her family's breakfast- immediately realised who and what they were talking about, she looked as if she was focused on her chores as one of the men came up to her.

"You- girl! Have you seen a Water Tribesman and a firebending girl?" he asked of her, confirming her suspicions that they were looking for Amaruq and Zaira.

She bluffed to the man, "Uh- yes! I remember them from yesterday, they were being lodged by the baker Gang; he lives down the street, back the way you came- ask him for information."

"Thanks girl- your help is appreciated." the man curtly bowed before picking himself up and running back down the street, when he was out of sight, she dropped her water bucket and ran between two adjacent houses- disappearing from the street and heading into the pastures behind the village; she would inform her new friends that they were being looked for- whatever they had done with those Earth Kingdom soldiers- it didn't seem like they were who they claimed.

Chapter Text

The warmth of actual bedding was a great victory in the eyes of the Water Tribe Warrior, the cloth keeping in the warmth during the cool night kept him asleep well after sunrise- well not too long; half dozed he rolled over to get slightly more comfortable when it hit him- he was sleeping in the same bed as Azula- who at the moment was sound asleep. He held in a shriek and pulled himself from the mattress; she had scared him more than any surprise attack could have- she was so quietly lying there, as if she wasn't even there, other than for her lump of mass rolled over the side of the mattress. Looking at the woman- which he usually tried not to do- he saw her without her witty remarks or frustrating comments and further her background as the heir of the empire he was fighting; she was just a young woman- same age as him he guessed, tired and in pain after days lost in the wilderness- he didn't pity her- he was stuck with her after all- but at he put that into perspective as he sat there, gazing at her near motionless body.

"I woke up first this time." he remarked to himself with a smirk, realising he had beaten Azula at her own game- although he knew that she wouldn't certainly be in the same rush she had been while looking for some form of 'civilisation'; funnily enough this village was far larger than his own, and he it made him chuckle at the thought of Azula being stuck in his village- would she find the icy tundra and it's igloos too cold and barren for her taste? She was sleeping in a barn- he was sure she could tolerate the South Pole with the proper clothing and bedding.

Sokka turned himself from his analysis of Azula- feeling somewhat uncomfortable about his thought patterns- it wasn't like Azula would ever even go to the South Pole, and not that he would want her to- she was the enemy, and soon enough they'd part ways for good, at least he hoped so. He might go as far to say he would miss her, but that would be an overstatement on his behalf- there were far more enjoyable company, although probably none as interesting as her- unless there happened to be an even more powerful bender with a bad upbringing around. His chain of thought was interrupted by the rambling of fast steps toward the barn, making Sokka immediately get up and grab his boomerang from the bedside- only to realise it was Naiko, exhausted and panting from running up the hill- as if she had been running for her life.

With the boomerang aimed at her, Naiko trembled but sputtered out "Amaruq! You and Zaira have to leave right now- whoever you messed with- some earthbenders- they're here."

"How did you figure that out?" he asked her, Naiko sighed and almost smirked back.

"I'm a good listener, and I'm not stupid- mysterious Water Tribesman and a 'firebending woman'- I'd guess that'd be you two running out of the forest away from them." she explained.

Sokka nodded and turned down to Azula, shaking her on the shoulder, shocking her awake, making her roll over and try to get into some stance to fight him, making Sokka immediately raise his arms in fear, "No don't set me on fire! The deserters are here!"

"Deserters- that makes more sense than guerrilla soldiers." Naiko offhandedly remarked.

"Yes- and they'll probably kill me and rape her- it's best we get out of here before they find us." Sokka told her, pulling Azula to her feet, still slightly shocked from being waken up.

"U-uh so- time to beat up those bastards for a second time?" Azula smirked at Sokka, making him slap his hand into forehead.

"No! We need to get out of here so we don't cause any more unnecessary injuries- or worse." he shouted at her, frustrated that she would immediately turn to violence.

"So who are you two?" Naiko intervened between them, somewhat awkward realising they were both only partly dressed.

"Uh- I'm a Water Tribe warrior- and it's best you don't know who she is." Sokka admitted, Naiko turning to Azula with suspicion.

"Fire Nation? I don't care for the war too much- but I don't want the Fire Nation coming back here to do anything stupid- could you do me that favour."

"Why do you assume I have any power over Fire Nation military policy?" Azula questioned her, genuinely fearing that she had overheard something she might have said.

"I don't know- you seem important- high-class maybe; you can do something, can't you?" Naiko asked her, eyes full of fear and desperation, a face Sokka himself knew too well.

"Maybe- if I can get out of here alive." Azula told her, standing up to her height and seeming more imposing, ready to fight.

"I'll make sure of it- I think I've got a distraction in mind." Naiko affirmed, smirking at Azula and Sokka before running out of the barn- leaving them alone again.

Sokka looked back to Azula and blushed upon realising that she was wearing only her pants and undershirt- leaving her somewhat physically exposed; he didn't see many women in such form, being from a place where most people wore thick parkas. Upon realising Sokka had been perhaps unintentionally ogling her, she smacked him in the face.

"That is an act of disrespect savage- I don't want to see you looking at me like that again." she ordered him, Sokka drooping his face in embarrassment.

"Ah- yep, I'll just go get dressed over there." he replied as quickly as possible, gathering up his weapons and shirt, walking out of the small pen they were located in.

Quickly pulling over his shirt and tying it up, Sokka looked down the hill and wasn't able to see much, meaning that the deserters weren't nearby- yet. He pulled over his boomerang holser. and slid his club in between it and his back, before turning back to Azula- who had already donned her boots despite her foot injury and to the best of her attempts, done her hair in an orderly fashion. He saw her face contort in frustration as a hair drooped down over her forehead.

"Ah I think it's okay Azula- let's just get out of here." he advised, the Princess sighing and walking herself out of the barn with an air of authority, before turning back to glance at Sokka with a smirk.

"I'd stand back if I was you." she remarked casually, before taking a deep breath, Sokka realising what she was going to before he could even protest; she let out of a massive beam of fire from her mouth and two smaller ones from her fists- to catch the attention of the deserters.

He paced up behind her after the fire had dissipated, his face distraught "I admit that did look cool- but what the fuck Azula! They're going to come straight for us now!"

She smirked back, "I'm counting on it- what did the old military guides say- the high ground is a supreme advantage?"

"I'm not well-versed- but I see what you're getting at, we're not an army- it's just the two of us."

"Five Earth Kingdom deserters can't face up to my power- I have been blessed by Agni as prodigy and my own years of work towards achieving perfect bending- you're about to see the pay off." she monologued making Sokka slap his hand on his forehead once more.

"You can't be serious- we need to get out of here- what about the villagers? They'll tear you apart for being a firebender." he argued to her, Azula dismissing him with a flick of her hand.

"We will fight- or at least I will if you're so averse to violence these days- where did the warrior on the ship go? Did he drown with the others?" she mocked him, making Sokka scream in frustration and hurt from her harsh words.

"Argh! I can't deal with your shit any further- I'll beat the shit out of these spirit-damned deserters if it will stop you being so damn irrational." he shouted, making Azula curtly smirk back again.

"That's what I was waiting for, now let's beat these bastards again."

Within a minute four of the deserters, led by who Sokka recognised as Huang, were at the base of the hill and were racing up to fight them- Huang initiating the battle with a rumble of Earthbending, destabilising the ground underneath them; Azula simply smirked at him and within a moment she drew lightning and bent it right into the man's chest, flinging him to the ground.

"The earthbender's down for the count, the others should be easy." she deviously chuckled, Sokka trying to ignore her passionate enjoyment of the fighting.

Sokka quickly withdrew his boomerang and threw it at the next closest man- he recognised this as the one who had been getting up from their various hits during the first fight- hard-headed, too much for his own good, he thought. The boomerang just missed the man's head, ready for it's arrival, but was unprepared for Azula's wave of fire that bellowed down the hill, causing the men to trip and fall or duck to the side- stopping them momentarily.

As soon as the boomerang returned to Sokka's grasp he threw it again, this time at one of the tripped men, quickly incapacitating him. The hard-headed one ran straight for the two of them, pulling out two swords and racing with a screaming war-face- which Sokka would be intimidated by if he didn't pull one himself; Sokka deflected his attempts at attacking him with his club, which he used to whack hard into the man's jaw, flinging him off his feet and forcing him to roll down the hill. The other two men, one of which had already taken a boomerang to the head, formed a defensive line with their small wooden shields- Azula immediately set them alight however, making them defenceless against Sokka charging in with fury, whacking them in the knees and faces with his club, quickly knocking them both out cold.

"That wasn't so hard wasn't it?" Azula chuckled, walking down beside Sokka to look upon their defeated enemies; only to be interrupted by the grumbling of Huang from the pain of being struck by lightning- somehow conscious after the hit.

"L-lightnin'?" he asked out in a slur, gasping for air after the savage burning of chest by Azula's lightning strike.

"Oh no you fucking don't!" Sokka shouted, kicking him straight in the jaw, knocking him out cold "We're not killing needlessly again- as I already said." he remarked, looking back at Azula with cold eyes.

"Good reflexes savage- I knew you'd come of use." Azula smirked, making Sokka sigh, already going over the recent events in his mind.

"So where did Naiko go?" he questioned, knowing full well no one would give him an answer. The girl had helped them by warning them about the bandits instead of leading them to them- she was good- honourable, and Sokka didn't want anyone like her getting hurt in the crossfire.

"She isn't the priority Sokka- she seemed smart enough, she'll find her way out of this mess like we just have." she remarked.

"She said a distraction, what could she mean by a distraction?" Sokka thought out loud, his question receiving an answer when they heard shouts and a squeal.

The two ran down the path into the village, realising immediately what Naiko had planned. She stood above the last remaining soldier, his head red and swollen, from what looked like Naiko whacking him in the head with a piece of scrap wood, surrounded by shocked villagers.

"By the spirits- you call that a distraction." Azula remarked in slight disappoint, looking upon Naiko standing in frustration above the incapacitated soldier, who looked around at the villagers surrounding her before shouting back at Azula with fear.

"Run damn it! Run!" she shouted at them, before the villagers begun to pick up pace and charge towards Azula and Sokka, knowing all too well who they really were- a firebender and her lackey, although Sokka would likely rephrase it as 'partner'.

"Get the girl! She's one of them!" one of the villagers shouted, a young man with a topknot, raising his hand to rise a rock from the ground- an earthbender; the rock raced past their heads before Sokka and Azula begun running away with haste, first into the thick fields of grain that bounded the village.

Sokka turned to Azula and screamed in fear, "I don't want to get killed by a bunch of angry Earth Kingdom villagers- these are the people I'm trying to save from the Fire Nation!"

"We're not going to!" Azula shouted back, lighting her hand on fire before sending a beam of fire into field of grain, setting it alight behind them.

"That's food you idiot! They'll starve!" Sokka desperately argued.

"Would you rather they go hungry or we end up being stoned to death?" she asked him with all seriousness, still keeping a sprinting pace as they ran into the forest once more.

Sokka looked back at the villagers and nodded to Azula, his face genuinely terrified; he didn't want to be killed by people that he believed were good and well-intentioned- unlike most of the world he knew. The two travellers continued to sprint into the brush for a while, hearing the pattering of footsteps behind them as the villagers diverted around the field, now led by a haphazard squad of local earthbending men- at least they assumed, from the rocks they could see and hear being flung in their direction.

"We need to get out of here- and find some way to actually mask our identities." Sokka commented, glancing back at into the thick brush, echoing the footsteps of the villagers.

"What a smart idea- where would there be anything to help us outside the village?" she asked him with a hint of sarcasm.

"Didn't Naiko say she and her family worked a mill- if they're preoccupied with the search, maybe we can steal some clothes or a steed to ride- we'll outrun the villagers on the back of ostrich horses." Sokka thought out loud, his plans forming in the moment.

"That's good enough- it'll be along the river, right? We go there and sneak along there until we find the mill." Azula replied, agreeing fully with Sokka's plan- they had been found because of their clothing and obvious backgrounds- dressing like Earth Kingdom peasants ought to save them the trouble of being recognised, although she reminded herself to keep her current clothes at hand- how else could she persuade the Fire Nation that she was actually Princess Azula?

They raced downhill towards the sound of water, quickly crossing over the 'road' between the village and the next one, which was their next planned destination- hopefully the Fire Nation had someone stationed there for them to find safety with; Sokka was going to have a fit when he realised they'd have to find refuge with his sworn enemies. They looked upon the stream that was next to the path, seeing it was easy enough to cross on foot at this point- luckily for them, they wouldn't want to go back to the village to cross it.

"Well time to get in the mud again." Sokka sighed in a tone of genuine sadness that made Azula cackle- she disapproved of getting dirty as well- she would describe herself certainly as the clean and tidy perfectionist, but she found it overly amusing how concerned he was for cleanliness- at least for a man.

The two crossed the river, wading through it slowly, although it was only a few metres wide, and within a minute they were on the other side and patting themselves dry, Sokka checking scout immediately for any villagers who came looking this way; luckily for them it seemed they assumed Sokka and Azula would be hiding in the forest they ran into, a much easier feat than sneaking back toward the village along the river- without being spotted that was.

Naiko was not having the best morning, if she was to be completely honest- she had helped her new and unusual friends but had ultimately paid a hefty price for it- the village didn't trust her after realising she had warned the two 'enemies' of the Earth Kingdom 'soldiers' who had been searching for them- Naiko tried to point it out to them, but she had her hands bound and was practically being held captive by the village's elder men, who certainly distrusted the Fire Nation more than most of their people- veterans of the war who had returned home scarred men.

Held up against the wall by her own cousin Lee, Naiko spat out at his face, "You idiots! You all act like those bastards are our friends just because they wear our colours! Zaira and Amaruq weren't trying to harm us, or undermine us-" she shouted, before being slapped in the face, her cheek now raw and her eyes falling with tears.

"Shut up Naiko- you should know better than to trust the ash-makers- she had a Water Tribe lackey with her- she probably stole him from his people, a captive turned servant!" Lee called her out, clearly disgruntled with her willingness to 'help' the Fire Nation.

"Stop right that now young man!" a voice called out, making Lee smirk and turn around.

Holding Naiko against the wall with one hand he almost laughed, "Or you're gonna-" being immediately interrupted by a fist to the face- his uncle's fist.

"Argh!" Lee cried out, falling to the ground- dazed and confused from the articulate strike.

"Don't you dare touch my daughter again- hear me? Or I'll castrate you myself." Naiko's father warned him, towering above him. He was a tall, muscular man- he looked like an elite earthbender soldier in form, but was only a lowly non-bending peasant man- but not today- he was Naiko's protector, as was his duty.

"B-but u-uncle Yano, she betrayed our people by helping them- those degenerates!" Lee argued to his Uncle, rubbing the side of his head to try and lessen the pain.

"You dare call my daughter a traitor?!" Yano asked him, making Lee reel back in fear- he knew too well not cross his uncle, "That's what I thought; now all of you, I don't want to hear any more bad-mouthing- Naiko did what she thought was right. You're just beating up your own kin because you have an itch with the Fire Nation!" he stated, grabbing his daughter by the arm and taking her away from the crowd of angry villagers.

Looking to her father with red tearful eyes, Naiko tried to smile "T-thank you father, they wouldn't stop-"

Yano held his hand to her face, "Don't worry now Nai, you're all okay- I'll take you back home, I'm sure your mother can help tend to the sores." Naiko sighing in relief upon hearing her fathers reassurances- she feared the worst when she realised he had found out of her complicity, but she understood from her words- she was doing what was right, not what any idea of obligation to her nation told her, better than most people in the world these days.

Walking down the path, holding her with his arm, Yano looked back to her face and decided to ask, "So are you certain those men are deserters- how could you even know such a thing?" he asked her, Naiko sighing and smiling,

"I guessed from their attire- either guerrillas or deserters, and it seemed they were far too willing to harass the villagers- Amaruq confirmed my suspicions."

"The Water Tribesman; so he's really helping a firebender- of all the nations- you'd think he'd be least willing." Yano commented, concerned by the possibility of a Water Tribesman betraying their own- something that was unheard of, at least from what he knew.

"That's what I thought too, but it seemed he trusted her, and they were in it together- if anything, I think they didn't lie about being ship-wrecked- maybe they found each other after a battle- the Water Tribes do send raids this far away from the poles, don't they?"

"Yes- my late brother- your uncle, spoke fondly of the Southern Water Tribe, supposedly they had led a fleet against the Fire Nation after the Fire Nation had raided their nation to oblivion- no more waterbenders, supposedly. That's what I heard, but I trust my brother- he knew what he was talking about."

"Why aren't you angry like the rest then- Uncle died in battle against the Fire Nation, and you're willing to let a firebender slip away?" she questioned her father.

"I'm not a spiteful man, I have children- you and your brothers- to worry about; the war is for young idealists who want to see glory- or have some obtuse sense of duty- that's not me darling- I'm just a man living his life for the real things that matter."

Naiko smiled back at her father, hugging him with joy "Thank you dad, I really- uh- I'm just happy you trusted me."

"Don't worry- there's nothing to-" Yano replied, being interrupted by the sound of door opening- they were already near their house, but even in the distance he knew the creak of the back door all too well- Naiko and her brothers would always use it to sneak out.

"Somebody's at the house- I think I know who." Naiko commented.

Father and daughter walked slowly back toward the house, knocking on the door to be certain- and immediately heard a scrambling and a shout, before they opened it fully, seeing both Sokka and Azula with their hands full of clothes- their clothes.

"What is this?!" Yano shouted in shock, realising that this was Naiko's new friends, stealing their clothes.

"U-uh we'll leave right away- without the clothes." Sokka mumbled, in shock and unable to try and argue back- he was committing a dishonourable act, and he knew he couldn't do much but drop the clothes on the floor.

"Guys- I thought I told you to run- why did you come back to rob my families house of all things?!" Naiko questioned them, her tone baring disappointment in the two.

"We needed disguises- and maybe an ostrich horse." Sokka admitted, shrugging his shoulders.

"You could have just asked nicely," Naiko told them, "o-uh and this is my dad." she introduced, hands waving over to her father, who stood imposingly tall above the other three- even Sokka, who was pretty tall in Azula's eyes.

"I can't pay you back- or anything." Sokka admitted, lowering his head in shame.

"Actually- I can." Azula intervened, Sokka's eyes looking at her in fear- he didn't want her to spill her identity at such an inopportune time.

"So you do have the goods-" Naiko commented, smirking at Azula, who blushed slightly before readjusting herself.

"I- or at the very least my family can offer you a fair reward in exchange for your service, it's only fair for what I've put your daughter through because of my carelessness." Azula admitted, genuinely feeling like she had wronged Naiko after what looked like abuse from the other villagers- the beating reminding her starkly of her own brother's punishment by her father.

"I mean, we could always use the extra bit of money around- Dad?" Naiko commented, looking to her father for approval, who looked somewhat shocked and confused by the whole situation still.

"Uh, well it wouldn't hurt to help them in return for a good pay- they seem like the right kind of folk."

Sokka chuckled at the older man's comment, "Uh- certainly- 'right kind of folk'." he affirmed, eyeing Azula with a smug smile, making her look back in disdain.

He picked the clothes back off the floor and handed them back to Yano, who sorted through them quickly before handing back some- a shirt and pants that he thought suited the climate and their situation well.

"Thanks sir, this is really helpful." he curtly replied, giving him a bow of respect, while aside Azula just kept ahold of her 'stolen' clothes which she assumed were Naiko's.

"I'll trust your taste in clothes, from one girl to another." Naiko smiled at Azula, making her nod in acceptance.

The four walked out to the back of the house, Yano leading them to the stable, where they had a few ostrich-horses, taking out one of them by a lead "You can take this old girl, she's not of much use for me, but she'll get you along fine, help carry all your things-" he pointed out, eyeing Sokka's assortment of weapons- he thought he must be an actual Water Tribe soldier, no common man would carry such a large array without being expected to actually use them in battle.

"Thank you sir, this is really a great help- we'd better get changed though." Sokka admitted, before he slightly bowed again and ran off back to the house, trying to find somewhere to get changed.

Azula realised she would have to do the same and followed him into the house, looking out to make sure she wouldn't accidentally run into a naked Water Tribesman, before quickly making her way into a bedding area, where she immediately stripped off her dirty and somewhat uncomfortable Fire Nation drabs and instead put on Naiko's green and yellow attire, a loose fitting dress that banded across the waist- Azula would almost call it floral, but she didn't want to compliment the girl's wardrobe too much, she was just a peasant after all. She lay the dress over her red stockings and boots, which she was sure she would still need to wear- not wanting to take more than she actually needed; within a minute she had changed her attire but realised one other aspect would need some work- her poorly done hair. It had frustrated her over the past three days by it's messy and frizzy form and decided to tame it into a braid, similar to which her friend Ty-Lee would wear, a small smile coming to her face remembering the times of childhood with her friends- she was ever so far away from that world, dressed like an Earth Kingdom peasant- working together with a Water Tribe warrior who'd rather have her taken away in chains- at least he might have initially.

Walking out of the bedding area she glanced upon Sokka's new attire, a brown-olive drab that she'd expect on a farmer- suitable for someone of his lowly status, although she could tell he already sorely missed his blue and white; his clothing actually well resembled his original outfit, but it was a bit looser, fitting to Yano rather than him and he had his head covered with a wide brimmed hat- if not for his eyes, you'd think he was any other Earth Kingdom peasant; Azula herself had covered her eyes with a partial fringe to disguise her identity as Fire Nation further more than the peasants clothes.

"The colours actually suit you, Princess." Sokka bluntly commented, bowing almost mockingly at her, knowing too well of her patriotic duty to the Fire Nation.

"I'll take that as an insult not a compliment." she remarked, his words reminding her of a certainly not missed member of the Royal Court- Admiral Zhao; his words always followed a pattern like Sokka's just had- insulting you with niceties.

"Hey I was being serious!" Sokka complained- before following her out of the door, to be looked up by Yano and Naiko, who nodded in approval.

"You look like fellow country-men- all it takes is the right attire." Yano admitted, smiling at the two travellers.
"Certainly- I do like how Azula wears my dress." Naiko complimented, making Azula slightly blush again, but retain her serious composure.

"We best be off, the next village awaits, and hopefully we won't meet the damned deserters again." Azula affirmed.

"If we're lucky" Sokka added, chuckling at their current day so far- he had already been in a fight and ran from angry Earth Kingdom villagers- he hadn't even had breakfast yet. Turning back to Naiko and Yano he sincerely smiled, "Thank again- for everything- we are far better off with friends than without." bowing once more at them before putting his weapons on the ostrich-horses back, Azula already sitting on the saddle- Naiko waved to them as they started to walk away, following the stream to avoid going back into the village where they knew the people would start a rampage to get them again.

"Miss One-Foot, I'll let you ride because of your injuries, not because of any sympathy on my behalf." Sokka admitted to her before grabbing the lead and beginning the long walk ahead- he had already begun walking- even with a day of 'rest' he was still tired and hopeful that whatever await them at the nearby port was better than what they had already faced.

For once, all Huang could feel was pain- unadulterated pain; his sight and sense of touch had basically been blanked out of the burning pain spread across his chest, feeling as if he had his lungs set on fire- of course he hadn't, Huang could tell that from the presence the weight of his clothes and armour over his chest. A hand held out to his shoulder- trying to shake him, but Huang couldn't respond- the pain was too much, and even then he was in such a daze. Huang thought maybe the kid had concussed him when he kicked him down- that being after he was struck by a bolt of lightning. Within a few moments he felt a rush of cold over his body- a slight relief from the pain- only to realise it wasn't for his benefit. A young man stood over him, and Huang could hear him trying to talk him down- though he couldn't decipher the words due to the ringing in his head, which had slightly calmed from the cool water shocking him.

"Are you listening!" the man shouted at him, which Huang could make out- he simply tried to tell him he was in pain, pointing awkwardly at his chest.

"I-ah..." Huang mumbled, trying to string something intelligible together, "Muh-uh jaw..."

"Oh- so the Water Tribesman broke your jaw." the man concluded, Huang nodding slightly at the man.

"So- is what Naiko said was true? Are you deserters?" the man asked him, Huang sighing slightly, unhappy he'd have to try and talk more than he already had- his mouth was in a lot of pain.

"Me an' muh bruthas- wuh ah' s-sol'iers." Huang mumbled, trying to pronounce as best he could, "A-as' d'others..." he concluded, pointing his hands around to who he presumed were his fellow men.

The man turned to Yang- who was right beside Huang, trying to lessen the pain on his own jaw by rubbing in with his hand- to no avail, "How 'bout you? You a deserter?"

Yang nearly cursed upon realising he was the one about to be interrogated, "Uh no- I's left for dead on the field- somethin' like 3 years ago, before the Comet."

"So you didn't return to fight for your country? That makes you a deserter all the same."

"M-my commander left me an' my squad to die, I's just lucky the ash-makers knocked me out an' not worse." Yang explained, trying to show the young man and the surrounding villagers his innocence.

"So what do you bastards do then?" the man asked him, his eyes curled at him in disappointment- the man was probably a soldier in the war himself, Yang thought- if he was back here and not on the field, did that make him a deserter too?

"We uh- we fight the Fire Nation our way." he mumbled.

An older man came to his side, "Fight the Fire Nation- in what way?" his eyes focused on him, as if he knew what he was going to say next.

"We kill 'em- go to their towns in our lan' and we fuckin' kill 'em."

"So you just go around killing defenceless civilians- you're no better than the Fire Nation." the older man concluded, making the younger man look at him in shock.

"How could you say that Tao?! These men fight to defend our nation- even if they're not under the Earth King's supreme command!" he shouted at the older man, making the older man spit on the ground below them; Yang looked on in shock as a war of words begun before him.

"You disgust me boy- you think this war will end by us killing every firebender and colonist that takes a foot on our lands? That's just idiotic and cruel." Tao shouted at him.

"We should let them go! They did no harm to us- they're just comrades in arms- what they do the Fire Nation isn't our problem." the younger man told Tao, making him curl his eyebrows at the deserters.

"Desertion is one thing, killing civilians because you feel like doing it is another." Tao told him, speaking louder as to make sure the other villagers heard him.

"Didn't you fight in the war, Tao? Don't you think the ash-makers deserve it?" the younger man asked him.

"I think many things boy- that peasants thrown out of their own land to live in ours should be killed, I do not. I think that the Fire Nation should pay- but not with their lives, that will not solve anything." Tao explained to him.

"Take the deserters to somewhere we can hold them, I'm sure the village elders will come up with a decision on their fate." the younger man ordered, eyeing Tao with mistrust as he walked away from the scene of their argument, clearly unwilling to deal with the issue at hand.

Tao walked down the street before turning to his house, an old stone cottage in town that his father had built- many years ago, before even Tao was born. He entered it quietly, not wanting to wake up his children. Tao searched around the house, looking under nooks and crannies to find what he needed: a pen and some paper- he had gathered information from this unwieldy turn of events in his usually quiet village. He found a pen sitting idly by his bedside, where his wife would be sleeping- but at the moment she was rushing around town to deal find their eldest son- he had joined the angry crowd that ran into the forest, and she was certain he'd get himself hurt or worse out there, even with the mass of people; there was some spare paper in the beside draw and Tao chose to sit by the dining table to write his message- he had to be quick, if someone ran in on him there would be questions.

Tao began to write "My esteemed friends of our Order, I learned that the declared missing Princess of the Fire Nation has wound up in my village Fuchang- I believe she is with a new-found ally- a Water Tribesman, unusual to say the least. She fought a group of Earth Kingdom deserters before fleeing due to my fellow villagers finding her identity as a firebender, I believe her to be on foot going towards the port town of Huangwan, a days walk from here- from there I assume she will either try to return to the Fire Nation or to Ba Sing Se. Do what you will with this information- please rewrite and resend this message to other members."

He rolled the letter up and tied in with string, before going to his messenger hawk, a gift from a Fire Nation member of the order in years gone past- he sent the message to the closest major centre for their order- in Ba Sing Se itself; Tao hoped that his allies in the city would make good use of this intel and prepare for the Princesses potential arrival. He gave the bird some feed before sending it off in the direction of the city, knowing too well of the potential outcome of this turn of events; he knew that the Princess was likely to go to the city, and that had been what was described to the order by their insiders in the Fire Nation Royal Court- Tao had only recently learned of the Princesses mission and her disappearance, assuming that a rogue member of the order had made the move 'early' against Princess Azula, incorrectly assuming that taking her Royal Barge out would save them the trouble of dealing with her in Ba Sing Se. He was certain the rest of the Order needed to know of this, because she was integral to their plan- the Grand Lotuses had agreed for endorsing the Princesses elder brother- the banished Prince Zuko- as the next Fire Lord.took the situation into their own hands. Who ever it was that had tried to take the Princess out, their plan had failed, and Tao was certain that this would make their plans a whole lot more difficult- she would certainly know of the plot against her now.

Chapter Text

Corporal She was not the happiest soldier in the Fire Nation Army- he had been stuck in the spirit-forsaken town of Huangwen for over six months; the stationing he was told, was of high importance to ensure that the Fire Nation kept a strong grip on the only port in the region, key to ensuring that any remaining Earth Kingdom rebels wouldn't take power and pose a threat to Fire Nation rule over the Eastern Earth Kingdom. He would dispute his commanding-officers words about the value of their duty; the port-town of Huangwan could be described best as a pit-stop for those travelling northward to the great city of Ba Sing Se, otherwise small and unremarkable as it was. The Fire Nation had held a garrison there really to tax the trade exports that would pass through from nearby also unremarkable villages; She didn't find much use in his 'job' other than to walk around and make sure that no one was stupid enough to avoid their tariffs or tried to steal the hard-earned labours of the locals- theft was ever-present in small ports like this one.

Today however he was on guard duty for the port-town's only entrance, a narrow pass between two rocky escarpments, leading westward toward the inland villages- barely anyone passed through, other than the few peasant traders who came with goods from time to time; today was no different- the road was empty, except for a hunting party going out to the forest for their weekly adventure- they mostly looked for lion-moose, whose hides and horns were prized for their rarity amongst Ba Sing Se's elite, and the animal was relatively at home in the isolated forests and clearings of the region- barely any people went out except for the aforementioned hunters.
Looking out into the distance he saw two travellers approaching- they had a single ostrich-horse, which one of the figures rode, and the other held the lead of the animal- both of them dressed in peasant's wear, probably coming to the town to buy something, as some did from time to time- She prepared to ask them about their activities and protocol, and to check them for weapons and such, in case they were indeed supplying or fighting for any rebel cause.

"Halt!" She called out, the man leading the ostrich-horse acknowledging him, "What's your business in Huangwen."

"Good-day sir, we are simply trying to meet someone- that's all." the man told him, emptying his pockets to show he wasn't armed.

"Okay- who are you meeting, relatives or something?" She investigated, just trying to make sure they weren't bluffing.

"No one impor-" the man started, before the woman sitting on the ostrich-horse raised her hand and stopped him from speaking, before starting herself.

"The commander of the Fire Nation garrison- he has information for me." the woman spoke, startling She- most women wouldn't be so forward, and he was confused why Earth Kingdom peasants would be talking with the commander of a Fire Nation garrison- his boss- who wasn't expecting anyone at the moment, from what She had heard.

"Okay- I'm going to stop you there- why in the name of the spirits do you need to talk to the garrison commander? Did something happen out west- bandits or something- that's the kind of work I'd like to deal with at he moment." he blurted out, feeling slightly embarrassed in having spilt his personal thoughts into a conversation that should be intimidating towards the other party.

"Good news for you then-" the woman smirked at him, coming down from the ostrich horse and walking up to him,

"We had a run in with some Earth Kingdom deserters in a village to the south-west of here."

"Fuchang? Ah- I'll um- tell Commander Kuan then- was that it?" She asked, somewhat confused why she wanted to see the commander- she was just a peasant.

"No- I'm here, because I expect you all to give the proper care and respect." she mocked, She flinching back.

"Who are you exactly?" he asked her, realising he was certain he was dealing with someone who was not an Earth Kingdom peasant; he was answered by a blue flame rising from the woman's hand, his mind immediately crossing to what his commander had told him a few days ago- that the Princess- the heir of their nation- had gone missing in a shipwreck, and that the Eastern Fleet had been ordered to search for her at haste- when in reality, she was right in front of him.

She knelt before his Princess, his head dropped in shame, "I am sorry your highness, I didn't recognise you."
The Princess chuckled at his reaction, "You shouldn't be expected to, it meant my disguise worked." affirming that she had disguised herself for the purpose of reaching their garrison.

"Now- you can take me and my companion to the commander, who I need to inform of my survival and safety." she told She, who got up and saluted her, before shouting out to the other men.

"Get in formation! We are escorting our Princess to the outpost." making his comrades look back in shock at realising the woman before them was their Crown Princess in disguise.

She and his men gathered around the Princess, who returned to sit upon the ostrich-horse, leading her into the town of Huangwen, whose denizens looked on in confusion as a Fire Nation squadron guarded two peasants; thinking over the experience he just had, She was embarrassed and confused- but more importantly, shocked that the refuted Princess Azula, who was known for her extreme behaviours- had taken it upon herself to dress in the form of a peasant to avert suspicions while travelling- he would have thought such a woman would rather die than to wear the such drabs, let alone in the image of their enemy. Walking up to the Fire Nation outpost, the guards looked at She and his squadron in confusion- She solved that by having the Princess pull out of her royal ornamental headpiece, which should either be on her head or at the bottom of the sea. His commander quickly arrived on the scene, having just had his afternoon serving of tea- the man was avidly on tea-break as much as he could be- finding his actual duties quite boring and tedious; from his eyes opening widely at the sight of the Princess, She knew that today he would actually have to do his job well- lest he be fired for incompetence by his future ruler.

"My Princessǃ I had heard of your ships tragic fate in the Eastern Sea- the nation is blessed to have you returned to us." the man bowed deeply, trying to ensure that the Princess received the utmost respect- he knew well of the tales of those who had not followed her will accordingly.

"Stand Commander Kuan- I expect you and your men to provide for me and my companion- I also wish to inquire what happened to the rest of my crew... That is of some importance to my future plans." Azula asked of him, for the first time in a while being required to use the eloquence of speech that befit her title.

"Of course- your personal guard and much of the crew arrived on a lifeboat around two days ago- some of the injured have been sent to recover at the military hospital in Ba Sing Se, the rest however are right here."

"Brilliant- I will see them at once." she commanded, the commander pointing up the hill to the barracks.

"They are inside- most of them have been eagerly waiting to hear of your survival- your men did not give up hope that you would return." the commander commented, being hushed by Azula's hand to his face, who signalled Sokka to remain outside, not wanting to have him being conflictive with her men- which she would expect from his

'Water Tribe Warrior' ideal that he had ever so upheld in his mind. Kuan bowed to her before rushing away to another side of the outpost- she assumed he had to prepare her the proper accommodation expected of her title, that being second to the Fire Lord himself.

Azula walked up to the barracks, a relatively decrepit building that had obviously been here much longer than the outpost itself- she assumed the garrison had this building spare for her royal guards and crew- used to the elegance and regal status of her vessel, they might have found this outpost not befitting of their positions as her personal protectors. Walking up to the door, she opened it slightly before peeling it open fully to reveal the denizens of the building- the thirty or so survivors of the battle that had made their way onto the ship; most of them seemed to be relatively unscathed except for a few bruises- Sokka's comrades were probably to blame for those. The man at the front of the room, who Azula remembered as one of the ship's cooks, looked at her in slight confusion- her disguise was still on, and only at a closer examination of her facial features did the man realise her identity.

"The Princessǃ" he almost screamed, immediately kneeling before her, the rest of the soldiers and sailors in the room following in suit.

"I am glad that this many of you survived the shipwreck- it would have been a shame for you to all end up at the bottom of the sea because of a bunch of Water Tribesmen." she explained to them, the Captain of her guards immediately standing and bowing before her.

"I have failed in my duty Princess- I have sworn to protect you and lead your men to victory in battle, but I have failed. I think it is only right that I resign from my duties and that some one else take charge of the leadership." he told her, Azula chuckling at the man, signalling him to rise.

"The fact you didn't die at sea proves you have what it takes Captain- I still require your services to protect me from potential threats- which we will face in the 'impenetrable' city of Ba Sing Se." she told him, his eyes widening in shock.

"Excuse me- I thought we would immediately return to the Capital- if it is so unsafe here with your ship being sunk by the Water Tribe of all people, how could you possibly be safe in Ba Sing Se?" the Captain asked her.

"You see men- I will be unsafe, but that's exactly what I'm counting on- my father believes there is a conspiracy afoot, which I think has to do with my attempted capture; if we go to Ba Sing Se, they will try again, and then we will find who is truly responsible." she told him and the surrounding men.

"We will serve you always Princess- but how can we be certain that you can be protected, even if we can prepare for the worst." he asked her.

"I have done good enough a job this time disguising myself as an Earth Kingdom peasant- I think I can do it again- this time for a practical purpose." she told him, one of the sailors looking over and laughing.

"She has a point Captain- the Princess is very convincing with her disguise- only we could figure out her identity because we personally know her." the sailor commented, making Azula nod at him in affirmation.

"That's right- the more I can pretend to 'not be' Princess Azula- the safer I will be, no one will reasonably go after a peasant for anything other than petty robbery, which I can deal with easily enough." she explained.

"So who will protect you then- surely the guards can't accompany you if you are undercover as a peasant while investigating the plot."

"I have a new ally- I think he will be of great use for our investigation, someone the Earth Kingdom people are more likely to trust." she explained.

"Who exactly?" the Captain asked, confused how she had found someone to help them while she had been shipwrecked.

"The boy who tried to capture me initially ended up shipwrecked alongside me- we survived together and I think I have gained his trust and respect- even if he doesn't fight for the Fire Nation, I believe he will help me if I give him the adequate incentive."

"A Water Tribesman?! You cannot be serious- most of those bastards are mercenaries these days- no money to gain other than from their brute strength." the Captain scoffed, making Azula eye him with suspicion.

"Did one of them hurt you on the ship? Is that why you got all antsy about them?!" Azula mocked the Captain, making him reel back and clear his throat.

"Of course not Princess- I am an elite firebender trained to protect the Royal Family, I would never be beaten by such savages." he bluffed to the Princess, trying to protect his own pride.
"Well I guess you and the other guards should meet the boy- he's a bit patriotic, so don't take it seriously if he starts bad-mouthing the Fire Nation." she commented on Sokka, making the other guards tighten up- it wasn't usual that they would actually have to deal passively with members of the other nations, let alone the Water Tribe.

"So boy- who are you anyway? How did you end up with the Princess?" She asked Sokka, Sokka reeling back, unable to spill a word at the very moment- for all they could tell he was a Earth Kingdom peasant.

"Well- let's just say I helped sink that ship." he bluntly stated, the men reeling back in shock.

"You're Water Tribe?! We couldn't even tell- the Princess disguised you both really well!" She exclaimed, before returning to a more stoic mood, "So you're our enemy? Why hasn't the Princess ordered us to take you captive."

"I could have got away at anytime- but I'd rather be in the pocket of Azula than be out in the wilderness trying to get back to my people- on the other side of the world that is." Sokka explained.

"So you're like her servant?"

"No! I'm not a servant- I am a Water Tribe Warrior who is working with the Fire Nation Princess to hopefully earn myself a way home- she could get a ship and I'd be on my way like that- but she won't give it to me for free- I know that for sure." Sokka explained.

"I am certain you are now in the service of the Fire Nation- you'd be best to not abuse your goodwill- or you'll end up somewhere worse than the bottom of the Eastern Sea" She told him, drawing Sokka's eyes to shock, his mouth agape.

"I'll trust my instincts on this one buddy." he told She, casually patting him on the shoulder, although his eyes told a different story- She might have accidentally scared the boy too much, but then again he spoke the truth; the Fire Nation would not treat those who efface their power kindly, and though the boy had proved himself well to the Princess- She knew that he best keep quiet and do his work without any deviation- betrayal was something the Princess didn't take kindly too. Sokka and She turned to the sound of a march of footsteps behind them, gasping upon the Princess and her entire royal guard- she pointed Sokka out, easy to distinguish wearing the drabs of an Earth Kingdom peasant.

"This is my- uh- 'travelling companion' Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe." Azula pointed out, Sokka taking off his hat and nodding at the men, one of which's face twitched, before turning into a full scowl- the Captain.

"It's you!" he shouted at Sokka with a fury that could only be compared to the Fire Lord himself, his hands set alight immediately with burning orange flames that he volleyed toward Sokka- not even considering his surroundings for one moment, the Princess standing behind him with a face of disappointment and bewilderment.

"Ah shit!" Sokka nearly squealed rolling back from the flames and running to the ostrich-horse, for cover and for his weapons which he had concealed in it's saddle.

"Get back here!" the Captain shouted at Sokka, before being interrupted by the Princesses hand grabbing his shoulder.

"Captain calm yourself- I think you're overreacting- how exactly do you know of Sokka?"
The Captain grumbled, pointing to a bandage on his shoulder "The little shit nearly stabbed me in the heart- I was just trying to interrogate the enemy leader and he rushed in to stab me!"

Azula almost sighed at the Captain's exposition, "As should be expected- we are at war, do you forget that our enemies desire to see us dead?"

"Argh!" he shouted in frustration, turning back to walk into the barracks, leading the Princess to look at the rest of her guards.

"Well go talk to the savage- I'm sure you can fill him in with any info or protocol he needs to know- as he will be travelling with us." leaving the soldiers to slowly nod at their Princess before walking toward the somewhat shaken Water Tribesman who had for the first time in a few days had a fire ball thrown at his head again.

"Is it safe?" he asked out, She looking over and nodding confidently as to try and alleviate his fears, before the guards surrounded Sokka and the ostrich-horse.

"So boy- what exactly did you do to get in the Princesses favour?" one of the guards asked him.

"Uh- I gave her boiled water; it's a precious commodity when you're in the middle of nowhere."

"So water-boy! You can actually fight? the Captain looked like he had a fight to make with you."

"Yeah- I thought he was going to kill my dad, so I swooped in and kinda went- uh- savage on him?" Sokka explained, realising he wasn't making his case very well- affirming stereotypes of his people wasn't something he'd like to do.

"Fair 'nough kid- must have got him good for him to get that pissed off- he's a solid bastard most of the time." one of them joked, making the other guards chuckle.

"So how do you fight anyway? Club, axe or something?" one of the other men asked him.

"I use a club, spear and a boomerang." he told them, their eyes agape.

"Wait-a-minute!" one of the guards almost squealed, "It's you! The one who made fun of us on the deck- the boomerang kid."

"Heh- boomerang kid is better than water-boy." Sokka commented with a smirk, before being shaken on the shoulders by one of the men.

"How in the name of the bloody spirits do you do that?" he asked, making Sokka laugh- acknowledging battle tactics was one thing that stroked his ego- perhaps a bit too much.

"Ah yes- years of practice to become skilled at the weapon." he jested, his voice making him sound like he was a veteran warrior and not a novice 17 year-old.

"So you throw it at people at it comes back?" one of them asked.

"Yep- as I'm guessing most of you saw- I owe that weapon my life- it's pretty much my best friend." Sokka explained, although his wording might have made him sound more foolish than dedicated to the skill.

"So- I guess you're some kind of weapons expert then?" one of the guards asked Sokka, who nodded in affirmation.

"Yeah- I use a club, boomerang, dagger and spear- the boomerang's for ranged fighting and the other three are useful for beating up people up close!" Sokka piped up, his grin making the guards feel uneasy- they had been practically beaten by this kid- directly or indirectly in the field of battle.

Azula walked over to the crowd of guards, clearing her throat to get their attention "Ahem-" before they turned to stand in form to her, "Commander Kuan has assured me that I will recieve accomodation in the keep of the outpost- Sokka, you will be bunking with the soldiers for the night- tomorrow we leave for Ba Sing Se."

After hearing what others had told him about Azula's intent, he decided to avoid the question of his return home and rather tried to go the other way "Ba Sing Se- uh- so that's where you've been trying to go this entire time."

"I didn't need to mention that to you until it was necessary- I assume you will want to come with me rather than being stuck in this port town hoping that your people might show up?" Azula asked him, almost rhetorically- Sokka sighed and nodded with a slight discontent, making Azula chuckle at him.

"Trust me- I'd prefer not to be stuck together as well, but we can both help each other, I'm sure you understand that savage." she told him, trying to balance her need to keep her image and actually get Sokka to follow her.

"Fine- I guess I'll be going with you- uh- did he mention the food?" he asked, changing the topic at an instance to something he found more enticing- the possibility of eating some actually well made meat dish.
One of the guards turned to Sokka "The menu's mostly spices, jerky and some rice, plus some local stuff that the soldiers pick up."

"Ah thank the spirits!" Sokka grinned in relief, "I've been looking forward to eating some actually well made meat!" making Azula almost smack her forehead in embarrassment- she forgot how childish he could be at times.

"Calm down idiot- you'll get your food when it's served." Azula berated him.

"It's just barely eating anything except for poorly cooked forest creatures plus a little bit off rice back at the village- my diet requires more sustenance!" Sokka proclaimed, standing up with his hands on his sides as if to state the priority of his dietary needs, making the soldiers and guards laugh at him.

"Hey- I'm being serious!" Sokka tried to tell them, but they continued to laugh at him, making Azula smirk back at him- to which he returned a frown.

Sokka wasn't happy that no one would take him at least a little seriously, especially after the smack-down he had delivered to these guards on the ship; he thought if beating up a bunch of elite firebenders wouldn't earn their respect nothing probably would. Azula was just the same in a way, although she was less willing to laugh, and more willing to simply smirk and mock him with her words, something that required a bit more eloquence to achieve. The Water Tribesman didn't want to have to make friends with a bunch of firebenders, but he thought it was better than them either hating him or considering him a complete fool.

The rough sea beat along the hull of Prince Zuko's old but sturdy vessel- racing into Fire Nation territory, the crew was ready at any moment for an armada to call them up and demand Zuko be taken into custody for breaking the rules of his banishment- he had not returned with the Avatar, so he would return in chains- accordingly to the Fire Lord's will. Lieutenant Jee stood on the helm of the vessel, feeling as the ship rocked with each crested wave- slowly but surely making their way toward the Fire Nation Capital- they hadn't passed any ships yet, but from what he had heard from General Iroh, the Fire Lord would have already learnt of Zhao's encounter with the banished Prince and his clear intent to depose the him; it was only a matter of time before someone send a fleet to sink them to the bottom of the Mo Ce Sea.

On the deck below, the Prince was training for his upcoming battle- his uncle, however skilled at firebending, still had to take the time and effort to teach his nephew all the skills he would need to defeat the Fire Lord. Jee didn't think much of the Prince before this whole turn of events- he had seemed as self-absorbed as any other nobleman officer- only distinguished by his royal title as any different from the rabble, however after his encounter with Zhao, Jee found himself more and more liking the Prince for the values he strove to uphold- to bring justice to the Fire Nation, so that men wouldn't die needlessly in battle- he himself knew far too well the sufferings of war, having served under the great General Iroh himself long ago- back when he was still the undisputed Crown Prince- the heir of their nation. The Lieutenant turned to the helmsman, who stood behind him checking their maps and instruments.

"Helmsman- how long until we make it to the capital?" he asked.

"At least three days now- you'll know we're close when we reach the Great Gates of Azulon." the helmsman commented.

Jee thought back to the last time he had seen the Great Gates- nearly five years ago, just after the young Prince had set out on the ship- there had been short introductions, and a few waves goodbye and they were off. A few hours had passed and they made it to the gates, where the General made a number of comments describing the engineering feat that had comprised them, to the interest of the crew, but without realising that would the last time they would see the gates for five whole years. Despite the journey being practically 'vacation' duty for the General and the rest of the crew, the Prince had been restless for whole years, not giving up hope until the passing of the comet. It had been beautiful, and the image has been etched into his mind ever since- the blazing orange and red across the sky, turning the sky the colour of the comet itself- it was like the sun was setting across the entire sky; the Prince had broken down after it's passing, unwilling to leave his room, and for weeks they drifted from port to port throughout the Earth Kingdom- with no real goal in mind- some of the crew at that point were thinking of desertion, just getting off at a port and leaving the navy life behind, the Prince wouldn't try to stop them, how could he?

Since he was banished, the Prince had been angry- with the world as whole it had originally seemed. But now he obviously channelling his rage into something somewhat more productive- rage he had been taught, back as a boy- it powered firebending- it made them strong. Jee never had much to be angry about, it was more in the end spite- spite towards the elite officers and commanders, somewhat alike to the Prince himself. He knew far too well what they had done to the so many young men and women who had dared to join the military- 'You either die in war or you die broken from it', he had heard a veteran remark once and for the past few weeks he had realised how this related to the Prince. The 'war' itself, hadn't been experienced by the Prince, but he suffered at the hands of his own father, the supreme commander of the Fire Nation- who ought to have protected him as a father and as a leader- but did neither; Prince Zuko was angry at the Fire Lord and his cronies, and rightfully so.

Down on the deck, the Prince was calmer than most would have expected- his anger had been temporarily lifted after his fighting with Zhao- the duel had been a way to release his anger, and show his worth to the Fire Lord- finally, Zuko thought; it had been five years of him racing across the world- what did it prove to his father? Zuko considered that his father probably had just wanted to get rid of him- an unworthy heir for the 'almighty Fire Lord Ozai'.

Zuko stood with his Uncle, continuing breathing exercises that Zuko ever so disdained- he respected the requirement of breathing but saw little need in it being a skill, it was something all firebenders mastered to become truly capable of bending; his Uncle would constantly remind him of the value of remembering his firebending basics- it had been the primary component of their lessons aboard the ship, and he believed in their effective use when well practised. Zuko found this a bit hypocritical when he begun to mention the understanding of skills such as lightning-bending and focused use of firebending for things such as flight- both skills Iroh was refuted to have.

"Uncle- I think we need to discuss my upcoming duel." Zuko admitted- breaking the silence he had held while sitting on the deck.
Iroh looked at him with concerned eyes, "What of it nephew?"

"You know well enough that my father is one of the most powerful firebenders alive-" Zuko admitted, Iroh interrupting him with a hand.

"Zuko- your father has the power and skill of a master, but just like our friend Zhao, he lacks the tact and cunning to just simply defeat you in battle through pure power..." Iroh explained.

"Doesn't he posses the skill of lightningbending? How can I face up against something so indomitable?"

"There is a technique Prince Zuko- I invented it myself- that allows for a firebender to redirect the energy of a lightning strike back at your enemy." Iroh explained, his eyes growing colder and more serious.

"You have to teach me this Uncle- how else will I stand a chance." Zuko pleaded to Iroh, who turned away to look out at the horizon.

"I never wanted you to be in a situation where you would even encounter lightningbending- but you are right, I must teach you."

Iroh took a stance, that which any firebender would take when practicing their forms; he raised his right arm out, and in a fluid motion pulled it to his chest, holding both his hands together at his core before releasing the same motion outward, Zuko looking on in curiosity.

"You take the lightning strike head on, and direct it along your chi lines to your core, in the stomach, and then send it back out the arm to release it- you must be sure not to let it go past your heart, such a flaw could be fatal when struck." Iroh explained, Zuko nodding in understanding.

"I see- then prove it to me Uncle- strike me!" Zuko proclaimed, making Iroh nearly slap his forehead in frustration.

"No! You misunderstand nephew, I want you to understand this technique so you can use it 'if' the situation arises- I will not shoot lightning at you, my own nephew."

Zuko tilted his head to the floor, his eyes now expressing a mixture of sadness and fear "But he would- wouldn't he."

"Your father does not have enough love in his heart for you, let alone anyone else- he is lost to the world, and to himself." Iroh solemnly explained, making Zuko return to his side and pat his shoulder in affirmation.

"I'm just glad to have you Uncle- I don't know what I would do without you."

Zuko looked out onto the horizon, sea for as far as the eye could see; Zuko saw the water at peace, and just hoped he could find the same for himself. It had been a long journey to finally reach his destination- in a spiritual, fated way- not literally; Zuko had spent nearly four years at sea hoping to find the Avatar, and another year fumbling in his own filth- before he had the wits and will to decide to act on his own destiny- not to be the banished Prince of his nation, but the liberator of his people from the oppression and suffering of the war- he just hoped to hold true to himself along the way and not be absorbed by his desire for revenge.

Suddenly, Lieutenant Jee interrupted the two men in solace with worried words "My Princes! The helmsman has sighted a Fire Nation vessel."

Zuko turned to him and smirked, "Only one- you'd think the Fire Lord himself would have more to show for himself."

"It seems to only be a scouting ship, but this means what we have been preparing for is coming to fruition- the Fire Lord is looking for you- should we strike the vessel down."

Zuko sighed and looked out with his at hand periscope, "We shouldn't just fight our own people because we think they are going to report to my father- let them pass, but we should move as quickly as possible toward the mainland- I believe that it is the in crews best interest to vacate the vessel."

"Wait what- Captain- my Prince, you can't be serious, this ship cannot function without the crew." Jee exclaimed, unsure of the Prince's intention.

"I will not have you die for my sake- my Uncle and I will sail out on the smaller river-boat and eventually we will be either captured or reach the capital." Zuko exclaimed, making Iroh look at him in confusion.

"My nephew- why would we want to be captured? We do want to get to your father alive."

"I know that Uncle, but there is no chance we will make it past the Great Gates if father does know of our presence- it would be more practical to be captured, so we can go straight to my father and I will challenge him for the throne."

"Nephew- I know we seek to get you to the capital, but would it not be safer to get there more discretely, if we find your father off-guard- it will be safer to duel him." Iroh explained to Zuko, the young Prince nodding at his recommendations.

"I see- perhaps we should take disguise as commoners once we reach the port- and if we are lucky, we can make it to the capital in one piece."

Jee, still standing beside them quickly saluted the two royals before calling out the men to tell them of the captains orders; they were finally going to return home to the Fire Nation, and hopefully not as traitors- if the royals were able to discretely get into the mainland as the retired General Iroh desired- the man didn't want any more conflict than was necessary- getting captured by the Fire Navy was not something he wanted for either himself or his nephew.

The City of Ba Sing Se had stood for centuries- millennia even- but despite that, after a hundred years war against the Fire Nation, Sozin's Comet had come and their walls could not stand. As the former Grand Secretariat of Ba Sing Se, Long Feng saw himself as the true successor of the Earth King- a man who had stood in shock as the Fire Nation soldiers marched into his palace and declared the Earth Kingdom conquered. The sight had shocked Long Feng, who disappeared into the halls of the palace- unwilling to face the enemy, who he knew he couldn't fight at the time. The Dai Li- despite the fall of Ba Sing Se, continued on as the last arm of the Earth Kingdom's government; the cities new government- led by the Fire Nation military- was unable to take full control of the massive city, and ultimately the Dai Li still retained much of it's functions, without the suspicions of the governor and the military. The Dai Li's brainwashing techniques that they had used to guise the fact of the Hundred Year War's existence to the Earth Kingdom and the cities elite had given them free reign over the city, and once again it came to use; the Fire Nation officers who did most of the administration were to remain ignorant to the Dai Li's power and scheming, and when they opposed their own plans- they could be simply brainwashed- the entire population of the city however, was beyond his grasp. The political climate had opened new opportunities for the Dai Li- they had large sums of intelligence on anti-Fire Nation groups and ensured that the governors office would be tipped off if the Dai Li saw them as a threat to their own order- they could handle a change in power at the top, but if someone tried to flip the entire power structure on it's head- there would be madness- the city that Long Feng sought to protect would destroy itself- both figuratively and literallly.

While sitting in his dark, gloomy office- now located in the catacombs of Old Ba Sing Se, the only area of the city he could feel safe in with the firebenders sticking their noses around as they were, he heard a knock on the wall, indicating that an agent had intelligence for him- Long Feng pulled the wall down with a motion of his hand- a benefit of being a skilled Earthbender, like any other member of his organisation. The officers face was covered by a hat, although not the conventional one they would were over their queues before the fall- all Dai Li members were required to wear commoners clothing when on duty because they didn't want the Fire Nation to associate their clothing as a group, which wasn't an issue when they policed the city 'legally'.

"Grand Secretariat- I bring new information- this time from the 'Order' again, they seem to be picking up their pace of messaging." the agent told Long Feng, who turned to smirk.

"It seems our friends in 'the Order' have been busy with their plans, does it?" Long Feng rhetorically asked, taking the rolled message from the hands of the agent, who bowed before walking out the room, closing the wall himself.

Looking down Long Feng read the message- it spoke of the reappearance of the Fire Nation's Crown Princess from a reported shipwreck that had occurred a few days prior- perhaps the Order had planned such an action to remove her from the equation- he had read from previous messages that they were looking for support to gather behind her brother- the purportedly banished Prince Zuko. Long Feng realised that this was of great importance to his plans- the Princess posed a threat to him just as she did to the Order itself- he sought to establish a new 'Earth Kingdom' that could allow for the Dai Li to return to their position of power and for Long Feng to be restored to his rightful position as the de facto ruler of the city, and perhaps if he was tact enough- ruler of the Earth Kingdom itself; the Princess was exactly what threatened this plan, because she symbolised and played a part into the stability of the Fire Nation's war-machine as the heir of the Fire Lord himself- without her to lead her people, the Fire Nation would bicker amongst themselves, and perhaps the Order's plans would come to fruition; a restored Earth Kingdom seemed to be within their sights. Although the Order was a distinctive threat to the Dai Li if left to fester, for the meantime they would be invaluable allies in Long Feng's plot against the Fire Nation. The Princess would have to be dealt with sooner rather than later- she could reveal them to the wider world and destroy all of Long Feng's hard work in building up the Dai Li's power-base in the city; the Fire Nation wouldn't have another chance to intervene in the affairs of the city before he made it his own.

Chapter Text

The ocean waters were calm and the winds light- a perfect day for sailing in a steel behemoth on the water; Sokka was fearing the next time he would have to sail, but it turned out to be easier than he thought it would be- if it was only situation that had led to Azula's Royal Barge being sunk by his tribe, then certainly there would be little chance of this ship finding it's way to the bottom of the sea. For the first time in his life he dreaded the sight of no land- the dirt and plants unfamiliar, but somehow safer than the waters he had grown used to.

The war- ironically enough- was far enough from his mind at the moment, despite being on the ship of the enemy; Sokka was far too concerned with the potential of actually getting home- as much as he wanted to continue 'fighting' as much as he could, there was little use to it now- without his fellow tribesmen, or his father for that matter, he had little opportunity to make a strike against the Fire Nation. He floated the idea of actually trying to drown the Princess for good, but he knew where that got him last time- and he thought it would be disregarding of their relationship as so far to throw it away for an ideological agenda; Azula was far too useful an ally to lose, and she wasn't a crazed fool like he'd expect someone in the royal family of the Fire Nation to be- she was witty and stubborn, not too dissimilar to himself in many ways.

"So how do you like a Fire Nation ship you're not attacking?" he heard her ask him, as if she appeared out of nothing behind him.

Sokka chuckled, grabbing the starkly dark metal railing of the vessel, "It's not very uplifting- you Fire Nation people ought to have nicer looking ships."

"Don't complain too much savage- you got have a bed here, remember?" she reminded him, making Sokka gulp and realise he shouldn't be as outspoken when the Princess held all the cards.

Looking at Azula in her 'natural state', that being in her black and gold royal armour and wearing her royal headpiece he couldn't help but feel somewhat inadequate at the moment- he lacked his armour which he had left in the forest when it had become too straining, and he had dressed down to only his light blue shirt and pants- he looked more like the image of a peasant that Azula liked to drill into his mind, as if she needed to divide people by the quality of their clothes- out of all the things she could.

"So what exactly are we going to do- I mean you said we're going to Ba Sing Se, but you conveniently left out the part where you explained why." Sokka asked her, his voice showing his slight mistrust of her at the moment- he was unsure how she would or even should act around him now they were with her people.

"I have been ordered by the Fire Lord to go to Ba Sing Se- for matters that are above your pay-grade, sadly for you. You'll be told what needs to be told in the moment, not when you feel like it." she told him, making Sokka frown before looking in confusion.

"Wait- I'm getting paid?" he asked her, now confused about the whole situation- he just assumed she was tagging him along as a personal bag-carrier or something at this point.

"Well- not with a wage- if that's what you were wanting." she restated, making Sokka look back out to the water in realisation.

"My reward is getting home- somehow. I guess you have some methods to get me there?" he asked her.

"I haven't overthought it honestly- it's not my most pressing issue, but the Fire Nation has it's means- we did 'destroy' your people, remember." she explained, making Sokka cringe at the mention of the raids on his people.

"Ergh-" he almost belched- leaning over the deck before making sick eyes at Azula, "Don't tell those people are going to take me home- that's worse than showing up with the Fire Lord himself."

"So you'd like a personal escort by the Fire Lord- that's a bit over what I'm offering savage." she mocked him, making Sokka return to a more solemn mood.

"... My mother- I couldn't go home that way." he muttered, trying to avoid Azula's glare- he didn't want her to mock or joke him for his emotional attachment; luckily she didn't and just looked out to the sea.

"I hope you're ready for the city of Ba Sing Se- I've heard that it's full of filth, crime and degeneracy." she remarked, making Sokka chuckle.

"I think there's a reason my father never went there before the fall- it's probably no better these days." he thought aloud, "To think of all the Earth Kingdom refugees- millions of them maybe, walking to that city only for it to fall to the Fire Nation- all for nothing really."

"The world has changed a lot in the past few years, you barbarians ought to learn a few things from the Fire Nation" Azula advised, making Sokka spit out into the water.

"What is there to learn these days? That your nation must come before all else- I mean there's a bit of a point there." Sokka mumbled, not really willing to speak on the issue- he knew too well that the Fire Nation's nationalistic ideology had started the war, and as much as he loved his nation he couldn't bring himself to say the same for his own nation- balance was what they were fighting for- reminding him of something the crew had once talked about.

"You know- you're right in a way about the Water Tribes- we don't understand the world in the same way you Fire Nation people do- we're disconnected, a bit like the Air Nomads must've been up in those mountains." Sokka admitted, making Azula look at him curiously.

"But my people- we tried to help the war- we tried to protect the balance, because we suffered for too long to just do nothing," he explained, before his tone turned more disdainful, "then the North- they never did anything, and they have the guts to say their chief rules us all- he doesn't care for us- he never did." Sokka grumbled, looking out on the water.

"Sounds like the North is ruled by people who don't have the will to make the right action- no chief who is willing to fight for their people as a whole." Azula commented on Sokka's exposition.

"I mean I don't know much- I've heard bits and pieces from my Gran-Gran, from dad, and some of the men- but it just seems like they're full of their own shit, I don't know how the Fire Nation hasn't kicked their asses yet purely from complacency." he continued, his tone growing more humoured at the end, chuckling at realisation from what he said, "That's not really funny actually- I think you're rubbing off on me in a bad way." he complained.

"Oh don't worry about that- I simply desire to make you see eye to eye with me." Azula commented, making Sokka chuckle.

"Well- I understand you and your people a bit better, doesn't mean I agree with what they do, or like them at all." he admitted to her.

She smirked at the Water Tribesman, before turning to walk back to into the ship's bridge, "You best rest- We have a lot of work to do once we reach Ba Sing Se." reminding him of his new duties that he would ultimately have to fulfil to get his reward.

Sokka turned back to her and looked sceptically, "Why do you trust me to work for you? I did try to capture you only four days ago."

"You are a pragmatic man above all else- not a spirit-worshipping fool- I trust that you have thought about your situation as a whole." she commented, Sokka glancing at her momentarily before turning back to the water.

Sokka almost wanted to swear at himself for not trying to quip back to her that he was a Water Tribe warrior whose only duty was to bring the Fire Nation to justice- but then again, he didn't want to be thrown overboard. She had analysed his thoughts correctly, he didn't want to fight her or her people if he couldn't actually get out of there alive- and it was easier to work with her than the other option of trying to get back home on foot- which was a challenge with a mass of sea between them and the South Pole; Sokka was stuck with her, and he knew too well not to trust her too much, he would have to prove his value before she could even consider rewarding him.

As the Fire Nation vessel rocked into the port of Ba Sing Se, it's inhabitants found a sense of relief upon reaching dry land again- after a shipwreck and days awaiting their Princesses return- it was comforting to them to know their Princess would lead them again, and hopefully they would remain safe. The ship's crew- which consisted of the remains of the Royal Barge's crew alongside the ship's original crew- were quick to take up their temporary break and enjoy themselves at the port market- thriving with the mass of imports and exports between the city and the outside world, which it had been essentially cut of from ever since the war had come to the walls of Ba Sing Se many years prior. The Princess stood almost triumphantly at the dock, surrounded by her small army of royal guards- ready now to protect her from any threats that may lie in the great city, alongside her newest companion, who was confusing and mysterious to the guards themselves. The Water Tribesman had been a surprise to many, and infuriated the Captain in a way that most the men had never seen- then again it was rare for the Fire Nation to recruit their enemies, especially in such a scenario like their own.

"Do we have a palanquin for transport?" the Princess asked her men, the Captain shaking his head.

"No your highness- the city is far too large for palanquins to carry you- we're still around a few hours palanquin ride from the walls themselves."

"So how do we enter the city?" the Princess asked him, the Captain pointing up to a large stone structure ontop of a hill. It had a large aqueduct-like structure following out from it toward the horizon.

"That is the cities transport system- controlled by earthbending." he explained, the Princess giving him a snide look.

"Earthbending- I thought that we had made it illegal to earthbend in the city." she commented, her eyes growing disdainful.

"The governor supposedly allows them to work on the transport system- everyone in the city needs it." the Captain explained.

The Princess begun to walk down the dock and her companions followed- a small army of guards and servants walking their way through the port-town up to the transport hub; Sokka looked out in awe at the sight of the massive walls in the distance- which just proved to him the massive scale of the city which he had never seen- the transport system was even more amazing to Sokka- a system of fast transportation that relied off of earthbending- from what he could see in the distance, it seemed to be based off of carriages of stone being pulled along a smooth path. He turned to look at Azula, who was trying to be as stoic as possible in the presence of her men as well as the public; he couldn't help but think she was a completely different person to the angry mud covered woman in the forest. She continued to lead her men silently up toward the building- the men themselves imitating their leader in the form and lack of emotion- Sokka with his face bared unlike the guards was baring his emotions of awkwardness to the world- he felt like a fish out of water, unable to really fit in with the group.

He decided to ask the guard beside him about their mission, "So- uh- what are we actually doing?"

The guards face covered, his head turned to Sokka, "We've been ordered to take the Princess to the Governor's Palace- the former residence of the Earth King."

Sokka pondered on the statement, thinking that it was obvious that the governor would house the Princess while she was in the city- but he still didn't understand Azula's actual purpose in the city- did the Fire Lord just want additional oversight in the city? How Azula had told him of 'his job' made it sound like a short term thing- that they would have to do something specific; Sokka had no idea what this would actually be and decided he would spend his time trying to figure it out- unless Azula just flat out told him at some point.

Walking up the road they made their way to the gate that bounded the large stone building that led to their ride- it was guarded heavily by Fire Nation soldiers who obviously would have to check everyone and everything going into the city; they didn't of course, want to aggravate their Princess, and let her through without a word. Within a few minutes they had scaled some stairs and were finally at their destination- the carriage system; Sokka looked in amazement as he saw carriages lined up in rows for people to enter, all following the track out toward the walls which he could just make out in the far distance. The entire building was full of Fire Nation guards- obviously set on protecting this vital entry point into the city.

"All of you- file into these carriages." the Captain called out, pointing to a set of carriages that were currently empty- they had an entire one set for themselves; Sokka immediately thought that the Governor must've wanted to cozy up the Princess for him to just willy-nilly give out a whole set of carriages for the Princess to use.
Sokka followed the guards into a carriage, sitting himself down and placed his weapons beside him; he saw Azula sit down by the front of the carriage with the Captain, while the rest of the guards filed in sitting beside him.
Feeling slightly off again by the silence, he nudged the guard beside him, "Why is everyone so quiet?" he asked, the guard cringing at Sokka.

"Kid- it's all about image- I'll give you that much." he told him before turning away sitting up straight.
The Water Tribesman found the guards to be a funny bunch, and this guards comment only affirmed his beliefs- they were scared shitless by Azula, and he knew that fear was well justified- they were to follow her and fulfil that she wanted them to- loyal, quiet and deadly soldiers- he knew well enough from his conversations back at Huangwen that they were far more relaxed and carefree than one would have expected.

The carriage begun to slowly move, as Sokka expected it to- but within a few moments it begun to accelerate- within a minute they were racing along the track at a speed Sokka thought no ship could ever match; the outside world moved by rapidly, the port-town disappearing behind them and the wall growing ever so larger by the second until they were consumed by it and darkness shrouded the carriages- shocking Sokka with amazement, and as quick as the darkness came it disappeared and they appeared out in fields of yellow and green, another further ahead he could see another world, only barely peering over the horizon. He was in awe of the massive scale of the city- no wonder it had lasted as long as it did against the Fire Nation.

The carriages continued along the track toward the Inner Wall and soon enough Sokka realised that though they were moving quite fast, he would have to distract himself with something while they rode all the way to the centre of the massive city. He turned to the soldiers and decided to abruptly ask out.

"Hey- does anyone know anything interesting about this place?" his voice making all the guards look at him- their faces still shrouded, along with their facial reactions, but their postures indicated most of them didn't know much about the city- one of the guards raised his hand and pointed back to the Outer Wall.

"This city- it lasted for a 600 day siege- and even when the Fire Nation broke through their walls- it still remained steadfast. It took the power of Sozin's Comet to break the Walls and overcome their defenders." the guard explained, glancing back over to the Princess- as if to make sure she wasn't paying attention, "Her highness's esteemed uncle- great General Iroh, the former Crown Prince- he commanded the siege and supposedly even who was claimed to be destined to take the city- but Ba Sing Se beat him back, and took his son with them."

Sokka looked at him with confusion, "Wait- they kidnapped him?" his words making the guard almost laugh before realising the morbidity of the topic.

"U-uh no, the Prince was killed attempting to attack the breach with his squadron- it ended the siege, the General hasn't been to war since." the guard explained, Sokka gulping audibly in realisation.

"Wow- that's uh- a bit tragic." Sokka commented, unable to really think of a reasonable response.

One side of the Water Tribesman's mind told him that the boy got what he deserved by going to war to fight the Earth Kingdom- but another side of him just considered the tragedy of it all- everyone could die in the war- even the royalty; Sokka had never really considered the Fire Lord and his family actually going to war- and when he thought about it, it only made Azula's family sound worse- being forced to become the physical embodiment of their nation's ideology- war-mongering, evil, ruthless, without restraint.

The inner-wall soon came to encompass them- only for a moment before they appeared in the great city itself- houses, shops, streets and other buildings for as far as the eye could see; Sokka and the guards looked on in amazement- none of them had been here- only hearsay could tell them of the actual magnitude of the city, and now it was before them- a near endless city, of endless opportunity.

The early morning sun lit over the Lower Ring of Ba Sing Se, it's slums looking more like a mosaic of light and dark tiles than actual buildings from afar. A group of teenagers sat around the ashes of a campfire on a rooftop- homeless inhabitants of the city that was meant to save them from the war; they once called themselves heroes- freedom fighters against the Fire Nation- that had all ended when they flooded a village occupied by the Fire Nation and were forced to flee the region when the full force of the Fire Nation military burnt down the forest they inhabited in vengeance- only to find themselves under the rule of their enemy once they arrived.

Only one figure was really conscious at the moment- and as per usual he was angry and scheming "Guys- I have a few ideas how we can give the Fire Nation hell and not be caught."

The youngest one there stood up and grumbled at him, dismissing his claims with a swipe of his hand, "Yeah right Jet- it will be just like last time, when Smellerbee and Pipsqueak nearly got captured- or worse."

"C'mon Duke! We need to do something- it's not like we can just sit here and act like the Fire Nation isn't oppressing these people- all these poor, poor people who fled all this way to just find themselves under the feet of the firebenders again!"

Another one of them a teenage girl, stood up in agreement with Jet "Yeah Jet's right- just because it's dangerous doesn't mean we shouldn't do it- what else do we have to lose at this point?"

"What do you mean?! I don't wanna die guys- I'm only ten!" he almost shouted at his compatriots.

Jet looked at his young friend in desperation, "You're a kid- and we look out for you- that's our duty to each other- we're a family... I won't let them hurt you." he added, feeling somewhat distraught on the possibility of losing one of his friends.

He stood up to gain the attention of all his friends, "Please hear me out guys, I heard from overhearing some guards that some Fire Nation high-up is showing up in the city and they were trying to 'clean it up' before this mystery visitor arrives." he explained, his friends nodding cautiously at what he was saying, "If we are able to find out where this person is- perhaps we can make a strike."

Pipsqueak raised his head and looked at Jet with a raised eyebrow, "So- how do we do it then- blasting jelly to send them into the sky?" he smirked at his leader, Jet chuckling lightly at his comment.

"Not exactly- I'm guessing there's going to be high security with this person- so I guessed our best move will be to investigate the security of the Palace- that's where the Fire Nation governor and all his cronies live, so if we can find a way in, perhaps we can cause a situation."

The Duke looked at Jet sceptically, "So what- we try and kill the governor and some other idiots- it don't do much."

"It's not about killing them- a decapitation strike doesn't work with so many soldiers in the city- the idea is that we cause a big enough distraction for the soldiers that we can incite a revolt, and even if it isn't successful in overthrowing the Fire Nation's rule there's a good chance we can inspire those who rise up to continue fighting like us." Jet explained to the Freedom Fighters, who looked at him with both intrigue and doubt.

"So we inspire the others to follow our path to fight against the ash-makers?" Smellerbee asked him, curtly smirking at the thought of their ultimate victory.

"There's enough earthbenders in this city that they could lift up the inner wall and throw it at the palace- and that'd work- that's how many of them I think there are- and we'll only need a fraction of them to defeat the Fire Nation garrison." Jet furthered, Smellerbee and Pipsqueak standing in agreement.

"We can do it Jet- we can defeat them with this plan!" Smellerbee shouted out in realisation and happiness, both her and Pipsqueak raising their fists in approval.

Jet turned to the only other silent figure- his hat masking his eyes and his cloak almost covering him like a blanket, "How about you Longshot?" who responded with a curt nod before looking at The Duke, who sighed in disappointment.

"I guess we're all gonna die then- huh." he commented, unenthusiastically raising his fist like Smellerbee and Pipsqueak before him, the rest of the gang laughing at his somewhat morbid 'joke'.

"So I guess it's time we head off to our 'jobs'..." Jet commented in realisation, picking himself up and changing into a simple orange and green drab he wore when working.

"So Pipsqueak- you ready?" he asked his tough friend, who lent him a smile.

"If we're at least going to get some food along the way."

Jet chuckled at his comment, "Well- I'm sure we can arrange something."

He grabbed his work-bag- containing some basic essentials and a dagger- just in case he got in a bad situation, before slinging the bag over his back and climbing down a ladder into an alley-way; he was sure to push the ladder back up after Pipsqueak got down- the building they lived on top of at the moment was unoccupied- but they could just as easily get kicked out or worse by the guards if they found out kids were living there. Pipsqueak pointed down the alleyway, looking at Jet with a curt smile.

"So boss- we going to get some breakfast now?" he asked sincerely- Jet was unable to refuse and smiled at his friend, patting him on the back.

"Of course- but we ought to be quick- you know that ratty old manager is an arse when it comes to timing." he mentioned, before the two vagrants begun to run down the alley toward the market- where they were sure to find some kind of food to fill Pipsqueaks appetite.

Sokka gaped in amazement at the towering stairs that lay in front of them- the former Royal Palace of the Earth Kingdom in all of it's majesty; he noted the holes and damage that seemed to have not been fully patched over after the occupation- he didn't want to imagine what the defenders of the city would have gone through when the Fire Nation exploded their way into the city with pumped-up firebending. The Royal entourage continued along from their long carriage journey to arrive at the palace, where the Governor awaited them, already presently bowing before the Crown Princess who remained cautious in her new surroundings.

"Welcome my Crown Princess to the Palace- I hope that you will find your stay as comfortable as living in the great palace back home." the governor almost pleaded, bowing before the Princess with such veneration Sokka thought the man was a bit crazy- not even the Royal Guards would act like that toward Azula.

"Your deference and goodwill is taken kindly, Governor. I would like to be shown my quarters and for my guards and servants to be shown their accommodation as well."

The governor eyed Sokka momentarily, "What of this one?" making Azula sigh.

"I picked him up on the journey over- he'll be staying with the guards I presume, unless you have some spare accommodation elsewhere?" she told the governor, not too certain of how the palace would fit the Water Tribesman in.

"Uh there is always a spare room- does he need his own?" he asked her, his voice slightly sceptical of Sokka's value, making him clench his fists in offence- back to hating the Fire Nation for their snide asshole-ery.

She nonchalantly replied, "No- he can bunk with the rest of them- right?" glancing at Sokka with threatening eyes.

"Of course." Sokka lied- honestly not wanting to have to be stuck around the soldiers any longer than he needed to be.

Azula eyed Sokka noting his untruthfulness before turning back to the governor with a stoic face, "I hope that we can now discuss my diplomatic duties in the city- I am to be the Fire Lord's representative here for the foreseeable future."

"Why of course- I will take you immediately to our daily meeting- we usually deal with petty grievances amongst the population and any supposed security threats- which there are little- our military presence deters the sane from opposing the Fire Nation." the governor explained, trying to make his administration sound effective- which Azula knew was a flat lie or ignorance- her father had sent her across the world do deal with a conspiracy against the Fire Lord's rule at hand- either the man was stupid and ignorant or he was hiding something, and Azula was intent on find that out. Beside her Sokka had other things on his mind, such as making use of the palace's kitchens and bountiful feasts; he wasn't just going to sit around and follow Azula's orders when there was so much meat and other delicacies for him to try.

A local guard came up to the group, and made a curt bow to the governor "Governor- I came to direct the guests-" before he realised he was standing before the Crown Princess as well, "Your highness..." he bowed, more strongly bowing toward the Princess, who smirked at the sign of greater deference.

"Okay- all of you- go with this man and get yourselves ready- I want my guards ready for firebending practice this afternoon." she ordered, the guards looking to their guide, who tried to hold back a smile at his new duties- taking care of the royal guards was something more honourable and easier than doing the governor's errands.
Azula glanced over to Sokka who was lost in thought, "You can come over to training too- I'll get some non-bending weakling for you to beat up." she declared, smirking at Sokka, who returned her smirk with a face of disdain.

"Aw c'mon- I can beat up firebenders too!" he declared, getting a glance of anger from the Captain and making Azula chuckle lightly before she returned to her stoic form.

Sokka glanced back at Azula who joined the Governor and his guards to walk up the long stairs toward the palace itself, while Sokka was called over by one of the guards as to follow the group; he sighed and acknowledged to himself that he would be stuck with the firebending menaces for a while longer. Following the group they made their way to a large barracks, distinguished by it's metal frame and red roof- perhaps the Fire Nation had built this somewhat ugly structure to replace whatever they destroyed in their conquest. The guide herded the guards and servants into the building, and Sokka begrudgingly followed.

"This is the garrison's secondary quarters- we built them after the city was taken because the rest of the buildings were being used as prison blocks for the Earth King's followers- uh, there were a lot of them. After they shipped out we started using those buildings instead- so this is free for all of you to occupy while you stay." the guide explained, and the guards took that as a signal to look around, dropping their bags and looking at through the barracks, while the servants mostly followed behind somewhat blank-eyed in their short period of 'free-time' which they most sorely lacked under the Princesses service.

Sokka looked into one of the rooms, which had two beds and a desk- probably an officers quarters, and glanced to see if any of the guards were checking the room out before staking it as his own- he quickly rushed in and placed his weapons beside one of the beds and put his bagged items under it. The standard issue metal bed looked somewhat uncomfortable in the Water Tribesman's eyes but it was better that sleeping on the ground or in a prison cell, so he wasn't one to complain at the moment; he lay himself onto the bed to test it's feel, and to his relief it was quite comfortable and soft- perhaps the beds had been freshly done prior to their arrival.

Suddenly the door to the room came open and he gazed upon the eyes of his current 'rival'- the Captain himself, "Ah you're kidding me- the little snow-barbarian is in the officer's quarters."

"I got here first- you take the other bed if you want but you ain't kicking me out!" Sokka complained, making the Captain rub his nose bridge in frustration.

"That doesn't make it any better- you're not an officer- you're some up-start peasant from the Water Tribe." he grumbled, sitting himself down on the bed in frustration.

"I don't like you much either- so I'll take my leave... just don't steal any of my stuff." he stated, eyeing the Captain before barging out of the room, not wanting to get into an unnecessary fight with him- although it crossed his mind to fight him honour-bound, he dismissed it as ludicrous; Sokka knew for a fact that food was his priority.
Calling out down the hall Sokka asked out, "Hey you! Guy who guided us here- where's the food!" the palace guard glancing over in realisation before pacing himself down the hallway to Sokka.

"U-uh yeah- the palace guards and staff have lunch around this time- it's across in a hall- on the other side of the grand staircase- back the way we came." the guard explained to Sokka, who quickly patted him on the shoulder.
"Thanks man!" he quickly thanked, picking up pace and running out the door into the palace's massive stone tile courtyard- he could squint his eyes and see a golden and green rimmed hall across it- sighing in frustration; the palace was huge, bigger than any kind of place he'd ever been too- Sokka wondered for a moment if the Water Tribe's could have ever built anything so big.

Pacing himself across the courtyard, he thought about the days ahead- he knew the Princess was supposedly here for some 'diplomatic' mission now, being the Fire Lord's daughter, but from how she had described it on the ship- her job was probably a lot more serious than just some royal oversight for the governor's day-to-day work; Sokka thought he ought to find out what she was up to but decided he rather not sneak into some things that might get him berated for or perhaps worse- he didn't want to find out.

Making his way to the hall he discerned it's features- this building clearly predated the occupation and was far more well maintained from the looks of it- perhaps it had been a function-hall for the Earth King prior to his deposition- the rich and high-ups ought to have somewhere to convene he presumed. Walking into the building he caught the eye of the food server, a young scrawny Earth Kingdom boy- probably pulled out of whatever dredges of poverty by this fine job.

"Uh- you're new." the boy thought aloud, Sokka chuckling lightly at the comment.

"You could say that- I'm with the Princess; I heard you've serving lunch for the guards and palace staff." Sokka asked him, the boy looking around the mostly empty hall, only a few of the staff sitting by a table eating their meagre lunches.

"Well you're uh- just in time for a good lunch- what do you like?" he asked Sokka, somewhat unnerved by such an unusual looking person- he had probably never seen a Water Tribesman before, let alone expected one to come the Fire Nation occupied city of Ba Sing Se.

"I'm not from around here- I don't really know much about your cuisine- what you got?"

"We usually serve the basic foods here- jook, roast duck, noodles and soup." the boy told Sokka, whose mouth watered at the description.

"I'll take some roast duck- with some of the other stuff on the side." he almost commanded, making the boy look at him with a slight shock; the boy quickly served a small dish of the foods he described with a larger dish of pieces of roast duck.

Sokka looked at the meal with hunger before starting to pick bites out of each of the things, quickly devouring the roast duck before eating away at the rest of the food- he especially found the soup to be nice, it reminded him of the stews he would eat at home and with his tribe- what he would do just to eat Water Tribe food again.

He looked up to the boy with a smile, who had been still standing waiting for others to enter the hall, "It's really good- I've never had a full meal of Earth Kingdom food before- it's a bit more varied than my usual diet." he explained, the boy chuckling.

"We try our best sir." he affirmed before Sokka raised his hand in defiance.

"I'm nobodies 'sir'- the name's Sokka." he corrected, offering out a hand to shake.

Grasping Sokka's hand he awkwardly smiled "U-uh my name's Li- that won't be hard to remember, you're sure to meet a heap of them while you're here." the boy joked, Sokka laughing along with him. "So you're here with the Fire Nation Princess- you must be important then." Li commented, Sokka dismissing him with a pat on the back.

"I'd love to say I'm the greatest man alive- but I'm just a guy with a boomerang really, just living my life trying to get by." Sokka told him, trying to describe himself as humbly as possible- he didn't want to seem stuck up when talking to a food-server of all people- that'd make him as bad as Azula or her firebender goons. Sokka got out of his seat and gave Li back the dishes, before asking "Anyway- I'm going to look around the palace- anything of interest you'd recommend?"

"Uh- there's the unused throne room in the palace- it's pretty majestic." Li explained, Sokka patting him on the shoulder.

"Thanks man- I'll be back for dinner, if you're still serving food then."

"Dinner's at sunset- it was nice meeting you Sokka." Li smiled curtly before returning to the kitchen, leaving Sokka to walk back out of the dining hall.

Walking back the way he came, Sokka came to the somewhat damaged stair-case- massive holes covered the staircase, making it hard to walk straight up- he assumed these were created by the earthbenders during the defence and that the Fire Nation hadn't bothered to fix them- most of the palace was relatively well maintained, but they weren't fixing the grounds for the sake of aesthetics- the palace had it's function for holding prisoners and being a centre for the military command, as Sokka guessed from the guides earlier descriptions. After a minute he had made his way up the massive array of stairs to gaze upon the actual palace proper- he was shocked by the state of it- The entire facade of the palace was reconstructed out of steel with massive Fire Nation banners scaling down it, alongside a massive metal gate that bounded the structure, guarded by a squadron of elite firebenders; as they noticed him one of the guards walked up to the Water Tribesman.

"Stop there- the palace is for military and guest only access." the guard told him, his face uncovered to scowl at the Water Tribesman, "You don't seem like you should even be here savage."

"Excuse me-" Sokka begun, smirking at the guard, "I am the Princesses personal guest and assistant- if you don't let me I'll tell her that the guards at the palace are incompetent arseholes who need to be reprimanded- would you like that?" he berated, his smirk deviously threatening the guard who gulped in genuine fear- knowing full well the boy before him wasn't lying.

"No uh- it was my mistake sir- I'll let you through immediately" the guard replied with a face of fear, trying to make himself sound as tough as possible in face of the Princesses potential wrath- this time Sokka appreciated this 'sir' just to know the firebender was beneath him- even if only from the Princesses authority.

Walking into the palace he was confronted with rows of massive gold encrusted doors- each of them leading further into the palace until he eventually made his way to a final door that opened to the throne room- a massive room in girth and height, with a golden throne at the end of it, defaced by a massive Fire Nation banner covering it- there was a large table in the throne room where Azula was sitting with governor and his cronies, them all noticing Sokka before them.

"Uh- I think I walked into something I shouldn't have." Sokka mumbled to himself, Azula glaring at him before the attendees decided to acknowledge him.

"So this is the Water Tribesman who saved your life?" one of the attendees asked, eyeing Sokka with intrigue.

"Yes- he was very useful in my journey back to civilisation- I've rewarded him with a place of service."

"So your highness- he's just your newest servant?" the Governor asked Azula, Sokka's face flushing red, trying not to scream out at the man that he was certainly not serving anybody.

"More of a guard and assistant- he's not very useful for the usual servant work- life on the tundra makes one a bit rough." she explained, trying to give out a reasonable explanation to her new colleagues for why she had taken Sokka into her employ; just as Sokka was about to try and argue for himself, Azula hushed him with the raising of a hand.

"I'll be ready for training in a few minutes- go loiter around somewhere where you don't aggravate the guards." Azula commanded, Sokka drooping his head- knowing he was essentially powerless to not follow her commands when they were amongst the Fire Nation- at that moment he regretted leaving the forest as quickly as he had, but reminded himself of the meal Li had served him and took back that thought at an instance. Sokka was not comfortable with serving the Fire Nation in any form, but if he had to to get back to his people, what else could he do but shut up and take it.

Chapter Text

The midday sun drew down upon courtyard of the Governor's Palace of Ba Sing Se, heating the tiles and the bodies of it's current inhabitants. Sokka wasn't one that could affirm he was truly adapted to the hot weather that was all too common in the Earth Kingdom, the firebenders conversely almost revelled in the sun's light- as if they couldn't hear their leader commanding them on her forms.

"Now- I want you to form a semi-circle- about 3 feet apart from each other." Azula described to them, the guards walking back to form a semicircle around the Princess, while Sokka looked on in confused at their forms- as if they were going to blast her with beams of fire all at once.

Sokka was proven right when the Princess raised her right arm and the firebending guards all sent out beams of fire directly at her, which she was able to simply block via a wall of fire- something his father once told him echoed in his mind: firebenders defend with offence; this made Sokka smirk in realisation- perhaps it would be easier to beat one of them in a spar than he thought.

"Again!" Azula commanded her men, who all kicked fire at her in synchronisation- a form he had seen them use before in battle- she ducked under the beams of fire and sent out a wave in response, the guards quickly dissipating the Princesses wave in unison.

Azula then concentrated her own beam of fire toward one of her guards, who was barely able stand his ground before she moved along the semi-circle, each guard crumbling to her raw power, finally ending the beam and kneeling to the ground- the intensity and length of the attack exhausted her.

"Wow- that was pretty cool." Sokka gaped, looking at the guards dishevelled and weakened from the Princesses attack.

"What about you- think you could take that?" she smirked, Sokka looking back, mouth agape in genuine fear.

"No! No non-bender could stand up to such an attack without dishonourable cunning." Sokka explained, Azula raising her eyebrow in interest.

"Like what kind of cunning?" she asked him, Sokka shrugging his shoulders; more aggravated by his silence than anything she glanced at him with slight anger.

"Well you have to show me now!" she demanded, Sokka smirking before withdrawing and throwing his boomerang directly at the Princesses head, which she barely dodged- she looked back somewhat shocked but smirked.

"Ah- well you didn't hit me- congratulations savage." she mocked him, reminding him of his constant bragging about his boomerang skill.

"Oh no- what will I do now?" Sokka pleaded with a heavy tone of sarcasm, making the Princess look at him in genuine shock.

"Wait wh-" she made out before her head was clipped by the returning boomerang- her head flinging downward, nearly forcing her to fall to the ground.

"Princess!" the Captain called out in fear and anger, turning to the Water Tribesman, "Why in the spirit's name did you do that?"

Sokka nonchalantly shrugged his shoulders at the Captain- who looked ready to burn his face off, "She wanted dishonourable cunning- that's what she got."

Azula picked herself up, fixing her dishevelled bun that had been dislodged by the boomerang striking her head,

"Y-you barbarian- I think you proved your point." she grumbled, rubbing her scalp in an attempt to ease the throbbing pain the boomerang had caused.

"Thank you Princess- I'll take that as a job well done." Sokka smirked, making the Captain fume further at him.

"I demand this oaf be removed from the courtyard- he is a health hazard!" he demanded to the Princess, who held back laughing.

"I thought one would be more impressed that anyone could possibly strike the Princess rather than to make the boy feel like wasn't doing what he was told." the Princess snidely remarked to the Captain- offending both him and Sokka, who knew her remarks about 'doing what he was told' were technically true but nonetheless demeaning.

Glancing back at Sokka, she moved herself into firebending form, "Now where was I- oh yes- I was going to beat your arse." smirking at the sound of the Captain smacking his own hand on his forehead- she loved to get on people's nerves, especially when they couldn't do anything about it.

Sokka smirked back at her, withdrawing his club and boomerang into his hands, "Well then- I guess this is the long awaited rematch."

Azula set her hands alight, but before doing anything looked at him and laughed, "Well that wouldn't be fair, I'll use one hand" she mocked, putting her left hand behind her back, "What about on one foot?" she raised her leg, making Sokka slap his forehead in the same motion the Captain had moments earlier.

"C'mon- let's just fight- you might be tough as nails, but that makes victory sweeter." Sokka jested at her, Azula's smirk turning to a frown as she struck out her fist into a massive wave of fire- Sokka was able to dodge it by somersaulting and throwing his boomerang to counter.

Azula sidestepped the swift boomerang before delivering a volley of flames toward Sokka's feet, which he found harder to dodge than she did to his attack; he stumbled backward, trying to keep his footing as she continued to strike at his feet. Suddenly the boomerang swung back, arriving in Sokka's hand, where he could put it to better use- he flung it out wide to hit Azula in the side; she quickly redirected her stance and dodged the boomerang's swing before turning back to see Sokka charging right at her with his club.

"Ahhhhhh!!!" Sokka shouted a battle-cry, racing in with a swing of his boomerang which Azula barely had time to register before she was forced to fall backwards lest she be struck in the head with the weapon.

Azula reacted with a swinging fist of flames, landing square on Sokka's jaw, reminding him of the first time she had hit him in the face so harshly; Sokka was able to see the attack coming and fell with the strike to the ground, rolling to his feet to avoid Azula hitting him while he was down for the moment.

"Had enough yet?" she mocked him, Sokka raising his face in defiance- his cheek red from the burn and his eyes watering.

Unable to move his mouth as much as he liked, Sokka made out "N-noh yeh" before harshly swinging the club at Azula, actually letting go to let it fly at her; Azula blocked the strike with her forearms, but the weight of the club forced to fall onto her backside.

In the moments before she could regain her footing, Sokka scampered away from her and grabbed his boomerang, before returning to some semblance of a stance; Azula glanced back at him with frustration.

"You ought to give up before I break your face." she mocked him, drawing both her fists in blue flames.

"Y-you've done that." Sokka attempted to joke, drawing out of the boomerang in preparation to continue their duel.

Azula struck out first with a volley of fire blasts from each of her fists, Sokka dodging under the flames, feigning a fall before swinging the boomerang out to Azula's side- hitting her shoulder and flinging her off her feet; Sokka could hear the guards gasp in near horror. The Water Tribesman withdrew his bone dagger and raced at the Princess before she could get back to her feet; Azula raised her left arm to send fire at him but Sokka was able to grab it before she could aim at him. Sokka thrust the blade toward her chest, although not genuinely trying to strike her, Azula reacted quickly by setting her right fist alight and aiming it- albeit somewhat awkwardly- at his head.

"D-d-raw?" Sokka asked her, Azula's chest heaving in exhaustion and pain.

"You already hit me in the head- plus I have armour and you don't; out of the two of us who's going to survive the other's hit?" she asked him rhetorically.

Sokka sighed in frustration, "Ah whatever- you win this time."

"That's twice- not counting that fuss on the deck." she drilled to him.

Sokka looked at her with a smirk, "I definitely won that- you were lost to the sea, at least for a few hours and you didn't massacre the Water Tribe 'savages' in battle; I think that qualifies as a victory for me."

"I was about to throw you overboard- I would have if it wasn't for the enlightened commentary." she explained, making Sokka laugh.

"Ah so that's how it was- my own mockery of you saved my life?" he asked her, Azula chuckling in realisation.

"I guess that is right- you're one of the only people to actually duel me in battle, and you survived by demeaning my abilities." she commented, Sokka breaking down laughing in realisation of the ludicrousness of the whole ordeal.

"Ahahaha- I still won!" he triumphantly claimed ending his laughter, walking away from the scene of the spar as the Royal Guards looked on with mouths agape- the Princess had never actually deferred to any other person's abilities before, at least from what they had seen; the Captain gazed upon the boy with fear- if that 'warrior' could gain the respect of one of the most powerful benders alive, he ought to actually be a real threat in battle- and therefore a real threat to the Fire Nation.

The sun bathed the upper ring a pale orange, it's golden roofs glinting in the sunlight; the streets of the rich neighbourhood were quiet at this time of the afternoon, most of it's inhabitants working indoors or eating their lunches- a perfect time for someone to sneak through. Two freedom fighters walked the streets confidently disguised- they had taken the appearance of common servants, distinguishable from those of the lower ring by cleaner and better made clothing- the local guards didn't bat an eye at them as they straddled down the streets, making their way toward the centre of the city.

"Looks like the disguises and fake passports worked!" Smellerbee proclaimed, albeit quietly to her partner in crime, who simply nodded back in agreement, "How did Jet say we'd get any information around here- there's barely any people- let alone any Fire Nation goons that we can beat down."
Longshot almost sighed, pointing up along the hillside to a smaller wall that bounded the Upper Ring- the former Palace of the Earth King; Smellerbee looked at her companion with intrigue.

"So- go check out the guard posts on the wall- maybe sneak over for a glance?" she asked, smirking in realisation that they would have to be stealthy if they wanted to pull off just getting a look into the palace grounds.

Walking down an alleyway between two manors, the freedom fighters caught sight of a Fire Nation patrol, only two men, walking around the bounds of the palace wall; Longshot pointed at them and made a twirling motion with his hand before making a hopping motion with his fingers, as if they were jumping over the wall- he thought they ought to be on synchronised timetable, and if that could count the timing between patrols, they would know exactly how long they would have to sneak over the wall if they could- Smellerbee got the jist of his idea and nodded in affirmation. The Fire Nation patrol left their sight soon enough and they hid themselves behind some bushes- the Upper Ring had a bountiful amount of gardens that could be very useful to hide in, as they had just found out; within a few minutes the next patrol came through and Longshot nodded to his companion- he knew they could scale the wall in that time.

Smellerbee looked at Longshot with confusion, "How are we going to get up the wall anyway- I don't see any holes..." Longshot raised a finger in the air before withdrawing a tied up cloth from his back, and Smellerbee smirked back with realisation, "Ah- I should've remembered you always bring your bow around."

He quickly unsheathed the cloth before drawing the bow and pulled a rope and arrow from his back, before quickly shooting the arrow into the top of the wall- pulling on it momentarily to check the tensile strength before nodding back to Smellerbee; she raced toward the wall and grabbed the rope, climbing up on it to start scaling the wall, glancing back to Longshot who remained by the garden.

"Aren't you coming?" she asked him, Longshot responding by pointing out the line of sight from his position- he was to keep watch and ensure that the rope could be reused- if the Fire Nation soldiers cut it- there'd be no escape; Smellerbee nodded in understanding before scaling the rest of the wall and pulling her torso onto the top of the wall.

Glancing out momentarily she could see the massive expanse of the palace- the portion which she had sneaked over was covered in buildings- in the distance she could see firebenders training in the courtyard and others patrolling around the palace; it would be hard to sneak into the palace, and even harder to escape it, from what her and Longshot had just seen- the gate would be even more heavily guarded than the walls themselves- unless they could destroy a part of the wall they wouldn't have a clear escape route. Smellerbee nodded at Longshot, grabbing the rope and abseiling back down with speed- before she tugged the arrow free and ran back to the bushes- as expected, moments later the Fire Nation patrol moved through and noticed nothing, to the relief of the freedom fighters.

Waiting for the patrol to leave earshot, Smellerbee turned to Longshot, "Okay- we're going to need something to blow up this wall- the whole place is crawling with firebending rats- if we can't get out the main gate- we're not all going to be able to scale the wall; other than that- Jet's plans seem sound." Longshot nodded in acceptance, signalling that they should scout around further- he thought they could perhaps try and hear out what any guards have to say.

The two disguised freedom fighters walked through the Upper Ring, following the palace wall until they reached what they assumed to be the main gate- a massive golden and green gate, untarnished by the Fire Nation's occupation other than the banners that flowed down from it's accompanying guard-posts; Smellerbee pointed out a set of crates beside the guard-post.

"We can hide behind those- and hopefully one of them spills the beans." she explained, Longshot nodding.
Longshot quickly scampered backward, finding a dislodged road-stone on the ground- picking it up he quickly threw it across the road, as to distract the Fire Nation guards from Smellerbee sneaking behind them.

"What was that?" one of the guards asked out, setting his hands alight with flames and walking down to the road-stone; by the time he looked over to where Longshot had been hiding, he had already disappeared into the nearby villa's garden, letting Smellerbee be the ears of their operation, while he would watch from afar to signal her if need be.

One of the guards joked at the situation, "Maybe some kid was earthbending- you know these uppity assholes, always too lenient in their privileged positions."

"Yeah talk about it- the bloody bastards should be thankful the Fire Lord decided to not burn this city to the ground- instead they get to roam free and hold their rights as if the Earth King still reigned."

"The governors a bit of a wanker letting them keep their shit- inn'e?" one of the guards commented, making the other guards laugh but hush him.

"Shut it man- if the wrong person hears that, you'll get transferred to the Lower Ring, and then you'll get killed by earthbending kids instead of being annoyed by them." one of the guards berated.

"If you really want to get a kick of a transfer you should offend the Princess- I hear she had a man demoted for making an infactual statement in her presence." one of the guards joked.

"Did you see her earlier? I heard she's one of the prettiest girls in the Fire Nation, but she's got a tongue man- fucking scares all the suitors away." another gossiped, Smellerbee connecting the dots- the Princess was the mystery visitor Jet had mentioned, and from how the guards had described her, it made sense for the 'clean up'- whatever Jet had meant by that.

"We've got 'em now." Smellerbee mumbled with a smirk- knowing now she had the intel they required to figure out the next steps of the plan she signalled Longshot with a motion of her hand; he quickly drew an gunpowder arrow and shot it into the air- before it most certainly caused a small explosion around a block away- the guards jumping from their compliance in shock.

"What the fuck was that?!" one of the guards exclaimed in fear, their commanding officer standing pointing at his men.

"Get your arses up- search the area for whatever in Agni's name caused that." he ordered, the guards quickly picking themselves up and racing down the street, completely missing sight of Longshot hiding stealthily in a manor's garden.

Smellerbee paced over to the garden after the guards had scattered away momentarily, and jumped behind the bushes to greet her companion, she grinned at Longshot with near glee, "We've got 'em! It's the Princess we're looking for- I think we should wait around- perhaps someone associated with her will pass through the upper ring- if we're lucky she'll run right into us." Longshot almost face-palmed at Smellerbee's joke- he most certainly didn't want to confront their enemy in the light of day, let alone when they were outnumbered greatly. The two disguised freedom fighters packed up the bow and it's assorted parts before they made their way down the street, looking for any place to hide before suddenly a man appeared out of no where- who they presumed was an Earth Kingdom noble- looked at the two of them questioningly.

"Excuse me- but shouldn't you two be at your masters estate- are you lost?" he asked them, Smellerbee standing forward to try and bullshit them out of the situation.

"Yes sir- we're so sorry for asking, but could you direct us to the shops- our master wanted us to buy him canvas for uh- calligraphy?" she explained, Longshot nodding in affirmation of her successful lie, the nobleman convinced.

"Oh it's downhill from here, along the main avenue- once you reach the wide roads, you can't miss it." he explained to the two of them- confused why they didn't already know where the market was, "Are you new here?" he asked.

"We've been hired recently sir- we served in a different part of the city." Smellerbee lied, the nobleman nodding with slight suspicion.

"You seem like well-enough folk- have a good day, and stay out of trouble- I hear the Fire Nation doesn't treat the lesser folk as well around here." he explained, making Longshot cringe in fear- he knew all too well the man's words would aggravate Smellerbee.

"A-uh- thanks..." Smellerbee mumbled, trying to contain her frustration at the man- she knew all too well now that the Upper Ring's citizens were far too complacent with the Fire Nation occupation, and she could see why- the Fire Nation could barely lift a finger at them because all their privileges from before the occupation were maintained- it was if the Earth King had never been deposed.

Walking away from the nobleman, the two could only feel confused by the situation in the Upper Ring- it was as if nothing had changed- they had only been in the city for a short time before the comet, but they knew well enough from their experiences at the hands of the Fire Nation that the nobility had gotten off surprisingly easily- the whole city of Ba Sing Se lived on as if nothing had changed, despite the Fire Nation banenrs covering the walls. She had heard rumours of other organisations, behind the scenes- the last remains of the Earth King's authority- the Cultural Authority of Ba Sing Se- better known as the Dai Li; Smellerbee and the rest of the Freedom Fighters had never seen a member of the Dai Li, let alone hear of any plots against the Fire Nation- perhaps their authority still held sway in the palace, and that was why the city continued to function as if the Earth King still ruled. Ba Sing Se was a weird and convoluted place- it was as if it was set in time, no matter the power of the Fire Nation's military might.

The newly established office of the Crown Princess was decked with papers from the garrison's record department- she had entrusted her Captain to assist at the moment in searching for details that may reveal any rebels or plots against the Fire Nation; the Captain was not pleased with the amount of work he would have to do, but understood well enough that delegating to the locals would be rather dangerous- neither of them knew how deep conspiracy ran in the city- if they spoke to the wrong individual they could accidentally get themselves targeted by whoever sought to undermine them in the first place. The Captain was not an outspoken man and decided to hold his tongue, despite his own wishes to advise the Princess on her new Water Tribe companion- she would simply claim he was effaced by the boy, and not that he actually posed a threat to the Princess.

"Captain- what do you say of the governor's forces and garrison- do you think they are capable of defeating a revolt against Fire Nation occupation?" Azula asked him, the Captain bowing in acknowledgement before relaying his thoughts.

"The forces here are well trained veterans from fighting in the Earth Kingdom- most of these men have been stationed elsewhere, and I think that they are capable of preventing an Earth Kingdom revolt;" the Captain explained, but halted before continuing- unsure if he should be speaking so openly, "if I may say- the governor seems to be relatively- uh how can I say this lightly- complacent in his seat of power. From what I can see in our day past, the Earth Kingdom people here are treated fairly and with due respect, but the degree to which this has been achieved is somewhat bewildering; I'm unsure if we can trust these people as much as the governor might try to."

"That's what I was presuming also Captain- this city is at peace, but that peace seems tenuous, and if a spark was to light the hack-stack, we would see our authority crumble- the city could easily be taken by rebels if they had enough manpower or backing- we still know little of the potential conspirators." she confirmed, looking down to a set of papers in her hands.

"These papers describe a number of potential threats described by the first military strategists that visited the city after it's occupation: the Earth King's loyalists- the higher nobility and the military elite who obviously led the charge in defending the city from our rule and would be most at ease opposing us; as well as the Earth King's secret police, the Cultural Authority or Dai Li- as they a more commonly called, they supposedly cracked down on dissent in the city and the spread of information they deemed 'threatening to the peace'." she explained, the Captain nodding in understanding.

"These Dai Li- they haven't been encountered since the comet- supposedly not all of them were captured in the conquest." the Captain commented, thinking on the idea for a moment, "They could be the threat we are looking for, if their numbers did remain as large as believed after the Fire Nation took control- their compatriots didn't give much information before being shipped off to prison camps."

"We can be for certain until we find some proof of their continued existence- they could have just melted away realising the Earth King was gone and that their authority left with him." Azula argued, although she agreed with the Captain.

To Azula the Dai Li was an unknown, and to her an unknown was already present, waiting to strike- she knew this well enough after her encounter with the Water Tribe- the worst thing that could happen, if no outcome is apparent, should be treated as the outcome; she was dealing with a conspiracy, and the worst one- it seemed to be the most plausible one. Uppity nobles were one thing- but a secret police force that no one had seen in over a year was another.

"We must take the threat for as if it was fact- I believe there is someone or multiple individuals in the hierarchy that could be potentially compromised." she explained to the Captain, who nodded in respect and agreement- they were both on the same page here- there was a serious threat, and even if they couldn't understand it, they ought to prepare for it as best they could.

"After all of this- we still have no idea who plotted to have you captured- there's no way the Water Tribe would do something so bold, let alone have the intel to perform such an attack." the Captain remarked, reminding the Princess of what Sokka had described to her of their 'job'.

"The Water Tribe savage has his use- one of them has been to give me the information that I desired in relation to the shipwreck- his people were hired, he doesn't know who by- someone secretive it seems- perhaps the Dai Li fit the bill for that?" Azula explained.

"How can you be sure he told you everything he knew?" he asked her, Azula raising an eyebrow.

"Are you questioning your Princesses judgement?" she asked him, her eyes looking into him like daggers- she could stir fear into the most stoic and tough men like the Captain with relative ease.

"No your highness-" the Captain formally replied, trying to change his tone to seem a bit more respectful, "I simply seek to remind you that those savages can be finicky liars and thieves as much as they are supposedly 'honour-bound' warriors."

"This savage is honest- too much may I say, if he had been one of my subjects I would have had him beat for his insolence- but he is under my employ willingly and after saving my life multiple times, caring for me through that forest. Even if our relationship is purely for it's utility, that doesn't undermine the trust that he has in me- he believes I will get him home." she explained to the Captain.

"Will you- will you let an enemy of the Fire Nation return to their place by our enemies side?" he questioned, the Princess raising her hand to stop the Captain's claims.

"If he proves his worth and remains loyal- then yes, I see no reason to hold him against his own will; the boy could prove to be a valuable ally in the times to come- if I rule the world one day, I want to rule it with the respect of my subjects." she explained to the Captain, nodding at her logical conclusions.

"I see- but don't let his 'good-wills' blind you Princess- this boy- this man, he cannot be trusted to do what you want him to."

"Well Captain- I'll tell you what I see- I see a boy who is scared for his life, unknowing of the place he resides- unable to return home without real assistance, the kind I can provide; he trusts me, and he respects my ability as a leader and firebender- he will not always follow my command, but he will work alongside me to help me achieve my goals- he has to if he wants to survive." she berated him, describing Sokka with as much detail as she could- as to prove his 'innocence' in a sense to the Captain's preconceptions.

She knew that the man selfishly wanted to find a reason to hate the Water Tribesman- she could understand his reasoning, but she would not stand for anything but absolute loyalty; the Captain was a proud man- but seeing that his loyalty was being already tested by a simple snow savages apparent obedience- Azula found it somewhat amusing that he would be foiled that of all things- a man supposedly following the Princess out of his own free will. Sokka was not the most loyal of followers- but his unbridled honesty and clear sense of honour made him a trustworthy ally- and at the very least she could trust him more than any of the sycophants and liars in this city.

Within a small and cramped room, Sokka lay rubbing his jaw in pain- the Princess had done a number to his face, and he was hoping the pain would ease with time- his hopes hadn't done much for him today however. After their sparring session ended, he had nothing much to do but lie and try and wait out the stinging sensation; to Sokka's luck the Captain wasn't there to continue berating him for being some kind of threat and a foreign savage, but his jaw pained none the less and he doubted he'd find respite any time soon. Deciding that he had had enough of lazing around in pain, he raised himself from the bed and pulled his shirt back into form before peering out of the metal door- he could see two of the guards chatting in the hallway, and without prior judgement he walked up to them in hopes that they would know of any way for him to find ease in his pained state.

"U-uh hey guys, do you have any idea how to help with pain from injuries? Azula really did a number to my jaw." he asked the guards somewhat confused by his informal reference to the Princess but responded in due course.

"'Course kid- there's the greatest cure to any pain: a bit a' booze!" one of the guards joked to him, Sokka taking his statement with full seriousness.

"Really!" he almost shouted, somewhat unaware of his surroundings, "Where can I get some? I've never tried anything like that, but desperate times call for desperate measures."

One of the guards smiled sympathetically at Sokka, "I don't really know- it's our first day here too; I'd take the bet that you'd be able to buy some at a bar, not here at the palace- I don't think they'd be letting Fire Nation soldiers get on the piss while they're on duty."

"Okay- well shit, uh I'd best go try and find some." Sokka thought aloud, "Uh- thanks guys, I'll try and find a bar- they ought to have something close enough for me to find." he explained, before curtly acknowledging the two with a slight bow- even though he knew he shouldn't be respectful to such ash-makers, he knew that they had given him good advice that he was willing to pay respect for.

Sokka walked back into his room and slung his boomerang over his back- he thought momentarily he might need it for securities sake, he thought there'd be a chance the Fire Nation bastards forgot that he was working for them and decided to attack him because of his blue clothing. He walked out of the barracks into the hot afternoon sun, not enjoying the burning heat as he might have otherwise with the stinging pain across his face; pacing himself the seemingly endless courtyard he headed in the direction they had entered earlier that morning- a large gate that bounded the palace complex, guarded by an entire squad of elite firebenders as if to scare off any potential attackers, and to simply intimidate the local populace with their might. Arriving at the gate after a few minutes of nearly running across the courtyard, the guards looked at him with suspicion- but after having seen him in the morning they were more curious as to why he was leaving the palace.

"Excuse me kid- we're going to need to know where you're going- no one leaves the palace without us knowing." the lead guard asked Sokka, his voice attempting to seem intimidating- Sokka just knew the guard was doing his job and dismissed him with a wave of his hand.

"A-ah I'm uh- just going to get some refreshments." he explained legitimately, hoping the guards would get what he meant.

"You're a guest of the Princess right- you can just go to the mess hall." the guard told him, Sokka slapping his forehead in frustration and his tone grew harsher.

"No man- I want to get alcohol- look at my face!" Sokka nearly shouted, shocking the guard who stepped back.

"Uh- sorry kid- that does look pretty bad." the guard acknowledged looking at Sokka's bruised face, before signalling his men to open the smallest gate out of the palace, "Let him through!" befor turning back to Sokka,

"Just be back tonight- I don't wanna send a search party after some foreign kid." the guard told him, Sokka nearly rolling his eyes focused on the matter at hand.

"Thanks." he replied back, his tone clearly showing his anger at the situation- he had just wanted to leave without a fuss- it wasn't like he was going to run off back to the Water Tribe- he couldn't do that, despite wanting to dearly.

Walking away from the walls of the Palace, Sokka glanced to gape at the massive manors and gardens of the Upper Ring- he had no idea that the Upper Ring was so wealthy, despite the fall of the city to the Fire Nation- he was at least glad there wasn't as much suffering and destruction as he had feared- he had heard too many bad stories about the Fire Nation's raids in his own tribe to think that everywhere else the same thing could happen; it made him think of the unfairness of it all- the Southern Water Tribe wasn't really a threat to the Fire Nation, but they had gone out their way to destroy their culture and their bending arts- his sister Katara was the last one alive, and he feared for her safety even now- what if the Fire Nation had caught wind of her existence, rushed down and destroyed their village- the thought made Sokka want to throw up. Making his way down the street he got funny eyes from the Upper Ring's elite, who obviously had seen little or no Water Tribe people in their lives- his people were a rare sight around the world, and it was only the South that he knew had any real involvement in the war itself; he tried to pace himself, and look away from their peering eyes- he didn't like attention like this, like he was mud on their shoes. The idea that he was any lesser to them angered him- knowing he had fought for his people and in the war against their enemies made him better than any coward who sat behind their walls for a hundred years only to see them fall, without ever even trying to fight back against those who sought to conquer the world.

The anger Sokka felt distracted his mind from the pain in his face, which continued to sting as he walked around the upper ring, finally making his way to what he assumed was the shopping area of the district- it was a wide market full of servants and rare goods- he could see restaurants in the distance and took that as his bet for his booze. He fumbled through trying to not walk into people- who again, continued to stare at him intently- he really was 'weird' for the city of Ba Sing Se, but the eyes he were getting were so discontenting- he was free man, maybe that was it. He acted as if he wasn't under the Fire Nation's- or should he say the Princesses thumb, at least not in a way that he could care for- he had free food, a bed and soon enough he'd find some alcohol. He finally made his way to the entrances of what he assumed was an upper-class restaurant, relatively empty for this time of day- and to his luck they had a bar with a wide array of drinks- at least the rich bastards had some sense to hold some liquor. He walked up to the bar at sat down casually, the other customers giving him an odd glance before going back to their meals- he realised immediately that it was probably a fair bit too early in the day to be drinking alcohol; he reached into his belt, where he luckily was able to scrape up an assortment of coins- the last allowance he had been given by his father before they left port, as he would always get some money after they did a job or took down some Fire Nation bastards and sold what they could of it.

Holding the biggest coin he could find in-between his index and middle fingers he raised his hand and looked to the bartender, "What will this get me?" he asked, the bartender looking at him with slight confusion- probably for the same reason as the customers.

The bartender pulled a customary smile and begun to explain, "Uh- well we have a collection of the finest baijius from across the Ear-" before Sokka hushed him with a finger aimed at his head.

"Save me the sweet talk buddy- what does it cost, and is it strong enough to make this" pointing to his bruised jaw and cheekbone, "hurt a little less?" Sokka asked, the bartender's demeanour changing to a more relaxed one.

"Ah- well we've got some cheap stuff- it'll give you a kicking though man." he explained, Sokka grinning in relaxation, knowing that his pains would be over soon enough.

"I'll uh- drink it slowly then." he affirmed, handing the man his coin, before the bartender looked at it- and chuckled.

"You're not going to get much with that- but I guess it's better to get a bit to try." he explained, turning to the shelves of alcohol, grabbing a bottle of baijiu and pouring out some of it into a cup, the size of which disappointed Sokka.

"Ah really- that's it?" he whined, the bartender chuckling.

"This is the Upper Ring- there's no cheap alcohol anywhere here- this is best you've got." the bartender tried to assure Sokka, who had taken a moment to look at the cup before chugging it down in one foul swoop, making the bartender drop his jaw in awe and shock.

"By the spirits, you're not meant to drink it like water!" he almost shouted, grabbing the cup from Sokka's hand before he could drink any more of the meagre about he had been poured.

"I said slowly when I- uh- I think I feel it now." Sokka said in realisation of the alcohol's effects- although he knew he wasn't drunk- he could certainly tell that he would get so quickly if he kept at it- the burning sensation was almost painful, but it felt nice anyway- Sokka had heard the warriors talk about alcohol, and now he got why they held it in such high regard; it would really help on those cold winter nights down South- if you're going to spend a few months in darkness, a bit of the stuff would really help.

"Uh- I'll have another- just let me- uh- catch my breath." Sokka told the bartender, slamming a coin onto the bar before rubbing his eyes from the almost nauseous feeling he had- the pain on his face had become weaker and a new feeling was apparent- he didn't understand it too well, but he liked it.

With each following drink, Sokka's pain retreated away, but his mind felt like it was falling into shambles as well- he couldn't thinks straight- for a moment he asked the bartender why he was there to begin with before recanting his story in his mind- Azula had tried to burn his face off and break his jaw at the same time, so he needed some alcohol to soothe the pain- he told the bartender he'd thank the guards when he saw them again- he needed to relax a bit, and now he had a chance for blissful happiness, even if it made his thoughts go a bit screwy.

"Okay man- I think you've had enough." the bartender tried to persuade Sokka, who simply ruffled through his belt bag to pull out one more coin.

"I have money- so you give it to me; that's right?" Sokka asked him almost tossing the coin at the bartender, who was complied to give the Water Tribesman another shot of bajiu- although he wasn't getting rowdy in the restaurant, he was clearly intoxicated beyond belief and probably would pass out if he had any more drinks.

Just before was about to take the drink of bajiu from the bartenders hands before he suddenly squirmed, almost in pain- confusing the bartender, "Are you okay?" Sokka looking back at him with a cringed face.

"I-I... Uh- need to take a piss." Sokka admitted, the bartender chuckling.

"That's what happens when you try to water down your drinks." he nonchalantly explained, Sokka fumbling out of his seat realising that he needed to empty his bladder very soon or he would involuntarily do so all over the restaurant floor.

"I'll be riiiiiight back man- you just gimme a minute." Sokka affirmed to the bartender, who slapped his forehead in frustration, knowing all too well what would come after urinating- getting even more drunk.

Pacing himself out of the restaurant he looked out to the orange haze of twlight- he ought to get back to the palace soon- he could imagine Azula berating him duly for his drunken stupor; glancing around the night market and restaurants all he could see was an alleyway- on the ships they were rather makeshift with their latrines, he thought that he could piss in public out of pure necessity. Deciding to walk alongside the restaurants, Sokka made his way to an alleyway- walking down it and finding a comfortable point to loosen his pants and let himself relax.

"Ahhh- now that's what I needed." he commented casually, not thinking there was anyone to see him, before he turned to look down the alley back the way he came a silhouette shadowed the ambience of the street, "What you want man- did you want to look?" he joked at the silhouette, which simply walked closer to him before raising it's arms at him, making Sokka reach for his boomerang in defence before the figures hands seemingly flung off and struck him in the chest- hard as stone, perhaps that what it was- Sokka thought; he didn't have much time to think as his body was flung onto the dirty stone bricks of the alleyway and his head collided with the ground, returning Sokka to the sense of pain he had been avoiding all day.

"C'mon what was th-" he complained, being cut off by a the same stone hand covering his mouth, the figure now standing above him- in the darkness the man's face was hard to make out and Sokka attempted to shout, but to no avail as the hand masked his voice.

"I've got you now." the man quietly proclaimed in triumph, shocking Sokka- despite his drunken stupor- thoughts raced through his mind. How did someone know who he was- and if so, did they want him because of Azula? He couldn't ask the questions with his mouth covered and decided it would be best to focus on breaking free, but the man had simply flipped Sokka over in his dazed state and clasped another hand over his own, stopping him from fighting back at all.

"Mhmhm!" he grumbled at the man, who slung Sokka up over his shoulder, surprising Sokka with his strength- he was more worried about what would happen if he didn't break free, which he was finding a struggle with his hands covered, and more so his reflexes had been reduced to a slur- he could barely fight back, let alone figure out how to get away.

The man carried him down the alleyway and shuffled around for a moment before running down a dark and empty street- Sokka knew they were going somewhere, and he preferred to fight back- he started to kick his legs, the only movable part of his body at the moment, making the man grunt in frustration as Sokka kneed his shoulders with as much force as he could muster.

"Stop it- I'll knock you out if you don't shut it." the man commanded to him, Sokka attempting to glare at him, but his head was drooped down over the man's chest and he could barely raise his neck to glance back- suddenly though he felt as if he was able to move again, only to realise he was in free fall, and within a moment he had crashed hard onto the road, Sokka's head crashing first into the stone tiles.

"Argh!" he almost squealed, before realising he could actually move- whatever the man was using to restrain him had stopped, and glancing to his side in his dazed state he realised what that was; the man's body lay beside him with an arrow struck deep into his back right beside where he had been hanging- Sokka lifted himself to try and look for the perpetrator, but with his vision impaired by the alcohol he could only see some people standing in the distance in distinctively pale clothing.

"W-wh-o a' you?" Sokka called out, his head ringing from the pain, before he felt a hand grab his shoulders, pulling him up.

"Who are you? That's what we're asking!" a feminine voice grumbled at him, making Sokka try to roll his eyes in his drunken state.

"I-uh- I'm S-sok-uh" he mumbled, feeling increasingly lightheaded from the blunt injury he had sustained.

"Sokkuh? Sokka?" the voice asked him again, Sokka trying to make out their face- a girl, he thought, brown hair and dark eyes- the other face was too far from him to make out.

"Tha's m'name." Sokka tried to grin, before rubbing his head from the pain, the girl dropping him onto the ground momentarily.

"What should we do with him?" the girl asked her companion, who simply seemed to to glance back at Sokka, but the girl seemed to understand such a simple movement, "Take him back? We could barely sneak in here as it is!" she shouted back at her companion in frustration.

Sokka tried to ask back for some kind of information before his pain overtook his present thoughts- his head ached to the point that he simply rolled over on the road to try and sleep- something that he loved to do usually, but this time was out of necessity; he would deal with his saviours once he could actually think straight. It was black from there on out, his mind detached from the situation at hand- turned to the unconscious rather than try and keep on fighting.

Chapter Text

The expansive and ornate bedroom of the Princess glinted a light haze of orange as the morning sun crept into the Governor's Palace- Azula herself was almost immediately awoken by the sun's rising, as all Firebenders did- as their source of energy, the sun invigorated firebenders to wake with its rising above the horizon. She wiped her eyes, still feeling exhausted from her dredging through the reports and intel surrounding her assignment, and rolled over to pull herself from the large mattress. The bedroom was similar to her own, however its design was explicitly that of the Earth Kingdom- the bed had a golden ornate form that was dressed with her nation's colour, as to mask the original purpose of the room- to house a member of the Earth King's family- although she found it suitable to her title in that context- she was now the highest ranked official in the city, even the governor would theoretically have to follow her commands, however she noted the man had much greater vested authority in the city itself as the men of garrison were loyal to him, at least in theory.

Thinking about the governor and the garrison brought her back to the chilling idea that the governor could be playing part to the conspiracy she believed to be at play- perhaps the Dai Li had paid him off or helped him get rid of criminals- what she did believe however was that he had some debt or service to them, because if he hadn't the governor's men would have reported directly back to the Fire Lord about the various things that seemed to be going on in the city- her father's informant told her that there was missing soldiers and Fire Nation officials which had been covered up by the local government as simply accidents- in such a large city, lies could be fabricated and believed without thought. The informant purportedly didn't know much themselves, only having passed through the city and built up the case to provide to the Fire Lord himself upon the realisation of the unusual amount 'incidents' that had been going on in the city.

The Crown Princess raised herself from her bed and dressed herself into her basic underclothing, what she would usually wear under her armour, before cloaking herself with the painted red metal plates that constituted the armour- she had to get a replacement set from her gold and black armour she had lost in the shipwreck. She did up her hair last, raising it into her ordinary bun with the flame headpiece that she had worn to represent her title; she took great pride in her elegant appearance, and sought to forget of her disgraceful form that she had taken while stuck in that forsaken Earth Kingdom forest. After seeing herself fully dressed as she should be expected to be, Azula opened the equally opulent doors to see one of her guards standing on duty, who nodded at the Princess in deference.

"Your highness," he begun, "A palace guard came by earlier this morning- he told me he needed to talk to you directly- I told him of course that your sleep shouldn't be disturbed."

"You assumed correctly-" she applauded her guard, "did he mention exactly what the issue was?"

"It seemed relatively serious, but if it was dire in terms of the palace, I assume the issue would have been brought to the governor himself- not you." the guard explained, Azula nodding in affirmation.

"That is a reasonable conclusion- where is he now?" she requested, the guard nodding and pointing down the hallway, "He would be waiting at the tea-room, I assume."

"It seems his 'dire situation' caught him a break, how fortunate of him." Azula sarcastically remarked, her guard refraining to laugh- he wouldn't want to seem too 'easy-going', especially while on duty.

Taking the short walk between her bedroom and the tea-room she caught sight of the worried guard- his face paled at the sight of the Princess, and he immediately got to his feet and seemingly begged of her.

"Your highness please forgive me- I have failed in my duties!" he told her, Azula smirking at him at sign of his fear.

"What duties exactly?" she asked him, the guard raising his head to look her in the eyes, dread filling his own.

"I am the commander of the main-gate of the palace- yesterday evening I let your Water Tribesman go out into the Upper Ring- supposedly he wanted to get intoxicated to lessen the pain afflicting his face at the time." he explained, the Princesses face scrunching with a sense of frustration- Sokka had done something stupid, it seemed, "He hasn't returned- I had my men search the nearest market, and eyewitnesses told us that they saw him at a bar, but he disappeared- if I had just had some foresight none of this would have happened."

"So... you've lost my Water Tribesman?" she asked him, explicitly stating as if she owned Sokka like a servant boy, "Your incompetency amuses me, but I assume the Water Tribesman couldn't have run off drunk- he's probably wallowing in his own filth somewhere, and because of you I will have to search for his sorry arse." she explained to the guard, whose shoulders shrunk down in fear as the Princess towered over him.

"Do you need uh- help in your search?" he asked fearfully, knowing that what could come next might determine the fate of his employment or career as a whole.

"No you have done enough already," she snidely remarked before continuing, "I will have the governor deal with you- that's his job." The guard almost sighed in relief before pulling himself to form and racing away, probably to return to his station where he was meant to be the entire time.

Azula glanced in frustration as the guard ran away from her in fear, and was pleased that she could still instil the authority she desired to but was not happy that Sokka had decided to get drunk; she had pummelled his jaw a bit to harshly during sparring and this what happens- the only Water Tribesman in the city gets lost- spirits know where- while completely drunk, she assumed.

She immediately called the guard, "Get the men- we have to hunt down the hungover savage!" she commanded.

Walking down the hallway towards the exit of the palace Azula couldn't help but fume with anger and frustration- she gives a man an ounce of freedom and he uses it to do the most stupid thing possible- running away would have been less annoying, because she could have just sent bounty hunters after him if she wanted- this was just him wandering around a city he knew nothing about aimlessly, she couldn't guess what ended up happening to him after he decided to leave that bar- it was an endless city and she would have to find his sorry arse somewhere in it.

The early morning of sunrise led the shadow of the great Inner Wall of Ba Sing Se to cast its shadow over entire neighbourhoods in the Lower Ring of the city- in the darkness a small campfire was lit atop of a buildings roof, surrounded by those who would claim themselves the future of the Earth Kingdom- the Freedom Fighters. They believed they had a greater purpose or calling- they had done terrible things in the past, but their leader had taken them to Ba Sing Se, knowing they would be better in a part of their nation that was safe, only to see it fall to the Fire Nation; Jet commanded them to live their lives in service of fighting for the freedoms that they valued so- as long as the Fire Nation's banners covered the capital of the Earth Kingdom they would fight for it's liberation- to reignite the war in their favour and to drive the enemy from their lands.

Before their camp sat someone new- a man dressed in the blue colours of the Water Tribe- his compatriots had found him being whisked away by who they could only assume to be some kind of a insidious criminal- they were more concerned for the secrecy and elite nature of the attack on the man- according to Smellerbee the man had used stone gloves to contain the man and presumed to be used in his incapacitation- the sign of an Earthbender, perhaps an agent of the Earth King, but what would someone like that have to do with capturing a Water Tribesman- and more importantly what would a Water Tribesman be doing in a Fire Nation occupied city.

Jet stood before him and glanced at Smellerbee, "Well you took him here- wake this guy up- he ought to have an interesting story to tell." she sighed and grumbled at him in response, glancing at Longshot with mild spite.

"Why did you make us carry him the whole way here?!" she exasperatingly proclaimed to Longshot, who glanced at Jet, who looked back to Smellerbee.

"Look- Longshot had his reasons, and they were fair- look at him, he's the first Water Tribesman we've seen- ever." he explained, Smellerbee sighing before kicking Sokka in the back as if to let out her frustrations on the person she actually blamed for her labours.

"Ow!" he squealed in realising he was being hurt before looking at his 'captors' in shock.

"Wait what the- who are you guys?!" he almost screamed, his memory hazy and confused from his drunkenness the previous night.

"My name is Jet, and these are my Freedom Fighters." Jet proclaimed, triumphantly standing before him.

"Uh- the name's Sokka." he replied, glancing around at the odd bunch of teenagers he was being introduced to.

"Well Sokka- we'd very much like to get to know you- it's not everyday you run into Water Tribesmen in Ba Sing Se." Jet asked him, making him reel away in slight confusion about his current situation.

"How did I end up here- last thing I remember is talking to a bartender in the Upper Ring- and I think I hit my head- it's really sore, again." Sokka thought aloud.

Smellerbee intervened suspiciously looking at him, "So you don't remember being captured by some kind of spy? Longshot saved you from whatever that man was going to do- I can't guess it would've been pretty." making Sokka glance to the archer, whose steely gaze caught his attention.

"Uh- thanks man, I seem to get into shit like this more often than not now." Sokka told him, Jet glancing at Sokka with intrigue.

"What kind of 'shit' do you get into?" Jet asked Sokka, leaning toward him, his frame covering Sokka's field of view.

Sokka looked up at the teenager whose pose seemed a bit intimidating, "Uh- the kind that involves Earth Kingdom deserters." he admitted, sure he could say his mind to who he assumed were fellow minded folk.

"What do you mean deserters? I don't think there's many of those in this city." Jet argued, trying to figure out what Sokka's context-less explanations actually meant.

"It wasn't here- it was a while south of Ba Sing Se- I got shipwrecked you see." Sokka explained to him, Jet nodding his head in realisation.

"So you've had some experience fighting? These deserters tried to steal from you?"

"It was more of an 'unfortunate' run-in- I had camped in one of their hideouts and luckily I had the element of surprise" Sokka described, the story catching Jet's interest.

"So you came to Ba Sing Se- why would you come to a city that's under Fire Nation occupation?"

Sokka reflected on the question momentarily before looking back with a somewhat solemn face, "I'd like to get back to my people- coming here was the best option in the short term."

"That would explain your appearance here I assume- you're trying to make your way home." Jet assumed, Sokka sighing and nodding.

"Yeah you could say that- I'd really like to be on my way back home, but it's a bit of challenge to get back to the South Pole without a boat." he explained, Jet smirking at him.

"I can ask around, I'm sure there's people who would be willing to help out a fellow freedom fighter." Jet explained, trying to convince Sokka that they were worthwhile allies in this city.

"Well, I'm more of a warrior, born and bred really- I fight for my people, and that happens to be against the ash-maker scum." he told the Freedom Fighters, who smiled at the commonality of their interests.

"We could use some help around here- we've got a good setup, I'm guessing you're not going very well after a shipwreck; are you alone?" Jet asked him, explictly mentioning his desire for recruiting Sokka; the Water Tribesman smiled at him but glanced away, almost in shame.

"I uh- I can't stay with you guys- I've got to do something else." he admitted to them, not explaining himself any further- Jet and Smellerbee both looked upon him with suspicion.

"Why?" Smellerbee asked, almost in anger, "We saved you! You just want to go back out into that city alone?" she questioned him, thinking he was acting like an idiot to go back out there, especially if someone was looking for him and not for the right reasons.

"It's because of what happened- you say someone attacked me right?" he asked her, Smellerbee's suspicion unrelenting by his vagueness.

"Yes- and we also want to know why!" she demanded of him, Sokka looking in genuine fear.

"I don't really know why they did- there's things I need to do, and I don't want anyone getting involved in them."

"What things?!" Smellerbee asked him, Jet holding her back as if she was ready to attack him for simply avoiding her questions.

To the Freedom Fighters, Sokka looked to be in a state of avoidance in hiding his secrets, but Jet could see why Sokka was speaking how he was- he was hiding something; he obviously didn't want them to find out, perhaps his story wasn't as truthful as he had claimed, but he knew at least he wasn't an ash-maker; Jet stood forward and held his hand on Sokka's shoulder.

"Okay- you don't have to explain yourself to us- at least give us the courtesy of getting you where you need to go safely." Jet affirmed to Sokka, who smiled back with courtesy- he seemed to have the same idea as Jet- what didn't need to be said didn't need to be, but his face soon turned to one of fear.

"I don't think you'd like to go where I'm going- I'd honestly prefer if you just got me out of the Lower Ring really." Sokka explained to Jet, who looked at him momentarily- whatever Sokka claimed to 'have to do' must involve things that involved things beyond getting back to his tribe.

Smellerbee glanced at Sokka with continued suspicion, "So what- we drop you off at the monorail and hope you don't rat on us?" she exclaimed with full honesty.

"Wait what- I would never!" he almost shouted from the effacement, "I might not be fighting in the war right now, but wouldn't betray you guys to the Fire Nation or anyone like that just because you 'might' be a threat."

Jet smirked at Sokka, "A threat you say?"

"Uh yeah- you seem to be relatively well armed and assuming on what happened last night, pretty skilled fighters; I don't want to stop you doing whatever you're doing- for the sake of the war- for the world."

"We're not that important." The Duke commented, making Jet look back and chuckle.

"The Duke, it depends who you ask to know our importance- we may not be fighting the Fire Nation right now- but one day they will get what's coming to them, by our hand." he told his follower, although the statement was more directed at the whole group- instilling the loyalty that remained within the Freedom Fighters was a full time job for Jet.

Sokka looked back at Jet, "So if you're taking me to the monorail- are we going now?"

Jet chuckled lightly, "Well- I'd say to eat something before we go, but I guess we can find something on the way." smirking at Sokka, who didn't realise what he meant- the Freedom Fighters were not strangers to stealing food, however they refrained from stealing from the poor- only those well off enough to lose some were their targets- or if feasible, a local Fire Nation patrol could always use with a shake-down.

Sokka stood up in preparation to leave before immediately falling back onto his behind, "Argh- why do I feel sick standing up?!" he asked out, Smellerbee looking at him snidely.

"You got drunk- which you should remember." she explained, Sokka noting that fact in realisation of the previous night's events.

Jet lent out a hand, which Sokka grabbed and thanked him for before being pulled up and standing with his assistance, "Oh- it's going to be a bit hard for me to walk, but I think I'll manage." he commented, Jet nodding back to affirm.

Glancing out into the slums of the Lower Ring, Jet couldn't see much people wandering the streets, which was good- they would rely on the fact no one was around to see them to try and get some food; he looked back to the Freedom Fighters and decided a course of action. "Smellerbee and Longshot- you've done enough- you should rest and take watch while we go to the monorail- uh, The Duke and Pipsqueak can come along- you guys eager?"

"'Course Jet, come on little man." Pipsqueak grinned, patting The Duke on his shoulder, making the youngest member of their group glance with annoyance at his friend- he certainly didn't want to be infantilised, especially in front of someone new.

Jet went down the ladder first and helped Sokka descend due to his off-balance form- he seemed to have been hit pretty hard by the alcohol and whatever happened to him before Smellerbee and Longshot found him; The Duke and Pipsqueak weren't far behind and both checked around the nearby corners for potential Fire Nation guards- it wasn't unheard of patrols coming around early in the morning to snoop on activities- nothing much eventuated of this usually, Smellerbee had remarked the ash-makers to be exceptionally lazy for people that wake up at the break of dawn. Pacing himself down the street, Jet overlay his ordinary assortment of armour with a brown and green cloak that resembled the jackets that most refugees in the city would wear- the Freedom Fighters did the same; it was easy to disguise oneself in a city full of people. Jet glanced back to Sokka who was being assisted in his walking by Pipsqueak and thought immediately that his blue colours would give him away as 'not from around here', and threw him a green cloak.

Sokka smiled at him weakly, still nauseous from having to stand up, "Thanks man."
Walking down the narrow dirty laden alleyways of the Lower Ring, Jet led the group all the way toward the distinctive structure of the monorail- standing stories above the city itself, they could see it from miles away- even from their current abode, which was as far from anything as they could get themselves. Jet stopped the group as they reached a major road, which unlike the rest of the small alleys that they snuck through, was very much full of traffic at this early time- the Fire Nation's latest cargo trains of goods and luxuries, probably shipped from all over the world. Jet snickered at the sight of the caravan- he knew too well who those goods were going to- the well-off and powerful of the city and their new Fire Nation friends, the governor and his cronies- he considered the caravan a feasible route for their movement into the palace- from what Smellerbee described, getting in and out of the palace would be harder than just sneaking into some little Fire Nation outpost back in Gaipan.

Pipsqueak leant over to Jet's ear, "So are we going try and get a take boss?" Jet smiled back in return, pointing out the caravan's haphazard movement.

"We need only need a little distraction- I'm sure you can handle it, me and The Duke can sneak in from behind and take a score- we can stash it nearby just to be safe."

"What if we get seen?" The Duke asked Jet, who glanced back in thought.

"Huh- I guess if we do get caught, you're small enough to run around anyone tough enough to stop me." Jet explained.

"Hmm- fair, what about Sokka?" The Duke asked, Jet looking back to their dazed and confused companion.

"Sokka- could you be kind enough to get over the other side of the road- we'll meet you over there in a bit- we've just got to 'retrieve' our breakfast." Jet explained, hoping he would either follow what he was saying or just go with the euphemistic statements.

"U-uh okay- I'll just take a rest over by that wall- it looks nice enough to sleep on" Sokka babbled, making The Duke and Jet both looked at him with slight confusion before shuffling him toward the crossing.

As Sokka fumbled across the road, Pipsqueak raced up the road to get ahead where he could cause an 'incident' as the Freedom Fighters would like to describe it; Jet and The Duke eyed off the carriages of the caravan, noting the sloppy work of guarding that was being done.

"It's almost like they want us to go in and take a bite." Jet thought aloud- The Duke nodded understanding that Jet had a point- it seemed a little too easy for them to do, but if Pipsqueak was able to cause enough of an incident- they would easily get away with the golden prize- a load of food for them to eat.

Jet knew that if they showed the commoners around the Lower Ring what the elite were feasting on, perhaps they could persuade more people to support them- they'd need it if they wanted to get a reasonable opposition force to the Fire Nation occupiers once they got rid of the governor and his mysterious new ally. They could hear even in the distance a loud thumping noise, and then the inaudible shouting that clearly came from Pipsqueak- the good old 'did you just hit me?' move that he liked to pull on those who couldn't stand up to his size.

"This is our chance- let's go!" The Duke told him, running toward the last carriage in the caravan- if they were lucky they'd be in an out before the next caravan arrived.

The Duke quickly jumped into the caravan, and pulled out a bag of what seemed to be assorted vegetables- he threw it to Jet, who immediately decided to throw it into the alley where Sokka was standing, much to the Water Tribesman's shock. The Duke quickly shuffled out loaves of bread and salted meats- giving them to Jet who quickly ran into the alleyway and gave some to Sokka.

"Do me a favour and hide this somewhere nearby." he requested, Sokka gulping in fear and confusion- he probably hadn't caught onto what Jet had been saying about getting breakfast, "Yes- we steal food, but it's from the Fire Nation and their cronies- not from the poor."

Sokka almost tried to laugh but refused, "That's not much better- but who am I to argue." he admitted to Jet, taking the food and fumbling down the alleyway to find somewhere to hide the food, Jet turning back to check on The Duke.

The Duke had grabbed one last bag of vegetables before running down the alley- shouting back to Jet, "Pipsqueak's done, so we are too!" Jet then picking up the pace behind him with whatever food he was holding.

Racing down the alleyway they made their way to where Sokka had decided to hide the food- it was a set of empty crates sitting in an dark dead-end alley, Jet calling out to him.

"Good job Sokka- now we can get a snack before we send you off to where ever you're going." Jet told him, Sokka chuckling lightly.

"Don't think this is going to make me any less averse to spilling my secrets- I hold them for a good reason." he admitted.

Pipsqueak soon arrived in the alleyway and enjoyed a short meal beside them- they had to ration out most of the food- the rest they would give to Smellerbee and Longshot, as well as to put on show for the locals- the more food, the less verbose convincing Jet would need to show them the truth that the Fire Nation occupation had changed little for those on top and proved that they would need to take the ash-maker scum down themselves if the Lower Ring ever wanted a chance of achieving better standards of living. After their quick breakfast, The Duke and Pipsqueak covered up their stash as best they could- they would come back and get some when necessary from now on- it would be rather suspicious for a bunch of oddly dressed teenagers to walk around with enough food for a whole feast; Sokka still seemed confused by the whole situation but understood well enough their intent- food was a necessity and if some crummy bastards were taking more than their fair keep, the Freedom Fighters would put them in line.

The group then made their way through a labyrinth of alleyways which to Sokka's luck, the Freedom Fighters were well versed in travelling- they had had their fair shares of run-ins with the Fire Nation, and such alleys were a quick and easy way to run away from Fire Nation troops; within a few minutes they had made their way to the tall arches of the monorail- Sokka glanced at the monorail in awe, but Jet quickly directed his attention up the line toward the station where he'd get on- soon enough they had walked uphill to the entrance of the station- which was surrounded by Fire Nation guards- as to be expected, they vetted everyone who went aboard, and that was specifically why Jet avoided the monorail- he was well known amongst the Fire Nation forces as a rebel leader, if he showed his face to them it was more likely than not that one of they would remember him.

Jet turned to Sokka and smiled, "I guess this where we go our separate ways- I hope you reconsider our offer- you'll know where to find us- and if we're not there- we'll find you- the blue does stick out."

Sokka laughed at his comment but looked averse, "I don't want to cause you any trouble- I'm not the most unknown figure in the city, I'd best tell you why."

Jet smirked, finally knowing that Sokka would spill the truth on why he had been so quiet about his current situation.

"The reason I'm doing it here is because I understand who you are- because I'm just like you Jet- I just got in the wrong place at the wrong time." he explained.

"What are you trying to say?" Jet questioned Sokka.

"I wasn't shipwrecked alone- I was shipwrecked with the Crown Princess of the Fire Nation- you might have heard of her." he explained to Jet, whose face unravelled to one of shock.

"W-w-wait a minute," Jet stuttered, his volume raising in realisation, "That's who the governor's mystery guest is? The Crown Princess, and you're with her?!"

"Not exactly- I am serving her to pay for a safe travel home- I hope at least, unless she is as ruthless as she has been told to be." Sokka explained.

"So you're some kind of kiss-arse servant- you're worse than the elite snobs who claim they are the heirs of the Earth King!" Jet shouted at him, now angry at his new acquaintance who had turned out to be much more than he had bargained for.

"I'm no fucking servant!" Sokka shouted back, the first sign of a clear tone of voice since he had woken up- he was clearly offended in Jet's eyes, "I will do my part to help you, you and your friends saved my arse- I truly will, but I can't do much until the Princess tells me what's going on, I think it had something to do with my would-be kidnappers." Sokka affirmed to Jet, who turned away as if he had been betrayed.

"Next time I see you, give me a good reason not to kill you." Jet told him before walking away with Pipsqueak and The Duke who had barely caught into their shouting match.

Jet turned back and looked at his would be friend- someone who had betrayed his own people, it seemed; he didn't trust Sokka's words one bit, but if he really wanted to serve the Princess, he would have gone straight to the Fire Nation officials for help and to get the Freedom Fighters arrested- right now he was standing only a few paces from a group of Fire Nation soldiers that could easily be used by him to take them down, but it seemed Sokka didn't have that in mind. Jet wanted to believe that their was some truth to his story- that he really was a Water Tribe warrior, not some drunkard mercenary hired by the Princess, or worse, someone who sold out his own people to get a bit of splendour for himself.

Marching in formation, a group of elite Royal Firebenders surrounded their Princess- guarding her from the peering eyes of the locals of the Upper Ring; the Princess had ordered her men to take formation and move at haste- she even gave up using the palanquin for this specific task, knowing it would just slow her down. They made their way down from the palace gates to the nearest market where the gatesman refuted Sokka had been the night prior- the market was busy with morning trade, mostly consistent of the local servants coming down to purchase or collect goods for their masters with a few noblemen scattered about, eyeing the servants and the newly arrived group with suspicion. Azula took herself to one of the stalls, where a Fire Nation man held office- he had goods from the homeland to sell, so in her eyes he could be trusted as a loyalist of the regime; she looked at him with a single glare and he recognised her immediately due to her attire.

"Crown Princess! It is my honour to have you come to my lowly shop- I have the latest goods from the homeland- I'm sure your highness would appreciate the niceties of the land that misses her dearly." the man babbled, deferring to her as best he could, the Princess smirking at the respect before turning her mind to the more serious matter at hand- although she'd refuse to call anything to do with Sokka 'serious' to his face.

"How long have you been holding your stall here?" she asked him, the man smiling and bowing.

"Only for a few days your highness- I frequently tr-" he explained, Azula cutting him off with a hand.

"Did you see a young man wearing blue attire during your sales yesterday?" she asked him bluntly, the man taking a moment to think before raising his hand in realisation.

"Ah yes- that boy was searching around these stalls in the afternoon- I saw him later walking around the square." he explained, trying to remember as best he could, but the boy wasn't hard to miss- someone wearing Water Tribe colours was a rare sight in Ba Sing Se.

"Could you give me a specific time?" she asked him, leaning toward the man with her face showing her utter seriousness, making the man gulp in slight fear.

"U-uh I think it was closing time- last light, your highness." he explained, Azula smirking curtly before handing him a few silver coins.

"For your troubles." she stated, before turning around and walking through the square to look around at the nearby stalls and shops.

Azula glanced around and looked into the stalls and restaurants- she thought to try and think in Sokka's point of view- she thought immediately that he would try and throw up after drinking a lot, assuming that the Water Tribesman was new to alcohol- from what it seemed from the whispering amongst her guards- one of them had recommended to get drunk in response to the beating he had gotten earlier that day; one day in Ba Sing Se and Sokka had already gone and done something stupid beyond belief- she hadn't told him of the threats in the city, and now she considered he would be paying the price for her withholding of words- he could have got lost in the city, attacked by common thieves, or worse. She didn't really know what lurked in the city, and she was sure that whatever was there, whatever conspiracy going on was doing a good job of covering it up- she assumed the Dai Li- but she could be completely wrong; what if it was the people that tried to have her killed, the ones that employed Sokka and his tribe?

Azula came to a holt and looked at her guards, "I need all of you that aren't essential for my protection to go search the surrounding streets for any information regarding Sokka or anything that happened last night- that will help us narrow down where he actually went." her guards nodded immediately before racing off into the market and beyond to find agreeable folk to ask about a certain Water Tribesman.

The Crown Princess herself wasn't in the mood to deal with interrogating a bunch of clueless Earth Kingdom merchants and bystanders- she instead decided to walk into the various restaurants she assumed Sokka could have gone into as the gatesman wasn't overly specific in which restaurant. One after the other nothing of any result came up until she arrived at a restaurant where the man cleaning the floor had something of note to tell her.

"Yeah- that kid was here last night- he was talking to the bartender, Yin." the cleaner told him, pricking his thin moustache as he described to Azula.

"Did you overhear anything he said- anything of note?" Azula intrigued, the cleaner brushing his fingers along his moustache again in thought.

"Well- from what I heard- they were just talking about how the kid needed to slow down, which he refused to do."

"I'm not surprised..." Azula admitted, before looking back to the cleaner, "Well I'll look around here- he can't have gotten too far in that state."

"That'd be right miss." the cleaner acknowledged, unaware of her title, probably thinking she was just some Fire Nation noblewoman; Azula was slightly peeved about not being recognised, but then again she was new to the city and practically unknown amongst the people of the Earth Kingdom, unlike someone like her Uncle.

"That would be your highness, if I may correct you." she told the man, whose eyes opened in confusion and shock- he was unable to ask her what she meant as she quickly made her way out of the restaurant and back into the market square.

Azula glanced around for her guards, who seemed to be at work talking to as many people as they could so she resigned herself to walking alongside the stalls, uninterested in their wares- she was more focused on trying to figure out what happened to Sokka- she could only assume at this point- he got extremely intoxicated and disappeared from the market square soon after. Within a minute one of her guards raced up to her, clearly worried and slightly shocked.

"Princess- there's something you've got to see!" he exclaimed, and Azula was quick to follow him down a side-street that led behind the market square, there was a relatively clear and unfrequented road passing north-to-south, where the guard pointed out.

"There's a lot- I mean a lot of blood- right over there- it can't be a coincidence that it appears right behind the restaurant he was at, right?" the guard told her, his eyes worried genuinely, thinking that maybe Sokka had outright been murdered and his body disposed of to just leave that bloodstain.

The Princess paced over to the site of the bloodstain, which she noted to be relatively isolated- glancing down and up the street, there was no trail of blood that would be expected from someone dragging a body- or someone bleeding running away- she doubted Sokka would give up his life so easily if he was to be the victim of some savage attack.

"Whoever bled out on this street- they either patched themselves up or someone disposed of the body very well." she told the guard, who looked in a slight of shock, the other guards that had been with them looked confused as well.

"Maybe this is the answer you were looking for." the Captain noted to her, Azula grimacing.

"If- if this is who we think it is- no one is safe- if they're willing to outright murder in the streets- then we have underestimated them dearly." Azula explained to the Captain, who nodded at her ideas.

"But why the Water Tribesman? Why would they try to kill him of all people?" the Captain asked her, Azula considering that counter-argument.

"Well- we don't know if they were trying to kill him- for all we know, our little friends could have been trying to kidnap him, take him to their cause and then use him against us." Azula argued.

"Princess!" she heard a voice call out to her, and turned around to see a guard standing with someone she had for a moment, not expected to see alive- the Water Tribseman standing before her, a little worse for wear, but definitely alive.

"Uh- sorry if I got you worried." Sokka tried to defuse before the Princess could start berating him.

"Worried?! Ah- trust me, if I hadn't seen this blood, I would have thought that worrying was a stupid idea- but maybe it isn't; care to explain it?" she grumbled at him, pointing to the bloodstain on the ground.

"Oh shit- now I don't exactly remember- but I do know that someone tried to kidnap me- then somebody saved me by shooting an arrow through the guys chest- that's according to the people who saved me." Sokka explained, confusing the Princess further.

"Wait what? Someone saved you of all people?" she almost laughed, Sokka affirming his statement.

"Yeah- this guy called Longshot and his friend Smellerbee." he told her, Azula laughing further at the prescribed names.

"Those are some of the most fake names I've ever heard." she chuckled, doubting Sokka's validity.

"Well yeah- uh- they're probably fake, the people who saved me were- well they weren't from this side of the city, let's say that." he refrained, trying to tell her what he wanted her to hear.

"Okay you're going to need to give me more than that- I want information, not some vague description." Azula told him, pointing an accusing finger at him, before crossing her arms in slight contempt.

"How about you? Why the fuck would some random guy try to kidnap me?! You know something I don't!" he called her out- the guards looked in shock at Sokka for speaking in such a manner- Azula however was audibly sighing, acknowledging that Sokka had some perceptiveness at least.

"Good take Sokka- you're right; there's a group of people trying to undermine and perhaps overthrow the Fire Nation rule of this city." Azula told him, Sokka's eyes bulging in slight fear.

"Uh- I'm sure there's many people who want to see your people hang." Sokka told her, trying to avoid what she had asked him prior.

"So now- what of these people that helped you? They're from the Lower Ring, and happened to mysteriously show up and save you at the opportune moment?" she asked him, trying to undermine his story.

"No- these were good people, they even gave me breakfast." he tried to explain to her.

"So how were they in the Upper Ring- everyone knows their kind of filth is barred from this part of the city?" she told him, Sokka scratching his chin in confusion before realising something.

"I don't know why they were here." he bluntly told her, before glancing away, a sense of dread filling his eyes, "I can't trust telling you about these people- they're the kind of people you would antagonise to no-end, blame them for things they didn't do. I'm willing to face the consequences of not telling you who they are."

Azula looked at Sokka with frustration but considered what he was saying for the moment- she had built up trust with him and she couldn't throw it away to find some petty criminals- she valued his potential uses- and he had indirectly proved his worth- he paid attention to his new friends and was able to give Azula information back- if he was able to be her eyes and ears on the other side of Ba Sing Se, he was already useful enough, better than a simple spy is an enemy of the Fire Nation who works for you.

"You gave me two pseudonyms- and seeing that these people are probably not the people who tried to kidnap you, seeing they let you go- I assume they're of not harm to us."

"Us being the Fire Nation?" he asked her genuinely, unsure of her words meaning.

"That includes you- you're under my employ, with the rest of the servants and guards." she pointed out, reminding Sokka of his unintended position of servitude.

"Fine then- can we go back to the palace? I missed out on my dinner." he asked Azula, who looked back at him with a face of amusement.

"Always one with the food- I could bribe you to run across the Earth Kingdom if you knew you'd be fed well the entire time." she jested at him, Sokka looking at her with frustration, momentarily considering her statement- he probably would do that if given the chance.

Walking up back toward the palace gates, Sokka took place by Azula's side as her guards took station to circle them protectively- the Princess didn't want any other uppity Earth Kingdom natives trying to beat her or her followers up, not that they'd succeed- she would rather show a sense of strength than that of a single woman and her non-bender sidekick, which had been her situation prior to finding safety in Huangwen- she was glad that she had finally made her way to a civilised area of the world, but she knew that civilisation brought it's own threats- when a place is as big and complicated as Ba Sing Se, people can sneak around and do awful things without the authorities having a second glance- she knew that the Dai Li or who ever desired to have the city for themselves was more powerful than any given garrison- they must be waiting for the right time.

As the group made their way to the gate they could see a Fire Nation soldier racing down the courtyard, directly at them, his face red and flustered, shouting out her title, "Princess! Princess!"
Azula sighed in frustration of the sight of a dishevelled soldier- from the one place in the city she'd expect a man to have some standards.

"What is it?" she asked, the gate's guards looking to the soldier as well with slight confusion of ruckus.

"It's news from the capital!" he declared, "Your brother has been declared a traitor and enemy of the state!"

Sokka glanced at Azula in a slight of shock, "Wait what- your brother?"

Azula chuckled, almost considering it a joke, "You say what- my brother, the banished Prince who had half his face burnt off for effacing our dearest Fire Lord?"

The messenger nodded quickly, as if he was scared for his own life, "Yes- he defeated the great Admiral Zhao in an Agni Kai and burnt his face- not before telling him of his own plans- the Fire Lord's office states the Prince intends to fight the Fire Lord himself- he has broken all ties with his nation."

Azula smirked, "Well- it's about time someone gave that arsehole a beating- but then again, I'd prefer if my brother didn't act like a crazed fool."

Sokka turned to Azula, confused from the explanation, "You're telling me that your brother is trying to overthrow the Fire Lord?"

"Why yes- I guess that's good news on your behalf, depending on how you think about it." she told him, Sokka tugging at his bone necklace in fear.

"Ah- well- I wouldn't say that exactly- I don't- uh- know your brother." he stuttered, unsure how he should speak, especially in front of a bunch of Fire Nation soldiers.

"Oh- you'd both get along, you're quite similar- the unbridled arrogance and the utter weakness in skill." she mocked Sokka, making him turn away in offence.

"Are you going to do something about it- your brother?" he asked her, glancing slightly her way for a moment.

"Well- I'm sure my father can handle my traitorous brother- I- no, we have a more pressing issue at hand."

"Find the arseholes who tried to kidnap me and beat the shit out them?" Sokka asked her with a wide smirk.

Azula smirked her eyes gleaming with lethal desire, "Of course- we're going to annihilate them."

Chapter Text

Sitting on his throne, the Fire Lord waited patiently for any news- he had heard of his daughters disappearance, something that rightfully shocked him- his daughter was the most prodigious firebender of her age, and she was bested by Water Tribe insurgents who had the audacity to sink her ship- he knew that Azula would do anything to re-assert her honour and self-dignity, and wasn't surprised to hear of her reappearance in an port-town on the coast of the Eastern Sea a few days later; the Princess had her sights on the conspiracy that Ozai personally wanted dealt with- his daughter was the only person he could count on to be meticulous and ruthless enough to root out any traitors and detractors of his glorious reign. The Fire Lord knew that his son had defeated Admiral Zhao- he wasn't surprised by the outcome of the duel, Zhao being an overconfident fool- albeit a useful one, but Ozai knew that his sons intent was far more sinister- he sought to insubordinate from his teachings, his honour, everything that Ozai stood for- it made him feel sick that his own son could betray him in such a way, to think that he had taught him a lesson of pain that had done nothing to soothe the boys arrogance and hot-headed attitude. The dark end of the Fire Lord's flame lit throne room was set alight by a messenger barging through the doors, the man flustered and worried, walking up to and bowing before his monarch.

"Your majesty- a message has come from Admiral Liang of the Western Fleet.", the messenger told the Fire Lord, holding out a parchment scroll, which the Fire Lord glanced upon, his eyes telling the messenger to leave him with the message; the messenger understood well enough, and after bowing a second time paced himself to the throne rooms doorway and within moments the Fire Lord's Imperial Guard had already shut the doors, leaving the Fire Lord in peace once more.

Ozai let down a gateway through his wall of flames, stepping down to pick up the message, a conventional military scroll, marked with a golden ribbon, signifying the importance of it's contents- and the secrecy behind them; the Fire Lord knew exactly what this message would involve, and he hoped that it would go the way he liked- he rather not have to deal with his son's arrogant rage.

The Fire Lord unsheathed the scroll and read it's contents: "Your supreme majesty, I have found that the vessel that had been used for your son's transportation had been empty- his vessel had been set out to sea with no one aboard it seems. My men could not find any information aboard of use- we believe that your son has made his way to the Fire Nation proper, perhaps the mainland; I trust in my Fire Lord to command upon us what he must in order to defeat the traitorous prince. I pray for the glory of your reign to be forevermore, your loyal servant- Admiral Liang."

Ozai chuckled at the contents of the message- his son was smarter than he had taken him for- or perhaps his brother had been wise enough to consider that strategy- he thought their efforts useless- even if Zuko came to the palace to face his father, he would have him arrested immediately, and if he refused, Ozai would kill him himself, or perhaps just for the fun of it: rub it in his sons face by killing his beloved 'Uncle'; his brother had been the one great obstacle to his taking of the throne- even if in the end it was his wife's knowledge of herbs that allowed him to proclaim himself Fire Lord over his father's dead body- but now that he was turning the table against him, Ozai would not stop until they both saw the futility of their actions. Ozai thought of there being one rule in the world- that the strong would always command, rule over and destroy if need be- the weak; his brother and son were both weak, overtaken by emotions like love and humility- pride and ruthlessness was what made the Fire Lord more than just a monarch- it made him a god.

In the past few days he had heard from across the other side of the world that his daughter had been found- he was glad that she had the ability to survive a shipwreck, and he knew that once she squashed the rebellion in the city of Ba Sing Se, she would be free to be of Ozai's use against Zuko- if by some chance he was smart enough to try and start a rebellion without facing Ozai himself- she was a weapon, more powerful than any plan a master general could muster- he considered that Azula herself could have conquered Ba Sing Se if given the opportunity, just to rub it in his weak and feeble brother's face.
The Fire Lord would soon have his greatest threats snuffed out, and with that- he could focus on greater things- such as the restructuring of the Earth Kingdom- Azula's mission was only the beginning, with time all pockets of resistance could be destroyed and the Earth Kingdom enveloped entirely into the greater glory of their empire- the Fire Nation would be the only nation in the world, because it was the only one that deserved to exist- the Air Nomads were gone, the Earth Kingdom soon enough, and with time the Water Tribes would feel the wrath of the flames- Sozin's Comet may have mortally wounded the effort against his military might, but threats were everywhere and he knew that his son and brother were only parts of a greater threat to his reign- dissidents that unify beyond the nations were a greater threat than any angry earthbenders or Water Tribe privateers; he knew what couldn't be seen was a greater threat than any military force.

The midday sun peered over grassy hillocks, boulders and escarpments dotting the landscape- even in the distance one could see volcano's pluming- Zuko knew he was finally home, in some regard; he and his Uncle had been travelling through the eastern regions of the Fire Nation for the past few days since they had been forced to evacuate their ship- his uncle had taken up a disguise as a tea-merchant, which he could pull off quite well unsurprisingly. Zuko wasn't happy that they had to walk around so much, but his Uncle reminded him it would easier for them to go unnoticed on foot- they had bought a komodo-rhino as part of their disguise- in carried their supplies, clothes and most importantly the tea that they were meant to sell- the whole thing had been made up on the go when Uncle Iroh decided that they would need some way to disguise their identities when travelling toward the capital.

His Uncle pointed out to a town they could see in the distance, "This is Shu Jing- one of my friends in the order lives here, you might remember him."

Zuko thought for a moment, and then realised, grabbing his trusted dao from his back, "Master Piandao- he taught me the art of the sword."

"Yes- and I had sent a message in advance- he will be able to perhaps get us passage to the capital or close enough that the journey won't be so sore on these old legs." Iroh told him patting his thighs.

"This was your idea Uncle- getting captured would have been more efficient." Zuko told his ageing uncle, who laughed back at him.

"Hahaha- Prince Zuko, trust me- I know the worst thing in a war is to be captured by the enemy- it really doesn't help."

"It's not like you've been captured Uncle, you're a master firebender!" he berated his uncle for his actual lack of practical knowledge.

"That is true- but I have heard many stories- of what our nation and the Earth Kingdom have both done to prisoners- it is not a pretty thing nephew."

Walking along the path Zuko and Iroh made their way into the market of Shu Jing, where the locals eyed off their stock and Iroh made no restraint it calling out for customers to buy his teas- which many were obliged to- Zuko sat by the town well as his Uncle chatted to the townsfolk, telling them the best methods of serving tea and the finest blends that could be found; Zuko appreciated tea, he would admit- but his uncle took the idea of appreciating it to the level at which he might consider it an art-form.

Zuko glanced up the hill to look at what he thought was Piandao's manor- it almost looked like a castle on top of the hill- the Prince considered with his knowledge of Earth Kingdom history in could have been such a structure in the years before the Fire Islands were unified under the Fire Lords; thinking about the Fire Nation's past gave him a sense of connection to the land- that he could understand where everything had come from was comforting in his mind- he understood and knew the Fire Nation, much more than he did the Earth Kingdom and the other parts of the massive world. He could only consider how the war had actually changed his people and their world- the Fire Nation had lost it's way with the tragedy of the war- he knew it too well, his scar was baring of this truth; Zuko wanted to find a new way in this world, away from the idea of the war and domination- the entire world was out of balance, and he knew that someone, somewhere, had to do something.

Iroh came up to his nephew, "I've had some succesful sales today nephew- I say we take our leave and go to the manor- I'm sure Master Piandao is waiting for us."

Zuko nodded to his uncle curtly, picking himself up and grabbing the lead of the komodo rhino- the creature was surprisingly docile in his eyes, which helped when it barely grunted before following the two royals up the hill; within a few minutes they had zig-zagged up the path from the town, leading them to a large gate that bared the white-lotus tile's mark, making Zuko twitch his eyebrow.

"I didn't notice that before- are all the White Lotus like this- leaving little markers to signify their allegiance?" Zuko inquired, his Uncle glancing and shrugging his shoulders.

"I'm not too sure my nephew- the Order is secretive, but the white lotus tile- it reveals itself in many ways." he explained, Zuko almost slapping his forehead at his Uncle's near proverbial explanation.

A bar opened from the door, revealing two eyes, which glanced at the two of them, "I see- Prince Iroh has arrived, I assume, uh- this is the Prince?" he asked, glancing to Zuko, who for a moment paid attention to his own appearance- he had let his hair grow out over the past few months, and at the moment was wearing his hair down with a small bun- he actually reminded himself a lot of his own father's hairstyle, which disturbed him to no end when he realised it; Zuko nodded at the eyes, and within moments the door was opened.

Before them stood who Zuko could remember as Master Piandao's cook and assistant, but he couldn't remember his name- he had only been a child when he studied under the master, and only for a short period, but luckily for him his Uncle did remember.

"Fat- it is good to see you again- how have things been?" he asked the man.

"Uh- the same as usual, Piandao is always up in his study working out correspondences for the Order- he's been very busy over the past few weeks, with this whole affair going on."

"What affair exactly?" Zuko asked, somewhat confused.

"Yes- I've missed the past few messages- we've been on the move, what exactly has happened since we messaged you?" Iroh affirmed his nephews questions.

"You'd best talk to Piandao- he's got the messages himself." Fat acknowledged raising his arm and pointing to the front door of the manor, "Go right in, Master Piandao has been waiting."

Iroh nodded at Fat before signalling Zuko to follow him into the house- the banished prince looked back at their komodo rhino and their goods sitting outside the gate, which Fat had noticed.

"I'll handle your animal and possessions- don't worry." Fat assured him, ushering Zuko toward the front door, Zuko nodded in relief before turning to follow his uncle into the manor.

Glancing around Zuko was filled with the memories of the short time he had spent at Piandao's manor- he was so young, before his banishment- he could almost see his innocent self running around, practising with Fat, doing calligraphy; they were good memories, so distant from his every day thoughts of the war, his father and the plans he had for the Fire Nation- before even having a taste of power, Zuko had already been encumbered with responsibility. He followed his Uncle up the stairs where they were greeted by the sight of Master Piandao- he was calmly writing by the window- his back turned to the men.

"Ah-" he begun, aspirating before smiling curtly at his guests "Prince Zuko- General Iroh- It is good to see you both again, after all this time."

"And to you old friend." Iroh smiled at Piandao, who pulled out a scroll from his robe.

"You will want to see this- both of you." Piandao told them, his eyes stoic- making Zuko uneasy about the message- he had no idea what he was about to read.

Iroh held the scroll up and began to read it, "Fellow brother of the order Piandao, I write to you to inform you that the Crown Princess of the Fire Nation has been found alive- she was travelling the Earth Kingdom wilderness with a Water Tribesman, as intelligence has informed us; we believe that once she does whatever the Fire Lord has commanded of her, she will pose a threat to our friend Grand Lotus Iroh- please do what you can to ensure that they are safe." he finished, almost chuckling at the ending.

"Well we are- uh- safe." Iroh commented, Zuko chuckling slightly, his eyes gleaming with deep thought, "Prince Zuko- what's wrong?"

"I am happy my sister is not dead- that would have been tragic- but now there's a greater threat- even if we could defeat my father- she is the preferred child of the Fire Lord- the loyalists will support her over me in claiming the throne." he explained- Iroh nodding.

"Then we best take care of matters quickly- if we fail to act before she returns, you are right- your own claim to the throne can be reasonably challenged by your sister." Iroh told him, knowing all too well what had happened to his rightful claim once his brother took advantage of their father's death.

"This is not the best news for the Order- but we must act with what we can-" Piandao commented, turning to Prince Zuko, "I hope you are prepared Prince Zuko- it's not everyday that a teenager defeats a Fire Lord in combat."

Prince Zuko looked at his former master with a somewhat stoic face, "I do not fear the Fire Lord anymore- he cannot scare me, because what he will do- continue to do- if I don't do anything scares me far more."

Piandao raised a hand to Zuko's shoulder and smiled at him, "You have made great sacrifices to be here- I can only hope that it is worth it."

Iroh turned to Piandao and asked, "My friend- what do you have for us? Is there any way for us to get to the capital easily?" he asked him.

"I have two fake passports for you both- I hope that these can get you through customs- there is a cargo ship taking foodstuffs to the capital markets tomorrow morning- I can arrange to get you aboard." Piandao explained, the former General nodding at his plans.

"Good- I knew I could trust in you Piandao- we will be ready to leave when we must..." Iroh affirmed, then his face turned to one of shock, "Oh no- what of our trade goods- I have been making sales of tea through every village and town we come through."

"Don't worry for that my friend- we can have the komodo rhino and your things stored here in the meantime- you can pick them up when you need to." he explained back, Zuko glancing at his Uncle with slight frustration.

"Please don't tell me you want to actually become a tea merchant Uncle." he asked him, hoping to retain some kind of image of his uncle as the battle hardened General who besieged Ba Sing Se.

"Oh not a tea merchant- I want to own a whole tea shop!" he grinned, Piandao chuckling at his enthusiasm, "Speaking of which- " Iroh pulled a pot from his bag, and grinned at Piandao and Zuko, "who wants tea?!"

The steel walls of the room gleamed from the candle sitting on the room's desk- Sokka rolled away from the flame and his roommate, who after a week of sharing the same room, he really hadn't gotten along with; Sokka had had a restless nights sleep- he had decided that he best spend the dawn doing something productive before the Princess would tell him to 'get off his sorry arse and do his job' to which he would reply, 'what job exactly?' and she would fume at him- the whole situation wasn't going to be fun, he knew that at least. Sokka pulled himself up to sit on the bed's end, leaning up against the somewhat chilly steel wall- he glanced over at the desk and pulled out the manuscripts that he had been reading; Azula had noted that he would best spend his time with using his analytical skills, stating that she 'valued a sharp mind over a boomerang throwing idiot', which offended and complimented him at the same time- frustrating to say the least. He had been reading about what the Fire Nation military forces had seen in searching the palace and it's expansive compartments and secrets- the writer of the manuscript obviously believed that there was more to the winding halls of the dungeons and other parts of the underground; he spoke of the Crystal Catacombs, something Azula had offhandedly told him about when explaining to him the possible threats in yesterdays meeting- by meeting he meant more of an informal, highly classified discussion about all the things Azula thought was wrong in the city- she had a irking at the governor for being incompetent or in bed with the enemy, she told Sokka she hadn't made up her mind on which one she thought was more realistic, but he knew she'd beat him senseless all the same.

He heard the Captain grunt, probably waking from the rising sun- Sokka guessed by the time he started glaring at him at displeasure of his company, the Princess would arrive and declare the day to have begun, and with that- all the work she expected of him; he was disappointed with the menial work he had been given so far, perhaps considering it a punishment for his drunken antics on the first night in the city- he was genuinely repentant for his actions, knowing that he got himself in a pretty stupid situation all to his own fault. The whole situation was at the back of his mind- Sokka was focused on the task at hand- hoping that it would actually lead to something a little more productive; Sokka still wanted some real work- a beat-down with some of the bastards they were trying to destroy- and preferably that beat-down not be directed at the oppressed dissidents of the Lower Ring, who had all the reasons to start throwing stones at the Fire Nation. Sokka himself had originally not had much against whoever was throwing shots at the Fire Nation- but they had made it personal- beating him up and nearly kidnapping him- he was more than ready to hunt them down; thinking about his viewpoint for a moment made him consider Azula had rubbed off on him a bit too much- he was vengeful against those who had wronged him and his people- the Fire Nation usually- not some uppity bastards in Ba Sing Se.

Pulling himself to sit on the bedside, Sokka glanced at the manuscript's drawing of the underground portions of the palace- he would need this if he was to investigate the areas- it would help him not get lost, and would also ensure that he would know what areas of the palace the Fire Nation actually knew about- if the map itself actually correlated with what the garrison itself patrolled. Sokka grabbed his fur boots and shin-guards and pulled them onto his feet- Azula had got him a pair of Fire Nation guards standard issue shin-guards a few days prior as he had left his original ones in the forest- they fit well and snug, and unlike his conventional armour they were far better suited to the climate of Ba Sing Se; he quickly pulled his shirt over his chest and tied his belt, wanting to be ready to go as soon as Azula arrived. He couldn't lie, he was quite eager to just get out of his room at this point, despite the time of day; Sokka started to think that the closed environment of the barracks was starting to get to him- in a lot of ways it was more like a prison than actual accommodation- he thought that it could have been a reflection of his views on the Fire Nation, but Sokka preferred to think that it was actually what it seemed. He heard the main door of the barracks creak open and the muffled sound of voices outside- probably Azula dealing with the guards, and Sokka quickly stood to his feet and slung his boomerang over his back.

Azula swung the room's door open, slightly shocking the Captain- who was still grumbling to get himself out of his own bed at moment- she looked straight at Sokka completely dressed and awake before her and almost gasped, "Someone's eager- this is the first time I've seen you willingly wake up at dawn." she smirked at him, Sokka shrugging his shoulders

"We've got work to do and I'm not sitting around to wait and get kidnapped again." he bluntly told her, before lifting up the manuscript, "I think I can guide us down into the catacombs- do you want to go now?"

"Dodging breakfast- this isn't like you- are you really that rattled by being kidnapped?" she questioned him, grabbing the manuscript and glaring at him with suspicion.

"I want to find whatever's down there- and then I'll show them what it feels like." he told her, stepping beside her to walk toward the door.

"Like what?" Azula smirked, curious to what had been irking Sokka.

"To be afraid- to have no escape." he told her coldly, his eyes dark with suppressed anger- Sokka didn't want to take another hit from these mysterious people who decided to think it was a good idea to kidnap him- Azula had told him what the Dai Li did to prisoners- there had been reports, maybe slightly exaggerated- but if these people were the Dai Li and those rumours were true, Sokka wanted to make sure no one would ever fall prey to them again.

"What about you Captain? Or do you want to sleep in?" Azula asked the half-awake man, who glanced at her in a slight daze; he rubbed his eyes before looking back at her.

"I- uh- I'll do the rounds in the office today- look through whatever old Earth Kingdom stuff I can find." he told her, not wanting to admit he was exhausted and unwilling to babysit her Water Tribe companion if they went somewhere as potentially dangerous as the Crystal Catacombs.

"Don't you want to guard your Princess as she travels to the depths of Ba Sing Se?" she questioned him, as if to goad his ego, to only be responded to with a shrug of the shoulders.

"I think my Princess is truly capable of protecting herself from whatever lies below- but I won't refrain from sending some guards with you." he told her, Azula raising an eyebrow at his offer.

"Guards? What- some of these goons in the palace- I don't trust them one bit, unless you know of any that won't be potential traitors?" she asked the Captain, who stood up from his bed.

"I-I uh- I'll get two of your own elite guards- two that are actually awake." he told her, the Princess smirking and nodding.

"That's good Captain- now run along, tell them to meet us in the-" Azula stumbled, not knowing where she was actually going, "Sokka, where is the entrance we are taking?"

"The former Royal Prison- it's now the- uh- alcohol storage?" he read the manuscript out loud, somewhat confused.

"That would be the seized illegal drinks that the garrison has taken- I assume it's their supply;" she told him before glaring at Sokka suspiciously, "don't you get any stupid ideas."

"Hey!" Sokka shouted at her with a tinge of offence, before she led him out of the door to stop him from arguing back.

Azula begun to walk out along the courtyard and Sokka followed in lead- they both glanced out at the orange horizon, where the sun was barely peeling across the horizon.

"That's pretty- you know the sky's like that all summer at night where I come from." Sokka told her, who glanced back at him sceptically.

"That's not a good thing- how would anyone be able to sleep?" she questioned him- Sokka chuckling at her statement.

"We're not like you firebenders- a Water Tribesman must be able sleep through month long days and stay awake in the month long nights." he explained, Azula chuckling as she started to walk away toward the Royal Prison.

"No wonder you're so damn crazy- I was thinking who in their right mind would try and attack my ship." she jested, Sokka raising his finger to answer.

"For a matter of fact- there is a condition we call midnight sun madness- it's a debilitating disease!" he told her, making Azula laugh.

"Come along now- you can stop appreciating the basic movements of celestial objects and start doing your job." she commanded him, Sokka shrugging and following suite.

The two walked along the courtyard behind the palace itself to reach a large structure that seemed somewhat out of repair- Sokka nodded at it's sight, "Yep- that's it."

"You'd think the garrison would maintain a prison of all things." she questioned, thinking it was wasteful to simply store the building with alcohol and other illicit commodities.

"Well- the earthbenders would be worse to deal with if there's more of them in a single place." Sokka thought aloud, she nodded in agreement.

"Yes- that makes sense- although I heard that they just execute rowdy earthbenders- too much of a hassle to keep them in prisoners if you don't have other earthbenders to restrain them."

Sokka grimaced at the thought of Earth Kingdom protesters being killed simply because they could bend, but shook the thought out of his mind- now was not the time for him to be concerned with the sufferings of the people- he had a goal at hand- find whatever lay in the depths of the palace, and then he could sleep soundly without the fear of crazy earthbenders trying to capture him or worse. Azula pulled on the heavy door handle of the building for a moment- before glancing at Sokka with slight frustration.

"Could you give a hand?" she asked him, Sokka obliging and grabbing the other handle to pull the door wide open, with some struggle; looking into the prison they could see what the manuscript had meant- there was a large number of cells- all filled with crates of illicit goods.

"Well- wait so I went all that way to get my booze when I could have just gone right here?!" Sokka whined in realisation, Azula whacking him in the back of the head.

"Shut it you- we need to actually search for the passageway- not just look at the illegal stuff." she told him, Sokka scratching his nape and grumbling.

"Ah- whatever- we just need to head down toward the larger cells- for upper-class prisoners supposedly." he told Azula, who nodded back and started to pace herself down through the prison, forcing Sokka to chase after her- he preferred when she couldn't run- it was a lot easier to go at his pace.

The two raced their way down into the prison's depths, passing to the point where there was no longer any contraband and the cells became creepily empty in Sokka's eyes- although he preferred there to be less people in a prison, this one almost seemed haunted with the lack of people. On their way along the descending pathway into the prison they had arrived at what seemed like an officer's quarters- presumably in originally housed whatever prison guards were stationed here.

"Should we take a look in there?" Sokka asked her, who glanced back with a curt smirk for the recognition of authority before glancing at the scroll in Sokka's hand.

"Maybe- how much further until we reach the unknown portions of the underground?" she asked him.

"The prison connects to the basement of the palace- and from what it seems the whole area hasn't been exactly mapped out- it wasn't damaged, according to the surveyor, which means whatever passages built by the Earth Kingdom should still be here."

"So to the Crystal Catacombs?" she asked him, Sokka scratching his chin in dismay.

"I have no idea if these passages even lead there- it's deep underground right? So what if they just bent their way there- if that's the case there might not even be a direct passage down." he brainstormed, Azula nodding.

"Let's just check your little office- maybe there's something in here the garrison didn't clear out." Azula affirmed, walking into the abandoned office with intrigue- the desks and bedding weren't even trifled with- it was just as if the entire place was abandoned without a fight; Sokka immediately went to the desk and ruffled through it, finding only personal writings- he glanced over them and found nothing of interest.

"Well that's just great- I think we have got ourselves the personal writings of a poet." he joked with a sense of disappointment.

Azula glanced over to the bed, and realised that there was some clothing dislodged underneath it, leaning down to pull it out- and her eyes peeled wide at the sight- it seemed to be the attire- armour and all- of one of their long sought after Dai Li agents.

"We've got something- Dai Li I assume." Azula looked at the clothes, pulling out a hat that resembled a peasants cone-shaped hat- like the one Sokka had wore as a disguise, except it had a golden point atop it; Sokka pulled out another manuscript that described the attire of Earth Kingdom officials, and he nodded when he saw the correlation between the drawing of the Dai Li and the hat before him.

"Well it seems we've found some evidence of the secretive Dai Li- it seems this must have been discarded during the invasion- oh wait- I figured it out." Sokka exclaimed, "The manuscript describes that the captured Dai Li was not as large as they expected it to be- they scoured the city and killed many elite guards and members of the organisation itself; what if they had foresaw the attack of the Fire Nation and disguised themselves as common guards- if so they could have evaded capture or at least the threat of being interrogated for their actual knowledge." he theorised, Azula slowly clapping at him, although at the moment he couldn't tell of her genuineness.

"Well done Sokka- you've proven that mind's use- now I can't get rid of you." she told him, smirking deviously as he told him of her idealised fate for him.

"Oh please no- I take it back- I'm a stupid savage, please just throw me out to wander the Earth Kingdom!" he jokingly begged with exaggeration, "Uh- well not at least until we destroy these guys- it'd ruin my ego if you just got to handle these guys all by yourself." Sokka admitted.

"Now, now Sokka- don't be so hasty- I'm the bender here, your wish-washy boomerang throwing won't do much good against elite earthbenders." she told him, Sokka pouting at her with barely faked grief before it contorted into a smirk.

"Actually- I know exactly how to defeat the earthbenders- I'll make them defeat themselves." he told her, Azula chuckling at him.

"Oh- I thought you were too honourable for deceptive tactics savage." she tried to seriously question his ethics, making Sokka raise his hand in defiance.

Sokka smirked when he spoke back, "I'll make an exception just this once- they're asking for it."

Walking through the streets of the Lower Ring, the Freedom Fighters were at home- maybe not in the same way they had been in the Gaipan Forest, but it was their home nonetheless; they might have said in the year gone past they didn't have a goal, plan or focus- just surviving, like every other refugee was their goal, but now out of the blue had come their opportunity.

Jet piped up to his friends as they strolled along, comfortable talking as they were in a quiet alley, "I can't believe it- we're actually going to do it." he told them.

The Duke looked at him with disbelief, "Come on Jet- we don't even know who's got the balls to try and fight the Fire Nation here- people ran here to get away from the Fire Nation, remember?"

Smellerbee retorted back at him, "Hey- how do you think they feel that their plight of getting here was nothing- we're pissed off, and I'm sure many of them are too."

Longshot eyed his leader with a slight tinge of doubt, "What about Sokka?" he said, the first words he had spoken all day; Jet furrowed his brow and sighed in frustration.

"I don't know about him- or whatever he's got himself caught up in... he might be a threat for all we know- he has the foresight of us being a threat to the Fire Nation wench of a princess." Jet though aloud, stopping his ramblings as they made their way to a main road.

"Never mind that- we've got to get to the hall- where is it Smellerbee?" he asked, trying to change the topic- Jet didn't want to concern himself over Sokka- his plight conflicted Jet's own morals, something he didn't want challenged.

"Just down this street- it was used as a drinking hall- I think the Fire Nation shut it down a few months ago for some bullshit- as per usual." she explained, Jet grumbling at the story.

Jet considered the statement before responding, "I'm not surprised- at least that means we'll have less of a threat of them snooping in on our meeting."

The group made their way down the through-fare, noting a number of individuals walking in the same direction as them- Jet didn't personally recognise any of them- , although he guessed some of them had heard of their meeting by hearsay; turning down a small alley they arrived at the entrance to the abandoned hall, where Pipsqueak was already standing guard as their bouncer.

"Hey guys- uh- there's already a lot of people inside." Pipsqueak told them, smiling at them and getting out of the way so they could pass through the door.

The crowd turned to look at Jet who was obviously the centre of attention for the group- he could here many people mumbling and whispering about their group and whatever pitch they had been told by one of the Freedom Fighters. He acknowledged them but had to slowly shuffle his way through the haphazard crowd up to the front of the hall where there stood a decrepit bar, which Jet decided to climb upon- he knew it'd be a lot easier for the crowd to see them if he was standing at height- the crowd looked at him and the sound he made by climbing up onto the bar where he drew out and clanked his hook swords together to make a ringing noise, which got the attention of anyone else not looking his way. Standing before what he would describe as a sizeable crowd, Jet begun to proclaim to the people that had been gathered- his Freedom Fighters had searched around nearby neighbourhoods for anyone interested in overturning the present government in exchange for a new one; there wasn't that many people- let alone many earthbenders or people with military experience- but they could spread his message and allow their fight to expand.

He begun to speak, "People of the mighty Earth Kingdom!" he shouted out, getting their attention with his patriotic statement, "We have suffered through a century of war, so many dead, so much pain- I offer you all a choice- to take their pain and direct it toward something greater than yourself- greater than any one man or woman."

Hearing cheering and shouts from the crowd incited Jet to continue his speech, "We destroy the Fire Nation and their cronies- we can liberate this city and make it a place people can be proud of again- not a place of inequality and corruption but one of fairness and freedom! Are you with me?!" he shouted at the crowd, their fists rising to the air, and in response he heard what he desired.

"Yes!" he heard echo throughout the hall- and with that he raised his own fist.

"We will strike them down from their golden thrones and bring about a new Earth Kingdom!" he told the crowd, turning to his Freedom Fighters behind him and nodding- now it was time to make their plans.

"Now friends- you will now be handed descriptions of your potential role- you cannot tell anyone what you are doing- these positions are chosen at random, because we have to be certain that our movement cannot be undermined." he told the crowd as Smellerbee, Longshot, Pipsqueak and The Duke handed out the bound notes to each of the crowd members, "We will act on our plans in two days time- you will understand from the message what you must do." he continued, before glancing at the crowd seriously, "You must not return to this hall- if there is subversion- we must be safe, so once you have your message- leave and go home, act like this meeting never happened." the crowd acknowledging him with a series of nods and turning around to leave the building; within a few minutes all of the crowd had shuffled out of the building and all who remained were his friends, who smiled at him with confidence.

"I think we've really got something going here Jet." Smellerbee grinned at her comrade, who nodded with a smirk.

"We've been waiting since Gaipan for something like this- I'm just glad I was able to get us here." he told the group, clasping Smellerbee on the shoulder, "The Fire Nation thinks they've won- they're dead wrong."

"That's right Jet!" Pipsqueak assured, swinging his arm over Jet's shoulder, "Uh- so what exactly did you give all those guys?"

"Our new friends won't play much part in our actual plans- they serve as a distraction while we go to strike the Palace- when the garrison troops realise they have no backup, our allies will easily be able to overwhelm the Fire Nation forces- they'll get the crowds swinging their fists." Jet explained, smirking in his own hubris, which made Smellerbee look at him sceptically.

"That's assuming we can actually break into the palace, and get back out- I've seen it- how are we even going to handle that?!" she asked him.

"There's a few earthbenders that can help us- I've sent them to be strategically placed- they will cause a simultaneous strike on our mark- which Longshot can create with some explosive arrows; those earthbenders will cover us as we go in and overwhelm the governor and the princess- if all goes to plan we can either capture them or keep them stuck in the palace for long enough- if no commands can get out- we have the advantage." Jet explained- his friends nodding in agreement.

The Freedom Fighters walked out of the hall and back into the side-street- they glanced around to check for any prying eyes before leaving the premises as if they had never been there; they made their way back up the major street before turning back into their well memorised alleyways and streets- they would lose any potential followers in the labyrinthine heart of the Lower Ring. Jet took the lead and led the group down a alleyway that lacked any shops or travellers- a good way to ensure that they wouldn't be noticed by any chance Fire Nation patrol, but he was surprised to see two beggars standing before them in the alleyway- they were standing in fighting form- not begging, which made him immediately suspicious.

"What do you want? We don't have any money." Jet lied to the two men, whose straw hats covered their faces, but he could clearly make out two smirks.

"You." the two men said simultaneously, making Jet draw his hook swords and swing his arms into form.

With the most confident smirk he could muster, he simply uttered "Try me."

Chapter Text

Looking upon their enemy, the Freedom Fighters were more than prepared- two men challenging them on the street- Smellerbee looked upon them with a tinge of fear- these were probably the same people that had tried to capture Sokka- maybe they had known of their association, or worse- they knew of their plans and were trying to get rid of the Freedom Fighters before they could cause any damage.

One of the men stood forward and jested at the Freedom Fighters, "You stupid children, don't y-" before being cut off by a sharp noise- an arrow striking him square in the shoulder and flinging him to the ground.

Longshot smiled upon his work- the shot was accurate but wouldn't keep the man down for long; Smellerbee grimaced as the remaining man struck out a concise earthbending move to thrust at their group, forcing Jet to sidestep the attack before it reached him- the other Freedom Fighters weren't so lucky. Longshot was hit right off his feet into the air, and The Duke and Smellerbee were forced off their feet and fell hard onto the gravel street- she screamed out for her friend realising he was barely capable of landing from such a hit.

"Longshot!" Smellerbee shouted out- luckily Pipsqueak was standing behind them and was able to grab his friend before he hit the ground- his hat and bow had fallen to the ground and his face showed something he wasn't usually willing to- his fear.

"Good job Pipsqueak." Smellerbee thanked him, kicking Longshot's bow up into her hand before throwing it back into her friends arms, which he took without a second thought, drawing another arrow while still being held up by Pipsqueak.

Looking back toward Jet, she saw her leader quickly making work of the other earthbender with his hook swords, deflecting a number of bricks before being thrown into one of the walls by the earthbender thrusting the neighbouring wall at him; Jet fell through the wall, and disappeared from sight for a moment- the struck down earthbender looked as if he was commanding the other one, who glanced at the group before running down the alley away from them- Smellerbee's face contorted into one of rage.

"Get back here you fucking coward!" she screamed, running after the man with all the power she could carry in her legs.

Within moments the downed earthbender stopped Smellerbee right in her tracks- he threw up the gravel toward her- which she dodged by sidestepping the stones and throwing a knife at the man which he was able to block with what seemed to be rock gloves- it was of little use when Smellerbee's foot collided with the man's face, knocking his head sharply into the gravel- she grimaced slightly at the sound of man's neck abruptly cracking, hoping that she hadn't just killed him with the force of her foot; Smellerbee heard a grunt from her side, the collapsed wall where Jet was laying- his head raised in dizziness and pain.

"A-ah- good job; you go after that other bastard." he grumbled to her, rubbing his sore head as he pulled the stone fragments off of his body.

"Don't have to order me for that one." she smirked, saluting her injured leader with a motion of her fingers before running down the alleyway in the direction of the cowardly earthbender.

Smellerbee was joined by The Duke and Longshot in her pursuit of the earthbender- Pipsqueak stayed by Jet's side to protect him from anything else that might come by while he recovered; the three of them raced down the alleyway and spotted the man using his earthbending to climb up onto the roofs of the Lower Rings slums- agile and capable as they were, the Freedom Fighters saw little effort in quickly scaling the walls to follow him once more. Once he had sighted them again, the man threw roof tiles at them to try and break their footing, but he was being quickly countered by Longshot's volleys of arrows toward him- the man suddenly disappeared from their sight, and The Duke glanced over across the buildings.

"He went back to the street, I'll stay and keep an eye from the roof, you guys get down there and beat the crap of that guy!" The Duke assured Smellerbee and Longshot, racing along the roofs toward where they last saw the man, Longshot and Smellerbee detouring to slide down the roof and onto a balcony, from where they jumped back to the ground.

"There!" Smellerbee shouted, pointing out the man racing down the alleyway directly across the street from them, Longshot drawing an arrow on a bell curve to strike him- he didn't miss, of course- the arrow struck the man in his upper thigh and forced him to face-plant. Smellerbee and Longshot were delayed by having to cross the street, but quickly enough they reached were they last saw the man only to find that he had disappeared from the alleyway- the blood stain on the ground showed well enough that the arrow had done it's work- they could follow the trail of his bleeding leg now. Following the distinct red smatterings on the ground, the two made their way into a small commons garden- where the blood trail seemed to have simply ended; Longshot checked their surroundings, but looked on in suspicion.

"Where did he go?" Smellerbee asked out, before finding her answer right before her- the ground begun to shake and their legs were pulled into the soil of the garden- the dirt solidifying as they sunk; giving her friend a glance, Smellerbee started to pant and grunt in fear as she tried to release herself from the grasp of the earth.

"Not like this- we have to kill the ash-makers before we die!" she shouted out, before hearing a familiar battle-cry.

"Take cover!" The Duke screamed out, throwing a round object down into the centre of the garden, Smellerbee and Longshot instinctively covering their faces by leaning away- the garden was thundered by a dirty explosion- flames spurting out before the dust covered them all- suddenly Longshot and Smellerbee could move and they dragged themselves out of the dirt before glancing to where they guessed their opponent would be; the man stood before them covered in dust and his face covered in cuts from the explosion.

"You grimy shits." the man growled, raising his rock covered fist to throw a wall of soil at the two Freedom Fighters- but was stopped by a heavy weight crashing onto his shoulders- The Duke had jumped onto his back and was eager to hammer his fists down on him.

"Yee-ha!" The Duke squealed in an adrenaline rush, punching the man in the skull a number of times before being flung off the mans back by a stone hitting him in the side, tossing him into the dirt.

This gave Longshot enough time to draw another arrow and shoot it at the man, just missing his chest, clipping the man's shoulder and flinging him back onto the ground, where Smellerbee raced to tackle him. As she attempted to finally stop their enemy, Smellerbee found herself at the same end of a rock as The Duke, being flung across the garden and into the dirt again- Longshot remained steadfast and drew another arrow, which the earthbender was able to stop by raising his hand to draw Longshot into the dirt- the arrow was shot off course and flew right over the mans head.

"It's time you meet the spirits." the man told them with a devious, near evil grin on his face, rising from the soil and preparing to draw another stone wall to toss at the group.

"Not yet." a voice told him- the man turned to face his new opponent but looked in shock as a club swung into his head and knocked him out cold and onto the ground.

Standing above the practically defeated Freedom Fighters, the man looked at them with a curt smile and asked them, "Are you kids okay?"

Smellerbee looked at the man- he wore blue and white attire, although it was partially masked by a green cloak and a hat- he seemed familiar, and out of her dazed form she called out a name, "Is that you- Sokka?" she asked, her tone grumbling and angry- she didn't want to have to deal with him again- Jet had told them explicitly what to do if he tried to come to them.

"Wait what- I'm not Sokka- you know Sokka?!" the man looked at her in shock, Smellerbee raising her eyebrow in confusion.

"Uh- yes- you do too?" she asked him.

The man lent out his hand, smiling at her with a sense of relief, "I'm Bato- Sokka's my best friends son."

"Wait so you were with him at sea- are you a traitor too?" she asked him, slightly dazed and pained from the strike in the chest which had winded her thoroughly.

"A traitor? I am a Water Tribe warrior- I fight to help the Earth Kingdom in their plight against the Fire Nation- why would Sokka be a traitor?" he asked her in confusion.

"Because he works for the Princess- he's her servant now." she told him- relaying what Jet had explained to her.

Bato looked at Smellerbee with a sense of shock and disbelief, "What- you're joking right?" before hearing no response, he face-palmed and sighed, "Well- that's a twist of fate if I've ever seen one."

Standing outside the palace armoury barely after sunrise wasn't what Princess Azula was expecting to be spending her morning- a week prior she expected to be walking about a forest near aimlessly in search of civilisation and now she was stuck looking for the threat that loomed over the city- and by extension, the Fire Nation as a whole. She could hear Sokka fumbling about inside the armoury looking for the ingredients to create his weapon, which he told her would be the best way to fight potential earthbenders- from the description he had already given her, she assumed it had to do with deceiving the earthbenders into bending something they shouldn't, of which she didn't really know- but soon enough Sokka had come out the armoury doors with a number of small canvas bags.

"So what does the 'brilliant engineer of the Southern Water Tribe' have to offer?" she mocked him, Sokka looked back at her with arms crossed.

"I'll have you know that these are based off a design my father created- although it was for a different purpose." he told her, making Azula raise an eyebrow sceptically.

"What purpose exactly?" she asked him, Sokka freezing in a slight of fear, before rubbing his head as if he had regret.

"Well uh- to destroy your ship actually." he admitted, Azula smirking at him.

"Oh well what a change we have here- using the tactics you used against me at the dirt throwing scumbags." she thought aloud, chuckling at the fact that Sokka was clearly doing his all to impress her.

"As I said- they deserve it." Sokka reminded her, Azula skirted toward him and glared at him with questioning eyes.

"So you think I deserved to have my ship sunk?" she asked him, Sokka's eyes opening wide in fear.

"Well- uh- I think that it gave you a reality check- you're not infallible or invincible- you ought to keep that one in mind." he tried to explain, Azula reeling away and dismissing his statements with a flick of her wrist.

"You think that I'm not capable of self-reflection- trust me, I do it all the time." she grumbled at him, offended that he would think that she was absorbed by her own hubris.

"Oh really." he jested at her, smirking in belief that she really didn't understand her own weaknesses.

"I have an excellent reminder to remain conscious and understanding over your own pride- the last person I knew who forgot that lost half his face." she told Sokka, who almost gasped in realisation.

"Your brother- I forgot about him- he's still trying to overthrow daddy?" he joked, making Azula frown at Sokka.

"For the last time- I told you tot stop effacing the image of the Fire Lord." she grumbled at Sokka, her volume raising as she grew more frustrated before returning to a more calm tone, "I would think so- I'm betting father will tell me any day now to go take care of that whole issue." making Sokka roll his eyes.

"Please don't tell me we're going to go half way across the world just for you to beat up your brother." he grumbled, Azula chuckling at him.

"It'd be a bit more than a beating- and who says that you'd be coming?" she questioned Sokka, who raised his hands defensively.

"Hey! Remember the debt I owed so I could eventually get home? It isn't going to pay itself off." he told her, Azula shrugging her shoulders.

"As much as I'd like to get rid of you savage- you do have a point- your debt remains unpaid."

"So let's go down again- we ought to get this over and done with." Sokka smirked, pacing himself in front of Azula and back toward the former Royal Prison- she held her voice to yell at Sokka, realising that he was doing exactly what she wanted him to- stay on task and fulfil their goal.

The two of them made their way down back into the former prison with hast- they both knew of the potential threat of informants learning of their actions before they could make use of the element of surprise; within a few minutes the two of them had returned to the deepest point of the prison proper-

Sokka looked back down at the rough map that had been drawn and noted where it faded into unknowns- that would be their first target. Looking around from the base of the prison, they could see that there was a metal door that had been busted down, but behind it was a partially collapsed hallway- they could see unlit lanterns and other signs of habitation- the destruction must have been on purpose.

"So we head down this pathway- it seems to have been obstructed- by our Dai Li friends no doubt." Azula commented, glancing out at the collapsed hallways, "No matter- a few rocks won't be much against a lightning strike."

Sokka gulped and looked back at her, "You're telling me you could have blown me apart with lightning?!" reminiscing of when Azula had first beaten him up with the firebending form.

"Not really-" she nonchalantly replied, "lightning-bending is usually too weak actually explode a human being- brittle rocks and bricks- that's another matter."

"Knowing you, you'll be the first person to explode a person with lightning-bending." Sokka joked, grimacing at the thought once more, making Azula smirk back.

"Well you're right- it ought to be me- but that doesn't make it any less disturbing." she explained to him before preparing her stance, a signal for Sokka to step back and try and get out of her way.

Azula moved into her form, raising her arms in motion to gather her energies before directing them into a single lightning strike via her right hand- the crackling sound thundered through the room as the blast raced into the collapsed hallway, causing an explosion of dust to cover them and block both their sights- within a few moments, the dust cleared to show the hallway open and the rocks scattered down away from the spot Azula shot at.

"Uh-" Sokka looked at her awkwardly, noticing her confident smirk, "good job?"

Azula raised an eyebrow, "What- are you scared of a little lightning?"

He glanced back with his mouth agape, "Are you serious? Lightning is extremely dangerous!"

She raised a finger to her mouth in thought, "Well, that means that I'm extremely dangerous- I'll take that as a compliment." Azula jested at him, making Sokka smack his forehead loudly with his hand.

"You've gotta be kidding me." he mumbled, before he was forced to follow Azula into the hallway as she ushered him in.

"Go on savage- we haven't got all day to appreciate my amazing bending." she joked at him, Sokka raising his head in defiance, before pacing down the hallway with his crude map in hand.

Sokka and Azula continued down the serpentine hallways and made their way toward an unmapped area away from the centre of the palace- her firebending lit their path and ensured they would spot anything out of the ordinary; within a few minutes they had walked all the way into an older decrepit portion of the underground tunnels- the stone work faded into cavernous walls and Sokka swore he could notice small glints of light around him, but he simply dismissed it as the reflection of Azula's flames. Soon enough they came upon an underground stream- which gleamed a with the reflection of Azula's blue flames- Sokka glanced at her and pointed down the stream.

"I'm guessing this goes down into the Crystal Catacombs- so where does that put us?" Sokka asked her, Azula rubbing her chin in thought before pointing across the cavern.

"There's a flat wall right there- they've tried to mask it with damage, but it's manmade." she told him, Sokka glancing at the wall and confirming her own sight- there was a clean stone face across the stream- it was clearly placed there on purpose- an earthbending powered door he guessed.

Without saying a word Azula bent a ring of fire around her arm before releasing it as a concentrated blast- crashing into the wall and shattering it with the pure force of the strike- Sokka looked on and smirked.

"If it was that easy- I could have just broken the wall with my club." he remarked- Azula glancing at him with scepticism.

"I doubt it- and that would take far too long- efficiency, savage." she explained to him, reminding him of his purpose as a second mind for the Princess- which complimented his mental acuity and insulted his physical capabilities at the same time.

"Urgh- yeah you're right," he admitted, before running into the hole formed by her fire blast- checking momentarily for any signs of human activity on the other side, "no one is here at the moment- let's go." he told Azula before making his way into the next portion of the hallway which led down a much more direct passage- this time lined with stonework.

They walked down the hallway, making out some ambient light at the end- some kind of opening; Sokka raced down to the end first, noticing a ladder leading up to the light source- which seemed to be right above him. Azula arrived behind him and raised an eyebrow at the sight of the light-source.

"We don't seem to be in the Crystal Catacombs-" she remarked, "Where in the name of spirits was your map leading us?" she questioned Sokka who raised his hands defensively.

"Hey- I didn't make the map- but don't think this is all bad news- this path must still be used by the Dai Li- if we can catch them using this- we can follow them or better just capture and beat some information out of them."

Climbing up the ladder, Sokka pushed up the rotting wooden covering and looked out of the porthole- they seemed to be in a warehouse of sorts- he was surrounded by wooden crates. Pulling himself up Sokka glanced around to check if anyone seemed to be in the building, but to their luck it seemed to be empty of any people at the moment; looking back down to Azula he waved his hand telling her to follow him up.

"Now let's look around for some of those finicky earthbenders." Azula confirmed as she climbed out of the porthole, Sokka nodding before heading around the towers of crates to guide himself out of building.

Sokka turned around a corner and found what he was looking for- a large set of wooden doors for the cargo and a smaller one to the side, which he quickly raced up to and peered out of- he was in luck for their timeliness, there wouldn't be any crowds that might take suspicion to the Princesses appearance outside of the palace. Sokka walked out onto the street and glanced up and down along it- he noticed clearly that he was in a clean neighbourhood that had distinctively gold roofs- looking behind him Sokka could see the walls of the palace in the far distance- they had travelled some distance in the tunnel- and he knew that if they had gotten that far underground that the Dai Li probably had a lot more up their sleeves. Azula walked out an made the same look as Sokka at acknowledging how far they had travelled just down a single tunnel. Sokka grabbed his belly and irked at it's grumbling, glancing to Azula.

"Before we go on a hunt for the Dai Li- could I please get some breakfast?" he asked her as courteously as he could muster, Azula raising an eyebrow at his statement.

"Didn't you proclaim that you didn't need breakfast?" she questioned him before glancing down the street where she could hear the sounds a market, "Hmm- if you can be quick, I mightn't punish you for you foolish eating habits." Sokka nodded rapidly before running in the direction of the market.

Azula shook her head in disappointment at Sokka's behaviour- he was off to a good start when he woke up, but now their initial plan had led to nothing but a secret passage into the palace- he took it upon himself to excuse time for breakfast. She acknowledged basic human needs, but she worried a group of Dai Li could pop up at any moment and she wouldn't have him to back her up- he had his handmade weapons with him- she knew that ought to come in handy even though now she assumed they wouldn't be fighting the Dai Li under the palace.

Pacing down the streets of the Upper Ring once again Sokka was more than cautious of his surroundings- he knew all too well what happened last time, although he intended to get breakfast as soon as possible- he'd rather not get intoxicated while working; he walked down into the small side street market, it was barely opening at the early time of the morning, but he already saw what seemed to be the local servants filing around to collect food and luxury items for their masters. He eyed off the stalls cautiously, easily able to see that most of the food that was being offerred was unprepared and expensive- the elite of Ba Sing Se were no strangers to unusual and pricey delicacies; Sokka noticed a stall where they were selling 'beef jerky'- something he assumed by the name was close enough to his traditional seal jerky that he'd enjoy it.

Walking up to the stall it's owner greeted him, a wiry man with a long moustache, "Hello young man- do you need to purchase some jerky- we have a full stock, you came at the right time." the man asked Sokka, who simply glanced down at his belt-bag, pulling out a few coins before turning to the man.

"What will this get me?" he asked, holding the coins before the man who looked at him with intrigue.

"Are you sure you only want to buy that much? I usually get larger orders than that." the man commented, Sokka returning a confused glance.

"Uh- yes?" he responded, unsure what the man was exactly implying.

"Your master doesn't give out much money to spare for buying his jerky it seems." the man simply commented, Sokka clenching his nose bridge with his fingers.

"I- I'm not a servant!" Sokka fumed at the man, pointing his finger at the man accusingly, "And because I'm under the Princesses employ I think I could get away with beating the shit out of you for insulting me." Sokka smirked deviously at the man, who gulped in fear in realisation- Sokka thought that he had perhaps connected the dots between the Princess Azula's 'mysterious Water Tribe attache' and the man before him.

"Oh spirits- please forgive me!" the man pleaded, handing Sokka more jerky into his hand.

Although he was pleased the man had broken down in fear because of Sokka's threats, he didn't desire to eat the man's entire stock of jerky, "Not too much man- I'm trying to eat breakfast not preparing to hibernate like a polar-bear-dog!" Sokka complained, pushing some of the jerky back into the mans hands before beginning to walk away, still irked by the man's comments, "Not a servant." he spat at the man again before making his way out of the market, chewing down on the beef jerky to calm his mood.

Sokka found the new meat to be quite tasty and reminiscent of his diet on the ship, which he missed dearly- the palace might have offered him far more food than their rations, but he loved his native cuisine to a fault; he chewed slowly on some of the jerky as he walked back along the street, where he caught sight of Azula standing by one of the alleyways near the warehouse- she was obviously intently waiting for either Sokka or some foolish Dai Li to show up and make her morning a bit more interesting.
Sokka walked up to her, "Anything of not while I was gone for my quick run to the market?"

Azula chaffed at him, "Quick? The Dai Li could have come and gone by now and I would have had no backup."

He chuckled at her, "Okay- so you need backup now?" smirking at her in realisation that he was seen as useful in her investigation.

She refuted his claim with a flick of her hand, "No- I simply would prefer the extra eyes and ears when I'm attempting to stealthily follow a group of elite earthbenders."

"You keep saying that..." he mocked her before considering her prior statements, "-I was actually pretty quick, c'mon you have to admit it."

She glanced at him holding his jerky and raised an eyebrow, "I admit you were quick- but how did you even get that much jerky- didn't you spend most of your money on that foolish night out?"

"Uh yeah- I intimidated a merchant after he implied I was servant- I sorta used your name to justify it, so if the Governor starts complaining- yeah that was me." he admitted to her, Azula chuckling at Sokka's story.

"Well if it isn't the dishonourable Sokka that I've been needing to help me around the city- would he mind jumping in and beating the crap out of some Dai Li agents?" she jokingly asked Sokka, her description of disgruntling him, but he couldn't help but smirk back.

"I mean it wouldn't hurt to try." he admitted, before taking his spot to lean along the other side of the alleyway from Azula to keep watch for potential movement at the warehouse.

Standing by the alleyway the two kept watch for a few minutes as Sokka chewed down on his supply of jerky- the street begun to have more and more passersby, making it harder to distinguish if any of them were potentially Dai Li; Sokka slumped down the wall to sit as the morning sun rose, and he felt more bored than he expected he would, so he decided to turn to conversation with Azula, although he knew there was a high chance it would end up with an argument that made Sokka seem like more of an idiot in Azula's eyes.

"So- uh- did you have breakfast?" Sokka attempted to small talk, Azula looking back at him with slight confusion.

"I came straight to the barracks after dressing myself- I have no time for an early breakfast- I expect to be well treated at the Governor's Noon Feast." she explained to Sokka.

"Oh- well, I mean I'd expect you to eat, being royalty must mean you're used to a lot of fancy food." he commented, Azula chuckling at him.

"Yes- well I also have to endure an extremely intense firebending regime while I'm at home, so while I'm not constantly training I avoid overeating- I must remain in peak condition, how else will I remain a worthy heir to the Fire Lord?" she told him, Sokka gulping at her final question.

"Uh- I keep forgetting that you're actually going to be Fire Lord some day- it's kind of weird- I forget you come from a crazy evil family like it's nothing." Sokka admitted, his eyes wide in the reminding realisation of Azula's identity as the Princess and heir of the man he most wanted dead- well probably second-most-wanted-dead, whoever decided to kill his mother was at the top of that list.

"I will be Fire Lord savage- at least I hope so, I wouldn't want my idiot brother to take the throne- he's far to weak and 'nice' to be an effective ruler." Azula explained to her companion, who raised his eyebrow in interest.

"So it's bad if the Fire Lord's nice? No wonder you guys invaded the entire world- you're all heartless." he grumbled, not agreeable to Azula's outlook- who looked back in offence, not as much to his indecent comment towards her, but towards the position of Fire Lord itself.

"What so you think a fool should lead my country?!" Azula questioned Sokka, who sighed in knowing that her brother of all things was what set off their argument today.

"No- I think someone who cares about justice and duty should be Fire Lord- you'd fit that decently enough, but I think you know where you're falling short." he told Azula, who raised an eyebrow at him, considering his comments inflammatory.

"What do you mean? Do you think I couldn't run the Fire Nation effectively?" she asked Sokka who shrugged his shoulders and glanced back.

"No- you could run the Fire Nation- but could you be a fair and compassionate ruler who deserves the love of her citizens? Uh- probably not." Sokka told her.

"Your honesty is- it's starting to get old." Azula grumbled at Sokka, glancing at him with cold eyes, which he held strong against.

"Honesty or not- being Fire Lord isn't all about scaring the shit out of other people- I mean it helps, but it won't get the people to remain loyal- only fearful." Sokka shrugged again, perfectly calm in stating what he believed to be true.

"Fear is the only way Sokka- why else would you be helping me if it wasn't for the other way it could go?" she questioned him, only responding by raising his arms in a statement of uncertainty.

"I help people because I think they could use my help- and they haven't gone against me to the point of no return." he told her, Azula raising an eyebrow at him and pointing at him.

"What did my father ever do to you? The last raids on the Southern Water Tribe was some 8 years ago- that means my grandfather was Fire Lord- my father hasn't sought quarrel with your people." Azula spat at him, raising to her feet to tower over his own slumped form, which he responded to by simply raising his chin to glance at her.

"No- he did and continues to order the massacre of innocent Earth Kingdom civilians- as long as the war continues under his command, your father is the enemy of everyone who isn't Fire Nation; all needless killing is against everything that can make a man honourable- no one can escape judgement from that." Sokka told her- who eyes opened in realisation.

"Wait-" she stated with realisation, "those deserters- back in the mining village; they were murderers, you could tell."

"Those kind of men run the Fire Nation, opportunists who think that killing people can solve problems- they only cause more." he affirmed to Azula, who looked at him with derision.

"But you killed one of them- and you didn't need to." she told Sokka, making him shrug.

"I regret it everyday since- but in asking that you proved my point." Sokka looked back at her.

Azula raised an eyebrow at Sokka, confused by his remarks, "What point could that prove- that you're just as bad as them?"

"No- that you're better than me- because you can acknowledge that and still have the honour of being clean of anothers blood." he told her, Azula looked away in response- she seemed to him to be both offended by her logic of him being more ruthless making him stronger in her eyes, and confident in the respect Sokka had given her.

Sokka glanced away from Azula's frustrated face and realised that there was movement at the warehouse- he could clearly see two men- coming out of the doorway- not just any men, Fire Nation soldiers luckily it seemed that the two hadn't noticed Sokka, who dropped away from their line of sight before baring his teeth to Azula and spoke as loudly as he could with a closed mouth.

"Azula! There's two soldiers at the warehouse!" he grated at her, Azula's eyes opening wide in realisation before she made a short peer across to see their potential targets.

"Ponytails- they've got the damned ponytails." Azula grumbled- before she looked at Sokka with a serious face, "It seems the palace is more compromised than I would have liked; you follow my lead- no explosives unless I tell you- we want to find, isolate and interrogate them, not cause a scene, right?" she rhetorically asked Sokka, who dismissed her demanding attitude with a pfft.

"Yeah- I already got that 'master of strategy Crown Princess Azula'" he mocked her, before continuing to examine the two Dai Li agents- their disguises were real it seemed, the two men would be indistinguishable from any Fire Nation soldiers if it wasn't for their distinctive ponytails that hung down their backs- their faces were masked by the heavy helmets they were required to wear and that obviously was a good way to mask the expected green eyes of an Earth Kingdom citizen.

Azula glanced back at him after a moment of thought, "We have to assume that they are aware of us at anytime, consider our stealth nullified."

"What- but what if they don't see us?" Sokka questioned her, Azula sighing in clear frustration of the situation.

"Then we'll be lucky." she told him before glancing back to follow the disguised agents with her eyes- they were leaving the premises and walking down the road, nodding at Sokka to acknowledge that they should start following them, who nodded back curtly before beginning to walk down the street like any other person would- unaware of the danger that lay only a few metres ahead of them- two agents of an organisation most people didn't think existed anymore- the proof was stacking before the two investigators, it was only a matter of time before the trail led to the treasure.

Following behind the two Dai Li agents, Sokka and Azula kept their distance as much as they could- as long as they were in their sights, there was little chance they would simply lose them to the city- and if the agents saw them, they knew well enough that there was two potential outcomes- either that the two men would run in fear of the Princess, or they would try to beat them both, which Sokka doubted the agents could do, but the power of surprise was sure to be the side that hit first. The streets of the Upper Ring were wide and open, which meant it would be hard to lose the agents, but it made it much more likely that the two that were trailing would be noticed; even though they were wearing cloaks to mask their appearance somewhat, it would be quite easy for trained secret police to notice they clearly weren't from around Ba Sing Se. After a fair while following the disguised agents, who seemed to be following a planned patrol route, like any real soldiers would, the two agents seemed to veer off from the main road to what looked like a relatively expansive estate- at least for what they could see was a densely populated city. Sokka and Azula immediately noticed that the estate itself was guarded by what they could assume to be other Dai Li agents or at the very least, people under their employ- those they could see looked like gardeners, but were obviously keeping watch, as two of them stood by the gates tending to the plants, but held their eyes in concert toward the road.

"Looks like we're going to have to get around those guys." Sokka commented as they stood on the other side of the road from the estate.

"Perhaps this is some kind of safe-house for the agents- if we can just eavesdrop that will be enough to corroborate my suspicions and put them to good use in getting this city back it order." Azula explained to Sokka, who nodded in agreement.

"We shouldn't try and face off the Dai Li here- we have no idea how many agents are here- they could be watching us right now." Sokka admitted to Azula, glancing around to check for any suspicious onlookers- beside themselves of course.

"We'll need a good enough distraction, but not enough that it stops the entire Dai Li from spilling their information unintentionally to yours truly." Azula smirked at Sokka, who pouted in disappointment.

"Aw man- I was looking forward to some stealth- but no, relegated to distraction duty." Sokka sighed, glancing up and down the street to look for someone or something he could cause a scene with to distract the Dai Li.

"What's more important to the Dai Li than conniving against the Fire Nation?" Sokka thought aloud, before he raised a finger in realisation, "They are the 'secret' police, why don't I do something worthy of their intervention?" Sokka rhetorically asked her with a smirk.

"Disturbing the peace- how typical." Azula glanced at him with light disappointment before looking to the low brick wall surrounding the estate, "I'll vault the wall, but you've got to make that distraction and make it loud."

Sokka winked at Azula with slight exaggeration, "No problem!" before pacing off to find someone to cause a distraction with.

Azula turned immediately to the matter at hand, walking along the wall to check if anyone would immediately spot her from their numerous vantage points- there was at least four spotters in the gardens of the estate- not a lot from its size, but Azula assumed that they were well attuned to taking notice of unwelcome guests. She took a bet that the spotters near the gate would be closest to Sokka's distraction and most likely to find themselves unable to spot the Princesses swift motion into the estate grounds and then to the manor-house; now all she had to do was wait for right moment and make the move, lest she find herself at the end of an alert earthbenders attacks, something she'd rather avoid- the less the Dai Li knew about the threat before them, the better.

Suddenly she heard a thumping noise, and then Sokka's distinctive voice sounding out a furious shout, "What was that for, huh?! Trying to fight me you rich prick?!" she could hear him, and Azula refrained from laughing before making her quick sprint to vault the brick wall, which she was able to do with relative ease, landing on her foot feeling relieved that she was once again in peak physical condition.

Glancing across the garden she saw the two 'gardeners' paying keen attention to Sokka's confrontation- he was making it as bombastic as possible, his shouts were muffled by the other man's shouts, that were equally furious- that meant Sokka was doing his job well- if his opponent actually started throwing punches he'd get the Dai Li's unrivalled attention- it was obvious to them that a Water Tribesman shouldn't be in Ba Sing Se, so once they put two and two together they'd try to deal with him themselves. Azula took her opportunity with her feet racing to the exterior wall of the manor house, from which inside she could hear the sounds of speaking- she would have to sneak in, but luckily for her there were windows she could climb into. Checking for the other guards before pulling herself toward the windowsill- she glanced into the room momentarily before dropping back down the wall; Azula could make out that the room was an office, and maybe it might have intelligence from the Dai Li's operations if she was lucky, and seeing that there was no one in the room she ought to get in and out as quickly as possible. Azula climbed into the window, pushing it as far ajar as she could before slipping her legs into the room first, before pulling her upper body through and closing the window all in one swift motion- outside she could still hear Sokka's indistinct shouting, meaning that she had probably not been seen by the guards- if they were heading after her, Sokka would have broke character- she assumed at least, guessing he had half a brain left after all the beatings to the head she had given him.

Rummaging around the room, Azula read through the brief and cryptically worded notes, primarily talking about 'flowers' and 'arrows' which made no sense to Azula at the moment- she kept the words in her mind for safe-keeping- she guessed these had something to do with the Dai Li's plans, but the cryptic naming meant they had little meaning to her- Azula desired to give a reasonable argument of conspiracy to the governor or whatever military commanders that would back her up in case the command chain had been compromised itself. Azula lightly pushed the door open and revealed two hallways going away from the room, bounded on the far side with windows that opened into an interior courtyard- the voices were louder now, and she guessed the agents they had followed were in that courtyard, discussing their observations or perhaps orders given by whatever command structure the organisation followed- all writings that she and Sokka had searched through mentioned a Grand Secretariat, but there was no name of the individual who filled this position- she assumed that this person was in hiding or they were killed in the invasion- after what she and Sokka had found in the prison office, she feared that many, if not most of the Dai Li remained on the streets of Ba Sing Se- a formidable and completely hidden force, perhaps still led by this mysterious figure. Azula held her back against the windowed wall, hiding below the glass to conceal herself while she eavesdropped on the conversation below.

She heard one voice, cold and stoic sounding, "So- that's it- she's been looking through the Governor's initial survey files- I thought we got rid of anyone who posed a threat?" the man asked, talking to who Azula assumed to be his subordinates, the agents disguised as Fire Nation soldiers.

"Yes sir we did- I personally oversaw the removal of a number of key troublemakers- but it seems the Fire Lord might have caught wind of our operations- someone told him- we don't know who, but it doesn't seem like a productive venture to find their identity now." one of the men told the commanding officer, who sighed in frustration.

"Yes- I would agree with you there- he has told us what to do with the new troublemakers, correct?" the officer asked the men, who seemed to silently wait for a few moments before responding- she guessed they might be afraid of what they might have to do to the troublemakers- she assumed this referred to her and Sokka.

"We must eliminate them or their desire to face us- the Fire Lord couldn't know about our organisation personally as a threat- he must also have knowledge of the pressing desire for rebellion amongst the masses as well." the agent explained; Azula nodded at the agents explanations, which seemed to be coming from someone they would only refer to as 'him'- perhaps the Grand Secretariat himself- or the Earth King- or some nobleman who had vested into the Dai Li- there were too many potentials for the real leader's identity- she desired to decapitate the organisation before it to reasonably pose a threat to the Fire Nation's rule of the city.

Suddenly Azula felt a rumbling of earthbending- at that moment she thought that Sokka might have accidentally gone a bit too far in his distraction; moments later a new voice appeared in the room.
"Argh- he's here! The Water Tribesman- we've underestimated the bastard!" the new voice panted in frustration and a slight of pain; Azula chuckled at the idea of Sokka being an actual threat, but then considered his boomerang- he had incapacitated many before with extreme ease- it would only take a delicate strike to beat an elite earthbender if he was caught unaware.

Seeing that she Sokka had broken the agents conversation and her stealth had lost all practical use, Azula decided at that moment to make an entrance, kicking through the glass window and thrusting herself through the air with her starkly firebending, flipping around and landing before the four men and smirked deviously at them, "Which one of you wants to have the honour of being my prisoner?" she mocked the men, who moved into their bending forms- their eyes showed to her that they feared the Princess far more than they would ever fear any nonbending warrior; without any response, she slid her right foot back and circled her arms in motion, sparks crackling between her hands and glared at the men with a near joking smile, "One of you is already dead."

Chapter Text

Thumping into the strangers shoulder, Sokka glared at him with most fury he could muster for someone who probably didn't deserve the berating he was about to get, "Oi!" he shouted pointing at the man. the man looked at him with slight confusion and offence, probably from the context of someone who looked like they belonged in the Lower Ring talking to him.

Such a presupposition made Sokka channel his anger in a genuine frustration he had been feeling,

"What was that for, huh?! Trying to fight me you rich prick?!"

"What?! How dare you- peasant! Is this what this damned city has come to, that drivel like you can just come up here and shout at me, an upstanding citizen?!" the man proclaimed, Sokka slightly smirking at his reaction- it was exactly what he wanted to see from the man.

"Drivel?! I'll make you fucking grovel!" Sokka shouted in a somewhat exaggerated fury- chuckling under his breath at his pun, aiming his fists out to brawl the man if need be- the bigger the nuisance, the more distracting, Sokka told himself in assuring that it was fine to just beat up this man because they needed the intelligence that the Dai Li was holding.

The man pulled out what seemed to be a decorative sword, something he would expect an Earth Kingdom noble to bear- a thin steel jian, with a golden hilt that made it look more like a fancy staff than an actual weapon, but he took up a sloppy stance all the same, "Well come on peasant- show me what you've got!" the nobleman shouted at Sokka, who drew no weapons- slightly intimidating the man for a moment before he started to dramatically scream and swing his sword 'valiantly' at him- which didn't achieve much when Sokka dodged the move with a sidestep before punching the man square in the face and clearly making out a cracking noise as Sokka's fist collided with the man's nose.

"Call me peasant- one- more- fucking- time." Sokka shouted furiously at the man, his wording broken up his rapid punches to the man's upper body in an attempt to knock him out without seriously injuring him.

The man pushed Sokka off of him, and wiped his nose with a slight cringe to his face- he obviously hadn't expected Sokka to hurt him as much as he did already, but his pride held over his rationale and he held the sword out again toward the Water Tribe warrior, "Y-you will not efface my honour." the man seriously stated, his face contorted into a frown before he begun what Sokka guessed to be trained set toward him.

"Honour comes from merit- you have none." Sokka jested at the man, withdrawing his boomerang from his back, suddenly hearing a voice from the estate gates.

"You two stop it now! Don't make me call the guards- violence is not tolerated here." the voice berated them, Sokka glancing at the supposed gardener with slight frustration, before the man's eyes opened in realisation- he obviously recognised Sokka's face- and that was all Sokka needed to go into overdrive.

The nobleman still looked at Sokka and grumbled at him, "I will show you my fury p-" being cut off by Sokka's foot kicking him square in the chest, in the same fluid motion as he threw the boomerang at the Dai Li agent- whose mask of being a gardener had fell to one of an earthbending master- he prepared a stance immediately to block but Sokka's reflexes had beat him to it- the agent was struck in the side of the head and flung to the ground unconscious, his straw hat flying into the wind as it was deflected from his scalp.

Sokka's motions weren't as well planned as he would have hoped and he stumbled into a somersault before raising himself to a crouched position, eyeing off the remaining agent who stood in the gardens in shock- the Dai Li were never found out, and if they were they wouldn't be so easily defeated by a non-bender- the man looked at Sokka in fear but raised himself to a stance to pull out his gloves of rock; his quick reaction was to simply pick up the downed nobleman's jian sword and use it to deflect the rock gloves flying toward him, which he did by holding the sword to shield his upper body from the attack. The agent retrieved his gloves with the swift motion of his hands- Sokka took the time he had to grab his boomerang from the ground beside the first agent, swinging the weapon to throw back at the agent who held his rock gloves in defence- the boomerang careened away from the agent as Sokka intended, holding out the sword to parry the man's expected attacks. The Dai Li agent smirked at Sokka's 'miss' and thrust his hands downward to liquify the stone bricks Sokka was standing out, forcing him to change his stance before the bender would solidify the stone at his feet- the Dai Li agent thrust his hands forward, the rock gloves extending out to knock out Sokka- but the bending motion was cut short by the boomerang striking the man right into the shoulder- wearing the outfit of a gardener had the useful side effect of lacking padding, meaning his weapon lodged itself right into the man's deltoid muscle.

Taking advantage of the Dai Li agents injury, Sokka quickly pulled himself from half-solid bricks and ran forth with his club now armed to knock the man out- despite the pain, the earthbender was able to motion a portion of the brick wall to swing toward him, barely hitting him but forcing Sokka to the ground- he expected to be incapacitated or worse by the agent, but he simply grimaced in pain and ran for the manor, leaving the entrance wide open for Sokka- he chuckled at the thought it had only taken him to beat the two gardeners himself to actually be able to get into the manor- plus the uppity nobleman who was lying nearby in a daze, although he hardly considered him a challenge. Getting back to his feet, Sokka saw that the agent had blocked the entrance to the manor with a sheer face of earth- annoying for a non-bender like himself, but Sokka withdrew one of the makeshift bombs he had made earlier that morning; he thought it wouldn't hurt him to test the weapon on an actual target. Sokka grabbed a bomb from his belt and ran himself up toward the sheer stone face, using his club to strike a hole into the wall- it wouldn't break through entirely, but he needed to lodge the bomb in if he wanted a chance of the wall itself collapsing. As he lit the bomb's cord with a pair of spark rocks, Sokka could make out a thundering sound from inside the building- Azula had decided to cut any pretence of stealth it seemed; Sokka raced away to the side of the manor to hide himself from the explosion- moments later dust filled the air as the entire stone wall exploded in all directions- Sokka grabbed his cloak and garbed it over his mouth to prevent breathing in what he assumed would be harmful dust. Sokka could make out a number of grunts and shouts before he saw a man running out of the dust right toward him- his eyes in shock and further fearful, coming to a halt at seeing Sokka, who bared both his boomerang and club in hand; the man shouted at him in frustration.

"You damn penguin-fucker!" the man mocked Sokka- any veil of what Sokka would expect of calm Dai Li agent was gone; Sokka dodged the man's quick attempts at attacking him with his rock gloves which flew past him.

Sokka looked back at him with slight offence, "Come on man- that's just mean." he non-seriously complained, throwing his boomerang at the man, only for the man to dodge it by sliding with earthbending, using the same motion to push the ground underneath Sokka upward- careening the warrior into the air.

Being flung into the air, Sokka couldn't do much but try and avoid ramming into something, blocking his head colliding with the room before falling back down onto the manor's floor flat on his face; he reeled in pain as his opponent practically ignored him, running out of the manor behind him. Glancing back in front of him Sokka spotted her figure standing in a field of flames surrounded by incapacitated Dai Li agents- Azula had already beaten up the cell of agents, bar the one that had just thrown him around; she paced into the entrance where Sokka's dazed and somewhat pained form was lying on the floor.

"Get your arse into gear savage!" she demanded of Sokka- kicking his boomerang across the floor into his hand, forcing him to acknowledged her with a grunt and a nod; Sokka pulled himself off the floor and try to shake off the dust that now covered his body- he glanced at her with slight frustration before deciding to keep on task- taking one of the Dai Li prisoner, he presumed.

The two companions raced toward the fleeing Dai Li agent who was barely able to run away from them at the moment- Sokka guessed Azula had already given him a roughing up; he smirked knowing that'd only make the interrogation easier. The agent was running across from the main road into an adjacent garden- they realised that the man's bending would make it a lot easier for him to hide, and Sokka adeptly threw his boomerang at the man before he could sink himself into the soil to practically dissipate out of thin air- the boomerang clipped the man's head and forced him to face-plant into the ground. The agent turned to face them with his rock gloves bared but was cut short by Azula jumping into the air and striking him with a barrage of flames that he could only roll around in the dirt to avoid being struck by the blue bolts of fire. Before any more movements could be made on anyone's behalf, Azula raised her hand to signal the fighting to stop, Sokka begrudgingly dropping his club which he was preparing to hit the man with.

"Now Sokka- we don't want to kill this man do we?" Azula somewhat rhetorically asked Sokka, who smirked at the man in a slight of somewhat sadistic humour.

"Well that'd be too unfair- what was it the Dai Li wanted to do with me? I guess it involved torture; it'd be only fitting to give them what they give to others." Sokka nonchalantly explained, cracking his knuckles audibly toward the agent, who remained on his back lying in the dirt nearly gasping in fear.

"I'd prefer to use this man for his information; I bet he knows a lot about his little organisation and all their little code-words." Azula told Sokka, although she was clearly directing the statement toward the Dai Li agent.

The man gulped in a slight of fear, looking at Azula's flame covered hand with suspicion- he probably had no idea whether Azula would actually be merciful or not, and Sokka assumed she wouldn't be for practicalities sake- no one could know they knew anything, otherwise the Dai Li might strike out preeminently against the Fire Nation.

The agent coughed before trying to look Azula in the face, "What do you want- Princess Azula?" he asked, her eyebrows raising his recognition of her title.

"Congratulations- you've recognised that I am the Crown Princess, heir to the Fire Lord." she jested at the man, as if to mock the intelligence of his organisation as a whole, before she looked at him with serious eyes, "Now, seeing that we're relatively short on time here- I want to know one thing and one thing only- who leads your organisation?" she asked him, his eyes opening in even greater fear- and this time it wasn't of Azula or her fire.

"Oh- you're afraid of what he'll do to you- if you give me the right name, he'll be dead and you won't have to worry about getting purged for snitching- if that of course, is what you're getting all tense about." she explained to the agent.

"You don't know him." the agent muttered back at Azula, who only could return a cold eyed response,

"You don't know me. I am going to find your master- if it takes me killing every one of your people in this city, so be it."

The man looked at her in a slight of shock- he was afraid more of her threats than any flame she could muster at this point, "L-Long Feng- Grand Secretariat of the Cultra-" his naming being cut off by Azula's hand to his mouth, almost as if to hush him.

"Now snitch- where is he?" she asked the agent.

He looked at her with a slight tilt to his head, "But you said only one question." making Azula chuckle at the man.

"Ah- an observant one- I'll let you live, only for you to spread the word- I am the law, and my justice- it'll come for you no matter how hard you hide." Azula threatened the man, before she was cut off by Sokka kicking him the head and knocking him out cold, making Azula reel in fright.

"You certainly do seem to have a propensity for kicking your enemies in the head." she commented on Sokka's behaviour- he only could turn to her and chuckle.

"It's making up for the beating you gave me on the ship- it was the most emasculating experience of my life." Sokka told her, making Azula genuinely laugh at him.

"Oh- you're still all caught up in the crisis of being bested by a woman of all things- here I'd thought you'd be worrying about betraying your people!" she mocked Sokka.

"That's a good one- but eh, the Dai Li attacked me first- this isn't what I'd call betrayal." Sokka admitted with a shrug of his shoulders, "Should we take this guy in for further questioning or were you being serious about letting him go?"

"We'll wait for his friends to wake up from their beating- when they realise what's happened, they'll go straight for their master, Long Feng- if we're lucky, we'll be able to catch the man in the act." Azula strategised, Sokka nodding back in agreement.

Sokka and Azula resigned themselves to walking back to the manor, somewhat tired from their short but intense battle with the Dai Li- hopefully they would provide them with the location of their enigmatic leader 'Grand Secretariat Long Feng'- from the way that the agent had described their leader, they could only wonder how such fear of his damnation could have come about- Sokka knew enough about the Dai Li now to know that they were a scary bunch of people- it wasn't being killed that they had to worry about, but being brainwashed into doing their dirty work- this only exacerbated the threat the Dai Li posed in their conspiracy- for all they knew, the entire Fire Nation high command of the city could be brainwashed stooges that would attack the pair at a moments notice.

The tint of green flames covered the office of the last remaining leader of the Earth Kingdom, as he liked to call himself; Long Feng was a prideful man, but he was not stupid- he knew of the Princesses arrival in the city, and assumed the worst- the Fire Lord had found that his soldiers had not captured the Dai Li when they attacked the city, and that the Grand Secretariat remained in power in the city, despite the Fire Nation military presence and the undeniable authority that had been vested into the new leadership. His authority might be behind closed doors and for the most part invisible to prying eyes, but the Dai Li had organised support- funding from the local elites, the support of a number of loyalists who desired to see the return of the Earth King- all Long Feng needed was the opportune time to strike; from what he had been hearing through the numerous channels of information he had at his disposal, that time was fast approaching- without need of any intervention of his own behalf.
Long Feng had set out two years prior at the passing of the comet that he would not be defeated by the Fire Nation and that his image of Ba Sing Se would prevail- if only the world knew what he did, of the carnage that was likely to unfold with the upcoming conflict between the Fire Lord and his banished son, all at the behest of his own rivals, the Order of the White Lotus. The Order had posed a threat to Long Feng's policies with their own desire to overthrow Fire Nation rule, but he doubted they would have much effect once he was able to show the Crown Princess and her supporters of the threat that lies in the city- by a slight distraction Long Feng would ensure he kept his head, not by cowardice- that was what lost any ruler his power and authority. A rumble could be heard behind him, and Long Feng immediately turned to see the stone wall drop with the revelation of young Dai Li agent dressed as a gardener looking at his leader with fearful eyes.

"Master Long Feng! The Crown Princess has compromised one of our safe-houses in the Upper Ring- I believe it is only a matter of time before she will find her way here to you- she is more dangerous than any bender I have ever seen." the agent explained in a flurry, his face flustered from the running he had done on his way to the Grand Secretariats hidden office.

"Well isn't that interesting- maybe we can take two with one stone, quite literally in this case." Long Feng smirked deviously at the agent, who looked on fearfully, "We simply enact the operation ahead of time- we have the numbers, don't we- and the Arrows- they're doing their part, are they not?" Long Feng asked the agent, who nodded in understanding.

"Yes sir- we are more than prepared to strike- only say the word and it will be done- I can have the men ready at a moments notice." the agent returned to form, his voice and tone stoic and calm, reassuring his leader of his capability, Long Feng nodding at him before glancing at him with slight disgust.

"Please put on your right uniform- we are the Dai Li- not a band of refugees." Long Feng remarked, the agent noticing his downtrodden attire and bowing.

"Of course Master Long Feng- will you accompany the men in our operation?" the agent asked his master, wanting to ascertain their plans.

"I will come when I am needed, I expect my men to be able to handle a few stupid and unprepared ash-makers." he replied simply, turning back to his desk and signalling the agent to leave with a motion of his hand.

As the wall moved back into it's expected position, Long Feng resigned himself to sit by his desk for the meantime- he knew that the Arrows- as they had dubbed them for their most deadly member- were a threat that they sought to use against the Fire Nation- if they knew of the Dai Li's underhanded takeover, they would likely oppose them and be an enemy all the same- by using them to incite revolt, they would prove themselves a valuable tool in defeating the local garrisons and ensuring that the Dai Li could reassert control in one foul swoop. He smirked at the thought of the Crown Princesses reaction when she realised that she had no idea about the massive crisis that was likely to unfold- if she was unfortunately lost in the fighting, that would prove itself to be an even more strategic attack- without the Crown Princess, the Fire Nation had no heir to the Fire Lord other than the banished and disgraced Prince, from which he had heard was stirring chaos in the heart of their empire- when the beast lost it's head, the Dai Li will have won the city with little resistance and they would be in a prime position to reap the rewards of a reinvigorated Earth Kingdom- Long Feng would not just be the ruler of the city of Ba Sing Se, he would command the entire nation to his will, shape it like any earthbender could a rock.

The midday sun gleamed over the courtyard of the palace- it was filled with the entire suite of the Princesses personal guard- they lined up in pairs throwing flames at each other to test their resistance, the Captain standing at the end of the two lines presiding over the training.

"Again!" he commanded, the men proceeding to follow their sets, throwing volleys of flames at each other, the guards all defensively blocking their opponents flames with their own.

"Take your strength from the sun, and direct it into your fire- I want to see you all show your inner flame!" he shouted at the men with some enthusiasm, his men raising their fists toward the sky and letting out beams of fire that looked akin to a Fire Festival act- their flames all paralleled into the air to form arches of fire.

"Good- now give me twenty!" he shouted back again, the men falling to the ground and beginning sets of push-ups, which he nodded to in approval- his men were more than eager in the days training session- with little for them to do in the palace, most of them found it more enjoyable than just lazing around.

The Captain glanced across the courtyard to see his Princess returning after what he assumed was an eventful morning- although she seemed to be perfectly content, her companion however seemed a little worse for wear with scrapes and bruises on his visible skin, as well as his attire being quite dirty- he momentarily exactly fit the titular expectations of a peasant, bringing a smirk to his face. Stepping away from the training session for a moment, he walked up to greet Princess Azula with a bow, not attempting to acknowledge her Water Tribe companion at all, much to his chagrin.

"Your Highness, I hope that you and the Water Tribesman had a productive morning." he begun, Azula curtly nodding while Sokka contorted his face into one of disgrace.

"I have a name you know." he grumbled, the Princess silencing him with a raise of her hand, much to the Captain's own enjoyment.

"To my approval Captain, we most certainly did- we have new intelligence that tells us without reasonable doubt who the leader of the Dai Li is- and from my friend here's tracking skills we were able to conclude to where their hideout likely lies." she explained, the Captain nodding at her before giving Sokka a slightly insincere smile.

"Good job... Sokka." he mumbled his name, the Water Tribesman raising his chin in approval of the slight amount of respect he had been afforded.

"See- I told you the hunting skills would come in handy." he told Azula, who rolled her eyes at Sokka, who she knew was getting slightly consumed by his own ego at the moment.

"Now, now- don't get too uppity, we still have work to do- but seeing that we're here now, I'll let you have your break." she told Sokka, who raised a fist in sign of victory.

"Yes! Fighting makes me real hungry!" he shouted in approval, racing toward the mess hall with quick feet, the Captain able to still make his rambled and clearly ecstatic shouting as he ran away from them.
The Captain turned back to the Princess with a raised eyebrow, "He really does like food, doesn't he?"

"Of course- he comes from a place where you are excited for every next meal- the South Pole sounds like a terrible place to live." Azula told him, the Captain chuckling in response before glancing at Azula with a more serious face.

"Sorry your highness- I should act more seriously while on duty." the Captain apologised before stepping closer to Azula, "What news do we have? How far deep does the stain run?" he asked her, his eyes cold and stoic, with Azula returning the same face.

"I would love to say that I knew exactly who was involved in the conspiracy, but I have no idea- you covered me and Sokka to the governor, did you not?" Azula asked him in realisation, knowing that the Captain would have had to pull a story out of his arse.

"That you were going on high-class shopping and Sokka was accompanying you to carry your purchases- I hope that suffices." he explained to her, Azula scratching her chin in thought before replying.

"Well other than a single nobleman Sokka beat up as a distraction- uh- I'm going to assume the Dai Li wouldn't dare leak information to the Governor themselves." Azula thought aloud, unsure if there had been any number of observers of the fight, although she herself was only on the scene visibly for a minute, Sokka was surely to have been noticed by people in the area- Azula considered that the that nobleman might cause more trouble than she might have initially anticipated.

"Send the messenger hawks- personally- I want you do it, no one else can know." Azula commanded him, the Captain bowing in understanding of the direness of their situation- one slip up and the entire force of the Dai Li and whatever backing they had would be upon them.

"How many divisions?" he simply asked, Azula looking at him with a slight of fear.

"Every single one that can be spared- we cannot afford the loss of this city- my father would be beyond disgraced if his greatest victory was effaced by a bunch of uppity earthbenders." she commanded before turning around to head to the palace- she had a lunch to attend, and she would be sorely missed by the sycophants and bureaucrats who nested within.

The Captain returned to face his troops, and conceded that he would have to let them off his strict regime temporarily, "Okay boys- you're getting let off easy today- I want you all to remember to get up tomorrow morning for our next session- sunrise- got it?"

The guards raised from their push-ups and stood in form, all simultaneously shouting "Yes sir!" before breaking formation, the Captain nodded at the expected respect before pacing himself away from the courtyard to the communications tower; it was a distinctively Fire Nation designed structure that reminded him of the bridge that they had on most Fire Navy ships- metallic, dark and sticking out like a sore spot in the elegance of the former Earth King's palace. Coming up to the buildings entrance he was greeted by the stationed guards, who raised their eyebrows in confusion of a Royal Guard showing up to the communications tower.

"Sorry sir- you know protocol, state your business." one of the guards explained to the Captain who rubbed his mask with frustration.

"I have a direct- and private message- to be sent to Fire Lord Ozai himself, if you want to talk protocol, I'm sure the Princess would happy to tell you about the authorities of rank and file." the Captain berated the guard, who nodded in slight fear, his inability to see the masked guards face making him all the more intimidating- and the knowledge that all members of the royal guard were powerful benders.

"Uh- yes, go right through sir." the guard replied with a quick and high pitched voice, standing back to his position to let the Captain open the door himself.

Entering the building, the Captain looked around for the papers that they had stored and pulled out as many scrolls as he could find, placing them down on one of the desks; the Captain assorted out a pen and some ink for his use, as well as the royal stamp of the Princess which he had on his person at all times- she required it for much of her bureaucratic duties and today was a day her supreme authority would come of great use to their task.

He sat down beside the desk and begun to write the same message out over and over again: "To whomever this concerns, a state of emergency has been declared in the city of Ba Sing Se, thus you are being directly commanded by the order of Crown Princess Azula that if your division's duties are nonessential that you are to send as many forces as possible to assist in the defence of the Fire Nation's rightful control of the city."

The Captain knew that his message might be lying partially- there was no official state of emergency, as one could only be declared by the governor or highest ranking military official while he is not present- the Princess could order people around, but she could not make this action herself- and if she tried to- the conspiracy would likely turn out of control- this preemptive action might at least prevent the Dai Li from assuming total control in the case that the Fire Nation garrison was defeated. He sent out each of the messages one by one to the mapped positions of each of the Fire Nation divisions located in the Eastern Earth Kingdom, most of them working on suppressing potential rebellions and garrisoning towns for the sake of tariffs and taxation- the second group could likely spare some men, at least in the Captain's eyes. After sending out each of the messages he returned to the door and acknowledged the guards- who looked at him with a slight grimace of fear, nodding anyway to assure him of their respect.

"Have a good afternoon sir." one of the guards acknowledged him, the Captain nodding back before walking his way back toward the barracks, where he hoped to get a short break before he was certain the Princess would give him a proper briefing after the Governor's lunch.

As he walked along the courtyard in the direction of the barracks he was passed by a squadron of firebending soldiers, whose attire resembled his own except for the slight ornateness that his title afforded his own appearance- he nodded at the men who acknowledged him momentarily before walking up into the central complex of the palace itself. The Captain soon arrived at the barracks, quickly opening the steel doors before making his way down the short walk to his room, where he thought he would have a moment to relax, only to have that dream quashed by the sight of Sokka sitting by his own bedside.

"Oh- it's you." the Captain grumbled at the sight of the Water Tribesman, Sokka shrugging his shoulders at the guard as he tended to his light injuries, "Enjoy your lunch?" he asked, trying to make a bit of small talk while he sat down on his own bed- he took off his helmet and bore his face to the Water Tribesman.

"Delicious- the cooks here are really good at making appetising meals." Sokka admitted with a grin, the Captain raising his eyebrow in acknowledgement.

"This is one of the most prestigious places in the city, you'd expect them to have only the best when it comes to cooking." he explained, Sokka shrugging once more.

"Better than eating whatever drivel they suffice for food down in the Lower Ring- this is coming from the 'savage' Water Tribesman, not the uppity Princess, I might add." he jested.

The Captain frowned at his casual attitude toward Princess Azula, "Excuse me- but you ought to treat the Princess with respect."

Sokka chuckled, "Hey man, whatever I say about her I would say to her face."

The Captain jested at him with a smirk, "Ah yes- the great virtue of the lesser peoples, unbridled honesty."

Sokka looked at the Captain with a slight of offence and confusion, "You say that like being honest is a bad thing- not being wholly truthful ought to ruin peoples lives- look at what it did to this city." Sokka admitted, before jutting his head sideways in thought, "Fire Nation people really like their 'grand master plan of world domination' don't they- thinking we all should bow down to their superior element."

The Captain chaffed at his claims, pointing at Sokka accusingly, "So what then- you think that your element is superior?" making Sokka spit and cough upon that statement, looking back up at the Captain with offence.

"I don't bend an element- bending has only brought suffering in my life- so honestly, the elements aren't my greatest concerns- protecting my people however, that is one." Sokka explained to him, the Captain slightly smirking.

"Bender envy? Did somebody hit you as kid or something?" the Captain jested at him, Sokka blushing in realisation of his accurate judgement- not that he would want to discuss his childhood with someone he considered a complete stranger and his enemy.

Suddenly a thumping noise could be heard from outside- the door slammed open and the two of them raised themselves from their besides in curiosity.

"What was that?" Sokka asked, the Captain looking at him with a face of confusion- he had no idea- and he was hopeful it was just that they were needed around for help and not something actually serious.

The door opened before them and a firebending guard stood before them both and stood firm, almost as if he was ready to fight them both.

He pulled out a scroll and begun to read, "By order of the Governor of Ba Sing Se- the honourable Chang Xue, you are both under arrest for the charge of conspiracy against the Fire Nation."

Sokka's mouth fell agape, "Wait- what the fuck?" turning to the Captain with a face of fear, who glanced at the soldier before them with suspicion.

"I am loyal to the Crown Princess to the death- you will not efface my honour with such claims of treachery." the Captain exclaimed, drawing flames into his hands before thrusting them right at the solider before them who deflected the flames with some struggle before taking a stance to bend at both of them.

"Well if that's how it's going..." Sokka trailed off, grabbing his boomerang and throwing it at the man's head, knocking him into the hallway with one foul swoop, all to the Captain's dismay.

"I had him." the Captain complained, Sokka smirking back at him with a sense of pride.

"Better luck next time!" he exclaimed, running out the door to face their enemies; the Captain was certain today wasn't going to be as relaxing as he had hoped.

Standing by the railing of a steel cargo vessel stood the banished Prince of the Fire Nation- he looked out on the city he hadn't seen in five years; rather than a feeling of nostalgia, Zuko had a feeling of pain and determination- everything that was good in his life had been taken from him- his mother, his home, his title, his honour- now he was not Prince Zuko- he was just some lanky teen working as a ship-hand, much to his own disdain. Zuko stood holding a mop in his hands Zuko pushed it along the deck as he continued to race thoughts through his mind- his Uncle had been working in the kitchens and hadn't been by his side for a few hours, leaving Zuko's thoughts to begin to overflow in his mind- he didn't even know what emotion to feel.

Zuko truly desired to return to his home and be restored to his rightful position, he truly wanted to be respected, he had to regain his title- he had once wanted to return with the Avatar, a proud and righteous victory against an enemy of the Fire Nation- but now he returned empty handed with only a desire to face his father- the man he had come to not just disdain, but look down upon. He didn't understand how his father had truly justified his actions on that day, but he knew that the Fire Lord had no intention of letting his son return home- he probably doubted the Avatar's existence at this point; Zuko wanted to return to something- to have something, and with truly nothing in his possession, he could only help but sigh- Prince Zuko was no more- he had died when his father burnt half his face off- he was replaced by someone different, and after his experience with Zhao, Zuko knew for certain he was not the same person that he was all those years ago.

He heard the first mate of the ship call out to stop all deck work, and Zuko returned to the brig with his mop and bucket, having spent the early hours of the day cleaning the deck; he hadn't enjoyed the boring and repetitive work, but Zuko knew it was a necessity- he and his uncle had paid for passage with their labours. Zuko walked down into the quarters where he and Uncle had stored their meagre supplies- mostly clothing and some small bits of food Piandao had given them for their relatively short journey to the capital; he gathered their belongings into bags and slung them over his shoulders before leaving what he would have described as their home for a few short days. Zuko returned to the deck where he saw his uncle waiting for them, holding a kettle and cup of tea in his hand, sipping it as he awaited his nephew; Iroh smiled at him with warm eyes, glad that their journey was finally coming to an end.

"Ah nephew- how was your mornings work?" he asked, Zuko shrugging his shoulders before glancing at the port that was quickly approaching.

"Boring- I hope you're ready to follow our plans- this requires, a little discretion." Zuko admitted to his Uncle, trying to keep his wording vague enough in public.

"Of course, I trust you to plan ahead- you're quite good at it, I might add." Iroh complimented his nephew, who looked away in a slight of embarrassment.

"U-uh yes- just follow my lead uncle." Zuko muttered, checking to see if the plank was being prepared- the crew shuffled around them in preparing to leave the ship- many of them would have to carry goods down into the port themselves, but a number of them would be going on break or leaving the ship's service, like the two disguised royals would be.

Zuko checked his appearance momentarily- he had drawn his phoenix tail hairstyle into half a top knot where his bangs fell out and covered much of his eyes, which was effective at masking his noticeable scar- not many people would bare such a striking wound, and the Prince himself was specifically known for his. His uncles disguise was a lot easier to achieve, his Uncle had simply dropped his bun into a braid and wore his beard longer than usual- he somehow looked less like a retired general and more like the wise old tea merchant persona he sought to achieve- although Zuko was starting to consider that the persona was more a reflection of his actual desired image. They walked down the gangplank following the other crew members, and nodded in respect to the first mate who thanked them for their services- they had played their part well; Iroh had enjoyed his work on the ship, though Zuko probably couldn't say the same about his. Walking along the seaside market that led into the Harbour City proper, Zuko noticed immediately that his Uncle had been looking at the numerous stalls and shops, much to his frustration.

Zuko walked up to his uncle standing around looking at baubles, slapping him on the shoulder, "Uncle! Stop bumbling around- you're procrastinating more than usual, and that's saying something."

Iroh smiled at him, "Well a man needs his rest- and he also needs to have some enjoyment." Zuko responding to his proverbial explanation with a face-palm.

"Urgh- we are here for a reason, and that isn't to fumble around in the market." Zuko explained to him, Iroh stroking his beard momentarily before conceding with a nod.

"You do have a point Pr-uh- my nephew." Iroh admitted, his nephews eyes opening wide at his uncle's close call- he had almost called him 'Prince Zuko' in public- he would usually love the deference, but at the moment Zuko was far too cautious in their relatively dire situation- if someone found their identities, it would be much harder for them to simply prance right into the palace undetected.

Moving on from the distracting trinkets of the market, Zuko and Iroh walked down through the expansive Royal Plaza to the through the relatively crowded streets of the Harbour City- although it was only early morning, the streets were packed with people heading to work and the likes- this made Zuko smile in realisation: he would find it a lot easier to blend in a crowd, making him acknowledge the challenge that awaited them.

Peering over to his uncle's shoulder, Zuko whispered "Uncle- how exactly are we going to get into the Caldera City? The guards will recognise you on the spot." Iroh returning him a thoughtful glance before scratching his chin.

"Hmm- you are right, we will need to take an alternate route- luckily I know all the ins-and-outs of the place- I lived there for a long-long time." Iroh reminisced in his reply, smiling at the reminder of what he saw in his own past at the palace- being father to his son Lu Ten, and then surrogate to his nephew before him- he didn't probably miss the place in the same way Zuko did, but he didn't think of it being too bad a place to call home.

"Okay- I guess you'd better lead the way." Zuko admitted, offering his uncle to walk in the lead, which he accepted with a nod and smile, as he had expected.

Zuko followed Iroh along through the cities streets, all the way to a rather densely packed neighbourhood away from the main thoroughfare that lead up to the Caldera City directly; they arrived at an edge of the city, which was bounded by two story tall stone walls. Iroh checked around the street they had come down, noting that there was no bystanders- the part of the city they had arrived in was probably only for housing, meaning that the street was quiet at the moment; the retired general used a swift firebending move to open a door in the wall, making Zuko's eyes open in shock.

"There's secret doors around the Harbour City? Don't you think it's a little dangerous having these around?" Zuko questioned his Uncle, who shrugged his shoulders in response.

"No one outside the Royal Family and our personal guards would have any knowledge of these doors- they're really only for emergency use- but right now they're a very effective way to hide ourselves from the peering authorities." Iroh explained as he walked through the door, obliging Zuko to follow him through.

Walking along a pathway that lead out from the walls, Zuko and Iroh made their way along the side of the caldera up to what Zuko assumed to be a stream, although the flow of water seemed to have dried up completely. Iroh pointed up along the stream toward the peaking rim of the caldera.

"This stream leads underground to an entrance of the palace- I assume that your father would have guards somewhere along it, so if you want the element of surprise, you must deal with them quietly." Iroh explained, Zuko nodding in response; he pulled out his water spirit mask, and showed it to his uncle.

"I can mask my identity with this- just in-case the guards get away- I don't want father to know that I'm trying to barge my way into the palace." he told Iroh, who nodded in agreement.

"That is a fair judgement- I assume you want to go now?" Iroh asked his nephew, well aware of his eager attitude.

Pulling his mask on, Zuko begun to pace up along the stream, keeping his eye ahead to make sure he could spot any guards that might be in the way; checking behind him, his uncle remained slow on his feet behind him, although he was understanding of the relatively intense slope they followed up the caldera's rim. Turning around a bend Zuko finally found what he was looking for- four Royal Guards stationed by what seemed to be the entrance of the tunnel system- the guards were probably stationed in case of this exact event, he wasn't unaware of his father's desire to plan around for any potential scenario. He nodded back to his Uncle, telling him to remain back while Zuko dealt with the guards.
He decided after a moment of consideration to climb up the side of an escarpment, as so to flank the guards when he decided to strike. Sneaking along the side of the escarpment, he noted the footing and awareness of the guards- he noted the one closest to him was focused on looking down the stream and not above him- making him a perfect target for 'the Blue Spirit'. Launching himself off of the escarpment, Zuko used his dual dao to incapacitate the unsuspecting guard, alerting the other three with the loud thumping of the guard hitting the ground.

"Intruder!" one of the guards shouted, the three men drawing flames and going into firebending stances, which to Zuko's luck, were one's he knew quite well.

Zuko muttered under his breath, "Thanks Uncle." knowing too well the old man's training sessions had afforded him wide knowledge of the common firebending forms that most firebenders would use.

The first strike came simultaneously from two of the guards, throwing two volleys of flames at him each, Zuko deflecting the flames simply with his dao before racing toward the closest guard- the third man threw a larger blast at Zuko, which he dodged by somersaulting in motion much to the man's distaste. The targeted guard realised that he was going be hit and took a defensive stance by raising a thin wall of flames to block Zuko's attack; he responded by dissipating the flames with his own bending, although he did it seamlessly in motion with his swords, as to disguise his own abilities. His sword's hilt pummelled the man in the jaw in an uppercut motion, before Zuko hit the guard down with his swords in a scissoring motion; the guard was flung onto the dirt and hit his head down on the ground hard- Zuko took him as down for the count and turned to face his two other opponents, who had drawn themselves into new stances. Facing his next opponents Zuko drew his swords to guard his torso as the guards threw volleys of fire at him, his swords deflecting the flames away from his body- he smirked under his mask as he raced toward the men who were defenceless from his swift motions; one of his dao spun into a guard's helmet, knocking him off his feet, while the other dao's hilt winded the other guard with a nigh invisible strike to the chest. Zuko heard one of the guards grumbling consciously, making him react by knocking the man's helmet again, this time with his fist, making the helmet audibly rattle as it struck the rocky surface they stood upon.

Zuko turned at the sound of a another guard awakening- the second guard he had struck down with an uppercut had regained some sense and was running up the path toward the entrance into the tunnel system- he was going to alert the other guards in the area with the horn, a basic response that Zuko would expect of any Fire Nation soldier guarding an important location. Zuko however was light on his feet, but not fast enough to make it to the man to strike him down- he just hoped that his next attack wouldn't compromise their entrance to the palace; he bent a powerful wave of flames to hit the man on the back of his thighs, setting them alike and forcing the guard to stagger to the ground as he flinched in pain- his face of shock upon realising that Zuko was a firebender made it all the more apparent the guard understood what was going on- the man started to shout back at him in fear and bewilderment.

"Y-you traitor! You will be damned by the spirits for your betrayal of our glorious nation!" he stammered, throwing volleys of flames at Zuko, who simply deflected them again with his swords- now with the guard aware of his bending abilities, he found it easier to return two slashes of flames through his swords that the guard could barely dodge still trying to get back on his feet, aching in pain from the attack Zuko had delivered.

Zuko raced up to the guard, preparing to knock him down with his blades drawn- the guard grabbed the horn and tried to blow it, but was cut short by the sword hilts hitting the man in the jaw once again, flinging the horn from his hands and knocking him back to the ground- before the man could stammer any more propaganda-filled hatred at him, he knocked him out with a sweeping kick to the side of his head. Turning back behind himself, Zuko glanced at the incapacitated guards, and smiled in relief; he coughed momentarily before calling out his companion.

"Uncle! The coast is clear!" he shouted, his stout uncle appearing from behind the rock-face with a face of relief.

"Zuko- you ought to be more careful when you try to fight- best not get overwhelmed and do things you'll regret." Iroh chastised him, Zuko scoffing in slight amusement.

"I made a calculated decision- either to bend at that guard or let him make the others aware of our presence- what's more dangerous?" Zuko questioned his Uncle's logic, who sighed and looked away from Zuko momentarily.

"I wasn't talking about the guards." he told him, Zuko gulping audibly in understanding- his Uncle did have a point- but there was no turning back now- he whatever ended up happening in that palace would be on his own accord.

Chapter Text

Gazing along the exceptionally long table upon which she sat, Crown Princess Azula of the Fire Nation saw the kinds of people she would expect to be the cronies of the Fire Nation's local governor- gruff and serious army officers, eloquent but pitiful noblemen and merchants and a spattering of women- mostly the wives or daughters of the given figures; the table wasn't quiet in any regard- there was chatter constantly, quiet murmurs and gossip, nothing that Azula cared much about herself. She was far more concerned with more pressing issues that she would rather not discuss publicly amongst the group she was currently stuck with; the governor perhaps, and many soldiers in this city, were in Azula's eyes potential conspirators, whether willingly or not, in a conspiracy against the Fire Nation, something she could not stand for, and to crush such ideas was her exact purpose in the city, not to be the Fire Lord's delegate to the 'impenetrable city'. Sitting next to her was the governor himself and his young wife- both of them were chatting away with the guests, talking about the latest fads from the homeland and colonies- the world seemed so distant to a place that was almost a world of its own; Azula considered the conversing to be friendly and lighthearted enough, not that she would concern herself with likes of small-talk, but she was soon forced into the conversation by the governor himself, who looked at him kindly with a few guests around him- it was as if the man wanted to show Azula off to the crowd- she wasn't surprised when he decided to chirpily ask her.

"Your highness- I'm sure the guests would love to her of your recent journey to Ba Sing Se- I know it was quite an interesting tale!" the governor asked of her indirectly, wanting her to recount her story for the sake of the guests interest- she had offhandedly told the governor some details, as much as she would trust a complete stranger with.

"Well- it might seem interesting, but it certainly was not- uh- fun, as they would say." Azula tried to explain- realising in the moment that her skill of speaking to people in a relatively casual way was not her forte- she was so used to commanding and mocking people that it was almost as if she couldn't speak to people nicely- not that she wanted to, but this was expected of her in the social situation she had found herself in.

"Of course- a shipwreck wouldn't be fun at all your highness- it would be horrific!" one of the guests exclaimed, his dramatic take on her few words making her chuckle.

"No- you are most certainly right," she begun to explain, trying to think of a suitable way to tell the story in the moment, "I was attacked by a small group of Water Tribe warriors- they destroyed the ship, and in the end I was separated from my loyal crew and forced to swim ashore."

One of the guests, this time a woman asked her curiously, "Ooh- is this where you met that Water Tribe savage?" she asked Azula, who sighed in response, with slight exaggeration on Azula's behalf.

"Ah yes- Sokka." she sighed his name, as if she was disgusted by his very being- this wasn't necessarily a lie, but she didn't have as much a distaste towards the Water Tribesman as she tried to play up- the people would be shocked if they knew the Princess actually was acquainted with a barbarian from the South Pole of all people.

"Your highness, heard he works for you now- how did you tame a savage?" one of the guests asked her, Azula chuckling at the man's question.

"Whether he likes it or not, he had to join me if he wanted to get home." she explained.

"My Princess, do mean that you'll let him run free when you're done with him?" another guest asked her, Azula looking at him with a shrug.

"Well- I must say- it depends, I have a lot of work that needs doing- if he proves his worth- he may earn himself a ship home- that all depends on his loyalty." she explained, eyeing the governor for a reaction when she said the last word- he didn't react at all.

"It's not like a Water Tribesman to swear allegiance the Fire Nation- you must have quite a compelling argument my Princess." the Governor commented, himself seemingly intrigued in Azula's description of events- which caught Azula by surprise.

"Well Governor- I am sure you would find I can give a compelling argu-" Azula begun to explain, being cut off by the sudden starkly loud sound of a horn.

"An emergency?" the Governor questioned momentarily, making the guests look in slight shock, Azula immediately standing from the her seat to check the room- the large hall was guarded by at least ten guards- and she didn't know exactly was happening- at the best it was a false alarm, and at the worst the Dai Li had already decided to strike the palace upon realising the Princesses knowledge- maybe they had intercepted the Captain- she was relying on whatever forces to arrive to quell any potential coup, but now she feared she had moved far too slowly with her strategies.

"I will not be outsmarted by braid-wearing arseholes..." the Princess grumbled, immediately noticing from the sound of the hall doors swinging open- a guard appeared at the door, serious and determined looking in appearance, he stood tall and shouted into the room.

"The Fire Lord has invited you to visit the Capital!" he shouted out, confusing the Princess immensely- she immediately assumed the words were code for something; she got her answer moments later when she heard utensils fall onto a plate- the Governor's eyes were open wide in shock, but they were soon turned to those of determination.

Looking directly at the Princess with a face she thought only the most cold man could muster, he proclaimed, "Arrest them all- they have committed treason against the Fire Nation!"

Azula's eyes opened wide in realisation, "So this was their plan huh- make you arrest me?" she questioned the Governor, who simply looked at her coldly- unintimidated by her threatening behaviour.

Drawing her fists bared with flames, Azula gnarled at the guards that begun to surround her- reminding her of her guards training formation that she herself- she smirked at the knowledge that the men she was facing were not elite firebenders like her guards, let alone masters of their art.

The lead guard made a forward motion with his arm and shouted out sternly, "Fire!" with his followers firing beams of fire at Azula in synchronisation- the bright orange flames flushed around her like water, but her own bending was able to keep the opposing flames at bay, although she wouldn't admit it was a struggle to take on so many firebenders as once- she considered that perhaps this was how earthbending soldiers felt when they had faced her people's armies.

Azula shouted out in frustration, "Stop it now you ingrates!" she commanded, her arms swinging out- directing the flames that had been surrounding her into the circle of guards, knocking a number of them off their feet; she smirked in approval of her show of force, before she decided to make a more intimidating action- glaring at the Governor, she simply replied to his claims, "It is you who is the traitor- and you have already paid the price."

The Governor didn't react to her statement, simply drawing himself into a bending position to face her- Azula scoffed at him before spinning her forearms to generate sparks- moments later the room was filled with the blinding light of Azula's lightning striking the Governor right into the chest, flinging him well away across the room. The guards that Azula had temporarily knocked back were back in form and Azula swung her fist around herself in a circular motion to bend a spiral of flames away from her, to ward off the guards while she continued to strategise; she noticed the lunch guests looking on in fear as they themselves were surrounded by a few guards- she threw a volley of flames at the guards around the guests- shouting back at the frightened few who had no idea what was actually going on.

"Get out of here! I command you!" she almost screamed at them- she desired to avoid collateral damage or unnecessary hostages- getting the guests out of the palace would ensure the guards wouldn't focus on them- only on her, the real target of the Dai Li's plot; turning to the guards once more, Azula moved into a defensive stance and prepared to burn her enemies until they stopped squirming to fight her- whatever the Dai Li had done to their minds, she knew certainly these men were unwilling to stop fighting even in the worst odds.

Azula bent her distinctive blue flames into a ball between her hands- she immediately considered what were other firebenders weren't good at combating and came to the conclusion that they couldn't reasonably defend themselves from an explosion. She charged the ball of flames until it couldn't be contained in her hands, Azula smirked as her opponents threw a volley of flames at her; launching herself into the air, Azula sent the fireball into the ground below her, causing the flames to arch out across the floor underneath her, Azula's body flying upward into the air as the guards looked in shock and fear as her blue flames begun to swallow the room. Azula realised at that her flames had begun to set the carpets and furnishings in the room alight- she smirked in devious delight as her opponents raced away from her fire; she decidedly mocked the Dai Li, who she assumed to be listening to her every word.

Her voice cackled over the roaring blue flames, "O Long Feng- I'm going to find you!"

Heaving his chest in exhaustion, Sokka lowered his club to the ground, acknowledging the incapacitated bodies surrounded him and his unlikely ally- the Captain of Azula's guard, standing with his fists drawn, flames dissipating from his hands as he realised their duel with the enemy was over. Looking at the Captain with a face of relief, he raised his eyebrow to consider their circumstances; he was certainly unsure of what was actually going on- if these soldiers were in league with the Dai Li, he assumed that he, Azula and all of her guards and servants would be under threat of capture or worse by whoever they had in their pocket.

"So Captain- do you have any better idea than I do with what's going on here?" he questioned, the Captain shrugging his shoulders and glancing at the soldiers bodies.

"I- uh- I'm unsure- I don't think the Fire Lord would order the capture of his own daughters guard- so this all obviously came from the Governor- probably something to do with the Dai Li, unless the man's really just an idiot who thinks he can beat the Crown Princess." he thought aloud, Sokka chuckling at his final statement.

"Yeah- I'd be going with the first one- no one in their right mind would attack Azula without reasonable backing." Sokka concluded.

"Assuming this is the Dai Li- they would want us dealt with, even if they had to do it themselves- meaning they're probably coming for us right now." he explained, Sokka nodding along in agreement.

"So what are we doing- Mister Captain?" Sokka questioned him, the Captain frowning at him before replying.

"You know that's not my name right- but that's beside the point, the others are preoccupied with this mutiny as it is, so we have to help Azula, in whichever way we can." he responded, Sokka raising his club back up as if preparing to fight.

"There's no time like the present- plus I'd rather fight the Dai Li with her rather than without." he explained before beginning to run as fast as he could towards the central hall of the palace, knowing that was where the Governor's lunch likely was occurring and with that the Princess herself; the Captain grumbled momentarily before following Sokka with as much haste as he could garner.

They raced as fast as they could up the long stairs into the palace hall itself- the building was massive, and they had no idea how many guards were inside, and of those who was hostile. As they reached the top of the staircase they came running into another group- well-dressed and somewhat shaken Fire Nation citizens who Sokka assumed to be the guests at the party itself; the group looked at Sokka and the Captain with realisation of their identities, Sokka's blue and white clothing marking him out as the rumoured Water Tribesman.

"It's you! Are you going to help the Princess?" one of the guests asked him- although it was directly at the Sokka, both he and the Captain nodded in response to the question.

"Is her highness safe?" the Captain asked them; one of the guest made himself noticed by pointing down into the palace's hall.

"She was fighting some of the guards- they suddenly turned on her, it all went so fast." the guest exclaimed, Sokka nodding in understanding.

"The brainwashing- I knew it." he glanced to the Captain with a smirk, who rolled his eyes but nodded at Sokka before ushering him to keep moving.

"Citizens- go to the barracks over there" he pointed out their barracks where he knew his men to still be protecting defensively against the mutineers "my men are there and will protect you for the meantime- it would not be safe to try and make it back out to the city." the Captain quickly ordered the guests, who nodded responsively at him before rushing away down the stairs- they didn't understand the whole crisis so Sokka guessed that made them far more scared than Sokka and the Captain had been.

Before they could even take another step, suddenly whirring sounds flashed through the air, instinctively making Sokka somersault away from the noise, which revealed itself to a pair of rock gloves, ready to hit and grab a potential captive; he raised his head and glared at those above him- Dai Li agents disguised as Fire Nation soldiers- all clawing themselves to the top of the pillars outside the palace, obviously waiting for the Princess or her followers to walk straight into their trap. Before the Captain could even react to the attack, Sokka had thrown his boomerang straight at their opponents, the one he aimed at simply jumped to the next pillar, making him grumble in frustration as another set of rock gloves flew at him, this time barely missing Sokka's waist; his boomerang returning to his hand, he immediately realised he'd need another tactic to defeat such agile earthbenders, realising at that moment that his belt still carried a number of small bags of explosive powder.

Sokka turned to the Captain and pointed up at the Dai Li agents, holding one of his makeshift explosives in his hand, "I'm going to throw this at them- when it gets close, I need to to set it on fire- and quick." he simply told him, the Captain nodding before Sokka threw one at one of the Dai Li behind him.

Sokka's bomb flew as high as he could throw it, and his accuracy wasn't too bad for his first attempt at using a projectile that wasn't a boomerang or snowball; just as the Dai Li agent was about to move in response to the bomb's trajectory, the Captain's firebending lashed out a single flash of flames that struck the bag- causing a flash and explosion that nearly both blinded and deafened Sokka himself- even with his ears ringing, he could only smirk as the Dai Li agent fell to the ground, his fall cushioned by one of his comrades swift bending moves. Using the distraction of the bomb, Sokka threw his boomerang at one of the Dai Li agents while the Captain faced the other side, throwing a volley of powerful fire blasts at the agents; Sokka's boomerang struck one of the agents, who was forced to fall down from his pillar, while the Captain forced the Dai Li to start using earth to block his attacks, preventing them from effectively striking him down.

Seeing the agent that had fallen down was injured, Sokka decided to break from his guarded position with the Captain, racing up toward the agent with his bone knife and club armed; the agent thrust out an arm, sending a rock glove at the Water Tribe warrior, who simply dodged the attack with a quick sidestep- he threw his knife at the agent, who without his glove, instinctively blocked with his forearm, the bone dagger lodging itself into his arm, making the agent grunt audibly in pain.

"Now you're mine." Sokka smirked, raising his club to strike the agent, who responded with a quick raising of the earth below them, hitting Sokka's right arm and disarming him of his club- luckily for Sokka, the agent's skill with close-combat was lacking and he was unable to stop Sokka subsequently tackling him with his entire body weight.

In a last ditch effort the agent tried to use the earth around them to strike the Water Tribesman, but he was stopped by Sokka when he ripped his bone dagger out of the man's hand, making him flinch in pain, blood oozing from his forearm as Sokka moved the dagger to the agent's throat, making him stop all movement- the agent had no time to argue as he grabbed the man's head and forcefully thrust it into the ground, knocking him out cold despite the Fire Nation helmet the agent was wearing.
Turning back Sokka glanced at the Captain's own progress, he was successfully countering the Dai Li's attempts at striking him with their gloves, and had successfully struck the last agent to the ground- now all the agents were either on the ground- incapacitated or not. Sokka grabbed his discarded boomerang before he raced forward to rejoin the captain in defending from the Dai Li agent's attacks- they threw a number of portions that of the pillars that surrounded them toward the two of them, the Captain jumping to the side while Sokka ducked under a stone block as it flew toward him.

Returning to the Captain's side, he withdrew another bomb from his belt, the Captain acknowledging it with a nod; looking at their opponents, which now consisted of two conscious agents, he bet his attack would do the most damage right between them. Sokka threw it in that direction, although he vaulted the bomb as a distraction, ensuring the Dai Li would take attention to the new dangerous weapon he had fielded; his other hand wielded his boomerang, which he threw at one of the agents, catching him off guard and forcing him to block, leaving only one agent to potentially deflect the bomb- which he was unable to do when the Captain struck the agent square in the gut with a jab of flames. The agents looked on in horror as the Captain threw a blast of flames at the midair explosive, which blew up right above the two men- the bright light of the explosion temporarily masking its effects, but Sokka soon saw that the two guards lay incapacitated on the ground, burns across their bared skin and clothing, which to their luck was flame-proof, but the intense heat would have seared their flesh nonetheless. Sokka turned to the Captain with a smirk, although it was not of the mocking kind as per usual.

"We did it- we beat the shit of those rock tossing arseholes." he proclaimed, the Captain patting Sokka on the shoulder in a short moment of camaraderie before he turned to the long hall that led into the palace.

"She needs our help- even if she would deny it to the end of her days." he told Sokka, who simply nodded in agreement and followed the Fire Nation royal guard as he jogged as fast as his legs could let him- he was more than eager to serve the Princess and do his duty, the Dai Li was a side-show to his actual purpose- defending the Princess from all harm that may come her way.

The former throne room of the Earth King was coloured a bright blue by her flames encompassing the floor- the ornate carpets and dressings the Governor had brought from the Fire Nation, as to mask the original purpose of the room, now set aflame- something that Azula found somewhat amusing- the fire was cleansing away the lies and revealing the truth behind them, a conspiracy against her nation- in consequence, an effacement of her own families honour which was something she would not stand for. Her enemies- the traitorous governor and his cronies- tried their best to ward the flames away, stop them from encroaching the entire room, but it was of little use; she would make the room burn until all before her would kneel or die in the flames- Azula had declared her fatal intent with her smirk and mocking laughter at her enemies. Soon enough she felt the motion and pattering of steps in the ground around her- although the flames blinded her sight, Azula knew exactly what was coming from behind them- she skilfully dodged a rock glove before spinning and kicking a barrage of flames back at the suspect Dai Li agent, whose scream she heard as the flames tore across the room at near lightning speed. Azula soon noticed that the material that her fire was feeding on had begun to be completely destroyed, meaning that her blue flames dissipated around her- revealing that the Fire Nation soldiers fled, but just as easily replaced by a large number of Dai Li agents, making Azula smirk.

"I see you got my memo- good, now we can settle this." she proclaimed, the agents dead silent as they swiftly moved into form to attack her.

Azula acknowledged at that moment the fact she was standing on a stone floor would make it far easier for her enemies to hold her down, so she tactfully shot herself into the air with four blasts of fire from each of her limbs; the Dai Li looked up at her and simultaneously fired out their rock gloves at the levitated Princess, who sent out a wave of flames from all her extremities, to hopefully deflect the earthbenders combined attack- the rock gloves flew up toward the Princess, missing her only due to her defensive attack actually sent her higher into the air than they had expected, before she was forced to fall back toward the floor of the room. Azula dampened her fall with fire from her feet, but soon realised, even without the use of their gloves at hand, the agents were surely to be more powerful than her bending alone; the Dai Li moved into a different form once more, sending an earthbending wave through the ground to strike her and capture her in stone, Azula precipitated this attack by jumping once more, although this time she tried to move herself forward toward the main door into the hall- if she could get out of the throne room, Azula believed she would far a lot better against the Dai Li's pincer attacks. As she landed from her jump Azula suddenly heard a whirring noise coming toward her and instinctively ducked, but then realised after that she wasn't the target- Sokka's boomerang struck a Dai Li agent in the back of the head.

"Aha! Water Tribe style!" Sokka shouted out from a distance, Azula able to spot him standing with the Captain, both ready to fight the numerous agents in the room; the two of them moved into battle positions and acknowledged Azula momentarily, preparing to fight their way through the entire Dai Li- confidence and loyalty that Azula could respect but found somewhat unsettling, Sokka wasn't the type to simply willingly follow her into battle just because she would want him to- it was of his own volition to come to this fight.

At acknowledgement of the new arrivals, half of the agents turned to face Sokka and the Captain, while the rest looked onto her with their weapons prepared- from what Azula could see they were chains- she assumed they would be used to restrain her, something she wouldn't let happen while she had at least half a brain. Throwing out the chains to grab her, Azula dodged the first attempt with a drop and slide, from which motion she sent a kick of flames toward some of the agents, before returning to her feet to face their next attack; the agents sent their gloves at Azula again making her smirk in realising that they had used their second hands- meaning she was one step closer to disarming them all. She raced forward, cutting the stones apart with a sharp cut of blue flames before sending a volley of flames at the agents in front of her, forcing them to back down from sending their chains at her again; the other agents sent their chains forth again, one of them snaring Azula's right leg, forcing her to the ground and making her ankle wince in pain- the thought of having to deal with another ankle injury was enough to infuriate the Princess. She sent out a bellow of bright blue flames from her mouth, her hands joining in sending out beams of fire and as she ripped her arms downward she struck the agents as well as snapping the chain that had snagged her. Azula heaved her chest from the pure power of her display, glaring out at the agents, who closed in toward her preparing to strike again; momentarily she glanced over to see if the Captain and Sokka were having any better luck- given the circumstances she was at least relieved to know they were holding their own against the elite earthbenders.

Turning back to the Dai Li agents Azula shouted at them with frustration, "You will bow before me, you degenerates!" her tone not dissuading the agents from moving closer, which she responded to by setting her forearms alight with blue flames- she would not have her honour disgraced by being defeated by an inferior element.

As one of the agents used their chains to grab her, Azula decided to jump into the attack, snagging the chain on her left arm, tugging it harshly to draw the agent closer to her- he looked in undeniable fear as the Princess drew her flame covered fist to his face, knocking him down with such force that it broke the chain he had tried to capture her with; looking at her fists with near delight she smirked at the now shaken agents.

"You will burn." she simply stated, sending out waves of flames to disorient the Dai Li agents, who sent their chains back toward the Princess in an attempt to stop her barrage, none of which could make it past her waves of blue fire.

One of the agents that was closer to Azula raced toward her, attempting to strike her with conventional earthbending, but before he could even land a hit, Azula drew lightning from her finger tips and struck him in the shoulder, flinging him across the floor. Another agent appeared from behind her, with his stone gloves bared, and sent them at Azula, who tactfully ducked the weapons and dropping her flames at the same time- the gloves incidentally struck another unsuspecting Dai Li agent across from Azula right in the head- knocking him out cold. She smirked at the agent, who looked on with a face of regret as she kicked him down with a foot of flames- another down for the count; the remaining Dai Li agents formed a semi-circle at struck out their chains again, Azula simply jumping above them before volleying the agents with another barrage of blue flames. The barrage was strong enough that the agents were forced to stagger back, giving Azula the opportunity to knock them all to the ground with a massive wave of fire that she conjured with some effort- it pushed the agents away from her, allowing Azula to prepare to strike any of them stupid enough to walk forward.

"Anyone else?" she questioned the agents mockingly, before being cut off by rock gloves grabbing her feet and forcing her to the ground in shock.

The Crown Princess winced in pain as she hit the floor, immediately glancing back behind her to see her opponent. Before her Azula saw a man wearing ornate black robes with gold trimmings, his ponytail distinguishing him as a member of the Dai Li.

"Long Feng I presume?" she asked him casually, the man smirking at her holding a chain like the other agents.

"The very same, Princess Azula." he affirmed, sending out the chain with the motion of his hand, which Azula barely dodged by rolling to the side, her legs constricted by the rock gloves.

Quickly realising her immediate disadvantage, Azula shattered the rock gloves on her feet with a fist of flames, before she could bring herself back to a more formidable stance; Long Feng seemingly ordered the agents behind her to back off, as if to try and show his own forte against the Princess- a mistake in Azula's eyes- the man obviously was in his position of power not from his earthbending skills but his tact and strategy- his bending prowess couldn't be any better than the next Dai Li agent. Long Feng struck out his fists, sending pillars of stone flying out at Azula, who dodged one and kicked the other with a blast of flames, shattering the rock instantaneously; Azula used her moment in the air to send out an accurate strike of fire at Long Feng- hitting him right in the hand, preventing him from bending with it effectively. Her agile footing was of little use when he grabbed her feet through the stone ground- her feet were dragged down and in the swift motion Azula hit the ground hard- close to knocking her out at the moment; she used her left hand to send another concise flame at Long Feng, this time hitting his own feet, actually setting his robe alight, bringing a smirk to the downed Princesses face. Given the distraction of his robes being on fire, Azula was able to break her feet from the hold he had taken to her feet quite easily- earthbent material was exceptionally brittle when no one was holding it together; she stood up defiantly and drew her hands out to motion balls of fire- she considered lightning for a moment, but Azula knew well enough that Long Feng was better to her alive than a smouldering corpse. The Grand Secretariat sent out a wave of destruction through the floor, unable to accurately bend while dealing with his robes burning- which he tried to stop smouldering to some success; Azula responded simply by jumping over his attack, throwing flames at him- he raised a wall of stone, making Azula chuckle at him- she didn't think of earthbenders as the defensive cowardly types- she attributed that to the man's personality rather than any flaw in his people as a whole.

"You're the scared one- is that why they chose you, too paranoid to be out-strategised?" she mocked him as she sent blast after blast of flames at his stone wall, finally eroding its strength to the point at which Long Feng had to retaliate somehow; Azula was too slow to react to two portions of the wall flying out toward her, Azula dodging one but being hit in the torso with another- her armour blocked much of the potential injury, but it made her gasp in pain as she was tossed away from Long Feng.

Azula at the moment acknowledged as she fell to the ground with a sense of exhaustion that she might not be able to fight on indefinitely, so she would rather strategise than let him stop her without a choice. The Grand Secretariat walked towards her slowly, a smirk growing as he unsheathed his chain- it grasped her ankle and forced Azula to face him with a punch of flames; Long Feng dodged her attack before using his bending to hold her down- the stone below her grasping onto the edges of her plate armour. He mockingly laughed looking at Azula, who instead of needlessly fighting back looked at him with derisive contempt.

"You have made a mistake." she told him, Long Feng raising his hand to tighten the rock holding her bound.

He dismissed her claim with a chuckle, "What would that be- not getting rid of you earlier?"

Azula tried to shrug, a challenge in her constrained position, but rolled her eyes exaggeratedly at him,

"No- you simply considered me- the Crown Princess, prodigy firebender and master strategist- the only threat in the room."

Long Feng laughed at her claims, glancing over to see the Water Tribesman and the Princesses' personal guard fighting the Dai Li to a standstill, but in no way able to assist her practically.

"What- do you think the governor's brainwashing going to suddenly stop and he'll rush in and save you?" he asked her, mocking her claims of superiority, either numerical or analytical; he tensed his bending momentarily, signalling his other men to disperse- their job was done as long as they had the Princess in captivity.

Suddenly however, Long Feng heard a battle cry- Azula glanced as far rightward as she could to see that Sokka had broken through the Dai Li lines and was ready to fight Long Feng- an action she would personally not recommend, although she was in no position to stop his berserk behaviour. Sokka threw his boomerang at Long Feng, the weapon arcing past the Grand Secretariat and Azula- making the master earthbender mockingly chuckle before raising a stone wall to stop him from threatening his imprisonment of Azula any further. Azula looked Long Feng dead in the eye, and smirked without a word, making Long Feng raise an eyebrow suspiciously; he was interrupted by a hammering to his nape, forcing him out of his stance and flinging him to the ground, causing him to grunt in pain as he hit the stone tiles hard.

He grumbled almost inaudibly at the situation, "This is why- urgh- we had carpets." before turning to notice that Sokka's boomerang had curved around and hit him right in the neck- Long Feng now considered perhaps that the Water Tribesman was more dangerous than he had presumed.

He turned to face the stone wall he had raised, immediately noticing that the Water Tribesman was whacking away at the sheer surface- to some success actually- his club was causing the wall to crack as Long Feng sighed with disappointment. Raising his fist to try and push the wall back, as to stop Sokka in his tracks, Long Feng made a shocking discovery- his bending wasn't actually working- his attempts only made a feeble grunt in the stone- turning back to his captive, the Crown Princess, he asked her with confusion.

"What did he do to me?" he asked- unsure of what had actually just transpired.

"Chi-blocking, although I doubt that was intentional- good luck keeping me here now." Azula told him, her smirk growing as she started to heat up the tiles around her with her bending- flames beginning to seep through the natural cracks in the makeshift bonds that Long Feng had placed on her.

Long Feng grumbled, and decided he best get away at that moment- his prize was going to escape and if she did, she would hunt him down like a rabid dog; he saw part of the stone wall he had raised collapse into rubble and dust, and Long Feng picked up his pace realising that the snow barbarian would be upon him. Suddenly he heard the Princesses mocking voice, although the statement wasn't directed at him.

"He can't bend- go get him dog!" she commanded, Sokka smirking in devious delight- he would finally get to beat down on the Dai Li leader he was so eager to meet- for this specific reason of course.
Racing after Long Feng, Sokka picked up his boomerang and threw it at the Grand Secretariat once more- knowing his bending was disabled made his job a whole lot easier; the boomerang flew at his ankles, clipping them and forcing him to the ground. Long Feng grunted in anger, begun to clamour back up to his feet, hearing Sokka's voice cheerfully mocking him.

"Oh no you don't- we have a date Mr. Feng!" he joked at him, before pouncing at Long Feng- whose lack of bending made in unable to respond to the leaping attack that forced the two of them to the floor.

Long Feng disgruntled with his situation, turned to his back and threw his fist at Sokka, striking him square in the side of the face, although to little effect; Sokka pulled a savage grin at the near defenceless man, before throwing his own fist right into the middle of his opponents face, breaking his nose with a clear snap- Long Feng barely muffled his scream of pain from the injury. In a knee-jerk reaction Long Feng kicked upward into Sokka's gut, flinging the Water Tribesman off him momentarily; Sokka grumbled in frustration, withdrawing his bone dagger before jumping back at the Grand Secretariat.

"Stay still will you- I've got to take some blood out of this." Sokka joked at him while he threw his hands onto Long Feng's shoulders, headbutting him before pushing him back onto the ground; before Long Feng could even try and punch Sokka, his bone dagger hammered dead-centre into his right palm, making a cracking noise as the bone dagger struck the tile surface underneath.

"Argh- you barbarian!" he nearly squealed- the pain overcoming his restrain; Sokka shrugged at Long Feng before beginning to punch him again- whacking his face until it was most certainly bruising a dark purple.

Soon enough Azula walked up from behind them and grumbled at Sokka, "You can stop beating the fool- he's better to us alive, no matter how much I'd personally like to see the snake burn." making Sokka turn back to her and shrug.

"Eh- if that's fine by you- I'd rather not get any more blood on my hands." Sokka admitted, standing above Long Feng, who by that point was regaining some sense of feeling to his face.

"Well- you better speel your information- that's all you are alive for." Azula told the man before kicking him in the head with a flame-powered kick, finally sending him unconscious; Azula turned back to her companion and raised an eyebrow at him, "Stabbing hands- getting blood- you're more violent than ever, and here I was thinking you were the honour-bound type."

Sokka looked at Azula with frustration and grumbled, "Well that arsehole deserved it- and I enjoy serving justice- it's my favourite pastime after eating and fighting." his comments making Azula laugh at him with a smile- he surely knew how to turn the situation around, even in the worst of times.

The flames of the Fire Lord's throne room masked the area beyond the throne from the eyes of the Fire Lord himself- he usually wouldn't be seated on his throne- but he was expecting detailed reports on the purported sightings of his exiled and traitorous son- Ozai was sure that he must remain in his throne before his subjects, as to assure them of his unrelenting authority and distance from the common man. At that moment he heard the door opening into the throne room, glints of light appearing in the distance and a silhouette with them- as the figure approached, the Fire Lord recognised the individual as one of the Palace's guards- not his personal guard, but that assigned to the various nooks and crannies of the massive palace that would need protecting in case of a potential assassin or other kinds of unwanted presences.

The figure bowed before him and respected him with an introduction, "Your majesty, I have information- I have received word of sightings of the banished prince in the Harbour City."

Ozai raised an eyebrow, although he was certain the guard couldn't see his facial expressions, "Soldier- are you sure that these sightings are accurate?" he questioned the informants information, the guard raising his head to look the Fire Lord directly in the face- although he couldn't see it through the flames.

"I am certain." the guard told him, a distinctive rasp coming from the man's voice made Ozai think momentarily, before chuckling in realisation.

"Stop with the charades- I know it is you." Ozai commanded, unwilling to speak his son's name- the guard responded by standing up and taking the helmet off his head, revealing Zuko's face, although in Ozai's eyes he was barely recognisable.

His son's features were sharper and his left side of his face actually uncannily resembled the Fire Lord's own- his right side was covered with the marking that Ozai had given him for his act of disrespect- a mark of a weakling and unfit prince, he thought at that moment.

"So you've finally returned- but I see no Avatar, were my directions unclear?" Ozai mocked his son, who almost scoffed at his claim.

"The Avatar doesn't matter- what matters is justice, father." Zuko proclaimed, his face stern and cold looking into his father's eyes.

Ozai chuckled at Zuko, "What justice- do you want to save your poor little soldiers who died for the glory of our nation? Their honourable deaths are more respectable that your dishonourable weakness could ever be." mocking his character with a sadistic smile- but he got no argument from Zuko, who simply drew off the armour that he was wearing over his torso.

"You do not understand father-" Zuko smirked, replicating his own father's face to a fault, "you are the one who is weak- you cannot even claim you have ever fought for anyone beside yourself."

"Then what are you doing here- fighting for yourself little prince?" his father mocked him, standing from the golden throne he had been sitting upon.

"No- you are going to see the truth- I am your reckoning father." Zuko bluntly replied, taking off his shirt to reveal that he was wearing the traditional metal bands around his arms as would be expected in an Agni Kai.

"Reckoning, boy? I will reckon your fate, you fool." Ozai proclaimed, the flames of his throne falling before him, revealing his large and imposing frame to his son, just like he had when he duelled him the first time- Zuko's face was the opposite of his face when the Fire Lord had proved his weakness- he was cold, determined and more than anything, a reflective mirror of Ozai's own unbridled pride and confidence.

Zuko immediately drew himself into a defensive stance, holding his hands forward, ready to send out flames at any moment- Ozai smirked at his son before raising his head toward the roof, breathing out a beam of fire, doing the same with his two fists- Ozai truly desired to prove his son's weakness for a second time- he knew now that he had been far to lenient the first time. Ozai directed his beams of fire at Zuko, who redirected the flames away from himself onto the ground, making Zuko's smirk of confidence grow larger; knowing that his father's show of power was over, Zuko drew flames onto his forearms and held them in form to prepare to strike- making Ozai send short beams of fire at Zuko in immediate response. The younger firebender stepped back and dodged each of the beams of fire, completely nullifying the last beam with his own fist- bending his father's fire into nothing, making his father contort into one of frustration; Fire Lord Ozai would not have his superior bending effaced by an amateur, no matter his bloodline. Ozai begun to shoot blasts of flames in succession with his hands at his son, who simply dodged or deflected each blast with his own bending; Zuko raised a wall of flames and sent them toward Ozai in an attempt to stop his barrage, but the Fire Lord simply dispersed Zuko's flames with a smirk.

"Weak- you're always weak." he mocked his son, throwing another barrage of flames at his son, who dodged the blasts by jumping upward, making a kick of fire toward his father, who dodged the attack and sent his own wave at Zuko, who cut through the wave with a powerful kick, staring down his father once more.

"I am not weak- I am strong!" Zuko shouted at Ozai, making an exposition of his own power with three beams of fire, one from each of his hands and another from his mouth toward his father, who blocked the tripartite blast with a concentrated beam of fire, which then blasted through Zuko's own attack- striking his son in the chest and forcing him to back down to a more defensive stance.

Upon seeing Zuko finally be burned, Ozai proclaimed to his son, "You have always been so foolish." before throwing a powerful blast of fire at his son, which he was able to deflect into two halves, standing between the divided flames unfazed.

Ozai contorted his face into one of indomitable rage, and threw another blast at Zuko, who redirected the flames around himself and set the ground around him on fire- the dissipating flames illuminating Zuko's face of confidence; Ozai threw another barrage at Zuko, which he blocked with slices of flames from his fists before sending a wall of flames at his father. Ozai angrily blasted away the wall of fire, it's flames dispersing throughout the throne room, lighting the normally dark and shrouded place to as if it was in the midday sun; Ozai heaved his chest after his attack and stared down his son with piercing eyes.

He could not believe his son's hubris before him- Ozai proclaimed with a bellowing voice, "I- I am the Fire Lord- the master of the superior element!"

"Prove it." Zuko chided his father, making Ozai accept the situation for what it was- Zuko needed to learn his place- he spun his arms forward clockwise, drawing up sparks momentarily before sending a lightning bolt straight at his son, which he made no attempt to dodge, not that he could given the rapid firing of his attack; Zuko was hit with the lightning, which begun to pulse through his body- Ozai wanted to scream at his rebellious child upon realising that the lightning wasn't harming Zuko, but was unable to feel anything but regret when he realised his own lightning was being fired right back at him.

Chapter Text

Standing inside a metal box of sorts wouldn't usually make Sokka feel safe- it would make him feel trapped- but his specific context of being in a prison cell with an earthbender made him feel warm inside; the Water Tribesman could rest easy knowing that their captive wouldn't simply bend himself out of the prison cell; he stood next to Azula, who glared at the now former leader of the Dai Li with suspicion.

"Long Feng- I want you to tell me what you know, for your sake and for the sake of this city." she commanded him, the Grand Secretariat shrugging his shoulders turning his bruised face away from the Princesses peering eyes.

"I will not be denigrated by the likes of you." he simply stated, Azula's hands filling with fire involuntarily as her rage begun to boil.

"Likes of me?! More the likes of you, some snide little earthbending man who thinks he's smart enough to fight me- you are my prisoner!" she shouted at him, the earthbender chuckling and raising his hand toward Sokka, who reeled defensively at the man's movement.

"This savage was the one who actually beat me- not you." he told Azula, making Sokka almost shriek in fear.

"No-no-no! It was a team effort!" Sokka tried to deflate his position, knowing too well that he didn't want to try and place himself above the Princesses own hubris.

"Never mind who beat you to a pulp- remember this, I can have you executed on the spot for being an conspirator against the Fire Nation- just like I could the Governor." Azula told Long Feng, standing over the injured but still defiant man.

"But you won't- because I know things." Long Feng tried to smirk, Azula grabbing him by the neck and pulling out a scroll with another hand.

"These names- code-words; I want to know what they mean." she asked him, Long Feng raising an eyebrow.

"So not the secret-base the Dai Li has hidden from even your knowledge?" he questioned her, Azula dismissing his claims with a chuckle.

"Even if I wanted to find your base- I know no Fire Nation army could ever take it down- an underground fortress filled with elite earthbenders- that's a sacrifice I am not stupid enough to make." Azula argued, before inching the scroll closer to his face, "These names- tell me what they mean." she showed the scroll, which jotted down the information she had extracted from the Dai Li safe-house.

"Ah- arrows, flowers, bears? You might find the stories behind these interesting."

"I don't want stories, I want answers." she commanded, shoving the scroll into Sokka's hands before raising a flame in her open hand.

"Well Princess I may as well tell you what you actually might find important first-" Long Feng begun, Azula slightly squinting at Long Feng with suspicion- she couldn't be certain if was to be truthful but she ought to trust him for the moment "The Flowers- better known as the Order of the White Lotus- an international organisation that desires to return the world to balance, which involves overthrowing Fire Nation rule, although until quite recently they have had little proactive action."

Azula tighten her grip on his shoulder, "What action?"

Sokka paled in realisation, "Azula- the ship." Azula looking at Sokka with confusion before Long Feng smirked in acknowledgement.

"Yes snow savage, you are correct- the Order of the White Lotus hired mercenaries- Water Tribe I now assume- to capture you in order to ensure your non-intervention in their plans."

"Oh- I guess they would have something to do with my brother attempting to overthrow my father in that case." Azula guessed, Long Feng shrugging.

"Whether the White Lotus implored your brother to begin his open revolt is in question- all I know is that the organisation is aligned with him." Long Feng told her, "Is that the kind of information you desired?" Azula sighing at him with slight frustration.

"No- no matter how helpful to me it is to know the potential threat against my nation- these White Lotus aren't the current issue- you, your cronies and whoever else is trying to fuck with my people right here in Ba Sing Se that is the issue." Azula sternly told Long Feng, inching her flame filled hand closer to his face.

"The Bears- the loyalists of the Earth King- you might not be surprised to hear that most of the nobility are still functionally loyal despite remaining in the city- the Earth King and his loyal generals fled the city but they have no direct influence at the moment thanks to the tight military control of the city." Long Feng explained, Azula nodding at his explanation before continuing, "The Arrows- a rebel group located in the Lower Ring that is currently planning to orchestrate a coup- tomorrow actually they plan to strike, but my people have done most the job haven't they- the Fire Nation practically doesn't control the city at this point, the garrison being compromised as it is."

"Coup?" Sokka questioned, his face growing into one of fearful shock, "Oh Jet- you fucking idiot." he exclaimed.

"We are under control-" Azula eyed Long Feng before turning to Sokka with a raised eyebrow, "Who is Jet- don't tell me you've met these plotters."

"Yes- they saved me from the Dai Li." he told her, eyeing Long Feng with slight anger, "I'm not going to let them just get massacred by your people." Sokka told Azula, who turned her flame filled hand to Sokka now.

"Sokka- don't throw away all the goodwill you've got just for some dirty angry Earth Kingdom rebels." she told him, genuinely disappointed in his rebellious attitude at this point.

"I don't want to betray you Azula- honestly I don't, not after all we've done to take down this clown;" he told her, glancing back at Long Feng suspiciously, "I want to help keep the peace- if I do nothing, you kill them and countless people die rebelling against Fire Nation rule, if I betray you- you kill me and it's pointless- so I want a middle ground."

"What- there is no middle ground in being a traitor- although that's not the accurate word- you'd be not doing your job, and you'll be fired in that case- in quite a literal sense." Azula berated Sokka, inching closer with her flame filled hand, the blue tinge covering both their faces.

"I want to convene with them- make them change their minds on trying to fight the Fire Nation- show them the inevitable failure they will face." he told Azula honestly, who sighed at him with contempt.

"You are not persuading me to give you a chance- you are persuading me not to kill you." she told him, pointing back to Long Feng, "He has information, you have nothing but your tact, and if that doesn't work in my favour, it's of no use to me."

Sokka stood tall toward Azula, holding his shoulders high, and purposefully dropped his boomerang to the side, showing that he was not willing to fight, "I will not fight you Azula- this isn't about me- this is about the potential lives that will be lost if I do nothing to stop them- not you- you can imprison the Freedom Fighters for all I care, but I don't want you to massacre angry civilians because they don't like being oppressed by the Fire Nation's iron fist- I know you wouldn't kill me or them for no reason, so let me do what I do best."

"What is that?" she asked him, Sokka chuckling.

"Talking myself out of dangerous situations." he told her, Azula laughing at him.

"You are right Sokka- you can do something- but I don't want you making any shady deals." she told him, and glanced back to Long Feng, "We best discuss this outside- pick up your weapon, making yourself defenceless isn't tactful it's just plain stupid." Azula berated him, shuffling him out of the prison cell once he picked up his boomerang.

"Enjoy your time here." Sokka called out to Long Feng mockingly, now convinced he wasn't going to have his face burnt off on the spot by Azula.
After closing the cell door, Azula and Sokka walked their way out through the former Earth King's Royal Prison with it's now single prisoner; the Princess turned to him once they they were far away enough from Long Feng's prying ears.

"I propose that I send someone with you- someone I can trust to be wholly truthful." she told Sokka, who cringed at the image of who he knew would be accompanying him.

"Urgh- Captain Grumpypants, who better?" he joked; Sokka felt uneasy at the thought of having to deal with the Captain- their dislike of each other was quite public.

"Yes- the Captain with accompany you to where ever these Freedom Fighters are located- once he returns with confirmation that they will not try to overthrow our rule, I can trust them to continue doing whatever thing they do when not fighting against my people." Azula told him, Sokka raising an eyebrow.

"Why not you just come along yourself?" he asked her, Azula glaring at him.

"Didn't you tell these people that you were under my employ- if they see a Fire Nation looking woman, they will more than likely go for the kill upon realising they are before their greatest enemy; wouldn't that just be the same outcome that you don't want?" she explained, Sokka nodding curtly.

"Yeah- fair enough actually- I guess I'll go as quickly as possible." Sokka decided, looking at Azula with cringed face, "Oh- can you wake up the Captain- I'm sure he'd set me on fire if I wake him from his nap now." he asked Azula, who sighed at him in disappointment.

"Why do you make me do all the work?" Azula questioned him, making Sokka raise his hands open in defence.

"The Captain follows your orders- it's not like I can just tell him to come along- you have to- y'know- command." Sokka told her, Azula smirking deviously.

"Does that mean you're respecting my authority now?" she asked him with a smirk.

"I- uh- when I choose to." Sokka claimed, Azula patting him on the shoulder almost in a paternal manner.

"You keep telling yourself that one." she jested at him before continuing to walk towards the entrance, leaving Sokka with his mouth agape.

"Just because I do what you want doesn't mean I follow orders- it means I agree with what you're doing!" he argued to Azula, who cringed and laughed at his claim.

"You might want to take that one back- unless you agree with the Fire Nation rule over this city." she smirked at him, Sokka face palming in realisation.

"This is what they call a lose-lose situation- isn't it?" he asked her, Azula shrugging her shoulders and smugly smiling at him.

"Well- I like both the outcomes- you're my warrior now savage."

The afternoon sun peered over the Lower Ring of Ba Sing Se, it's great inner-wall casting a long shadow across much of the outer districts of the expansive city; two down-dressed individuals made their way through the streets with little hast- they were both not eager to reach their destination. Sokka took the lead, trying to remember the path he had taken with Jet and the Freedom Fighters on the way to the monorail station; his memory of the exact route was hazy after a week, but he knew the general direction in which he had to move to reach their campsite- if they were there anyway. The Captain was rather begrudged at the situation he was in- the Princess had ordered him to dress like an Earth Kingdom commoner- Sokka as well- to avert suspicion as they went through the city- the Dai Li remained a threat even with their leader in prison and from what Azula had made out, the individuals Sokka was leading him to were not the kindest bunch to the Fire Nation. He couldn't be bothered to even try and speak with the Water Tribesman- although his active duty in fighting the Dai Li had earned some respect on his behalf, he wasn't going to act all buddy-buddy with the boy- he was his enemy for all intents and purposes; if it hadn't been for the Princesses personal threats and supposed good-will, he presumed Sokka would have abandoned her at Huangwen to rejoin his people. Sokka felt similarly, although he would still verbally direct him as they made their way through the alleys of the Lower Ring. They arrived at the large thoroughfare that Sokka remembered as where Jet had robbed a convoy that was heading to the Upper Ring; he pointed out to the Captain upon realisation.

"I crossed this road on my way to the monorail- we're getting close, just through this block I think." Sokka told the Captain, who nodded with a slight shrug.
They continued across the road and followed through the alleyways into the somewhat smoggy and more poverty stricken part of the Lower Ring- although they could agree the entire Lower Ring had a stench of smoke and bad cooking, this part of the city was exceptionally bad- Sokka personally couldn't remember the smell, he was rather dazed and hungover when he came through himself. Sokka soon spotted the exact location he could remember- an abandoned building that the Freedom Fighters used as a campsite- Sokka checked for smoke or sounds that would indicate their presence.

"They live there- or at least they did a week ago- I'm sure we'll be able to find them soon enough." Sokka explained to the Captain with a hopeful face, who sighed audibly in frustration.

"Great- more walking." he complained, crossing his arms before taking a look at the building, "You're right- unless they're out at the moment- rebels have a keen aptitude for running around and causing trouble." he thought aloud, Sokka chuckling.

"The Dai Li's done their job for them at this point, truly." he admitted, before walking up to the ladder and grabbed it, before he suddenly heard a whirring noise, instinctively moving his head to the side to dodge it- an arrow struck the old brick wall of the building, letting out a bit of dust that made Sokka cough before he turned to see the attacker; Longshot stood with his bow drawn and ready to shoot both Sokka and the Captain- he had his orders, as Sokka expected.

Turning his head the other way Sokka saw the man he needed to- Jet stood before him with his hook swords withdrawn, "I hope you've got that reason- because you're going to need it."

Sokka cringed in a slight of fear, his eyes catching the Captain prepare to take a stance, which Sokka stopped with a hand to the shoulder.

"No stop- we're not here to fight- I want to talk." Sokka told Jet, although directing the statement of explicit non-violence to the Captain and anyone else that was listening.

Jet inched closer, his smirk growing, "Well come on then- tell me what you want to say." holding his hook swords out wide, making Sokka step back before responding.

"I know what you're going to do tomorrow- I'm here to tell you that's a really bad idea." Sokka explained, Jet raising an eyebrow.

"Are you judging my strategic ability?" Jet questioned him, stepping closer to Sokka with his teeth grit, Sokka raising his hands defensively with a serious face.

"No Jet- the entire Fire Nation military is drawing down on this city- even if you could defeat the garrison of the city with the help of like-minded people, you would be destroyed in the same manner as the Air Nomads- or my people- you'd doom the entire city to mass murder" Sokka explained, the Captain raising a finger to try and counter-argue Sokka's claims- being stopped in his tracks by Sokka's hand- he didn't want the Captain making any remarks that might make him Jet's next target.

"What else can we do- join the Fire Nation? Like you, a traitor to your own people?" Jet questioned Sokka, whose stoic face broke into one of frustrated anger.

"This isn't about me you idiot! This is about the fate of this city- do you want the blood of innocents on your hands?" Sokka questioned Jet, who growled at Sokka with fury.

"Innocents would only be falling to the ash-maker scum! They are the enemy, why can't you see that?!" Jet shouted at Sokka, who was stopped by the Captain, looking dead in the eyes of Jet.

"Kid- listen to me, what you're trying to do won't just kill innocents, it will draw the war on even further- what do you think the Fire Lord will do if he finds out that the city of Ba Sing Se broke from his rule? He would personally come and burn it to the ground, that's what." he told the Freedom Fighter, inching closer to him, "Do you know what a ton of firebenders together at once can do to a city like this?"

Jet contorted his face into one of almost sadness, before responding with a dark and angry tone, "Yes- yes I do- we all do."

Sokka stepped forward to face Jet again, "You have to understand- you cannot win- any action you make right now against the Fire Nation would only make things worse for the people here."

Jet gritted his teeth and frowned, but responded to Sokka with a grumble, "I understand- but I cannot do nothing- we cannot do nothing."

Sokka sighed and tried to reaffirm Jet, "You are right Jet- this city is a whole pile of crap and it needs to be fixed, but it can't be done now, not in these dire circumstances." before glancing to the Captain momentarily, before looking back at Jet stoically.

"The Dai Li were going to use you and your people to destabilise the city, your attack was never going to work, and even if it did, the Dai Li would kill you and your friends and establish whatever distorted idea of government they believe in." Sokka explained to Jet, whose eyes opened in realisation.

"That's why they- oh spirits- they've already attacked us." Jet told them, rubbing the bridge of his nose in understanding the complexity of their situation.

"They want you dead Jet- they know what you might actually do if you had the slimmest chance of winning power." Sokka told him, Jet nodding in understanding.

Smellerbee stood forward from the alleyway beside Jet, having listened to the conversation, "Jet- if he's telling the truth- we're not safe here- we all need to leave- right now if we can."

Jet looked back at Smellerbee in a slight of regret, "But- those people- we told them to riot- to fight back, if we abandon them what would that make us?"

Sokka stood forward, and cleared his throat before asking them, "I have an idea- it might help you ease your minds."

Jet raised an eyebrow in suspicion, "What? To turn ourselves in- no we're not stupid."

Sokka chuckled at his thought, "Ah- no, that's not what I was going to say;" before continuing, "I can talk to the Princess and persuade her to order the garrison to treat the rioters fairly, ward them off and not make violent responses- how about that?" he proposed, Jet raising his head in thought of it momentarily before nodding at him.

"Uh- I would agree to that- at least for the people's sake." he affirmed to Sokka, who smiled in realisation that he might have made a deal.

"So what do you want in return?" Smellerbee asked Sokka directly, his face changing to one of disappointment and regret.

"I don't have the right to command you to not fight- you can do so if you want, but I implore you to change your minds- leave the city if you must- I don't want your blood or the blood of innocent Earth Kingdom people on my hands." he explained to her, Smellerbee turning away momentarily, before glancing back at Jet.

"We should tell him." she told Jet, who looked at her with slight shock.

"Wait what- we can barely trust him." he responded, Sokka unsure of what they were actually talking about.

"What's going on? What won't you tell me?" Sokka questioned them, feeling uneasy in the presence of potential information he might not want to hear- the restraint in Smellerbee's voice told it all to him.

She looked Sokka in the eyes, "We met somebody whose is a friend of yours- I think you'd want to meet him."

"What?!" Sokka's face turning to one of shock, the Captain's face as well appearing with the same expression.

"Another Water Tribesman in Ba Sing Se?" the Captain remarked in bewilderment, Smellerbee nodding, before turning to Sokka who was speechless.

"Sokka- we can take you to him." she explained to him, Sokka nodding in realisation- he might finally find someone- another survivor of the wreck- he wasn't surprised at the potential outcome of someone else making it back to the mainland, but he was bewildered that this survivor had come to Ba Sing Se.

"Who are they?" he asked her, Smellerbee responding with slight hesitation.

"He said his name was Bato- although I don't know if that was his actual name." she explained, Sokka grabbing her by the shoulders in ecstatic happiness.

"Bato! He's here?!" he exclaimed, his shift change in mood making Smellerbee and Jet somewhat uneasy.

"Yes- we met him in the Lower Ring earlier today," she told Sokka, backing off him slightly, "He's staying in an inn a block or two away- we can take you to him now."

Sokka nodded in affirmation, waving the Captain as to get him to follow, Jet raising his brow at the Captain in realisation he had no idea who he was.

Jet intervened as the Captain begun to walk toward Sokka, holding his arm out and looking at him suspiciously, "Who are you exactly?" he asked the Captain, who cringed in realisation he had no cover in front of these people- they would assume he was the Princesses lackey- which despite being an accurate judgement, was not one he would want anti-Fire Nation rebels finding out.

"Uh- you can just call me 'Lee'." he bluffed, choosing the most common name he could think of, "I'm just here to help Sokka." he lied again, knowing that revealing his actual purpose would likely aggravate them further.

Jet eyed him momentarily, scanning down his form, noting that he had no weapons of any kind, before dropping his arm and patting him on the shoulder, "Move along then- I'm keeping an eye on you." he told the Captain bluntly, who simply nodded and followed along with Sokka and Smellerbee.

The Freedom Fighters led Sokka and the Captain along the streets of the Lower Ring, meandering past slums, shops and tenements to the run-down inn that Sokka presumed Bato was staying at- it was a large building, covered with paper lampshades and somewhat better painting that the rest of the buildings he had seen. Walking up to the entrance Smellerbee and Jet led them through into the bar section of the establishment before going off to find Bato, leaving Sokka and the Captain sitting down to wait around.

Sokka sitting on a stool, turned to the Captain, who felt at ease in a somewhat homely bar, "So- I assume you're okay with what I told them?" he asked, the Captain shrugging his shoulders.

"I'm not the one you're going to have to persuade, I'm simply observing and inputting on my own accord- you've got a few good points, but I don't think this will change much." he explained, Sokka raising a brow.

"So you think the Fire Nation rule isn't going to work out?" he asked, the Captain sighing in frustration.

"You ask too many questions kid- the whole things a mess- too many people, not enough men, no colonists, not yet at least." he told the Water Tribesman, who nodded in understanding- the Captain pragmatically viewed the situation- the city might be useful in holding down the Earth Kingdom, but it was a drain of resources that could ultimately backfire- as they had already seen today.

"Do you think the men who went at us were brainwashed?" Sokka asked, the Captain raising his eyebrow at his statement.

"What- are you accusing my people of being mindless drones?" he gaped, Sokka chuckling but shaking his head in disapproval.

"No- no- I know you all are willingly here to beat down the Earth Kingdom- I mean would those men just go off the orders of their Governor to just up and arrest the followers of the Crown Princess herself." he asked, thinking out the logic of the situation as he spoke.

"Well- he wouldn't be expected to make such accusations without backing- they'd respect the man's word enough- they probably had a few men brainwashed to order the rest of the garrison around- most recruits have it drilled to follow their superiors orders." he explained.

"So what happened then- I'm not really part of the whole dealing with a brainwashing conspiracy thing." he asked, the Captain frowning.

"There's a lot of loyal men out there who were willing to restrain their brothers- the other guards did their jobs well- if we were unlucky the entire city would have started following the Dai Li's orders by proxy- I think we sorted that out." he told Sokka, who nodded in understanding.

"Yeah, that makes sense- despite what you might think about my loyalties, Dai Li rule wouldn't help anyone here- instead of the Princess protecting their tenuous peace, she'd be returning to invade the city." Sokka acknowledged, before glancing away from the Captain to see Smellerbee and Jet had returned from the depths of the inn with a companion- his distinct blue attire made him immediately acknowledged but his warm smile was reminded Sokka of his people that he missed so dearly- not just his father, but his sister and grandmother- the entire tribe he hadn't seen in nearly a year.

"Bato!" he almost shouted, happiness and relief overcoming the Water Tribe warrior, the other tribesman responding with a grin and caring eyes.

"Sokka! You're really here!" Bato grinned, pacing up to Sokka and both of them hugging each other.

"Oh man- I thought you were a goner- you weren't on the deck, I guess you were with the demolitions crew." Sokka thought aloud, Bato sighing and nodding at Sokka's ideas.

"Yes- I was down below deck; I was able to get off the boat and tag along with the escaping crew." he explained to Sokka, the Captain's eyes growing wider in realisation.

"Wait- what?!" he exclaimed upon figuring the whole situation out- Bato had used the lift raft- a vessel which he had personally commanded- to get back to the shoreline- he must of broken off before they reached port in Huangwen but it didn't change his frustration.

Bato raised an eyebrow at the Captain, who looked in shock upon realising that Bato had assumed his identity immediately- he obviously didn't recognise him, but the reaction he had given was enough to blow his cover; his eyes narrowed at the Captain as he gulped audibly in realisation.

"Now- who are you exactly?" he asked the Captain, who remembered his fake name but actually told the man something a bit more truthful.

"I'm uh- Lee, I am here to watch over Sokka." he told Bato, not exactly lying about his duty, but keeping his story away from the matters of the rebellion and the Princess.

"Okay- well if you wouldn't mind I'd like to talk with Sokka, alone preferably." he asked the Captain, who glanced at Sokka momentarily before nodding in defeat.

"Of course," he bluffed, turning away to walk out of the inn, "I'll be waiting out here, Sokka." realising in afterthought he was being exceptionally courteous to Sokka- but he thought he shouldn't cause a scene- the boy deserved to at least talk to his own people without the Princesses eyes and ears towering over him.

Sokka turned back to Bato, realising that he at least assumed the Captain's complicity with the Princess and sighed in knowing that he would have a lot of explaining to do- the Freedom Fighters wouldn't have relented in demeaning him in front of Bato once they realised they had a 'friend' in common.

"So I heard from Smellerbee over there all about you and the Princess." he told Sokka, his eyes inquisitive of Sokka's own unusual situation, "How did that happen?"
Sokka's eyes opened, "Wait- so you're not angry?" he asked Bato, who chuckled at him.

"I have no idea what happened to you after we got aboard that ship, let alone what happened with you and the Princess- I've got an open mind to what you have to say, no matter how absurd the situation might seem." Bato affirmed to Sokka, who smiled knowing that he was being fair about the situation with him and Azula, unlike most other people that had learnt of it- even the Captain was pretty judgy about it- despite being from the other side.

"I fought Azula on the ship and I distracted some of the firebenders so Dad and the others could make an easier escape to the ships- my bad luck was that I didn't get aboard before you blew a hole in it." Sokka explained, Bato's eyes opening and cringing with an audible hiss in realisation.

"My bad- uh- yes, as you were saying." he interrupted.

"Then well I tried to signal the ships but the thing I used didn't exactly do the job, so I used an empty crate to float on the water- that's how I got to shore; I met Azula- uh- the Princess, and we survived together in the forest- fought some Earth Kingdom deserters, and eventually made our way to Huangwen after all that happened." he explained to Bato, whose eyes opened in knowledge of their common location.

"If I had only waited a few more days-" he exclaimed in realisation, "I was right there, in Huangwen, trying to find information, but a friendly Earth Kingdom loyalist got me passage to Ba Sing Se where I knew our employers had allies- I left there when I could have just found you." Bato explained, his eyes looking sad and in regret.

"It's not your fault Bato- if I was in your situation I would have made the same choice- going to this city would be the best way to find any kind of passage back to the warriors- or home I guess." Sokka counselled his friend, holding him by the shoulder.

"So- I did find some friends of our employer- they have been willing to help me out in the city- they've given me some contacts- I think I might be able to find a way to get a ship homebound; Sokka you've got to come with me- we have to rejoin our people." Bato explained him, Sokka's smile lowering into a more solemn and regret filled face.

"I-I uh- I can't." he mumbled, Bato's eyebrow rising in confusion.

"What? You can't- will the Princess hunt you down- has she made you a slave?" he asked, Sokka sighing and looking back at Bato solemnly.

"I can't just leave her- Azula's- she's- uh- I don't know how to explain it." Sokka fumbled, placing his hands over his cheeks as he fell onto the stool, Bato holding his shoulder with a concerned face.

"What Sokka- why do you need to stay with a woman who seems like she's practically forced you to follow her- like you're her property?" Bato asked him, Sokka thinking momentarily, considering his thoughts before shaking his head.

"No- even if she doesn't want to admit it- she respects me, and she respects my opinion; I want to help the world Bato- I think if I can help her, of all people, maybe that will have more effect than just fighting a few Fire Nation ships." he explained to Bato, who raised an eyebrow in confusion.

"Wait- so you like her?" Bato questioned him suspiciously, Sokka's eyes opening wide and his cheeks flushing red in embarrassment.

Sokka almost squealed at him, "Uh what?! Oh spirits no- you're just as bad as those Earth Kingdom villagers." he reminisced at the last time someone described Sokka and Azula as a 'thing'.

Bato chuckled at Sokka, patting his shoulders in conciliation, "Ah don't feel too bad- your taste is a bit weird- but isn't this Princess supposed to be pretty- I mean that's what you'd expect right?" Bato jested at Sokka, who face palmed in retaliation.

"Urgh- she's nice looking okay- yeah I admit it, but she's scary as all hell- lemme tell you that." Sokka admitted to Bato, making him almost break down laughing, Sokka looking at Bato with a still red face, somewhat unhappy, "You're not going to let this go?"

Bato smiled back at him with a slight smirk, "Of course- when you actually make a move- that is." Sokka looked at Bato with dread, knowing that he would have to argue his way out of an awkward conversation- the Princesses looks, no matter how enthralling they might seem, were not the topic of the conversation- he just wanted to tell his friend why he would even momentarily consider not going right home at the given chance- he had a chance to make the world a better place, by helping someone he thought he could believe in.

Sitting outside of the Lower Ring inn, the Captain remained cautious in waiting for Sokka to return outside and he was sure that Sokka would have some explaining to do- he was the Princesses eyes and ears, but she would need to know the contextual information of this meeting- and he would be certain to persuade Sokka to tell him. The whole excursion was taking time of the Captain's preferred rest period of the late afternoon- the walking had tired him further and at the moment he was certainly looking forward to having dinner with his men and relaxing after his more than strenuous day- he had done more fighting in the past day than he had done in the past year; even on the ship his fighting was constricted to singling out the leader of the enemy force, as the Princess had directed him- which unfortunately for the Captain happened to be Sokka's father. He and the young Water Tribesman were still in dispute over that fight, and the Captain ought there be a fair rematch to settle it- although he doubted the Princess would allow him to do it- non-benders can't exactly do Agni Kai's- and it wasn't like Sokka had actually demeaned the Captain in any sense that wouldn't be expected. Soon enough he was joined by someone from inside the inn, but it wasn't who he was expecting- it was Jet, the leader of the supposed Freedom Fighters, who sat next to him on the bench, looking at him with some intrigue.

"So Lee- what do you exactly have to do with Sokka?" Jet asked him, the Captain shrugging his shoulders and thought up a reasonable response.

"I'd rather not get into that- I have duties that I have to fulfill; talking to you about my day job won't help that." he explained, Jet turning to face him, his eyes narrow and accusing.

"Are you one of them- an ash-maker?!" Jet demanded of him, the Captain looking at him stoically.

"I protect people- I think that's more than you can say." he told Jet, whose eyes filled with frustration at the Captain upon realising the truth of his statement, despite the general view he had of the Fire Nation.

"You- you might be right, but that doesn't change the world where we live- your people are evil." Jet bluntly told him, the Captain chuckled at him.

"No- good and evil have nothing to do with the war- it's about strength, and it just happens to be that the Fire Nation is strong." the Captain told him, Jet's eyes growing cold.

"How can you- I- we are strong." he grumbled, unable to think of a real answer to the Captain's explanation.

"I won't dismiss your people- we are all one nation now really- the Earth Kingdom is dead, whether you like it or not." the Captain explained, Jet's eyes growing more concerned and suspicious, looking back to the door of the inn before looking into the Captain's eyes.

"So what about Sokka then- huh- is he just as fooled as you are?" he asked, the Captain chuckling.

"Oh he's just as bad as you- desiring 'justice' or whatever you want to call it; he just happens to be pragmatic enough to realise the Fire Nation can be reasoned with like any other people." he told Jet, who looked away in thought.

"My people weren't given a choice- my village wasn't given any options, it was just burnt to the ground." Jet told the Captain, his voice cold, and the Captain actually glanced at him with a sense of pity.

"That's war kid- it doesn't matter who started it at this point because both sides are out for blood- what do you think the Earth Kingdom would be doing in our position?" he reasoned, Jet looking at him in confusion.

"They wouldn't massacre people for no reason." Jet told him, the Captain almost laughing at him.

"Remember who controlled the high command of the Earth Kingdom before this city fell? I think those people would have no qualms killing innocent folk in my nation if it suited a war narrative." the Captain told him, Jet gulping in realisation of his actual words- the Dai Li were the real power in the Earth Kingdom- he knew well enough that if it suited them they wouldn't be the merciful type to the Fire Nation even if they were the weak and defeated ones.

At that moment Sokka walked out of the door, soon followed by Smellerbee, who both probably had overheard the argument between the two of them; Sokka chuckled at them both, finding it funny that he wasn't the one locked in argument for a change.

"Oh so I see you two are getting along;" he jested at them, both the Captain and Jet looking at Sokka with offence, before he continued, "well thanks for getting me to Bato- what the chance that you ran into him in this massive place." he remarked with a smile, Jet looking at Sokka with a tense suspicion.

"Your friend here doesn't seem to be what he looks like- I'm not surprised, but I'd expect that you'd come to see us of all people with a goon from the Princess." Jet explained to Sokka, the Captain looking at Jet in offence.

"A goon- I am an elite guard trained to protect members of the Royal Family from drivel like you." he argued to Jet, Sokka intervening before the argument could intensify.

"Okay guys- no need to start a fight, really!" he tried to get them to calm down, Jet gritting his teeth and frowning.

"Yes there is- this ash-maker thinks he can talk me down after all his people have done." he told Sokka, the Captain scoffing at Jet's claims.

"I've done nothing of the sort you talk about- I beat up this guy once but that's about it." he told Jet, pointing out Sokka, who himself looked at the Captain with confusion.

"Wait-a-minute! I beat you- uh- or technically my dad did- but that's beside the point! I don't want you guys to make a scene!" Sokka told the Captain, grabbing Jet by the shoulder, "Please- the Dai Li will notice a fight between a disguised firebender and a crazy hook-swordsman." he told Jet, who grumbled in frustration before backing down.

Smellerbee edged in closer and nodded at Sokka, "He's right Jet- stop being an idiot- we know what's going to happen if you get out of control." she told her leader, who sighed and nodded in understanding of his behaviour.

Sokka shuffled the Captain away from Jet and turned back to the Freedom Fighters with a sincere and calmer face, "Thanks guys- I mean really- you didn't kill me." Smellerbee chuckled at him while Jet drew a small smirk.

"You're right- I did promise you, but I guess what you said was good enough- the Dai Li is as bad as the ash-makers- we're not going to win against a massive Fire Nation counter-attack- but I wonder how does that stop 'her royal highness' imprisoning us though?" Jet questioned him, Sokka sighing.

"I hope once I explain to her what you've agreed to that she will see no reason to hunt you down and throw you in jail." Sokka confirmed to Jet, who nodded.

"If you're not going off with Bato- then what are you doing?" Smellerbee asked Sokka, having overheard some of their conversation.

"Uh- well I'll help Azula- I will try and make sure she's not as bad as her dad, really to be honest." he told them, Jet's eyes opening in shock.

"You won't just go home after all you've gone through? I thought that was why you came here in the first place- to find a way home." he questioned, Sokka sighing.

"She was going to pay me back with a way home- that's the idea and still the plan I think- but I'm willing to follow her around the Earth Kingdom for a bit- she'll probably have more stuff to do knowing how 'rebellious' the Earth Kingdom tends to be." Sokka told them, Smellerbee smirking at his explanation.

"We really are, aren't we?" she jested with a tinge of pride.

"Yes- I'll be using the power of compromise and diplomacy- perhaps that'll inspire her to not do- y'know, Fire Nation-y things." he told them, Jet and Smellerbee nodding at his affirmation; Jet momentarily shuffled through his pockets before looking at Sokka with a thought in mind.

"Well if you're heading around- can I ask you a favour?" Jet asked, Sokka shrugging his shoulders.

"You're not going to doom the city anymore, so I guess it's only fair I repay you somehow." Sokka agreed.

Jet smiled at him and begun, "We have a friend, his name is Sneers- he lives in the Fire Nation colony of Yu Dao- he moved there to live with his uncle after our gang split up-

I'd been meaning to send him this message from the Fighters so we could check up on him, but it'd help if you could go and meet him if you're in the area- he could be of some help to you, he'd ought to help a friend of the Freedom Fighters." Jet explained to him, holding out a small message folded, that he pulled from pocket.

"I mean sure Jet- I'll try and make sure this message gets to him." he confirmed to Jet, shaking his had in finishing their deal, "We can make our way back from here- perhaps I'll see you both again."

"Given the situation, we wouldn't prefer it." Jet joked at him, before giving him a curt wave, the two Freedom Fighters walking back down the street away from the inn, leaving the Captain and Sokka alone again.

"You going to give your friend a farewell?" he asked Sokka, who looked at him momentarily before sighing.

"I've already told Bato what I plan to do, and he told me he'll tell my Dad where I am once he returns to my people- I think it's best if I don't involve him any further in this 'thing', whatever you want to call it." Sokka explained, fumbling at the end, making the Captain chuckle lightly.

"Uh- it's calling hunting down rebels and stopping conspiracies- even if you agree with them." the Captain told Sokka, reminding him of his place- he might agree with the Freedom Fighters goals, but the Captain was relieved to know he understood the situation in regards to what a potential rebellion would lead to.

Sokka and the Captain remained silent after those few words, walking through the maze like streets of the Lower Ring towards the monorail once more- they were both glad that the potential rebellion had at least been quelled with some pragmatic judgement on Sokka's behalf. They could agree on one thing in particular after all they'd been through- this city was not the place for them to be, and leaving it would be the preferable option- that is, as soon as Azula would allow it.

On the towering staircase of the Governor's Palace, Crown Princess Azula sat calmly, almost meditative in her mood- she was waiting, biding her time for news from either her men or Sokka and the Captain- the whole palace was compromised by the attempted revolt, and she had ordered the Governor and his closest guards be imprisoned until further notice- she was unsure how long the brainwashing by the Dai Li maintained effect, so she decided to be safe and leave the men locked away, for the safety of the garrison itself. She held the horn a garrison member- or was he Dai Li- had used to signal the brainwashing; it seemed that Long Feng must have had these men picked out one by one to do their duties- from what she could see that was to simply cause a chain reaction of brainwashed soldiers at any given time. Since the Dai Li agents had fled the palace, Azula had ordered the garrison to block off any entrances the Dai Li could use to get back in and to hold the security of the premises on high-alert. She was unsure if the Dai Li would try to retrieve Long Feng if he had been compromised- which she believed they would rightly assume; he was willing to tell her enough, but perhaps only because the information had their interests aligned. If the agents were to be so bold, she was certain to be prepared to fight them off at a moments notice- she had a number of her own personal guards in the former Royal Prison of the Earth Kingdom, ensuring that the Grand Secretariat was remaining in his metal plate prison cell- it would be a challenge for any earthbender to break him out, but with enough brute force the cell would surely break. Soon enough she spotted two figures walking from the entrance of the palace itself- after a few minutes the Captain and Sokka were close enough that she could call to them.

"You two! Did you complete the task I asked of you?" she questioned them, Sokka racing up to her first.

"Of course- the Freedom Fighters won't bother you anymore- not that I think you'll be planning to be anywhere near them soon enough." Sokka explained, hinting on his presumptions of her planning to leave the city soon enough.

"Well yes savage- you are correct; we will be leaving the city as soon as the detached forces from the surrounding territories sure up the cities garrison and defence against the likes of the Dai Li." she confirmed to Sokka, before raising an eyebrow at him, "So- was there anything else productive from your conversation?"

"Uh- well I did try to offer them something, I hope you're willing to give this little compromise." he told her, Azula shrugging at him, her eyes glaring in slight frustration.

"Well we're not meant to compromise with the enemies of the Fire Nation- but I guess I should hear you out- the 'ideas guy'." she mocked him, Sokka laughing it off before returning to a more serious tone.

"I offerred the Freedom Fighters that you would order the garrison to not violently treat any upcoming protest against Fire Nation rule- you can contain it, but don't beat them down with flames because they don't like you ruling their city." he told Azula, who glared at him with a slight of offence.

"Why would they want to revolt? They know exactly what happens to those who go against us!" she angrily responded, looking at Sokka who simply smiled.

"How about a little compassion? It doesn't hurt to be nice." he asked Azula, who simply crossed her arms in defiance.

"May I reiterate to you- I am not nice." she told him bluntly, Sokka chuckling at her and looking at her with a slightly cringed face.

"Actually- it's not really even being nice- it's just trying not to kill your subjects- if you were going to be nice, you'd listen to their grievances." he explained to Azula, who laughed at him.

"Don't even act like I'm going to take that bit of advice!" she jested at him, Sokka's face turning a bit more stoic.

"Please can you not burn the frustrated poor people- they don't deserve it." he tried to reason with Azula.

"They deserve mercy as much as they deserve to be heard- if they want to fight us, they will fight us." she told Sokka, who face palmed in frustration.

"Come on- please try and be reasonable- if the soldiers don't kill them, it won't spill over into a full revolt!" he shouted at Azula, who smirked at him.

"Oh there he is- angry ice savage- I haven't seen you in a while." she mocked him with a smile and wave, Sokka almost screaming in frustration, grasping his face with a hand.

"P-please just don't- okay- I can't just have these people die on my watch." he mumbled, his tone lower now, Azula looking at him with confusion.

"Who said this was your responsibility?" Azula asked Sokka, who looked at Azula with a sore face.

"This is what I do- I help people, or at least I try to." Sokka told her, Azula chuckling at him.

"Well you've helped me- as much as I'd like to say I did this all on my own- you did help." she told him, scratching her chin in thought.

"Perhaps I can give some leniency- but don't think this will stop me from using my full force against any fools dumb enough to try and fight." Azula pointed at Sokka, who sighed in relief.

The Captain stood forward, having been waiting for their argument to end, "I did as you requested Princess- Sokka didn't misbehave or collaborate with the enemy- although we did have a bit of a detour." he told her, Azula raising an eyebrow at Sokka.

"What detour?" she asked them both, Sokka's eyes opening- he had avoided telling her about what he had been doing beside persuading the Freedom Fighters to not try and fight the Fire Nation.

"They led me to someone I know- one of my people." Sokka admitted, the Captain nodding in affirmation- Azula noted that the Captain had observed keenly and would not hesitate to point out Sokka lying.

"So was this person involved in the shipwreck?" she asked him, the Captain stepping forward.

"According to his own words he was part of the group that set up explosives to break the hull." he told Azula, her eyes turning to Sokka.

"So I assume that you had to explain our arrangement?" she asked Sokka, who nodded at her, his eyes drawn down in thought.

"He told me something important though- the people we were working for- they have people in this city- and I think I've connected the dots now." Sokka affirmed to Azula, who smirked in understanding.

"The Order of the White Lotus- so you're certain they were behind the whole thing?" she questioned, Sokka nodding stoically.

"Bato didn't name them- it's unlikely they would have given away their identities to an outsider- but I believe how he described their motives to be very similar to Long Feng's information on them." Sokka affirmed, Azula nodding with a genuine smile.

"This is good- the evidence is before us, and now we have a clear relationship between the Order, my brother and your people's sinking of my ship." she explained, looking out to the evening sky with a smirk, "My father will be please with this- I think this is the kind of information he will find useful in his fight against them." Sokka's face turned solemn at her words.

"Did I make a mistake- should have I come with you?" Sokka openly questioned Azula, who turned to him with a scowled face of frustration.

"Your decision has ultimately saved this city from a Dai Li coup, and more than that my life- I am thankful of your service Sokka- don't doubt your decisions, if you do that would make you weak-willed, an attribute I am not willing to accept from any follower of me." Azula told Sokka, who raised an eyebrow at her comments- they weren't words of derision, but of encouragement, something he hadn't expected to come from the Princess Azula he knew.

"Uh- okay- thanks I guess." he awkwardly accepted her statements, before looking out to the evening orange haze himself, "This has a been a weird two weeks- really." he commented.

Azula chuckled in agreement. "Yes- you are certainly right about that. I never thought in my life I'd be able to consider a Water Tribesman someone worthy of any respect, but you do make a compelling case."

Sokka and Azula both turned at the sound of pattering footsteps- someone was running toward them; at that moment, a guard rushed out of the palace, his sprint almost as if he was running for his life, "Princess- there is a message from the capitalǃ" he told her, his voice panting and almost fearful.

Azula turned to the exhausted man and raised an eyebrow, immediately feeling suspicious of the guards tone, "Well what is it?" the man gulped in fear before responding.

"T-the Fire Lord is dead."

Chapter Text

The thought of it had crossed her mind a few times- she was her father's heir after all, and it should be expected for an heir to be proactive when it comes to understanding that at some point they would succeed to the throne; she couldn't believe what she was hearing- it was nigh implausible, she knew for a fact that her father was the most skilled firebender alive, a title she didn't place upon anyone lightly. Azula looked at the messengers shocked face and knew immediately that he wasn't lying, but she was sure to check if he was certain of the words he had just uttered.

"Excuse me- am I going insane or did I just hear what I thought I did?" Azula questioned, making Sokka shake his head in disapproval.

"No- you're not crazy- unless this guy is." he commented, the guard looking back at her in fear, stepping toward the Princess with a knee forward.

"Yes my Princess- this message was directly through military channels, directed to all stationed units in our empire." he explained, handing Azula the message, which she unfolded with haste.

Azula begun to read the message out loud, "This is a notice from the Office of the Fire Lord- Fire Lord Ozai, supreme ruler of our glorious Nation, was defeated in an Agni Kai duel against his son Prince Zuko, who fatally wounded him in their battle." Azula dropped the paper upon reading these words and turned to Sokka and the Captain with a face of utter shock and confusion, "How- in the name of the spirits, did my traitorous brother kill the Fire Lord himself?"

The guard looked at her with confusion, and shook his head in loss, "It doesn't say- all it says is he is dead."

Azula's eyes opened wide she turned back to the paper and continued to read "As the victor of the battle, Prince Zuko has claimed his right to the succession and title of Fire Lord. He will be crowned in the coming days and it is his command that all military units swear allegiance to him- it is his divine order that any claim to oppose his succession will be treated as an act of treason. This is the will of his highness, please respond with your oath of allegiance as is expected..." she finished, scoffing at the claims brought before her.

"This is treason- my brother has committed treason- he has seized the throne and has effaced the honour of my father." she stammered, her anger growing with every second.

The Captain stood foward and knelt before Azula, "I am sworn to you Crown Princess Azula- your claim to the throne is yours by right, and therefore any action you take against your brother's treason will be followed by me and my men- it is our duty."

Azula dismissed the Captain's oath with a flick of her hand, "I expect nothing less- what of you?" she asked Sokka, who looked at her in confusion.

"I'm here following you in the first place- you wanna go beat up your brother, let's go do it." Sokka assured her, Azula nodding in affirmation.

"Thank you both- I will not stand for my brother's callous actions, no matter how much he might like to justify them with his insane devotion to 'honour'." she told the two, before turning back to the guard standing behind her, "You- I want a counter-message sent out to everyone- all commanding officers outside of the capital, no exceptions- I want all of them to swear upon me as the next Fire Lord, the true heir to the throne, is that understood?" she commanded, the shocked and shaking man taking a moment to collect himself into a bow.

"O-of course your highness, your will is my command." he confirmed her, turning and racing toward the communications tower.

Once the man ran back into the palace's hall, Sokka decided to step closer to Azula, looking at her both concerned and serious, "Are you okay?" he asked her, Azula turning her eyes at him with suspicion and she crossed her arms.

"I am fine- I will do what my father would expect of me- no matter if you disagree with those things." she snapped back at Sokka, who raised his hands defensively at her, his face apologetic.

"I'm not going to try and fight you now- trust me, Mrs. Fire Lord." he told her, making Azula chuckle lightly before realising the innappropriateness of his comment.

"Now is not the time for jokes- I want you both to get the men and servants ready- I want to get out of this city as soon as the first division of soldiers arrives." she told both Sokka and the Captain who nodded and bowed at her respectively, making the latter look at the former with accusing eyes.

"She is the reigning monarch now- you should bow you ingrate." he berated Sokka, who laughed at him and responded quite snarkily.

"She's not my Fire Lord- she's my boss." he told him, the Captain face palming before walking down the stairs toward the barracks, leaving Sokka and Azula alone.

She looked at him suspiciously, "What are you doing standing around- I know you like to laze about but now is not the time." she berated him, her golden eyes staring him down, making Sokka look at her with a feeling of melancholy.

"So are you sad?" he asked her, making Azula look away with frustrated face.

"No- I would not disobey my fathers teachings, not even to mourn his death." she replied with a cold voice, making Sokka reach out and hold a hand on Azula's plate covered shoulder.

"It's not weak to show that you care." Sokka told her with a straight and dead serious face, making her inch away from his hand.

She looked at him accusingly, "The dead are not worth any of my care- you'd best learn from that." making Sokka scrunch his fingers on the bridge of his nose.

"No- you don't get what I'm trying to say- not matter if he was an evil and horrible man, you shouldn't just let go of a family member just like that." he told her, Azula gasping at him in offence.

"What? Do you suppose you can tell me how to feel? I am angry- more than I have ever been." she told Sokka, crossing her arms.

Sokka dropped his head down in disappointment, "I would feel angry too if I was in your situation- I'd want to fight him too." he admitted, Azula looking at Sokka with confusion.

"You don't know my brother- if you did, perhaps you'd support him over me." she told him with an angry face, making Sokka look back at her with confusion.

"I don't hey- you're the one I'm here for, I'm not just a freelance assistant to all Fire Nation royals." he told her, making Azula chuckle at his joke, before he returned to place a hand on her shoulder, "You will be Fire Lord- and I hope you'll be a good one."

"Depends on your definition of good- I'm ready to burn half the world to ground to defeat my brother so I can continue my father's legacy- is that good?" she explained to Sokka, who raised an eyebrow at her.

"Uh- well I don't expect you to- uh- massacre people on a whim- so that's better than your dad I guess." he told her, Azula pondering his statement for a moment.

"Perhaps you are right- I don't have to needlessly kill- leave that to the common soldier." she explained, making Sokka face palm in understanding her reasoning, making her chuckle at him, "You have far too much faith in me peasant, you ought to learn that I'm not the nice-one around here."

He chuckled at Azula, making a smile on his face once more, "You're not the nice-one, you're the pragmatic and competent one." he told her, Azula acknowledging his statement with a smirk and nod.

"No need to be a bootlicker now- I prefer it when you're more critical of my actions- it's far more fun." she told him with a devious smirk.

Sokka groaned in frustration, "Aw come on! Can't I be supportive and rebellious at the same time?!" Azula not acknowledging his complaint, walking back toward the palace.

She glanced back at him, "So- do you want to try the governor's feast?" Sokka looking at her ecstatically.

"Wait seriously! Better food?! My day is getting even better!" he exclaimed, the break from seriousness making his joyful face light up.

"Well that's if I didn't burn it all when the Dai Li attacked- you can have a look if you want." she jested at him, her smirk breaking his confidence slightly before he stood up tall and raced up the stairs toward the massive doors of the palace.

"That food is mine- by royal decree!" he exclaimed, running into the long hallway of the palace, his figure shrinking from Azula's view as she stood somewhat bewildered at his pace.

"If he liked fighting as much as he liked food, I'd be a prisoner of the White Lotus right now." Azula thought out loud, chuckling at the ludicrousness of her statement.
Azula turned back and looked upon the orange haze of the evening sky- she was certain that her day had escalated far beyond what she had desired, but she couldn't help but think about what was happening on the other side of the world. She had blindly decided to follow her father's orders and was unable to prevent her own incompetent brother from killing her own father- she would not have the glorious victories of her nation tarnished by her brother's weakness- Azula believed in one ultimate goal for her rule, and that would be to unify the world under the greatness of the Fire Nation- Fire Lord Sozin's ultimate plan would have been soon realised without the White Lotus and her brother's meddling. She knew she would have to leave Ba Sing Se and make the long journey home bound, where her brother was sure to be gathering forces and planning for her arrival and the claim for the throne that came with it. At that very moment standing before the setting sun, she swore to herself that she would not fail- she would not be the last in a line of glorious conquerors to only fall to the weakness and incapability of the traitor Prince Zuko; the Fire Nation's empire would not set like the sun, she was to ensure that if it was going to die, it would die kicking and screaming.

The flames of the war-chamber were not lit, the Fire Lord's flames diminished to ash- the highest ranking generals and admirals in the capital had assembled for a meeting that had been immediately ordered after some commotion in the palace- the council themselves had not been informed of the nature of the meeting they were to attend, but soon realised it's true purpose. The wide red and gold doors slammed open, and two Imperial Guards stood forth- the signal of the Fire Lord's arrival; as any subjects would, the officers stood up and took a bow of deference toward their Fire Lord- immediately noticing that it wasn't 'their' Fire Lord at all- it was the banished son of the Fire Lord himself, wearing royal attire and bearing the mark of his Agni Kai with no shame. One of the generals stood forth, their mouth agape, and asked the Prince what he was doing back in the Fire Nation.

"What is the meaning of this?!" he demanded, as if the Prince was lesser than him, and within Fire Nation law, he was a criminal for breaking the terms of his banishment, but Prince Zuko simply smirked and raised his hand to tell the general to sit down.

"I have returned to the capital, and as is expected, I came to reclaim my honour." Zuko told the officers with a stoic and calm voice, all of their faces confused and in shock- they had no idea that the Fire Lord's son had returned- they had all heard the official reports that he had fought Admiral Zhao in a duel, but other than that the officers only had hearsay by their side.

"You return with the Avatar?" one of them asked, Zuko glancing at him and staring him down.

"I said that I reclaimed my honour- that involved something far more important than the mythic Avatar." he told them, and at that moment threw down the Fire Lord's headpiece onto the war-table, hitting some of the representations of military units off and causing quite a large noise, all of which made the officers focus their eyes on the headpiece in utter shock and fear, "I fought my father in an Agni Kai duel once more, to fight for my claim to the throne- I stand before you as the victor of that duel." Zuko explained bluntly, a number of the generals raising to their feet in anger and shock.

"You are a traitor to your own blood! Effacing he honour of the Fire Lord himself is a crime punishable by death!" one of them shouted at Zuko in anger, making Zuko smirk and chuckle.

"Well- seeing that my father is nothing but a smouldering corpse, you'd best beg for mercy- I am the Fire Lord, and if you wish to contest that, I will see you on the field." Zuko told them, his normally raspy voice becoming cold and confident- reminiscent of his own sister's well-known ruthless behaviour.

A number of the officers knelt before their unanointed Fire Lord, realising the futility of opposing him within his own palace- the few that stood looked at Zuko in peril, realising their mistake; Zuko ordered the Imperial Guards to take those officers into custody with a flick of his fingers- causing much commotion amongst the normally unopposed military men.

"What- no please my lord! I beg of you!" one of them pleaded to Zuko, who raised his hand to signal the guards to stop momentarily.

"Unlike my father I will not have you executed on the spot for your treasonous words- I rather you suffer long and hard for your foolish actions- take them to the Capital Prison." he told the men, commanding the guards directly, who nodded before taking the men away, leaving Zuko with a slightly smaller war council to work with.

"Now- for the first course of action, I seek to- uh- 'rectify' some problems." Zuko explained, trying to speak as eloquently as he could, one of the generals raised his hand and asked out.

"What exactly would that be?" the general asked, his tone somewhat fearful after seeing Zuko's swift actions only moments prior.

"I will end this long and bitter war, and more presently, I will hand down the punishments that are befitting of any prior dishonourable actions." he explained, the men looking fearfully at Zuko, who walked along the table of seated generals to stand behind one of them; he was an elderly general that had taken part in numerous battles and conquests over the course of his career, and was well known for his ruthlessness- but he was better known as of recent years for what happened in this very same room- General Bujing.
Zuko stood above the general, who glanced back at him with a face of confusion, "Pr- Fire Lord Zuko, I- uh-" the old general mumbled.

"General Bujing- may I ask what exactly- and I mean exactly- happened to the 41st Division of the Fire Nation Army?" he requested of him, the old man fumbling momentarily to try and recount exactly what had taken place five years prior.

"The 41st Division went to battle against superior Earth Kingdom forces and was nearly completely annihilated- their forces were they assisted by another division which was able to flank and crush the enemy forces- it was g-great victory for our nation." he told Zuko, who scratched his chin momentarily.

"How many dead?" he asked, the general going into thought for a second before replying.

"Uh- fourteen thousand men." he recounted, Zuko chuckling at the figure, making the officers look at him with slight confusion.

"You are but one man- that's a bit hard to balance." he commented, but smirked at General Bujing with sadistic desire, "That changes little- you know exactly what you did- you doomed those men, you- you caused this-" Zuko pointed to his scar, General Bujing reeling back in fear and shock, breaking down before Zuko.

"No please- my lord- I beg of you- mercy!" Bujing begged before Zuko, who simply grabbed him by the right shoulder, pulling him from his seat.

"Mercy? You took their fates, you took my fate- now your fate is set." Zuko told him with a callous smirk, before Bujing screamed in fear- the sound cut off by the uncrowned Fire Lord throwing a fist of flames at Bujing's face, flinging him onto the map-table- making the man squeal in fear and his eyes open in shock from the pain.

Standing above General Bujing, Zuko filled his hand with flames and his eyes opened wide with unmasked rage "I- I am the Fire Lord! This is my mercy!" Zuko shouted at him, dropping his hand to strike Bujings left side of his face with a torrent of fire, his screams echoing through the chambers for a good few seconds until Zuko stopped- looking upon the mangled burns over his face to match his own with sense of completion- he had given the man he had thought of as a evil and degenerate psychopath, willing to let his nations own loyal soldiers die just because he thought it was more 'efficient'- he had caused Zuko's burn, his banishment, and now he would be punished for as long as his old decrepit body would live.

He stood on the war table, looking upon the officers, who looked in utter fear and awe of Zuko's unrelenting rage and judgement; the mood was shifted by the sudden arrival of another royal figure- his uncle entered the war-chamber seeing his nephew stand over Bujing's unconscious body with a sense of pride- he covered his own mouth in shock and looked upon his nephew with a sense of disappointment.

"Nephew- why did you- by the spirits you've nearly killed an old man!" he exclaimed in distraught.

"Uncle- I am sorry you had to see this- I'll have him sent to the Capital Prison's Infirmary at once." Zuko admitted, deflecting the situation by giving his guards an indirect command, which they immediately complied with, dragging Bujing's body off of the table before putting it in a sling- taking him from the war chamber, leaving Iroh and Zuko standing before the shocked war council.

"Hello- I assume you are those who decided not to fight my nephew?" he asked the officers, who nodded with a tinge of fear- they were confused by the former general's statement- some might have found it funny, but no one spoke a word- Zuko stood before them, someone who was arguably more threatening than his own father had been in the given situation.

"I will convene with you all after my coronation- we will discuss the future of the war and our military agenda- understood?" Zuko commanded the generals, who all stood up and lightly bowed before leaving the room at haste- within a minute Zuko and Iroh were alone, and Iroh turned to his nephew with a sense of fear- after what he had just seen, Iroh was feeling a sense of doubt in his own judgement of Zuko- he certainly wasn't surprised after Zuko's treatment of Zhao- however this was a far more personal issue that was at hand, and his nephew had gone all out in terms of his violent reaction- something he would expect of his niece of brother, not 'little Zuko'.

"I- I don't know what to say Uncle." Zuko admitted to Iroh with a sense of shame- he didn't regret his action, but he thought that he had betrayed his Uncle's teachings in doing so.

"You made a rash decision- a act of passion and rage- I understand it Zuko- after my son-" he begun to explain, being cut off by Zuko.

"You didn't burn Ba Sing Se to the ground- I nearly killed the man who caused my Agni Kai with father in the first place." Zuko responded, his eyes open with fear and near regret, "I- I'm not good enough- I can't be the Fire Lord you want me to be Uncle- it's-" he tried to explain, Iroh cutting him off with a hug, holding his nephew tightly.

"I know you did what you had to with your father- and I understand Bujing- don't act like this changes my love for you Zuko- you will never not be my nephew, remember that." he affirmed Zuko, who smiled, trying to hold back tears from his Uncle's loving affection.

"Ever since she left, you've been all I've got- you've had to raise me Uncle- I don't want to let you down again- I want to be the Fire Lord who sets this world right again- not drive it down whatever horrible and dark path we were heading down." Zuko told his uncle with a smile, Iroh looking back at him with serious face.

"You will be a great Fire Lord Zuko- better than your father, and better than I could have ever been." Iroh assured Zuko, holding his shoulder strongly, Zuko nodding at his uncle.

Zuko sighed and realised his situation was so alien to him, "Uh- well I guess it's time to go to the coronation." Zuko trembled, feeling anxious about formally appearing in front of the Fire Nation again- his subjects now.

"You'll be fine nephew, why don't we have some calming jasmine tea- that will get your mind off all the stress." Iroh smiled joyfully at his nephew, who couldn't help but make a small smile at his uncle.

"Uncle, I'd like that."

The suns rays peeked through the small barred windows of the small and cramped quarters, shining into the eyes of a half-awake warrior, who would much rather prefer the sun didn't come to him before he chose to leave his bed; Sokka rolled over in frustration, knowing too well that the whole chaos the previous day had led to him feeling rather exhausted- the fighting itself was rather brief and he was sure he got the easiest fights- incompetent brainwashed Fire Nation mutineers, a few Dai Li agents and another lot of them who were rather beat down already- he didn't even get to beat the Dai Li in the throne room to his embarrassment- the entire group of them fled at what he could presume was Long Feng's order and left the Captain and Sokka rather at a stalemate, which disappointed Sokka greatly; he had desired a victory in fighting the finicky agents, but ultimately was left empty handed. He thought over to what he had learned of as well- the Fire Lord's death, supposedly at the hands of Azula's brother, who was seeming more and more crazy every time she described him- she had a bias sure, but he was unable to really judge the guy otherwise; Sokka gave no thought the Fire Lord himself- he already seemed rotten from all perspectives, and Sokka had already proclaimed he had wanted him dead in the past- he wouldn't take that back just because he was dead now- he'd rather have him resurrected just so he could have some Earth Kingdom lynch him themselves- the thought of it humoured him greatly.

Sokka climbed out of bed and glanced over to see the Captain had already left- although he wasn't surprised- Azula had given him a tonne more duties due to the palace's lack of any kind of governor, and so she delegated much of the day-to-day hassle to her head guard- not that Sokka minded that, he much prefer the Captain be forced to labour over the governance of the absolutely massive city rather than him, who knew next to nothing about politics or government- they really didn't have much of that down South. He pulled over his blue shirt and slung his boomerang on as he always would- the Dai Li were always in the back of his head, and he was certain they would try something, although he was unsure if they would before or after Azula left the city; he dearly hoped for the latter over the former- he had done enough fighting and intriguing for one week. Rubbing his eyes of sleep, Sokka pulled himself off of the bed and slunk his feet into his fur boots; he glanced around and looked at the light coming out of the small windows- by the looks of what he could see, it was late morning- he wasn't surprised by his late awakening, Sokka was well attuned to staying in bed as late as he could. He walked out of the room with a slow pace, heaving the heavy metal door of the barracks open to peer outside- luckily for him it was quite a warm day and his light clothing would suffice- he was feeling somewhat off put about wearing his underclothes as his proper clothing all the time now- he usually would wear a proper tunic in such weather, but all of his clothes except the ones he wore were still on the ship with the rest of his meagre belongings.

Walking out through the courtyard, Sokka sped up his pace toward the mess hall, his stomach grumbling at the sight of grandiose building- after spending a week getting his food from there, he had begun to crave the assortments of food they had in stock. Opening the doors he smiled upon the smell of food- before glancing across to see Azula sitting at a table- he considered for a moment why she'd be going to the mess-hall used by guards, but remembered that she had incidentally burned the throne room up; she glanced over at him and acknowledged him with a nod, before turning back to her food. Sokka pulled a small smile at her before turning to the buffet where he grabbed a few bits of food- rice, roast duck and some noodles, before walking over to the table and sitting across from Azula, who glanced up at him and rolled her eyes.

"Here to annoy me peasant?" she questioned him, Sokka chuckling at her statement.

"I'm just here to share a nice breakfast with Mrs. Fire Lord here." he joked to her, making her roll her eyes again.

"The food here isn't even that good- there's a reason they had different food for the palace-folk and the guards." she complained, dropping her head into one of her hands and leaning down in disappointment.

"Oh don't be so grumpy Mrs. Fire Lord, I'm sure you will get fine food when you return to your ship." he assured her, Azula considering his statement for a moment.

"You are right- my staff always ensure to buy the best food- they would be making me a fine breakfast right now if it weren't for the urgency of getting ready to leave- are you ready?" she asked Sokka, who was slurping up noodles at that moment, nodding at her before swallowing the food.

"U-uh yep- there's really not much other than my clothes and weapons." he shrugged, before going back to pick up some roast duck.

"I ought to get you some proper armour- you're really at a disadvantage running around in that." Azula commented, glancing at Sokka's somewhat under-dressed attire.

Chewing down the roast duck, he chuckled at her comment, "Oh this- it gets the job done, although I don't want it getting set on fire, so maybe you're right." he admitted, making Azula raise an eyebrow.

"So you think I'm going let your clothes burn if we spar?" she jested, laughing at the thought, "I would actually! That's a good one."

"Nah- more so the fact that you're going to be fighting your brother- that might involve us fighting other Fire Nation people, right?" he asked, Azula nodding in response, her face contorting into a glare.

"I know my brother will have gotten some support from some sycophants in the military- enough people will believe the 'honour' of his duel with my father, but I certainly hope he doesn't bring half the Fire Nation to fight just me." she admitted, feeling frustrated with the thought of more work than she had expected at this point.

"Yeah- the Fire Nation killing itself in a blaze of fire doesn't sound like it would help anyone at this point." Sokka thought aloud, Azula raising an eyebrow at his comment.

"So you think the world is better under Fire Nation rule?" she questioned, Sokka shaking his head.

"No, the Fire Nation collapsing into a massive war amongst themselves would only bring more chaos- that wouldn't help any Earth Kingdom people, who all happen to be under lands controlled by your people." he told her, Azula considering his idea for the moment.

"So you're saying I need to deal with this conflict directly? As so to decrease the collateral damage of what happens if I let this run it's natural course." she asked, Sokka shrugging his shoulders.

"I don't know- if you can beat the shit out of your brother and become Fire Lord- maybe? Is that what you want?" he asked, Azula nodding with a smirk.

"I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world- it's what I trained my entire life for." she affirmed, Sokka nodding, his eyes somewhat fearful.

"U-uh yeah..." he mumbled, grabbing some more food and putting it in his mouth, trying to avoid asking anything more about Azula's plans for the world- he could only help but fear what she had in mind; he wanted to trust her as the person he knew, but he knew that she was ruthless and willing to go to harsh ends to achieve goals- would she destroy his people just because they were a stepping stone to complete world domination?

"Are you afraid of me?" she asked him abruptly, Sokka nearly choking on his food, looking up at her with a slightly confused face.

"I mean- you're a tough lady- I wouldn't want to fight you." he told her honestly, Azula looking at him with seemingly unfocused eyes.

"No- I mean, do you follow me because I'm tough, ruthless, a indomitable strategic genius, or-" she tried to ask him, Sokka cutting her off.

"Am I your friend? Yes- as weird as that might sound, yeah- I'd say I'm friends with you, despite your somewhat threatening and erratic behaviour." he told her, Azula laughing his comments off.

"I'm not the most sociable person- the most talking we do is arguing." she admitted to him, Sokka smirking at her.

"That's the best kind of talking- it makes you really think." he told her, "It's not like I'm the only friend you have though, is it?" he asked her, Azula considering momentarily, and shrugged her shoulders.

"I had friends when I went to school- but that was when I was a kid- I haven't seen them for a while now." she explained to him, Sokka chuckling.

"Uh- so you've been stuck with your guards and whatever other people you have to deal with at home?" he asked, Azula rolling her eyes.

"Lo and Li- my firebending instructors, who both happened to be non-benders actually." she told him, sighing in a moment of reflection, "Hanging around old crones like them for too long, they on your nerves." she told him, making Sokka chuckle at her description.

"They don't sound too fun." he admitted, Azula nodding with all seriousness.

"They were the antithesis of fun- completely drained the life out of whatever you would like to call a childhood- I prefer the Earth Kingdom forest to their endless droning and stupid training." she jested, making Sokka laugh out loud with food in his mouth.

"Uh- so would you say this whole experience has been a break from the boringness of that?" he asked, Azula scoffing at the thought.

"It certainly stopped the boringness," she sighed, glaring at him momentarily, "this entire thing with my brother however, would have been a lot easier to deal with if I was back in the capital when it happened."

"Aw- then you wouldn't have met yours truly." he joked, pointing at himself with an grin.

"I should have taken that damned water and ran off without you to frustrate me." she sneered at him, Sokka chuckling.

"Yeah then you would have starved in that forest with a swollen foot." he told her, Azula raising a brow at his claim.

"You still think I couldn't have survived in that forest by myself?" she questioned Sokka, who shrugged.

"I think it was a mutual saving- I knew how to hunt, and you knew how to beat the shit out of those deserters." he told her, Azula laughing him with a mocking tone.

"S-so now of all times you admit you're worthless in a fight?! Hahaha!" she continued to laugh loudly, Sokka gritting his teeth at her claims.

"I said you were better than me, not that I was incompetent!" he grumbled at Azula, who continued to chuckle, wiping tears of laughter from her eyes.

"Now, now- calm down savage, we all need to accept that some people are better at some things than others." she assured Sokka with a humoured smile; he rolled his eyes and finished off his breakfast, chewing down the last of his rice in one foul swoop, glancing over to see that Azula had finished her own breakfast.

"So- what are you doing now?" he asked her, genuinely unsure what she would be doing with all her time seeing that the conspiracies had been dealt with.

"Well I said you needed proper armour- how about he go to the armoury, get you to try on something?" she asked him, Sokka's face lighting up with a smile.

"I love shopping, and trying on armour is close enough to it- I'm in!" he exclaimed with a grin on his face, pulling himself from the bench to stand up.

Azula got up from her side of the bench and sighed at Sokka's overly ecstatic behaviour, before walking over to the door, with Sokka tailing behind; she glanced back and noticed that he was standing behind her instead of by her side, and eyed him with suspicion.

"Stop walking behind me- you aren't some clueless pet." she chided Sokka, who laughed off her comment and strided up beside her as they opened the door out into the courtyard, before Azula smirked and turned to eye Sokka again, "Unless of course- that wasn't what you were doing..."

Sokka's eyes opened wide in a slight of fear, "Uh- no I was following you; what are you implying exactly?"

"Nothing much- I simply considered for a moment that Mr. Tough Warrior might be a bit of a pervert." she jested at him with his own style of mocking nickname, making Sokka blush his face in near horror.

"N-no! I'm a honourable warrior who doesn't do anything like that- at all!" he told her in a flurry, before pacing himself up to walk faster ahead of her- slightly out of fear of whatever she might ask him next.

"Are you sure?!" she jokingly shouted out at him, as if to draw other peoples intentions- ignoring the fact that the courtyard was completely empty at the time.

"Yes- very-much-so!" she responded even louder, pacing himself in an awkward mix between walking and jogging.

"So do you want to make this a race?" she asked him, increasing her own pace to chase after Sokka, who glanced back with his face turning from one of fear to a smirk.

"Ah- you got it!" he told her, turning to a full sprint with Azula turning in kind to speed up to a sprint as well.

Racing across the courtyard, she trailed behind Sokka, but picked up speed over time, eventually coming side to side with the Water Tribesman- who glanced at her with frustration, making her stick out her tongue at him before overtaking within a few moments. he continued to follow behind her, trying to take a sharper turn around the corner of the palace hall to get ahead, but nearly tripped over his own feet, much to Azula's amusement. He frowned at her as she continued to sprint ahead of him, soon arriving at the garrison's armoury, where the standing guards looked at the two of them in confusion; Azula slowed her pace as she closed in on the armory, but Sokka continued to sprint, skidding to a halt beside her as she reached the guards.

"Good morning soldiers- my associate and I are in need of some armour, so I will require access to this building." she told them, the guards already stepping aside for her.

"Of course your highness" the two guards acknowledged her curtly bowing before eyeing Sokka, who was dusting himself off after his run.

"Come along now loser- we can get you your armour." she told Sokka, who pouted in realisation of his loss, but curtly followed her into the armoury.

Azula led him into the armoury and glanced around the various armours they had in stock, his eyes paling in realisation of what he would end up wearing, "Oh spirits- I'm going to be wearing one of those- at least now I can really one up and tell the Captain I am an officer." he joked, although he felt somewhat an unease knowing that he would be wearing Fire Nation armour, something that he personally associated with the raids on his tribe and the death of his mother.

"Officer- that can be arranged- do you want a helmet with that?" she asked him, Sokka scoffing in response.

"I'd like to retain a little bit of my pride and dignity." he told her, glancing at the skull masks and flame shaped helmets assorted on a rack.

Azula pulled out a set of armour, showing it to him- Sokka acknowledged that the armour was probably the least-Fire-Nation-y she could find- it had gray shirt and a a few red plates on it to cover his chest and shoulders, and it seemed to be well sized and covering- no chance that he would get incidentally burned wearing it.

"You'll look like any other Fire Nation officer wearing this- if you tied your hair into the top-knot, people would think you were just some cadet from the outer islands." she acknowledged, Sokka chuckling at the thought.

"Wait- let me test that one out." he thought out loud, pulling his warriors wolf tail out, and sliding off the beads he wore with his hair- he had been trying to imitate his father's hairstyle of late, meaning that his usually shaved sides had been grown out- Sokka simplying grabbed the mass of hair underneath with the rest of his hair and tied it into a topknot, glancing back at Azula with an awkward face.

"How much of a Fire Nation goon do I look like?" he asked her, Azula looking at him momentarily before chuckling.

"Convincing enough- now change your hair back before I start thinking your one of my guards who's idling around." she jested at him, Sokka going along with her joke with a laugh, before he tied his hair back up into it's usual wolf-tail.

"So am I going to need this armour anytime soon?" he asked Azula, who glanced at him with a smirk.

"Perhaps I can show you off in it when the new forces arrive."

The draping of red flags along the pillars of the Governor's Palace unsettled him somewhat, and more so the massive force of Fire Nation soldiers that stood before him in the the palace courtyard- an entire army of men before their Crown Princess; Sokka felt uneasy upon realising that if it wasn't for his distinctive hairstyle and blue eyes, he probably wouldn't be distinguishable from the men he could see before him- his new Fire Nation armour was comfortable and protective- but it made him feel alien to his own identity- he was a Water Tribe warrior, not a Fire Nation soldier. He recounted the events of the past two weeks- and acknowledged that he had done many things he wouldn't have expected his past self to ever do; Sokka told himself that necessity of situation required action, but he was out of the forest in Huangwen- he could have parted ways with Azula and been on his way, but he decided to follow her to Ba Sing Se and assist her in fighting the Dai Li. He actually considered that he probably would have supported the sneaky earthbenders before his experience, but he knew better than to trust people just because of their nation now.

Sokka glanced over to Azula, who was wearing her formal armour once more, dressed up for the occasion of commanding soldiers- he thought her armour actually looked quite intimidating and daunting, it's jet black colouring making her look more like a weapon than a person; he knew better than to make that presumption about the Princess- she was certainly able to hurt with words, probably better than she could with her fists from what he had seen. She stood forth onto a makeshift podium and cleared her throat before speaking to the assembled men, who were patiently awaiting her command.

"Loyal soldiers of the Fire Nation- you are here before me today because of the unfortunate events that have transpired over the past few days; not only have we lost our courageous Fire Lord, my father, to a traitor who claims himself your ruler, but this city has been shaken by subversive elements who would like to see us all dead or under their feet- degenerate earthbenders who think themselves above our laws." she explained to the soldiers, before continuing, "I command you all to hold this city, in the name of the one hundred years of conquest that took us to breach it's walls, in the name of my father, who used the power of the Comet to make the Earth Kingdom bend before him; you will protect our dominion with your lives, not because it is just your duty, but your obligation! We are of the superior element, and if any one lesser tries to claim their power over us, then they will pay tenfold for their hubris. Do you hear me?!" she shouted at the men, who raised their fists in a salute and shouted out positively to her command.

"I am the true heir of Fire Lord Ozai, no one can claim otherwise- as his declared heir, I have every right to take the title of Fire Lord from my traitorous brother, and I will- I will ensure that our glorious reign of prosperity and wonder lives on for a thousand years- do you swear upon me?!" she asked of the men, who all knelt down before her in a position of deference and respect- she smirked at the mass approval of her claim as well as her own authority.

Azula turned from her podium and the soldiers cheered her on in conclusion, Sokka gazing in awe of the respect Azula had gathered; he followed Azula and her guard into the palace hall and throne room, walking along in formation beside the Captain- he felt a bit out of place walking into formation with the guards. Upon reflecting his attire, he realised he certainly looked the part; the Fire Nation armour he wore was elegant and what he would expect a ranking commander to wear- something he considered a bit above his actual position, but his adjacency to Azula afforded him a high amount of deference, from what he had seen abusing the local guards to let him do things that would usually be outside the scope of someone in the palace.

Arriving in the room, Sokka gaped at the change that had taken place- after Azula had incidentally burned the furnishings of the room down, she had momentarily had it converted into a strategy room- and before him lay a crude implementation of what he presumed to a world map- a large canvas that must have been painted up at a moments notice to serve the Princess. Around the map stood the various commanding officers of the forces that had already gathered in Ba Sing Se- their ranks and ages varied but they all seemed on the younger side- probably all the 'divisions' Azula requested could spare when they realised Ba Sing Se couldn't reasonably be held by the garrison with the massive threat of the Dai Li- of course that wasn't the biggest issue at hand, but he assumed at that moment they would have to deal with it sooner rather than later. Sokka took his place standing beside the Captain, who eyed him off momentarily; he considered that his appearance might make him seem too Fire-Nation-y, which wasn't the best thing in his own opinion- he was certainly a proud man, he wouldn't deny it, and wearing the attire of his 'enemy' made him feel that he was effacing his own self-image. He looked to Azula who stood in front of all of the officers present, presiding over the massive canvas map; she cleared her throat before addressing the officers.

"As you all know- my brother has proclaimed himself Fire Lord- by this time we can assume that he has been crowned and is preparing to face our combined military forces. I have requested the support of all the fleets and armies of the Fire Nation, although time may tell if they will support us- in the mean time we must act with what we have." she explained to the men present, who nodded in understanding- they were quite short on numbers, and Azula assumed that many of the forces that wouldn't respond likely were waiting for the two royals to fight in an Agni Kai before pledging allegiance to any one side.

One of the officers stood forth and bowed before the Princess, "Princess- I recommend in trying the support of the Supreme Admiral, Zhao- he was recently beaten by in a duel by your brother- he would surely support us, he would be a reliable commander and would field a naval force unmatched in the Fire Nation.

Azula raised a brow at the officer, "Admiral Zhao would reliably support my claim- you are right, but I must ask, do we know where he even is?"

The officer nodded, "Supposedly he was in interlude from his fighting in the North, but after his duel he has remained in the Mo Ce Sea- I believe that he was hunting down your brother before he made it to the mainland." he explained, Azula nodding in understanding.

"We will need to take forces overland to the western territories, around Yu Dao and the other older colonies- we do not have enough ships to take an entire army to the homeland, but if we unify our forces with Zhao's, we will be able to crush the naval forces that my brother can muster, as well as launch an attack to seize the homeland from his grip." Azula strategised, the officers nodding in agreement.

Another officer stood forward, "Your highness, how many men will we need to take the homeland?" Azula considered his statement momentarily before pointing at the map toward the western Earth Kingdom.

"We don't need too many men, just enough to enforce the colonies under our rule, conscript a small portion of their population and we will have enough men to defeat my brother- and at the same time prevent pro-Earth Kingdom rebellions from getting greedy at our moment of division." she explained.

One officer raised his hand, older and gruffer than the other men, "Your highness, I've seen what resistance the Earth Kingdom can hold up against our men- how do you propose we counter any rebellion, right here in Ba Sing Se?"

"It is a challenge to hold this city- as you all know, my investigations led to the revelation of a conspiracy in this city, the governor himself compromised by brainwashing- the Dai Li remains a present threat, but I would resist burning Ba Sing Se to the ground just yet." she affirmed to the officer, looking to Sokka, "Sokka- you know the other rebellious forces better than I do- what threat to they face to the Fire Nation occupation?"

Sokka sweated in realisation he'd have to speak in front of quite a lot of people- the attention made him feel even more uneasy, "U-uh- the Freedom Fighters are one of many groups I think are in this city- petty crimes and thievery are your primary issues when they feel threatened- and uh- otherwise they may try to make attempts at fighting your men head on." he explained, fumbling his explanation somewhat, much to the cringing of Azula, who realised she hadn't seen him attempt public speaking yet.

"So these Freedom Fighters would fight us if we seemed weak." an officer asked Sokka, who nodded with a slight sense of dread.

"I don't think that it would be wise to crack down on them, that would only sway more to their side- you need to show that the Fire Nation is present in the streets- in the Lower Ring especially." he explained, feeling somewhat sickened by his own words- he was advising Fire Nation military on how to suppress Earth Kingdom rebels, "The best way to keep them down is to keep them happy." he ended with, realising that he could at least offer some advice that might come to the benefit of the Earth Kingdom's citizens.

"Happy? Like throwing them festivals or something?" one of the younger officers questioned, his face of confusion mirrored by a number of other officers.

"Uh- no more like giving them good work- good money- you guys like factories, right?" he tried to explain, coming off a bit to casual, Azula intervening in his exposition.

"We need to make more development in the city- factories and industry are the backbone of our empire, and also provide much of the employment in the homeland and colonies- Ba Sing Se is a colony, although it's a bit unusual to describe it as such, but it should function like any other colony." she explained, the officers nodding.
One of them stood forward, "We should send out requests for engineers and merchants to come to the city, we could subsidise them with the acquired taxes- I assume the Governor had a treasury around here?" he asked, Azula nodding.

"Yes, the city is a money-making machine for our Nation, it's only logical that we use that money to procure more of it from the city itself." she argued, the officers nodding in agreement.

Sokka sighed in relief upon knowing that he hadn't just made the Fire Nation do something insane and evil like he would have expected them to- the Fire Nation was more than willing to do things to the benefit of the people as long as they saw a victory out of it.

"With that out of the way, I say that it is best that we organise our plans to move westward- how many ships do we have?" she asked, the Captain stood forward to answer her question.

"Including your new royal barge, fifteen cruisers, those used by the forces present to cross overseas if necessary." he explained, Azula nodding.

"I want an army group devised to take on those ships- we will take them through the East and West Lakes to the Colonies- from there we will assert our military control over the region, and in the meantime another group can march overland- the time delay is of little worry- it will take time to organise an invasion force if necessary." she explained, chuckling at the end, "With any luck, my brother will be stupid enough to come fight me himself."

Feeling calmer Sokka could only help but consider the strategies at play on the map before him- he was a keen student of warfare and tactics, having to involve them on a day to day basis as a warrior, but the whole idea of the disconnect of the map before them to the actual battles that have or will take place made him feel sick in the stomach- from where he stood, men would be ordered to die by sword and fire and he could do little but stand and nod along. He didn't believe there had to be war over who sat on a throne, but ultimately that wasn't his decision to make, he could only hope that cooler heads would prevail and Azula would be able to deal with her brother directly.

Chapter Text

Standing impatiently in a hall of the Royal Pavilion, Zuko felt uneasy about his coronation- he was already shocked by the fact that he was being crowned Fire Lord, let alone back in his country after so many years banished. Beside him stood his uncle, who was holding a cup of tea in his hand, seemingly distracted in his own thought; Zuko turned to his Uncle and tried to think of something to say.

"We're here." he muttered, cringing at the realisation of such an obvious thing to say.

Iroh chuckled at his comment, "Well you are right nephew- we are here."

"I don't know how to act- should I be happy- I don't know if I want to be happy." he thought aloud, Iroh patting him on the shoulder.

"At the very least- just enjoy the moment- you know it will only happen once." he smiled at Zuko.

"Okay- I just want to say the right thing." he explained, Iroh nodding in understanding of his dilemma- he didn't know what he should tell his subjects- what kind of Fire Lord he was going to be- who he wanted to be.

"What do you want for the Fire Nation?" he asked, Zuko sighing in response.

"I want peace- I don't want the world to suffer any longer; this war has gone on far too long, and I- I want to make sure that the Fire Nation is better after it." he explained.

"Tell them that- or something like it." Iroh chuckled, pointing his tea cup toward the door, "They're waiting for you- for their Fire Lord." he simply stated, Zuko responding with a curt nod before striding out to a tall and imposing door, which his guards opened with haste, revealing the crowd before him- a mass of people all awaiting to see him- something he hadn't expected in so many years- being the banished Prince had made him think himself undesirable- a stain on his family- but now as he stood before his people, he felt a sense of pride.

Walking up to the Head Sage, who acknowledged him with a bow, "Prince Zuko." he simply stated, before turning to the crowd, Zuko following in suite to stand before the masses.

Zuko stepped forward to address the crowd, "I, Prince Zuko, rightful heir to the Fire Nation, challenged my father to an Agni Kai duel for the throne- I defeated him in single combat, but unfortunately for him, he was fatally wounded in the process." Zuko explained, audible sounds of shock coming from the crowd- it was no big secret that his father was an extremely powerful bender, and that Zuko himself had been refuted as the weakest bender in his family, "I do not intend to remain as narrow minded as my father, or his father before him- I want to bring a new age of peace and prosperity to our nation- I promised to my uncle that I would redeem our nation, and that is what I will do- peace is something that has been far from our people for so many years, but now I hope for a brighter future, for us to follow a better path than our forefathers." he finished, the crowd reacting with some enthusiasm, although Zuko was unsure if their reactions were forced in the moment.

Having finished his speech, Zuko knelt humbly before the Head Sage, who held up the fire crown above his head, before placing it in his top-knot, before taking a step away from the Prince, declaring to the crowd, "Hail Fire Lord Zuko!" the crowd cheered him on, Zuko rising up and gesturing to the crowd.

He turned back to his Uncle, who looked at him with a teary smile, proud of his nephew beyond words, making Zuko smile back at his Uncle, the most happy smile Zuko had ever seen from his nephew in a long time.

The Head Sage turned to the crowd spoke out once more, "I wish you all to enjoy the festivities- this is a great day for the Fire Nation." he exclaimed, the crowd cheering in recognition of the festival and feast that was to be held in the new Fire Lord's honour.

The nobles of the city filed up toward the platform upon which Zuko had been crowned, all one by one bowing and stating their allegiance to the Fire Lord, before heading into the pavilion hall to join his feast- his uncle had explained to him the know-how of a coronation festival- something which Zuko distinctively remembered his father lacked, Iroh recalled it as something his father and grandfather had done upon their successions to the throne, holding opulent festivities and a feast as an image of the prosperity of the nation. Although Iroh was a humble man himself, he told Zuko it was the best way to interact directly with his subjects and gather support amongst the higher nobility, many of which were officers in the military who would be necessary in his securing of the Fire Nation.

The two royals acknowledged that despite Zuko's coronation as Fire Lord being completely legitimate in the eyes of the people and the sages, rogue military elements were sure to oppose his succession to the throne over his sister, the legal heir of the throne at the time of Zuko's Agni Kai with Ozai- if his sister was to stake her claim, which Zuko expected she would, they would have to act quickly to ensure she would return to the fold- either through defeat in another Agni Kai, or humble submission- something they both knew she wouldn't do lightly.

"Uncle- I think that went well." he commented to Iroh, who stood beside him as the last of the nobles went into the pavilion hall.

"Well yes- I've never seen a coronation ceremony, but I think this has gone as well as it could have." he grinned at his nephew, who cringed at his uncle's dorky smile.

"Stop it Uncle- we're in the capital now- we've got to act the part as well." he reminded his uncle, who pouted with slight exaggeration.

"Aw what a disappointment- I was hoping to enjoy the freedom of being in my old home once more." he commented, before he and Zuko turned from the courtyard of the pavilion hall, still full of on-lookers, whom Zuko waved to in response, causing a positive uproar.

Walking into the pavilion hall side-by-side, the newly anointed Fire Lord and former general stood proudly in the image that would be expected of them- the new Fire Lord and his loyal uncle, the great Dragon of the West; although Zuko and Iroh's personal intentions for the Fire Nation were rather drastic and radical, they intended to remain steadfast in maintaining their image- Iroh had advised Zuko that he should always be a humble leader, but decisive in his actions- although he certainly didn't doubt Zuko's resolve after the events of the past few weeks.
They walked up to the Great Hall where the Fire Lord's personal feast was being served, the nobility of the Nation being seated in the hall along the opulent tables- with enough food to feed a city, in Zuko's eyes; his life on the sea had made him somewhat disconnected from the life of wealth he had formerly had as the Crown Prince, and looking upon the feast made him realise the disconnect within the nation itself- the nobility would eat feasts in the homeland while peasant soldiers would die in the droves against an enemy they had no real reason to fight- he knew the war had to stop, even if at this point it was just the Fire Nation beating down the defiant remnants of the Earth Kingdom. Zuko and Iroh sat both up at a personal table surrounded by flames similar to the throne that the Fire Lord would usually sit upon- his servants immediately attended to Zuko with drinks and serving his own food, as the guests sat upon their own tables. Zuko sighed upon realising he would have to persuade the people in the hall of his own plans for the Fire Nation- he needed respect and loyalty above all things, but getting it from the people he personally disdained wouldn't help him along.

Shifting to whisper to his Uncle, "So how much of boot-licker to I have to be today, exactly?" he asked, Iroh chuckling at his question.

"You see- the greatest skill a leader can have is to know when to be respectful and when to be honest to his people." he told his nephew, who sighed at the sounding of one of his Uncle's many proverbs.

"The proverbs are always right- aren't they?" Zuko mumbled, Iroh smiling back.

"Of course- I made that one up on the spot!" he proclaimed, making Zuko roll his eyes, before he stood up to address the guests.

"Men and women of the Fire Nation, it is my honour to have you at this great feast to celebrate my coronation- I hope that you find the food to your liking, it is prepared by the best cooks in the Fire Nation after all." he attempted to joke, the guests laughing at his remarks- making Zuko feel slightly more comfortable.

"Please enjoy the feast, I do hope to be a good a Fire Lord as any." he proclaimed, the guests raising their drinks to the Fire Lord in response.

"To Fire Lord Zuko!" their beverages clattering in a cheers.

Zuko sat down back beside his Uncle who nodded in acknowledgement of his speech, "Good job nephew- I think that went along nicely." he complimented, Zuko nodding back courteously.

"Thanks Uncle, I appre-" he begun, being interrupted by Iroh's chuckling.

"That is- compared to the kinds of things you said on our ship." he joked, Zuko grumbling at his Uncle upon the reminder of the many times he had awkwardly tried to talk to the crew in a rather non-commanding fashion.

"It's not my fault I'm only good at ordering- what do you expect of me- I'm not good at speaking publicly." he complained to his uncle, who smirked back at him.

"That, nephew, is something that you will have to get used to." he told him, Zuko face palming in realisation.

"If this is the kind of stuff I have to do all the time as Fire Lord, I wouldn't blame you for not taking the throne yourself." he remarked to his Uncle.

Looking down upon bed he had called his home for nearly two weeks- Sokka felt an unusual sentiment- the place he thought was practically akin to a prison somehow felt homely to him- he considered perhaps that he was more fearful of the world outside of this city- his preconceptions of the Fire Nation had been challenged by both Azula and the Captain, but now he felt that he was going to have his ideal confirmed, to his own disappointment. The Fire Nation ought to deserve defeat after their gross mistreatment of the world, but he thought a civil war over the entire world would be as bad, or worse than the Hundred Year War- two well-armed side pitting it out against each other as well as the Earth Kingdom rebels who decide to seize the moment- the massive devastation that would follow would be indescribable; Sokka could see the imagined images of his own tribes destruction at the hands of the Fire Nation, and placed those thoughts over the rest of the world, making his stomach knot in disgust. He considered he might be exaggerating, but Sokka was unsure to what end people would be wiling to fight for their ideology- from what it seemed, if the White Lotus and Zuko were aligned, then his ideological point of view would be a direct break from the past efforts of the Fire Nation which he assumed Azula would seize upon herself, much to Sokka's own disappointment.

"You ready to go kid?" the Captain asked him, standing at the door as he watched Sokka fumble in his thoughts.

Sokka broke from his chain of worried thought and turned to the Captain, stoically nodding back, "Yes- just give me a second." he affirmed, grabbing the papers that he had on the Dai Li, the Catacombs and the rest of the threats in the city, rolling them up and tieing them up with a string.

Turning back to the Captain, he walked out behind him, closing the doors of the room- making a small smile strong the bars of the door to acknowledge the place for a final time before turning to walk up to the main door of the barracks, a guard opening the door for them both.

"Sirs..." he bowed before both Sokka and the Captain, making Sokka feel somewhat uneasy again- with his new armour he did certainly look like a Fire Nation soldier, which was unsettling for Sokka- if he saw himself in a mirror he'd think he was someone he ought to knock out with his club- his weapons were probably the only major distinguishable feature that he wasn't actually Fire Nation, his club and boomerang both slung over his back, ready for use at any moment.

Sokka beside the Captain up to the rest of the guards and servants, who were waiting in the courtyard patiently for the Princesses arrival- dealing with final packing and talks with the new administrators of the city- a council of officers that she could trust to collectively rule the city- a group of them was much harder for the Dai Li to overthrow if they all hold combined authority.

He turned to the Captain, who looked somewhat relieved to finally be leaving Ba Sing Se, "So- uh- you're eager to leave?" he asked the Captain, who nodded at Sokka in approval.

"Of course- after the whole ordeal, I think I want to put as much space between me and the Dai Li as possible." he explained, glancing up at the sight of Azula, who was walking down the steps with two servants, holding all of her belongings- there wasn't much to take seeing that anything she actually would have brought along sunk in the shipwreck, but she had some clothes and cleaning products that she would need for the journey back home- the essentials such as food were already delivered to the ship at the time, the vessel still docked south of the city, awaiting it's Princesses return.

Azula walked up to Sokka and the Captain, greeting them both with a nod, "I see we are all prepared to leave, good- I want to be as swift as possible in returning to the ship." she explained, Sokka and the Captain nodding before Azula looked the to her behind, before looking back at them.

"Now- I have something delicate for you two to handle." she explained, Sokka and the Captain both looking at her with slight confusion.

"May I inquire what exactly that will be, your highness?" the Captain courteously asked, Azula nodding at his respect before pointing across the courtyard behind them to the Royal Prison.

"As we speak I have sent elite firebenders from the expeditionary forces to seize Long Feng, break his limbs and bring him to me in chains." she explained, Sokka's eyes opening in slight shock.

"Excuse me- break his limbs'?" he questioned her, Azula shrugging at him.

"How else do you expect me to transfer him out of a prison cell? An earthbender cannot be able to bend when they're imprisoned, especially when under my watch." she told him, Sokka cringing at the thought of the beat down, before nodding in acceptance- he didn't like the thought even if he personally found Long Feng to be a stain on his nation's honour, he didn't think the man ought to have his limbs broken just because it was more effective to do so.

"So- as I was saying, I want you to ensure that he reaches the brig of my vessel alive, he's far more useful that way; I don't want him in this city where the Dai Li can just as easily break him out again." she finished, the Captain nodding in understanding, Sokka still feeling conflicted about how she had addressed the issue.

"Well- you could've just used a metal cage." Sokka thought out loud, Azula's eyes glaring at him with frustration.

"Carrying him across a city in a metal cage? He's a master earthbender- we cannot give him even a chance to try and fight back." she berated Sokka, who shrunk back in defeat, eyeing off the side as he saw Long Feng being pulled along toward them by a squad of elite firebenders- to this day they still intimidated Sokka with their skull masks; he thought in hindsight it was something stupid to be afraid of, seeing the Captain right beside him consistently wore one himself, to which Sokka would barely bat an eye.

As he approached, Sokka could make out Long Feng's grumbled complaints, "Y-you ash-maker scum- spirits damn you all..." making Sokka chuckle lightly- although he disagreed with Azula's methods he certainly thought the Grand Secretariat deserved all the pain he got.

Azula patted Sokka on the shoulder, "I'm sure you can handle this well savage- don't disappoint me." she told Sokka, who simply chuckled at her warning.

"I'll be more disappointed if I get one-upped by a bender with broken limbs." he admitted, making Azula chuckle at him, before she turned to Long Feng himself, forcefully raising the injured man's chin to make her look at him.

"If you as much try to raise a pebble- I will have Sokka here finish what he started in the throne room- got it?" she asked Long Feng, who resigned his face in defeat and offence- he was the kind of man who was effaced by the actual possibility of being killed, let alone defeated by a non-bender.

Sokka smirked deviously at Long Feng upon realising his own power in the situation, "That's right- I'm more than willing to disembowel you." he joked, although he said it in such a tone that he wanted Long Feng to consider it a legitimate threat.

Azula's party walked along the courtyard to the main gate of the palace, where a number of guards stood duty, immediately bowing before the Princess- who recognised one of them as the guard who had been unable to find Sokka after his drunken encounter with the Dai Li- he was bowing intensely and trying not to look her in the eye, making her smirk in understanding of the respect she had gathered- even if was partly through the well founded fear of her own ability to destroy her enemies absolutely. The group then continued on with a small attache of soldiers, mostly back-up in case Long Feng's lackeys tried to break him free while he was outside of the palace, with Sokka and the Captain standing in the middle with Long Feng, who was being carried by four soldiers, as his broken limbs prevented him from walking.

"Is this a few too many guys to be protecting us- I'm pretty sure Azula can handle herself?" Sokka asked the Captain, who shrugged at his admittance.

"You doubt the Dai Li won't make a move- Long Feng has more information than what he's told us, he likely is a prime target for assassination by his own people if they believe him compromised." he explained, knowing too well that Long Feng would have heard him.

"A-ha-ha you foolish men..." he mumbled behind them, Sokka glaring at the Grand Secretariat, nodding at the men who held him, who responded by kneeing Long Feng in the abdomen- lightly enough to not cause any real damage, but enough to make him hurt and bring on nausea, and make sure he shut up.

Sokka knew that the fact he was conscious made him a threat- though he personally doubted the limb breaking would even stop him from bending- from what he had seen from other benders, his sister included, the limbs enhanced bending- they weren't the source of it. Sokka momentarily recalled the move he had originally incapacitated Long Feng with- temporarily disabling his bending with a method Azula called 'chi blocking'. He kept it and Long Feng's bending in mind as the group continued walking down through the Upper Ring toward the closest monorail stop- the city was so large that even walking as far as local monorail could take quite some time- he was hoping that once they reached the ship his days of seemingly endless walking would stop. Soon enough the group arrived at the market, as they walked through Sokka compulsively emptied his pockets of any coins he had, as he tried to find something to buy as they walked past the stalls and various wares that were being offered, earning him a frustrated glance from the Captain.

"Are you being serious- of all times you want to go around the market, it's when we're leaving the city with a high-value prisoner?" he berated Sokka, who shrugged and put his coins back into his pockets.

"I have- uh- a need for 'things'" Sokka tried to explain, making the Captain just shake his head in disapproval before turning back to focus on their surroundings- he had to stay on task of ensuring the Dai Li didn't try anything while they walked toward the monorail.

Leaving the market the group made their way down a major thoroughfare, the wide street giving the guards ample space to cover in ensuring no one approached Long Feng or the Princess. Sokka glanced around the area and reminded himself of the Dai Li safe-house- knowing there was others like it proved the threat that the Dai Li would pose if they were to attempt anything; he wasn't necessarily afraid of them, but more so of the uncertainty of if or when they could strike.

He turned to the Captain with his thoughts, "Uh- so how can we be certain the men who we are walking with- these guards- aren't compromised?" he asked the Captain, who sighed before moving himself closer to Sokka.

"There is a chance- you're not wrong; you should be prepared to do what you must." he whispered to him, his voice cold and unrelentingly serious, before returning to form as if he had said nothing, making Sokka gulp fearfully; he was now admitting that he was actually starting to feel afraid, even as they walked down the street in public- he briefly turned his head to acknowledge how many guards had joined them at the gates- from what he could see behind him, at least a dozen of them.

"I don't know if I'm just paranoid- but I think I know what I have to do." he told the Captain in a quiet voice, before stopping and turning to the guards holding Long Feng, raising a hand to order them to halt.

He inched closer to Long Feng and asked him, "Can you speak?" he simply put, raising Long Feng's drooped down head with his hand, making the man grumble in pain.

"Urgh- n-not to y-" he begun, before being immediately cut off by Sokka hammering him hard in the jaw, causing it to dislocate and sputter blood out of his mouth.

The holdup was immediately realised by Azula, who walked back from her own personal protection to look at Sokka in confusion, "Okay- explain yourself savage- don't tell me he did something that requires us to dispose of him." she requested of him, Sokka shrugging.

"If he can speak- he can activate whatever mind control he used in the palace, so I ensured he couldn't speak." he simply put, Azula considering his statement momentarily, the Captain and the others looking at Sokka's behaviour with shock.

"Well, I cannot disagree with that- good job savage, carry on." she acknowledged him with a smirk, before turning to the rest of the group, "Come on! Keep moving!" she ordered, and with that they continued to walk along the road toward the monorail station.

After walking down the road the group finally arrived at the monorail station, which was to their benefit, one of the best guarded buildings in the city- the Fire Nation decidedly continued the Earth Kingdom policy to have customs and tariffs at the entrances of the Upper Ring to ensure that undesirables couldn't access the city- this policy came to the groups benefit in ensuring that they would be safe when travelling by monorail despite the threat of the Dai Li- having Long Feng as hostage, in both Azula and Sokka's eyes, would ensure that they wouldn't try anything too stupid while he was in their custody- they could just as easily kill him if they brashly attacked the Princesses party. Azula, her guards and servants all entered first while Sokka and the Captain prepared Long Feng for travel; the Captain attached a metal chain to the Grand Secretariats feet, which prevented him from even trying to fumble away from their grasp- Long Feng by that point was in intense pain from his initial injuries as well as Sokka's beatings to prevent him using his words against them. The two of them nodded to the guards that had escorted them, acknowledging they would be able to hand the passage from there on out; dragging Long Feng into a carriage, they placed him on a seat before sitting themselves across from him, glancing at each other with a sense of relief.

"Do you think he's going to be stupid enough to try anything now?" Sokka asked him, the Captain staring Long Feng down.

"He's beaten, bruised and unable to walk- I think we've done enough to prevent stupidity taking it's course." he told Sokka, who nodded in relief of his assurances, before realising after a few moments silence that he ought to have some kind of conversation with the Captain if he was going to be stuck with him for the meantime.

"So- uh- how did you like Ba Sing Se?" he asked, the Captain glaring at Sokka with contempt.

"I will say that I don't want to ever come back here- it's a dark, weird and confusing place that I feel my people never should have taken a step into." he admitted, feeling uneasy at the thought of the potential political and military fallout that could come from a successful Dai Li coup.

"I mean I agree with you on that one- for differing reasons of course, but nonetheless, I agree." Sokka affirmed to him, making the Captain glance at him with curiosity.

"So- after all of that, do you regret coming with us?" he asked, Sokka chuckling at his question with a sense of humour.

"I mean- I did enjoy it in some parts- the whole experience gave me perspective, but it might also give me nightmares." he explained, making the Captain lightly laugh at his commentary, although he tried to cover it with his mask and 'serious' body language, "Hey and I got you not to utterly despise me, how about that?" he told the Captain, which made him scoff.

"Really? I don't think you've changed my mind on you and your dirty backwards people." he told Sokka, who laughed off his comments.

"You keep telling yourself that one." he mocked him, making the Captain grumble back in frustration.

"I'm being fully serious- your people are part of this whole mess- remember the whole 'White Lotus hired you to kidnap the Princess" thing?" he asked Sokka, who raised his hands defensively.

"Hey- I'm making up for that- and it wasn't my decision to make." he defused, making the Captain callously laugh at him.

"You're kidding yourself- you really say you didn't want to fuck us all over?" he asked Sokka, making him roll his eyes and look away from the Captain.

"I never said I didn't- I've decided that a more open mind is helpful in regards to you people." he admitted, making the Captain chuckle at him.

"That's implying that we're going to listen." he explained to Sokka, who shrugged his shoulders.

"She listens- maybe even cares." he simply said, the Captain looking at him more seriously.

"Cares about what exactly- you?" he scoffed, making the Water Tribesman shake his head.

"It's not about me- it's about the world." he dismissed, but the Captain continued to stare him down.

"I've heard that one before- don't kid yourself." he told Sokka, glancing back in offence, "I don't want you thinking that you're special here- because you're not- you have a purpose." he explained, Sokka looking at the Captain with suppressed anger.

"Ah- urgh- my exact purpose here, it's open ended." he told him, smirking at his argument's basis.
The Captain tilted his head and sighed, "You're not wrong- but don't you get the wrong idea."

"What kind of idea would that be?" Sokka sarcastically asked him, the Captain dismissing him with a wave of his hand.

"Kid- you know exactly what I'm talking about."

Sitting by his desk, the Governor of New Ozai intently read the letter he had just received from the homeland; his eyes opened wide upon realising the exact situation that had unfolded- the banished Prince of the Fire Nation- Zuko, had decided to return home and fight his own father in an Agni Kai, a completely legal way of challenging a seat of power, even that of Fire Lord. To Governor Ukano's shock, the Prince had actually attained victory, which meant that he was now the Fire Lord- the messaged directly commanded him to swear allegiance; he immediately felt the sense of shock and confusion of Fire Lord Ozai's defeat, and that the Fire Lord had personally favoured Ukano over the years- he didn't want to efface his respect for the man by swearing to his traitor son without a second thought. He had heard of the Crown Princesses survival from a ship-wreck incident in the Eastern Sea- he believed that the Princess would likely be aware of the current situation, and she would obviously seek the allegiance of men such as himself, with an entire city under his command and all it's troops directly loyal to him. His thoughts immediately turned however to his teenage daughter Mai, who he knew had been close with Zuko prior to his banishment- he had thought of proposing to the Fire Lord that they wed when they came of age, but any plans of that kind were lost with the Prince being sent off on his wild goose chase- he knew his daughter liked the boy, and if she was to reconnect with him, this offered Ukano a far more direct position of power in the Fire Nation- he aspired for greatness, not just for himself but for his family and bloodline- if a potential grandchild of his own could be Fire Lord, what other choice could he make but to swear himself to Zuko.

He immediately called in his secretary with a whistle, "Zheyan! I need to send a message immediately." he called out, his secretary quickly coming through the doors of his office and standing before him.

"Of course sir- what is the content of this message?" he asked his governor.

"I swear my undying allegiance to Fire Lord Zuko- write it down, and make sure it's written well." he simply stated, the secretary looking at him with slight shock.

"F-Fire Lord Zuko?" he asked, the Governor waving his hand.

"You'll get briefed soon enough- I want his message sent as soon as possible." he explained to Zheyan, who nodding in acceptance before turning back to the door, stopped by Ukano raising his hand.

"Just one other thing- I'd like you to get my daughter." he requested, the secretary nodding quickly before making his way out of the room.

He turned back to his desk, looking over the message once more- Ukano knew for certain that there would be many in the Fire Nation who would not respect the result of the Prince's Agni Kai- many people who would rather stake out their own claim for power; his own interests coincided with the Prince's, and with that understanding, he was willing to swear upon him- he didn't want to fight a war with his own people- especially when he was used to simply administering a single city- he wouldn't want to have to deal with an invasion, and he surely hoped it wouldn't come to that.

The door opened behind him, and Ukano shifted his head to acknowledge his daughter, who looked at him with interest, "Father- you called me."

He turned to her fully before beginning "I believe that you might be happy to know that your friend, Prince Zuko, has returned to the Fire Nation."

Mai's eyes opened wide in shock, "W-wait- Zuko's back? So he captured the Avatar?" she asked, Ukano shaking his head, almost in disappointment.

"No- he returned to face his father in another Agni Kai- this time he won." he told her, Mai's eyes opening wider, pacing up toward her father, noticing the message on the desk.

"What? He defeated the Fire Lord in an Agni Kai? This is Zuko we're talking about." she questioned, her usually calm demeanour shifted to one of confusion and shock.

"Yes- he has claimed the throne for himself and is to be crowned Fire Lord." he explained, Mai raising an eyebrow.

"I- uh- I'm a little lost for words." she murmured to her father, who nodded understandingly.

"I felt the same- it is a shocking turn of events." he admitted to Mai, who picked up the message her father had on his desk, reading it carefully before turning back to her father, staring him down.

"So- if opposing this proclamation is 'treason', then what exactly is going to happen to Azula?" she asked Ukano, who dropped his head in disappointment.

"She's in Ba Sing Se right now- according to recent reports- I assume that she'll take to raising arms against her brother." he explained Mai grabbing her nose bridge and shaking her head, almost in disappointment.

"Of course- I wouldn't expect any less from the Crown Princess herself." she commented.
Ukano coughed to empty his throat, signalling to Mai that he was going to ask her to do something, much to her disappointment, "Uh- daughter, I wanted to ask you something."

She looked back at her father, her eyes already in a glare, "What?"

"I- I wanted to see if you would be interested in continuing your courtship with Prince Zuko." he asked, Mai nearly blushing at her father's suggestion, turning away before answering.

"I like him- but I can't exactly 'court' him if I'm holed up here with you." she explained, Ukano standing up from his seat.

"I can have you sent to the capital- you can stay at our house there- it's no trouble really." he offered to Mai, who raised her hand to tell her father to be quiet.

"I can go see Zuko, but I'd prefer to send him a letter first- it would be rude for me to just show up there- wouldn't it father?" she questioned her father, somewhat cautious of his attitude toward the whole situation.

"I understand- I hope you both see each other soon enough." he smiled to his daughter, who nodded before turning and leaving the room.

Walking away from her father's office Mai felt a sense of frustration with her father- she personally didn't think that her father was wanting her to court Zuko for altruistic reasons, such as her own happiness- but simply to step up his own power in the Fire Nation, something she thought he would certainly like to do. Despite her conflict over her father's motivations, Mai did truly want to see Zuko again after such a long time- he had been wandering the world for five years, on a ship with his Uncle, looking for a man the world hadn't seen in a century- he hadn't heard or seen of him in so long that she doubted the man she would meet would be the same as the boy she knew back in her adolescence. She had recently heard about the Agni Kai duel he had with his 'rival' of sorts, Admiral Zhao, a kind of petty feud she wasn't surprised that Zuko had taken upon himself, but she didn't think that the duel would escalate to the current situation- the boy she knew was now sitting on the flame covered throne of the Fire Lord, nothing to say about his own father, who was believed to be one of the most powerful firebenders alive.
Her mind couldn't help but turn to Azula as well- she hadn't seen her for a while now- it had been years since they had been in the academy together with Ty Lee; Azula was the kind of person who would take Zuko's ascension to the throne as a grave offence, and she would try to take it from him at any cost. Mai disapproved of their sibling rivalry- she thought it made their family even worse than it had been without it- their mother disappeared years ago, and she knew that Fire Lord Ozai made her father seem like a humble monk in comparison; she could only hope they would come to some kind of resolution, at least for their own sake- she had seen their childhood tarnished by their own incessant feuding. Mai hoped for the best outcome of their ordeal, but she knew the world's cruelty- she was certain it would only serve out the worst one for the two siblings.

The battering of waves trashed upon the starkly dark steel vessel as it swiftly moved across the sea- the Princesses new vessel was at full speed heading westward into the East Lake; there was a direct order of no delays or stopping until they reached the Mo Ce Sea, which to many upon the ship, seemingly a world away from the great city of Ba Sing Se, whose walls had receded from view across the horizon. On the deck stood a Water Tribe warrior and Fire Nation princess- both standing in form, ready to pounce into a duel at any moment; Sokka and Azula glared each other down intently, reading themselves to begin fighting the other.

"Are you sure this is the best idea? I could just get another non-bender for you to beat up." Azula questioned her opponent, who chuckled back in response.

"What fun would that be? You're a challenge." he smirked, before drawing his weapons- his trusty boomerang and whale-bone club.

"Challenge implies you can defeat me- that is an fault of judgement." she told him, drawing balls of blue fire into her hands.

Sokka raced forth first, swinging his club at her legs as to break her stance, Azula responding with a blast of flames that forced him to fall back; he rolled back to his feet and drew his boomerang out in a strike, throwing it at her abdomen, making her side-step. He smirked at her before swinging his club around and flinging the end of it at Azula, who dodged with a somersault, punching out with a fist of fire as she returned to her feet; he dodged the fire-blast before pulling out his bone dagger, which he used to cut at her hands, forcing her to step back send a wave of flames at him. He fell back from the wave of flames, his arm-guards covering his face from the hot azure flames, before he grabbed his boomerang at his feet, holding it in preparation for Azula's next attack; she sent slicing bands of fire out of her hands, Sokka responding with evasively rolling from his position, before throwing his boomerang at her, the weapon clipping her shoulder as she jumped away from a direct hit. She cringed from the sharp pain of the boomerang striking her plate covered shoulder, raising a fist to direct flames at Sokka, only to find herself tackled by her opponent, thrown to the ground in a flurried attack.

"Aha- I've got you now!" he proclaimed, holding her arm down with one hand, and his elbow pushing the other one away as he held his dagger above her face, making Azula glare back at him with disapproval.
She pushed his elbow aside with her free arm, before throwing a fist of flames at him, who responded by rolling himself to dodge, incidentally pulling her over his own body; Azula almost squealed at being tossed through the air, rolling on the deck as she returned to the ground. Sokka grunted in frustration from his failed hold, pulling himself up back into stance, facing Azula whose movement mirrored his own; she drew fists of flames before racing toward him with her teeth grit, Sokka raising his own arms defensively. She pounced at him with one fist further forward than the other, Sokka using on his arms to deflect a blast of flames, but was unable to prevent Azula grabbing him with the other hand and throwing him onto the deck of the ship.

"Are you done yet?" Azula asked him with a smirk, a flame filled fist above his face and his arms locked down by her own feet.

"I-I'm heavier." he bluntly stated- Azula looking at him with confusion before he pulled his right arm up and flung Azula off her feet, grabbing her arms into a hold to prevent her getting back up, making Azula glare back at him with frustration, before he breathed deeply and sighed.

"But yeah- I think I'm done." he admitted, making Azula chuckle at him, despite being in a lock herself.

"So you're surrendering when you're in a position of power?" she questioned him, Sokka blushing at her statement before reorienting himself.

"What no- I've decided that trying to fight you is harder than it's worth." he admitted, before pulling himself up and holding out a hand to pull her off the ground, "I'd rather not get my face burnt again."

Azula smirked back at him before grabbing his hand, "Oh no- not your precious face." she mocked him, making him roll his eyes as he pulled her to her feet.

"Can you just let us have a draw- how about inconclusive?" he offered her, Azula smirking deviously at him, glancing right behind him toward the sea.

"Well- our last inconclusive fight didn't end with me throwing you over the side of a ship- how about we try that one again?" she asked him, Sokka paling considerably before taking a step back.

"U-uh I'd prefer to avoid that situation again." he admitted to her, his eyes wide with concern that she might actually attempt to throw him over just to prove her superiority.

"So if you don't want to duel me, I'll have to find you some other work to do." she thought aloud, Sokka raising an eyebrow with a sense of confusion.

"That was work? I thought we fought each other for fun." he asked, Azula sighing in response.

"When you spend every day of your life training and bettering yourself as a fighter, things like this become my work." she admitted, before curling her brow, "Seeing I am going to go to war with my brother, being the supreme commander of my forces is my work at the moment- speaking of which- I think I have idea for something you can help me with."

He inched closer with a face of intrigue, "What would that be?"

"You pride yourself on your tact and strategy, perhaps you can help me plan my consolidation of power?" she asked him, Sokka sighing upon understanding it was not a request.

"Uh- yeah, we can do that- I assume you've got some maps and stuff somewhere?" he asked her, Azula nodding back.

"Yes- I had to get my resources replaced after my original Royal Barge was sunk, however I picked up some from the Governor's stores- I'm sure he won't mind." she jested, making Sokka chuckle.

"Ahaha- I'm sure he won't." he laughed, acknowledging the humour in the fact the Governor of Ba Sing Se had been dethroned so all his things were at her disposal to begin with.

Walking along the deck, the Princess and her companion made their way into the brig of the ship, walking through the narrow corridors up to Azula's private quarters; opening the door into her room, Sokka gaped at the impressiveness of her accommodation- she had an ornate bed, desk, meditation candles, as well as a well-sized map of the world, which he assumed they would be using for their strategising. Sokka stood back while Azula quickly rummaged through her filed intelligence and smaller maps that she might require- all essentials given to any military commanding officer in the Fire Nation, a position which she most certainly found herself in now.

Laying out the papers on her desk, she begun to explain the most recent information her had, "Most recently I have heard that Admiral Chan of the Eastern Fleet has sworn his allegiance to me, and has followed the commands of my military council in Ba Sing Se- his forces will be moving westward behind us toward the Mo Ce Sea."

Sokka nodded at her explanation, going over to the map she had up on the wall, "So his forces are a few days behind us, around here?" he pointed to the river mouth in the Eastern Sea, Azula nodding in response.

"Well- unless your brother has some naval forces sent our way before we make landfall- uh- here?" he pointed to the coast of the Mo Ce Sea directly west of the West Lake.

"Around about- I hope to find the naval assistance of 'Supreme Admiral' Zhao against any forces my brother can muster." she explained, Sokka nodding.

"So this Zhao guy- we're meeting up with him somewhere along the way?" he asked.

Azula nodded in response, "Yes- hopefully he responds to my message in coming days, I don't want to be sailing into waters that would leave us at risk to attack without proper assurances."

"Okay- so worst comes to worst- what do you do?" he asked Azula, who chuckled.

"What would you do savage?" she deflected his question, making Sokka sigh.

"Well- knowing that you Fire Nation people love your army- it's everywhere across the Earth Kingdom- but you can't be certain that anyone's going to back you- if Zhao doesn't respond you can always find the closest respondent and go overland from where ever their forces are located, then go to the colonies from there; would that work?"

Azula scratched her chin, "You are right- but I need to be tact- what if my brother already is mustering forces to find me on the spot?" she asked, Sokka looking back to the map.

"Where is the closest colony from here in that direction?" he asked, Azula thinking momentarily before answering.

"The Hu Xin provinces- there are few Fire Nation colonies located here," Azula pointed on the map to the area just west of the West Lake "as well as a substantial military presence." she explained, Sokka nodding.

"Worst case scenario- you can ditch the ship and go there- find some malleable governors to do your bidding, and with that you'll have enough men to start building up support all across the Western Earth Kingdom- assuming that's your aim with all of this." he explained, Azula nodding in response.

"I would rather try and make a fighting chance than just give myself up to my brother- he might be arrogant enough in that case not to even allow an Agni Kai, and just throw me in jail." she explained, angered with the situation she had found herself in.

Sokka looked back at her seriously, "I won't let that happen." he assured her, Azula looking at him with a confused face.

"If worse comes to bare, I don't think you'll have a choice." she told him, Sokka rolling his eyes.

"Why do you have to be so down about this- we need to focus on getting you there," he pointed onto the map where Azula had directed, "and making sure this Zhao guy pulls his weight- what was he meant to be doing again, invading my cousins up north?" he asked, Azula nodding back.

"Yes- he has a large number of ships, and quite a few men, although I'm unsure if that power held on after he got himself beat by my brother." Azula told him, Sokka chuckling in response.

"So you think your brother is an incompetent fool- does that mean this Zhao guy's stupid or just a bad firebender?" he questioned, Azula laughing out loud at his comments.

"Probably a mix of the two- he's an arrogant man with big dreams." she told him, Sokka rolling his eyes.

"Let me guess, those dreams involve him invading and destroying the Northern Water Tribe?"

Azula nodded at his question, "Yes- he went on and on about it to my father and my grandfather- for I don't know how long- he finally got the support he needed after finally persuading my father that the resources were open with the Earth Kingdom defeated; I personally don't trust the man, but I believe he will be far more willing to follow me than the man who dishonoured him in a duel."

"You don't like the uncertainty?" he asked Azula, acknowledging her comments prior- in Sokka's eyes she seemed far less confident than usual.

"No- it makes any plan we make practically guesswork- we cannot be sure of anything until it is revealed directly- I prefer not to walk into a city and find myself arrested for conspiracy against 'Fire Lord Zuko'." she thought aloud, Sokka nodding along to her explanation.

"So from what we're just talked about- do you think you need to change course on our journey?" he asked her, Azula glaring back at him with a sense of confidence.

"No- I will not let the unknown defeat me- we will head westward until we reach the colonies, and they will bow to me- or else." she told Sokka, who smiled at her show of confidence, feeling assured that Azula wasn't becoming overly paranoid and uncertain, which would be the biggest personality back-flip he could imagine.

Sokka stood silently for a moment before raising a hand to question, "So just one thing- what do I call you now- are you the Crown Princess- or are you the Fire Lord?" he asked her, Azula rolling her eyes.

"Technically I am Zuko's heir no matter what he tries to do, so I am most certainly Crown Princess if I am not Fire Lord, but more than that, I can't technically claim the title without being crowned by the Fire Sages." she explained, Sokka thinking about it for a moment before raising a finger.

"Does it have to be a specific Fire Sage?" he questioned, Azula chuckling at his question.

"It doesn't have anything to do with Fire Sages as per say, they simply place the crown on my head- my brother has the crown, not me." she explained to Sokka, who face palmed.

"Okay- so Mrs. Not-technically-Fire-Lord, what's next?" he asked her, with a dopey smirk, making Azula laugh at him nearly mockingly, before covering her face in embarrassment.

"Can you please stop it with the horrible names? Even if they might be slightly- only slightly- accurate." Azula asked him, covering her face with one hand to avoid showing her bared smile from the laughter, before returning to a more composed form, "I will need you to look at some localised maps of the colonies- you should have a decent idea of the terrain and locations that we face ahead- you will need as much knowledge about the region as possible, we cannot run blindly into the hills and forests of the Western Territories and hope that we don't run into Earth Kingdom bandits or worse."

"Okay- so I need to know the whole place like the back of my hand- got it." Sokka nodded, before walking over to the Princesses files and papers that she had assorted over the desk.

"Pick through them all- take your time- we have it in abundance." Azula remarked before sitting herself down on her bed, breathing out deeply before sliding off her arm-guards and placing beside her.

Sokka rummaged through the papers he could immediately see, noting the wealth of information the Princess already had at hand- census data from the colonies, military command structures and bases, as well as more speculative information such as sightings of bandits and rebels across the Fire Nation occupied territories.

He turned back to Azula, who had just slipped off her armour, "There's a lot of stuff there- but I guess it'll take me a while to order everything up- I personally don't know too much about the geography of the Western Earth Kingdom, so there's that to learn in the first place." he admitted, Azula shrugging her shoulders.

"I won't be of much help honestly- I know where military establishments and colonies are- not much else was taught to me by either my school or tutors." she explained, Sokka sighing in slight frustration.

He offered a weak smile, "Uh- at the very least I might get to learn more about the world- that's one good thing to look forward to, right?"

"Okay- you can take that stuff to your room- I don't need you lurking around here when you can just as well be focused on your work." she commanded Sokka, who nodded and curtly picked up the papers and maps on the desk, before rolling them up and holding them at his waist.

He smiled at her momentarily, "Uh- have a good afternoon." he simply stated, Azula eyeing him before waving her hand.

"Go on now- I'm sure there's more than enough reading to be done." she explained, Sokka following her words and making his way out the door, opening and closing it in one swift motion.

Turning from the closed door, he noticed that the Captain was standing guard, who looked straight back at him, "You better not have been doing anything in there." he eyed him, Sokka raising his free hand defensively.

"I was just getting some papers to read over- doing my job, remember?" Sokka told the Captain, deflecting his intrusive assumption.

"You keep telling yourself that one kid- you could sit on the deck all day and the Princess wouldn't bat an eye- I'm keeping an eye on you." he told Sokka, inching closer to the Water Tribesman.

"Hey- I already got that man- it's not like I'm doing anything inappropriate- just normal tasks, reading and strategising." Sokka explained, the Captain chuckling at him.

"So what- you're solely appreciated for your mind?" he questioned, Sokka rolling his eyes before turning away from the Captain to walk down the hallway, feeling that he had said as much as he ought to.

"I surely hope not."

Chapter Text

The morning sun brightly lit a small courtyard within the Fire Nation Royal Palace- uncle and nephew sat by a small pond on a mat, the calm tea in their hands mirroring the water they sat beside. Fire Lord Zuko was stressed from all of the new duties he had to take on with his position, but he thought it would be best to find some time to spend with his uncle away from the war-meetings and intelligence updates that were commonplace for him at the moment- his command for oaths of allegiance meant that new messages were coming in every day with more commanding officers swearing themselves and their men to Fire Lord Zuko, which he then updated to the war-council every afternoon so they could update their own plans in accordance to their understood loyalists. However for this short time, he desired to keep the potential of a civil-war off of his mind and turned to having a somewhat jocular conversation with his uncle.

"Uncle- I'm unsure if your ideas for this tea-venture of yours is madness or genius... Do you really want to spend the rest of your life serving tea to people- you are a prince, remember?" he asked his uncle, Iroh chuckling at Zuko's perception of him.

"Ah nephew- I am not much of a Prince anymore, let alone one who will rule this land- my life isn't about ruling my nation, it's about... tea! I love it!" he exclaimed to his nephew, holding his tea-cup to the air, "You know my tea is good- admit it- I could wander around selling it and people would certainly want some- it is delicious and calming, good for the mind and the soul." he argued.

"Uncle- tea is just hot leaf-juice, it's not some miraculous thing." Zuko admitted bluntly, Iroh's eyes opening in offence.

"How could a member of my own family say something so horrible?" he exclaimed, Zuko growling at his uncle in frustration.

"I'm sure Azula would have worse things to say about your tea obsession, never mind me." he told his uncle, who sighed in slight frustration.

"Despite all my teachings- you failed in the greatest one- you disregard tea! Tea!" he exclaimed in near horror.

"Uncle- please just calm down- you're going to make a scene!" Zuko asked of his uncle, who breathed deeply a few times before glaring at his nephew.

"I still can't believe you would say such a thing." Iroh looked at him with disappointment, making Zuko grab his nose bridge with frustration.

"I melt half a man's face off, you forgive me like it's nothing- but I make fun of tea, you think I'm the biggest disappointment in your life." he grumbled in frustration.

Their argument was suddenly interrupted by a guard arriving in the courtyard, kneeling before Zuko, "Your majesty- a personal message has arrived for you, from the colonies."
Zuko took the message from the guards hand, looking at him somewhat awkwardly, "Uh thanks- you can return to your duties now." he told the guard, who stood up and bowed to Zuko before turning around and leaving the courtyard without a word.

"Sometimes I forget how serious everyone is in the palace..." the Fire Lord murmured in thinking of the guards very stoic attitude.

Iroh chuckled at his comment, "Yes- I do prefer the liveliness of the ship- it was fair more bright back there." he admitted, Zuko raising a brow at his words.

"Have you got word from the men, seeing that they no longer have to be in hiding." he asked, Iroh nodding as he drunk from his tea-cup.

"I have heard from Lieutenant Jee that the crew has left the port-town we left them at, I promised that we would send them a ship to the capital so they could go their separate ways- their duties are finished with us safe and sound in the capital." he explained, before raising a finger, "Oh I hope they bring the instruments- I'd like my tsungi horn back, it was an antique."

Zuko rolled his eyes, "Uncle, you got that horn from some shady Earth Kingdom port years ago- I doubt it's really worth much."

"More the sentimental value if anything- it reminds me of my good times at music night, and your beautiful playing of the instrument." Iroh explained, Zuko blushing in embarrassment of his comments.

"Urgh- Uncle, why'd you have to mention that- it was one time." he face palmed, before Iroh tapped his hand, making him uncover his red face.

"What about the letter? He said it was 'personal'- I never knew you as the sociable type nephew." his uncle wondered, his nephew untying the band that held the letter in a roll, before unrolling it, his eyes peeling in realisation of it's sender.

"U-Uncle, it's from Mai." he mumbled, his face in shock.

"That girl you were friendly with- Azula's friend." Iroh commented, trying to clarify if his knowledge was correct, his nephew nodding in response.

"I haven't spoken to her in- well forever really- I- uh-" he stammered, before Iroh comforted him with a pat on the shoulder.

"I'll go make some more tea- you deserve the privacy of reading the letter yourself." he assured him, before picking up the tea-pot sitting on the mat, walking his way out of the courtyard to find a tap, leaving him alone for the moment.

Zuko begun to read the letter silently, "Zuko, I know you might find it a shock to hear from me after all this time, but after hearing the news from the capital, I had to send this. I hope you've been well- I'm sure you have many stories from being at sea for all those years, on the other hand, I have been bored ever since my father became Governor of New Ozai- I've been sitting around here for the past few years; my father wants us to meet in person, I think you could guess why. I hope we can meet again, soon- please respond, from Mai."

He smiled, his eyes running with a few tears- he had spent his past few years alone- only really his Uncle to give him comfort, and now out of the blue, just days after he becomes Fire Lord, one of his only friends actually sends him a letter- she was more than a friend, they both knew that now, but he felt that with so many years apart, it would be more like meeting someone completely different. He could see it in her words, she was still the same girl he knew as a kid, at least in some way- that made him smile, happy that something was left- that his childhood hadn't been completely burnt up and destroyed by his father's machinations and abuse. Iroh returned with his kettle and sat down beside Zuko, smiling at his nephew with a sense of hope.

"Was it a good letter?" he asked, Zuko returning a curt smile.

"As good as it could be- she wants to see me again, after all this time away." he explained, before turning his eyes to the tranquil pond beside them, "Ever since we left on our journey Uncle, it was like all I had was you- everything had been taken from me- and now Mai had sent me this letter, and I feel that a part of me has come back- it was gone for a long time." he smiled, turning back to Iroh with a happier face.

"I'm happy for you Zuko- this is something good for you- for the both of you." he smiled, before winking at his nephew, "And now you might have a chance with a lady." he encouraged, making him blush and belch in embarrassment.

"Urgh Uncle! Please can you not make it awkward- I'm just going send her a letter back, that's all." he defended himself, Iroh chuckling at his attitude.

"Don't worry Zuko- before you do anything else, we ought to finish this calming tea." he affirmed, pouring each of them a cup of tea, and giving Zuko his one.

"Thanks Uncle, I know I can rely on you- most of the time." he joked, the two royals laughing in the peaceful quiet, their smiles genuine and heartfelt.

Standing by the railing on the bridge, Sokka had a wide view across the evening horizon, the sun just set over the horizon, blossoming the sky a beautiful pink and orange, the scattered clouds above him lit by the sun below. He smiled at the sight that he considered to be quite pretty as well as nostalgic, the orange and pink colouring of the sky reminding him of a late-winter day when the sun would just peer over the horizon back home. He felt that the sunset broke away any sense of dread or fear he had for the coming day, that he was safe in a place he shouldn't expect himself to be- he doubted his past self would have ever believed him to end up on a Fire Navy vessel voluntarily, and not to fight or sabotage his enemies, but to be working and helping the Crown Princess of the Fire Nation. He heard the clearing of a throat behind him, and Sokka glanced behind him to see Azula standing by the door of the bridge.

"Enjoying the view?" she asked him, Sokka momentarily blushing in thought of the double-meaning of her question, before clearing his throat and turning back toward the sunset.

"Yes- it's beautiful- I do like it out here on the sea." he explained, Azula stepping up beside him.

"Not too scared of the open sea after you experience on the Royal Barge?" she asked, Sokka chuckling in response.

"I wouldn't say I'm that scared of the sea- my people live on it half the time- fishing, hunting, whaling- I don't think one shipwreck is going to shake me to my core." he affirmed to her.

She nodded in response, "Well, I wouldn't say that I'm particularly enjoying the state of being stuck on water for a good week straight." she explained, placing her hands on the railing, "Soon enough we will get confirmation from Admiral Zhao- and then we go find some nice place on dry land to stay as we make our plans."

"Are you worried though? About the whole uncertainty of loyalty?" he asked her.

Azula sighed, "I can't say that I'm not concerned- but what else can we do but prepare for the worst and hope for the best."

Sokka shrugged his shoulders, looking out to the horizon, "So then- what's next?"

"Next? We ensure that Zhao is a good little puppy- I can't have him trying his hubris on me- I will not stand for any insubordination on his behalf." she explained.

"Oh- I can't wait to see you get real angry- you keep claiming you're intimidating as all hell, but I think I've only glimpsed at the 'real angry Azula'." he jested at Azula, who laughed lightly at his claim, before giving him a smirk.

"The closest I've got to having a fit of anger in your presence was when you distracted me on the ship- that was beyond infuriating." she explained, making Sokka choke up in laughter.

"Ahaha- spirits! My deception is the most anger provoking thing I've seen- oh that's a good one." he laughed, making Azula roll her eyes at him.

"It's not a joke- I didn't expect to be beat by mere distraction- you got me shipwrecked and incidentally saved your own life." she explained, making Sokka look at her with slight frustration.

"So are you still going off the argument that just because I couldn't beat the deserters you saved my life, because I'm pretty sure I saved you." he argued.

"No you misunderstand- even if you actually saved me then, if you had been by yourself you would have been beat." she argued back, before Sokka scratched his chin.

"I was going to kidnap one for interrogation instead of fighting them all- then I could have easily sneaked my way away from their search, unlike what actually happened." he countered, making the Princess nod in respect of his strategy.

"That's not a bad idea, but you miss one key issue- you would have been half-asleep at that time if it weren't for me." she declared, Sokka face palming in realisation of his one great flaw.

"Argh- of all the things that you could out-argue me with, it had to be my love of sleeping in." he pouted with the knowledge his argument had broken down.

Azula smirked triumphantly and patted him on the shoulder, "Better luck next time savage- I'm sure you'll out-debate me some day."

"I am grateful though- for the help that you gave me in the forest- you're right when you say that I probably couldn't have got out of there without your help." he thanked Azula, who looked out to the horizon and nodded.

"You did help me too- I certainly preferred not dying of whatever diseases come from unpotable forest water." she admitted, making Sokka laugh.

"Oh it was nothing really- who would have thought sharing water would have made me an ally out of a former enemy?" he wondered, Azula raising her brows in thought.

"I respect that about you Sokka- you're willing to make the best out of any opportunity or situation." she told him, making him smile back at her.

"Ah- if we're handing out compliments, I'll say you're pretty damn stealthy- remember when you sneaked into that Dai Li safe-house? You out-sneaked the sneaky earthbenders- that's saying something." he explained, his tone becoming more awestruck as he went along.

"I would love to claim that as pure skill, but I think your artful distraction was pretty helpful." she countered, "What was it again? Engaging in a duel with a petty nobleman- ah, it's too realistic for you." she jested, the two of them laughing at the somewhat realistic confrontation Sokka had played with an unsuspecting Upper Ring noble.

"Ahaha- you're not wrong- didn't take much to get me riled up at that guy." the Water Tribesman admitted, knowing all too well he enjoyed picking that fight.
Suddenly their laughter was broken by a knock behind them, the Princess immediately turning to face one of her guards, standing with a message, "Your highness- the Admiral has responded."

She nodded with a face of relief, "Good- read me the message." The guard looked at her and Sokka momentarily, considering whether to question her order, but decided against that idea and begun to read it out.

"Crown Princess Azula- I swear that you are the true and rightful heir of your father Fire Lord Ozai, and I will accept your request of a meeting at sea- my fleet in stationed a day west of the West Lake- I will head eastward to meet you with a smoke signal as is protocol. I look forward to our meeting in person- sincerely, the gracious Admiral Zhao." the guard read out, Azula nodding in understanding.

"Well that is that- we maintain course until we see the smoke-signal, please carry on the information to the helmsman." Azula affirmed to the guard, who bowed before her before curtly leaving her presence, closing the bridge door as he went.

"Okay- so no more needing to worry about Zhao now?" Sokka asked, Azula looking at him, eyes rolling.

"If only it was that simple- he's going want more- and being the de facto head of the entire navy there isn't much more he can get at this point." she explained, "Whatever he requests of me, I will be sure to deal with him reasonably- I can't have him running off with the ships we need to run amok, but I also can't let the man walk over me- I am going to be Fire Lord, for spirits sake."

Sokka nodded confidently at her, "If you need me to beat the crap out of him for safety reasons, you only need to say the word." he affirmed, Azula chuckling.

"I'm sure it won't come to that- he knows I could kill him with one zap of lightning, so I'm sure he won't try anything in my direct presence." she noted, Sokka grimacing in approval, ever fearful of Azula's very unabashed view on killing.

"Yeah may I re-iterate, I don't ever want to fight you for real again." he stated for clarity, making Azula mocking laugh at him.

"Aha- I could have killed you that first time, but I consider myself merciful at the best of times." she explained with a mocking smirk.

"I'll take that as uh- a compliment?" Sokka grimaced in slight fear but appreciated her approval of his utility, even though he doubted that was all she cared for.

"So I expect that we'll be meeting Zhao within a day- you best go find some sleep; I want you dressed and ready to listen in to all of the strategy- you need to know as much as possible when it comes to Zhao's own forces and his plans- by any means necessary..." she directed to Sokka, who nodded in understanding, looking back in playful suspicion.

"Are you making me out-manoeuvre the Admiral?" he questioned her, Azula turning away from the railing to walk back into the bridge.

"Perhaps- but that would be quite callous and dishonourable of me to do, but not for a Water Tribesman who wants the Fire Nation to act in a way that doesn't just benefit men like him." she explained, Sokka sighing at her plan for him.

"I mean it's not that I don't agree with you, but why is always me doing the dirty tactics- the Captain ought to get something done other than standing around staring at me." he complained, making her chuckle as she opened the door to the bridge.

"That's your job savage- you do the things I don't want to be blamed for, that of course you'd be willing to do without my orders." she simply explained, walking through the door, Sokka nearly chasing after her, grabbing the door before it slammed shut behind her.

"Wait a minute- now as much as an arse this Zhao guy seems to be, I'm not just going to run in there and make a fool of myself- or worse, end up dead, just because you think I should." he argued, Azula raising a brow at him as she turned back.

"Do I have to say it again? It's your job." she told him, who glared back at her in response to her rather uncalled for demand.

"It's not the act- it's the principle- I'm only going to sneak around and sniff out Zhao's plans if I believe him to be a traitorous bastard- because to be honest, all I can see is another Fire Nation prick, no different to any of the other bastards." he argued, before she turned back to him with a thought in mind.

"Fine then- if you really want a motivation- I'll give you one," she begun, "I know something that you desperately want- more than anything else, I would assume- and this is despite you never actually asking me for it- because I understand you Sokka- remember that." she explained, Sokka shifting to halt, his eyes suspicious.

"What do you mean- something I want to know?! What are you saying?" he asked with a rising tone of shock, completely confused by her words- she didn't know something he wanted to know- maybe how to break into the Fire Nation Palace to assassinate her father if need be, but he was supposedly dead, so he crossed that off his mental list.

"You'll find out once you rat out Zhao's plans and tactics that he doesn't tell to my face- I want to know everything. Understand?" she requested, Sokka sighing in frustration.

"Urgh- you really know how to get me on the line like a fish, don't you?" he pouted, admitting to himself that he did want to know whatever Azula could tell him, despite the fact she could probably tell him what he wanted to know then and there.

"Go to bed Sokka- you'll get your reward when you do the work."

Striding through the hallways of the Fire Nation Royal Palace, Zuko felt a sense of pride, one that he had lost so many years ago- to the point at which it was near alien to his being- he was the Fire Lord- not his father, not his grandfather, but him- the banished and disgraced son of a man who many would claim as the most powerful firebender alive, refuting that very claim by defeating him in single combat and taking the throne for himself. He was respected for his ability for once in his life, and feared by those who would seek to undermine him, call him out as a traitor or a kinslayer- they didn't know the half of it- he had finally become the man his uncle wanted him to be- the Fire Lord who would be the harbinger of a new age- of peace and fairness, not one of war and cruelty.

Pushing open the doors of the war-chamber, the officers before him stood and bowed before their now regnant Fire Lord, their faces turned away in a sign of deference to the man who was their master- whom they might have mocked in years past for his cowardice and hubris- all misinterpretations in Zuko's eyes; he had been stupid enough to love and adore his father, as if he was anything to compare to his beloved mother and uncle. He was once weak, his father was right, but in the wrong way- he was too easy to fall in line, to beg before a tyrant- but now he had turned the tables- he was the one with power, the most feared bender alive for having defeated Fire Lord Ozai, someone considered untouchable, even by his own daughter, the greatest firebending prodigy in a generation.

Walking along the walkway through the middle of the room, Zuko looked upon the generals, admirals and other officers with a sign of contempt and pity- they had joined the war probably in hopes of honouring their nation, but achieved the exact opposite- ordering the massacre of innocent Earth Kingdom citizens, wiping out the benders of the Southern Water Tribe, and invading the Northern Tribe- none of these could compare to the absolute annihilation of the Air Nomads, destroying an entire nation because they purportedly housed the latest Avatar, although the men before him would only know of the lost nation as the deeds of their forefathers, somehow construed as an honourable victory for their nation.

He sat on the seat of his father- as if he was the same man even- a feared man who came to the throne unexpectedly- they weren't so different in many ways, but Zuko had the insight and empathy to understand the wrongs of the world and his nation- his uncle may have guided him, but Zuko believed he had the heart to better his nation and the world, taking them away from the horrible deeds they had inflicted on the rest of the nations.

Zuko begun, "What is the update on the loyalty of our nation's men?" he asked the officers, one of which stood up before his Fire Lord.

"I am sorry to tell you your highness, we do not have good news." he explained, holding up a piece of parchment, "To all ranking officers of the Fire Nation, you are being commanded by your Crown Princess Azula to make an oath of allegiance to her highness as the legal heir of Fire Lord Ozai, outranking her-" the officer stopped, coughing in realising that he would be speaking words of defamation toward the Fire Lord before him, "-banished and disgraced brother, Prince Zuko. She demands that all swear upon her, and if they do not she will send her forces to defeat them and force their submission- this is the will of the Crown Princess, and to oppose her divine will is treason against the honour of the Fire Nation." he finished, coughing once more in realisation of the defaming words, one of the generals standing up before the chamber.

"This is a disgraceful and dishonest message of propaganda my lord- it cannot be tolerated." he exclaimed, Zuko nodding at the general's point of view.

"General- you are correct, but we must be certain that all traitors are revealed- my sister's declaration offers us an understanding of those who would betray my honourable ascension to the throne- that is good news." Zuko explained, nodding to the officer who had read the message, making the man sigh in relief that his words hadn't aggravated the Fire Lord.

"Is there anything else?" he asked, a navy officer standing up before him.

"Your majesty- I have received unsettling reports from the Colonies- there are protests against your ascension- claims that you will undermine the sovereignty of our territories and citizens." he explained, Zuko nodding at the officers information.

"Commander- they are not entirely wrong to make that assumption- I assure you all, the newest colonies will be dealt with as peaceably as possible- a tactical withdraw if you will." Zuko explained, one of the generals standing up to question his plan.

"My lord- do you believe that we can give land back to the natives without them trying to hunt our men down?" he asked, trying to seem as peaceable as possible, knowing full well to oppose the Fire Lord directly would be an act of disrespect.

"That is why these potential rebels must be dealt with quickly- if the people of our nation oppose my unifying rule, the Earth Kingdom's defiant citizens will likely seize the opportunity to destroy us- I understand this." Zuko affirmed, his uncle who was sitting beside him speaking up to confirm Zuko's plan.

"The Fire Lord is right in his judgement- if we do not contain this revolt, the entire military situation will unravel and countless innocents will die in the crossfire- against each other and any opportunists that try their mettle against our armies." the retired general argued, "We must remain strong together- if our nation is divided, the world cannot find peace."

"Your highnesses, what of Ba Sing Se? It is under the Crown Princesses rule due to the malignant conspiracy that was found that- how can we ensure that the Earth King doesn't seize the opportunity to reclaim his city." an officer asked, Iroh nodding at his worries.

"The Fire Nation cannot hold onto that city forever- it couldn't be colonised due to it's size and it drains the military resources of our nation that could otherwise be dealing with the more present issue of mutiny, so I recommend we ignore it unless the Earth King tries to face our forces directly." Iroh advised, his nephew nodding at his uncle's words of strategy.

"Thank you Uncle- as you have just heard, Ba Sing Se is not our priority- if it was we would have sent a force to reclaim the city already, but that is a waste of the lives of our men who would waste their deaths killing their countrymen over a foreign city. I think that we can all agree- we should focus on the threat my sister holds over our authority." Zuko explained to the men, emphasising the plurality of the military command as being together with the Fire Lord- Zuko wanted them to understand their roles as part of the glue that would bind their nation together again, not simply as instruments of war against the enemies of their nation.

"Well your highness, if the updates are out of the way, shall we commence our planning for future operations?" one of the officers asked Zuko, who nodded curtly at the man's question.

"Yes- we are here for no greater reason than to plan the future of our nation." Zuko simply commanded, giving his subordinates free reign to discuss their own plans and strategies in their common space.

The newly crowned Fire Lord hoped to gain as much understanding of the men before him and their plans as to better himself as a student of strategy, something that his Uncle hadn't given much focus to on their long journey about the world. He would need as much understanding as possible if he wanted to lead his nation on a path of peace and unity, something that he feared wouldn't come easy in these times of division and suspicion.

Standing on the deck of the ship, Azula was surrounded by her guards, all in formation and uniform, dressed for the occasion of meeting such a high ranking official in the Fire Navy, that being it's nominal head, Admiral Zhao. Sokka stood side by side with the Captain and the Princess, dressed in his officer's armour and wearing a helmet to disguise his ethnic background, the Princess being wary of letting the Admiral know of her Water Tribe assistant, knowing too well of his distaste toward his people- so today, he was to play the part of a navy captain attached to her ship, which would earn him the privileges and access he would need to scout out Zhao's unspoken plans and intentions with the coming conflict and the future of the world.

As the Admiral's flagship vessel moved closer to their own, Sokka made out it's massive size, even it comparison to Azula's original Royal Barge, which he thought to be one of the biggest ships he had seen- this vessel was decked out with a towering metal bridge, trebuchets and what seemed to be a number of detachable landing crafts- he assumed these were for use in coastal assaults, such as the advances Zhao had purportedly been making against his northern cousins. A mechanical plank was drawn down from the flagship onto their own deck, putting the Admiral and Princess in direct sight of each other, the former walking across the metal plank to bow before his Princess.

"Crown Princess Azula, I have heard of your great exploits in Ba Sing Se- you must be proud of your victory against the enemies of our nation." he acknowledged her as he bowed, Azula nodding with a smirk at his keen deference.

"Yes of course, Admiral- it was a great defeat for those who would seek to undermine our great empire, just like my brother, who has the audacity to proclaim himself Fire Lord." she remarked, Zhao glancing back up to Azula with interest.

"Would her highness wish to discuss the matters at hand in my bridge- we have strategic maps, intelligence and all the things you will need in your preparations to ensure you are the only Fire Lord?" he asked, Azula nodding back at him.

"Indeed Admiral- would you mind if my men come along? I prefer to have them at hand while we have our... discussions." Azula stopped herself before finishing, considering what she had told Sokka to do as she thought out her plans with the Admiral.

He understood Azula's intent with her words, and thought out how he would get away from the group once they were safely inside the Admiral's ship; in the moments following he paid close attention to Admiral Zhao's face, noting the rough, reddened skin around his eye- a burn mark, one which he assumed he had gotten in the Agni Kai duel with Azula's brother Zuko, who now called himself the Fire Lord. Sokka thought it was a bit disturbing that a man would be maimed in such a fashion- he considered that the Admiral might be blinded in his left eye because of it- and all of this was supposedly 'to prove a point' on her brothers behalf, as Azula had worded to him once offhandedly. The Water Tribe warrior turned to the Captain beside him, and whispered quietly as the Admiral and Princess walked across the plank.

"So- uh- what's the deal with this guy?" he asked, the Captain throwing him a glare, although Sokka couldn't be certain because of his mask.

"Sometimes the wrong people get given the big promotions kid- that's all I'm gonna say." the Captain mumbled under his breath so only Sokka could make out his words, as the two of them walked across the plank behind Azula and Zhao.

The group moved onto Zhao's deck before entering one by one into the brig of the ship, moving along the narrow hallway toward the centre stairwell of the bridge, as to access Zhao's 'war-chamber'. Sokka followed directly behind the Captain, until they reached a turn in the hallway, where he quickly sidestepped and walked the other way, slipping into a doorway from sight, the Captain purposefully tripping himself to distract anyone from noticing Sokka's disappearance- the similar appearance of each of the guards and Sokka's own armour made it quite easy for him to step out of line without anyone on Zhao's ship noticing- one less guard of the Princess wasn't a worry for anyone on such a heavily manned ship.

Standing in the doorway for a minute, Sokka leaned forward and noted that the squad of guards had moved through, leaving him alone in the hall, and immediately considered what he ought to look for and where; he acknowledged that he wouldn't be able to go onto the deck, meaning that his access would be only in the brig of the ship, and on top of that he would have to avoid all patrolling guards, which he thought there would be a few considering the massive size of the Fire Nation vessel. He sneaked along the hallway, making his footsteps as light as possible given his heavy armour that he donned as a disguise, although he didn't doubt it would protect him if worst came to worst.
Checking around a corner, Sokka noted that he was on the first floor of the bridge and there wasn't probably going to be much in that part of the ship; he glanced through any doorway he could find just to be certain he wasn't walking past anything that would give him the 'hidden intelligence' Azula so sorely desired. The Water Tribesman walked down a stairwell and made his way through a long hallway which he believed would lead him to the private quarters of the Admiral himself, making him even more cautious- this was proved correct when a guard came walking down the hallway, Sokka preemptively hiding himself in a storeroom before the guard could spot him.

"That was a close one..." he muttered before continuing to sneak along the hallway, checking each room momentarily before he finally made his way to a part of the ship where he could hear voices.

"The Admiral wants his lunch prepared in ten minutes- he wants a serving for the Princess as well- got it?" a voice commanded, another shrilling in deference.

"Of course sir- right on it." the other voice responded, before a door slammed in the distance.
Sokka noted footsteps leaving the area and heading right toward him, making the warrior quickly react by stepping his way into a room and closing the door; he listened in carefully as the footsteps came by, assuming them to be from whoever was commanding that cook- he realised he had come to the kitchen of the ship, not the quarters of the Admiral, and turned around the other way as soon as the footsteps were out of earshot. Walking then through the hallway back to the stairwell, Sokka considered his options- he was unsure of where the war-chamber would be- nor the Admiral's personal quarters for that matter; he decided to go up the bridge, and try his luck with higher floors- hoping that there was something there. Climbing his way up the stairs as quickly as he could to avoid being spotted by patrolling guards, Sokka made his way up two floors, to the point at which he could audibly hear discussion in the distance- he walked down a hallway toward the conversation, and made it out to be the war-chamber, having distinctively made out Zhao and Azula's voices.

Stepping away from the chamber's doors, he checked the surrounding doors, finally opening one that seemed rewarding- a room filled with scrolls and maps- the Admiral's personal study, which made him grin with hope- the things Azula wanted him to know ought to be in the place the Admiral keeps all his written knowledge; Sokka softly closed the door behind him before scanning over the scrolls he could see in the shelves before him- he glanced over and noticed most of them to have the mark of the Fire Nation's emblem- probably military reports and documents related to his administrative work, which he presumed there would be a lot of with such a high rank. He looked over the maps he had laid out momentarily, noting the intelligence that he had was little different to Azula's, albeit having more detailed knowledge of the specific location and layouts of fleets in the Fire Navy, something that probably wasn't of much interest to the Princess; he noted that the Eastern Fleet, which was explicitly loyal to Azula, combined with Zhao's fleet, surmised a force that certainly outweighed the potential naval forces of her brother, making Sokka smirk- the odds were already in their favour, assuming that Zhao wasn't going to try anything shifty with the Princess.

"What are you hiding big bad Admiral?" Sokka mumbled to himself, crouching down to look at the lower shelves that contained even more scrolls- he checked a few of them quickly to make sure he wasn't missing out on anything, and wasn't surprised to find them simply being either direct orders from the capital, or military reports from Zhao's own subordinates, nothing of real note in his eyes.

Sokka glanced over as he crouched and saw that there were draws under Zhao's desk, which intrigued him enough that he quickly shuffled over and opened them up, gazing upon a variety of dirty old scrolls, which seemed to describe old Fire Nation military tactics as well as firebending theory- things that he assumed any good strategist would get his hands on- the age of the parchments however interested him- compared to everything else he had seen, these parchments were certainly aged, probably older than the war, before any of the evils of the Fire Nation. The Water Tribe warrior wondered where the Fire Nation Admiral would get such things, seeing that the Fire Nation was well known for their dissemination of propaganda and destruction of older knowledge that would counter their world-view- Sokka's own father had remarked how brainwashed their soldiers were that they would rather throw themselves to the sword rather than surrender in loss because it would be 'to disgrace their nation with weakness'.

As he pulled the parchments out of the drawer he felt an unusual shift in the position of the wooden board at the base of the drawer- he placed the papers on the desk before tugging at the wooden board with interest- it moved out of the way to reveal another old scroll- specifically hidden under the other ones, making Sokka believe it was probably far more important to the Admiral than anything else in the room. Reading the parchment, his face turned from one of intrigue to one of confusion, now understanding the Admiral's murderous intentions at the North Pole; according to the parchment, the moon and ocean spirits- 'Tui' and 'La'- have corporeal forms in a spirit glade at the North Pole, meaning that a man such as himself could physically effect the world by messing with those spirits. Sokka was not by any accounts a spiritual man, but he had heard his sister grumbling to him about the moon and ocean, how her bending felt connected to these forces, and specifically that their Gran-Gran had mentioned the importance of these two counterbalancing spirits to the art of waterbending; Sokka's presumptions gave him a worst possible scenario- that Admiral Zhao would make his way to the spirit glade, and by physically disabling or killing one of the spirits, which one he couldn't know for certain, would prevent waterbenders from using their abilities, making the Northern Water Tribe as weak and vulnerable as his own people, lacking any bending whatsoever. Part of Sokka found this potential fate somewhat poetic, for the North to lose their bending in a night while the South lost it over decades of agonising raids, with no help on the North's behalf, their sister tribe they ought to protect; but he knew this was bigger than his petty grievances towards the North- the fate of the world was in the balance, he had no idea what would happen if one or both of the spirits was to be lost. He smirked with a sense of relief- he had something Azula certainly ought to know, and she would likely make great use of the information if need be- the Admiral was a spirit-hating buffoon who would doom the world if given the chance, just for his own vanity. Sokka rolled the up the scroll and tucked it under his chest-plate, before re-tightening the armour, glancing out the bar window of the door, noting there was no one in sight- the Water Tribe warrior breathed deeply before exiting the room, hoping that his stealth and searching hadn't been for nothing- he was sure if he was found out, that would make him as incompetent as Azula would like to believe him.

Sitting along a table with a number of Zhao's lieutenants, Azula watched as the Admiral spouted his military tactics with great detail- he spoke of ambitious plans, such as unifying the colonial divisions to raise a force to take the capital, to dismantle the threat posed by Zuko and his cronies by exposing each supporter and systemically wiping them out, as to ensure absolute loyalty to Azula as Fire Lord, but most importantly in both of the Princess and the Admiral's eyes was trying her brother for treason once they could capture him.

"Your highness- I assure you, we have the manpower and military resources to ensure any future plans on your behalf will be achievable- no questions asked." the Admiral claimed, the Princess almost rolling her eyes after hearing the Admiral's long exposition.

"Yes- I believe you do have the resources to defeat my brother, but not the unity- would I be wrong to assume that many would insubordinate from your command upon knowing your betrayal of Zuko, the man who defeated and scarred you in an Agni Kai?" she asked bluntly, Zhao's brows and eyes raising in contortion to her bold question.

"W-what? I have the explicit loyalty of my men, they proclaimed as so after my Agni Kai-" he explained, being interrupted by Azula raising her hand in objection.

"After- as I may recall from reports- my father making my brother an enemy of the state and explicitly denying the result of your Agni Kai- I'm sure many a man will treat this little gathering differently with my brother on the throne- all it takes is one man." she noted to Zhao, whose rage begun to fester, his tone growing furious.

"I-I will not have such a thing happen- I am loyal to you, and you only- my men will follow because it is their obligation to follow the true Fire Lord." he proclaimed, trying to back himself up, to no avail when Azula shook her head in disappointment.

"I want results Zhao- find the insubordinate men before they decide to have us both killed- in which scenario I'll make sure you die before me, I hope that you trust my word for that." she simply explained to Zhao, whose face had gone from one of offence and anger to that of fear, Azula smirking at him, standing at the table, "My father is dead- you ought to consider who is here because he told them to be, and not because they were loyal to you."

Zhao looked on in fear, before dropping his head in a sense of frustrated defeat, "Of course- I will not stop until every traitor is found."

"Good- now what else is there to discuss?" Azula asked, her Captain standing forward, signalling the Princess he had relevant information, "Yes Captain?"

"Your highness- we received word that General Shinu has accepted your rightful claim as heir and offers his forces in support." he stated, Zhao nodding with a small smirk, his ego slightly reduced from Azula's berating.

"That is great news Princess- you will be glad to know that the General has under his command the legendary Yuyan Archers- they will be a great asset to your consolidation plans, and they are located at Pohuai Stronghold, in the centre of the oldest colonies." he explained to her with a rising confidence in his tone.

"Yes- I have too heard of their elite skill- not infallible though- I heard from my father personally that he had to dismiss one for failing miserably in a task;" she explained, as if to undermine the Admiral's confidence, before smirking herself, "that was but one man- that whole force will stand no chance against the feeble garrisons that would even dare to oppose my claim." her smirk growing from cheek to cheek as she understood the advantage they had immediately found.

Suddenly her smirk was broken by a knocking on the door, and Azula raised a brow, glancing at Zhao, "Were we expecting someone?" she asked him, simply responding with the same confused face.

"No- one of you, get the damn door." he immediately ordered, one of the petty officers getting of their chair and opening the door for the knocking individual.

Azula immediately recognised the man before her, but she knew the Admiral and his men didn't, by Zhao's first ignorant comment, "I'm sorry Princess, I don't recognise this man; is he one of yours?"

Sokka stood forward and started to speak, his tone considerably lower and heavier than his actual voice, surprising Azula somewhat, "Your highness- a message has arrived- discretion has been advised for it's reading." he explained, trying to give a bullshit reason for his sudden arrival in the war-chamber.

"A message for your highness- you'll have to regale all the interesting details once you've had a read." the Admiral indirectly requested, Azula raising at brow at his near mocking attitude toward Sokka.

"I take my intelligence very seriously Admiral- as should you." she derided him, before nodding at Sokka, who handed her a scroll of parchment, standing back up by the Captain and the other guards who lined the walls behind her, "As I was saying, we should move immediately to use General Shinu's assets- my goals will be much closer to reach with elite forces at my hands, and I assure you, we will not let any of it go to waste." Azula affirmed to Zhao and his officers, who nodded respectfully at her commands.

"That is understandable Princess- but I believe that my former duties should not be completely ignored- the Northern Water Tribe is weak- their military capabilities have been worn down by my attacks over the past few years, and they have been forced to consolidate their forces in their capital city- I believe that a quick and efficient strike will end any resistance and ensure another nation cannot oppose the will of our nation." he tried to argue for himself, Sokka coughing lightly, masking his retching of disgust at his knowledge of Zhao's plans.

"Admiral, for the last time- your invasion, no matter how efficient it will be, is not the priority while my traitor brother commands the home-land under his authority- as long as he sits on the throne of Fire Lord, the naval forces required cannot be spared unless you desire for my brother to assume control over the feeble territories we have little control over while we speak." she commanded, her tone growing frustrated with the Admiral's demands of her.

She understood the necessity to neutralise the North, but after three years of fighting, she thought the Admiral incapable of taking the place no matter the number of men he commanded- he was however quite capable of delegating out the powers at be to Azula's benefit- he would be a good administrator for her forces, and better yet, a more reasonable target for would-be assassins- Azula would not have her face in the limelight while the Order of the White Lotus remained a threat to her own life.

"I believe that has accorded all of our issues at this current moment," she concluded before glancing right at Admiral Zhao, "your fleet will move westward to the Mo Ce Sea and set it's sights on Pohuai Stronghold- I will direct my subordinate forces from the Eastern Territories moving overland to head toward there immediately." Azula stood up before the men and slightly bowed in respect, "This has been a productive meeting- enjoy your day." she stoically stated, no sense of care or deference in her words- she was simply fulfilling protocol.

Zhao stood along with his subordinate officers and bowed before the Princess, who moved from her seat and filed out of the room with her guards, Sokka glancing instinctively back at Zhao with the sense of dread he had- knowledge was not just power, but the fear that came from it; Zhao noticed his momentary staring, eyeing the disguised Water Tribesman before he sat back down in his seat, the respectful attitude he had been holding toward the Princess dissipating back into his usual hubristic self.

Sokka kept quiet as he walked in formation with the rest of Azula's guards, making their way down the staircase and out onto the deck of the massive ship- Sokka momentarily appreciated the huge expanse of the vessel for a moment, but dreaded the threat it held to his Northern cousins if Zhao was given the chance- the entire fleet was originally organised for that specific purpose, which he already knew, but with the new information acquired on Zhao's intentions, it made the threat to the Northern Water Tribe ever so more real. Standing alongside the Captain he waited behind for Azula and the rest of the guards to cross the deck, before the Captain glanced at him and whispered.

"You could have been a little more subtle." he admitted to Sokka before crossing the plank himself, the Water Tribe warrior tailing behind, certainly not wanting to stay on Zhao's ship any longer than he had to.

As the rest of Azula's personal guard left her side and entered the brig of their ship, he and the Captain approached her cautiously, well aware of the men who might be watching them from the other ship; Azula glanced at the both of them with slight frustration, before questioning the disguised Water Tribesman.

"Please tell me you actually were able to find something." she asked Sokka, who simply cleared his throat and acknowledged the message that Azula held in her hand.
The Princess opened it up and read it with a few glances, before nodding at him, who followed her into the bridge- she glanced back at her subordinate guard and waved him off, "You best wait for anything, Zhao might want to speak to me before we depart." she commanded, the Captain bowing before her momentarily before turning around and facing Zhao's ship, awaiting anyone who might try to come over.

Walking into the bridge of the ship, the two of them immediately sidestepped into a storage room where Azula glared at him with intent, "What does 'we can't risk talking about this in public' mean to you savage? This better be the kind of intel I was hoping for." she grumbled at him, Sokka sighing in slight disappointment.

"Well I certainly have important information, but it's not the kind that you might expect, nor care about personally." he simply stated, Azula stepping closer to him, staring the warrior down.

"What is it then?" she questioned him, her tone clearly showing that she was fed up with Sokka's avoidance of answering her directly.

"It's Admiral Zhao- I found a bunch of old manuscripts in his office," Sokka begun, Azula raising her eyebrows in immediate disillusionment, "there was one text that stood out, it was specifically hidden under a false base of a drawer- the text described specifically the details of the place and form of the physical incarnations of the Moon and Ocean Spirits at the North Pole." he explained, Azula raising a brow in interest.

"I assume that this has to do with his invasion plans- but why is this important- spirits are beyond the realm of the war against the other nations." she questioned, Sokka gulping in dread of the knowledge he had.

"The death or removal of these spirits from their location may inadvertently prevent waterbending, and more importantly bring chaos and devastation to the world." he explained in fear, Azula looking at him with a stoic face.

"Zhao wants to kill some spirits so he can invade the Northern Water Tribe- and killing these spirits will bring chaos and destruction to the world itself?" she questioned Sokka, who fell onto a crate, placing his jaw in his hands.

"I-I don't know- that's the worst thing that can happen- guessing the pride of this bastard, I wouldn't be surprised if he already knows what I have figured out, and wants to go through with it anyway." he explained, Azula sighing with a sense of relief.

"You think this isn't a big deal?" he questioned her, some what offended that she wouldn't take the information seriously.

"No- it is a threat, undeniably so, but as long as Zhao remains here in the Earth Kingdom, being my underling that will follow in the best interests of reunifying my nation, he poses no threat to your relatives in the Northern Tribe- as you once told me, they have nothing to fear but their own complacency." she simply stated, Sokka nodding with some of his fears tempered.

"I'm actually somewhat thankful of this whole civil war situation now- if it hadn't happened, Zhao would have got away with his plans, and the world would have been screwed, to put it bluntly." Sokka stated in a sense of realisation, making Azula chuckle at his idealisation.

"Well, I personally don't prefer having to fight my brother for the throne- but then again, if he hadn't been banished I would still do the same, in a somewhat less complicated fashion." she explained, Sokka raising his head, looking at her with intrigue.

"You'd do one of those 'Agni Kais', that's what they're called right?" he asked, Azula rolling her eyes at his need to clarify.

"Yes idiot- an Agni Kai is an honour-bound duel against an opponent, claimants to the throne can participate in one to claim the throne, which is exactly what my brother did, and succeeded in, surprisingly enough- I don't doubt that my fat, tea-loving Uncle had something to with that striking victory." she explained, before shaking her head upon realising she had gone off track.

"Anyway- I meant to give you your reward, as promised." she acknowledged, before he raised himself from the crate.

"What exactly do you know that you think is so important to me?" he asked her, Azula stepping up to Sokka, staring right at his face, intimidating him even as he towered over her in height.

"I know what keeps you up at night- or more accurately, gives you nightmares." she simply stated, Sokka reeling back in shock and fear.

"W-wait what- wait- after that night- I mentioned-" he stuttered, Azula interrupting his fumbled speech.

"Your mother- I want to know how old you were when she died." she asked, the Water Tribesman coughing before correcting her.

"When she was murdered- I was ten years old." he stated with a more cold and stoic voice than usual.

"That would be eight years ago, correct?" she asked, Sokka nodding but shaking his head after, his face feeling a sense of dread about the ordeal he had suffered.

"I know who killed your mother, or at least ordered her death-" he explained, Sokka's mouth agape in shock.

"What?!" he nearly screamed, "You know- you knew? Why didn't you say anything?!" he shouted at her, Azula stepping back, crossing her arms.

"I already told you, I didn't know for certain, but I believe I have a good enough basis to claim it as fact." she defended herself, Sokka glaring her down.

"So who was it? Tell me- now." he demanded, Azula complying with a stoic and somewhat forced face of antipathy.

"Yon Rha- commander of the Southern Raiders, killed the last waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe 8 years ago, he retired and is living in a village in the homeland- I can't remember the exact name, but I can find the records for you." she explained, Sokka smirking at her words, his eyes opened wide in realisation, and for the first time in their meetings together, Azula first saw an uncanny feeling of pure, unadulterated hate in Sokka's eyes- he was filled with hate fighting her and the Fire Nation when they first met, but it was nothing compared to this face as she saw it.

"Y-yes, I want to find this man, and make sure that he knows the warrior he created- I wanted him to be my blooded kill, but life can never be perfect," he proclaimed, before looking back at Azula, who had unfocused from her upon learning of the man who murdered his mother, "and I'll mock him as he dies- because he failed in the one thing he had been tasked to do... he didn't kill the last waterbender." he told her, who raised a brow at his claim.

"What do you mean Sokka- Commander Yon Rha was given full commendations by the Fire Lord for his great victory over your people- you're telling me another waterbender lives?" she asked Sokka, who simply smirked back at her.

"Maybe she ought to have a chance kill him- she was her mother too." he simply thought aloud, Azula realising the scope of Sokka's situation; his sister was the last waterbender of his tribe, and their mother had taken her place as the waterbender, meaning that she was executed by Yon Rha because of this claim.

"So- she's the last waterbender?" she asked, Sokka gulping in realisation of what he had just told her.

"I assume you're not going to go out of your way to exchange me for my sister so you can throw her in some hole?" he asked her, almost mocking the potential of Azula doing something so evil in his own eyes.

"You're right, I wouldn't make her do that- I'd get you to make her more palatable to my people- that's the best way to neutralise a threat." she explained to Sokka, who rolled his eyes.

"Showering my sister with your awe and wisdom instead of throwing her in some metal box is good news to me." he shrugged in agreement, catching Azula slightly off-guard- she understood he saw through her tactics, but he acknowledged that they actually had use- making her think Sokka saw her less as a tyrant and more as a leader worthy of respect and adoration; that sentiment was worth more to Azula than any sycophants unbased praise.

"So do believe that was a fair reward, or are you greedy for more information?" she questioned him with a glare, who chuckled at her presumption, side stepping Azula and standing at the door.

"I think there's nothing else you could tell me that could beat that- don't worry, I'm going to be following you blindly from here on out." he sarcastically told her, before opening the door for her, "Your highness..." Sokka bowed, making her scoff at his mockery.

"At least you can pretend to be a lap-dog, and not the deviant and intrigued savage you are." she sighed, before advising Sokka "Lying isn't your strong suit, but you're good enough to fool Zhao and his cronies."

"Hey that's good enough- I already despise the man for his insane goals- the first chance you get, he ought to get the boot." Sokka affirmed to Azula, who glanced at back at him with interest.

"How would you do it?" she asked him with a smirk of fatal desire.

Sokka grinned and chuckled in affirmation, "Now- this is the kind of strategic advice I'd like to be giving..."

Chapter Text

As the afternoon sun lit her gloomy dark red and gold bedroom up, Mai turned away to avoid the glare of the sun as she sat reading on her bed- she was bored, as she usually had found herself everyday, especially when not attending official duties as the daughter of the Governor, which she found to be slightly more engaging than sitting around doing nothing, because she actually found some responsibility in her actions. Her recent 'interest' of sorts had been snooping around her father's office to find out as much as she could about the events that actually transpired in the past few weeks- her current reading was a report of the supposed defections from Zuko's rule in the past days- a list growing in number with speed; the succession crisis at hand was less important to Mai than the people involved- Zuko and Azula, the two siblings whose actions in the past few months Mai had only a vague idea about. From what she had gathered, Mai understood that she had gone missing after her Royal Barge was shipwrecked, and later appeared in some cruddy backwater Earth Kingdom town- during this time he had defeated Admiral Zhao in an Agni Kai before somehow getting to the Fire Nation Palace and defeating his father in another duel.

The details Zuko and Azula's stories Mai had no proper certainty on- which frustrated her slightly, knowing that there might be things she was in the dark on- especially on his behalf- she didn't know if he would even tell her the whole truth of his actions, not that she would expect him to after the ordeals he had gone through- fighting his own father was one thing, but killing him in a duel was a completely different story. Mai knew that Zuko was a good person, at least in heart, and doubted he intended to kill his father in their duel- he was obviously angry at his father for the treatment he had been given over the years- being banished and burned was just the surface of it, and Mai understood well enough from the things Azula had once told her that their father was beyond cruel and unforgiving, especially when it came to his eldest son; she had personally claimed this because he was 'weak', which Mai knew couldn't have been the whole story- he had done nothing but aspire to follow his father's ideals, and where it got him was a banishment and scarred face- a face she hadn't seen in five years because of it.

On the other hand, she hadn't seen her in years either- her father's posting in New Ozai made sure of that- the Princess had left the capital a few months prior to leave for Ba Sing Se on a diplomatic posting; according to her father's reports- which were further than second hand accounts- the whole diplomatic posting had been a sham cover for the Princess to uncover a conspiracy against Fire Nation rule and with that she had gained the support of a large section of the military, which she was now using as her personal force against her brother. The most unusual thing Mai had heard was that she had found the support of an outsider- described to her from reports as a foreign mercenary- in her work against the conspiracy and then in whatever she was now planning against Zuko; Mai knew she wasn't one to easily make friends- she knew Ty Lee and her were Azula's only real friends she had as a child, and that friendship was primarily maintained by the intimidation that she held over them- not that she didn't appreciate she for none of her more admirable attributes, such as her intelligence and wit, but Mai wouldn't deny that it was unusual to hear that Azula of all people was making friends in the time she spends being shipwrecked and fighting conspiracies, let alone ones from outside their own nation, the kind of people that she explicitly disdained and looked down upon.

Mai's train of thought was broken by a knock on the door, which she curtly responded to with a stoic and somewhat antagonistic "What?"

"My lady- a message has arrived for you, from the Capital." a servant explained, before she got up off her bed and opened the door- she looked at the somewhat short man, who held out the message while avoiding to look at her, making Mai feel that he was not the most sociable servant in their home; she simply took the message out of his hand and nodded.

"Thank you." she simply stated before turning and closing the door behind herself.

Looking down in her hands she examined the message and immediately noticed the seal of the royal palace on it's binding- meaning that it was most likely from Zuko, who she knew would eventually have to respond to her letter; Mai tore off the seal and binding, rolling out the scroll as she sat back down on her bed.

She begun to read the message out in her head, not wanting anyone else to hear the contents of his private message, "Dear Mai- I've so glad you wrote to me- I don't know what to say, but I'm sorry that I never tried to message you while I was away that whole time- it was stupid and ignorant of me- I was a mess, for a long time, and now after all that I'm the Fire Lord. I would like to see you again too, but I have so much to deal with at the moment- being Fire Lord is as hard as you would expect. I will try to organise something- but we'll see each other again soon, I am sure of it- from Zuko."

Mai smiled at Zuko's words, and appreciated his genuine apology- she knew that he would be under a lot of stress after all that happened to him- she was glad that he admitted to his faults and understood that he might have acted up in the past; she could only feel a bit sorry for his uncle for having to deal with his antics- she of all people knew he was one for overreacting and dramatic antics. Mai grabbed the message and took it to her desk, where she retrieved a blank piece of paper to start writing a response; she pulled out a brush and some ink before being interrupted by another knock on her door.

"Who is it?" she asked out, before hearing a throat clearing, marking the arrival to be her father, who opened the door before looking at his daughter with hopeful eyes.

"Mai- I wanted to know if you've gotten any news from Fire Lord Zuko?" he asked, Mai shrugging her shoulders, but glaring back at her father with a sense of slight annoyance.

"If you meant to ask if Zuko wanted me to go see him in the Capital: he told me he would organise something- whether that involves him coming here, or me going to meet him somewhere, I don't know." she explained, Ukano looking at her with his own sense of frustration.

"The Fire Lord has not stated any military objectives for our local forces or any change in administration- that means we're staying in this city until he changes his mind- I'm sure you wouldn't want to be here any longer than you need to be." he told Mai, implicitly commanding her to hurry up and sway Zuko- her father didn't want to keep holding his post as Governor of the rebellious colony of New Ozai for any time longer than he needed to- he longed for the homeland, and with it some kind of promotion that would return him to living in the Capital, Mai knew this well enough.

"Yes- I understand, father." she simply stated to him before turning back to her desk, "Now if you wouldn't mind, I would like to write my reply."

Her fathers footsteps moved back out from her room, and moments later she heard the door thump shut, leaving her alone again; Mai turned back to her brush and ink and begun to write her letter to Zuko- she wanted to know what was going on- and she was going to make sure he didn't do anything stupid. Knowing him, she guessed he would make some unintended mistakes along the way, things she didn't think he ought to do when he held the highest office in their Nation, that of the Fire Lord.

Standing on the deck of his vessel, the Captain stood watch silently, keeping to himself on the centre of the deck; the royal guard was certain to remain on the orders of his Princess, that being to wait for the potential arrival of Admiral Zhao or any further orders- the two ships had not separated yet, meaning that he was certain to remain on watch. As he stood his mind crossed the events of the day- he knew that the Water Tribesman had been searching around for the Princess to find any dirt or secrets from the Admiral, one thing that seemed certain that the vain man had. He was not one to judge a military man for his achievements, but he knew well enough that Admiral Zhao had not achieved his title on the grounds of merit or long service; he had risen through the ranks in previous years, seemingly at the Fire Lord's personal discretion- and he didn't seem to be the most competent strategist in the Fire Navy- let alone one that should have earned the rank he held. The Admiral however was known to be man that ought not to be crossed- the Captain had heard rumours which described the underhanded tactics he had used against rivals- sabotage, defamation, even assassination had been mentioned, although he was unsure of the validity of these claims, he certainly took them seriously- he was a threat toward the Princess with his rank, military force and history of greed, vanity and ruthlessness. The man he had been judging at that moment appeared before him on the deck of his own ship, flanked by two personal guards.

As he walked up to the Captain, he flaunted a fake smile at the royal guard, "Ah- you must be the Princess's head guard- I've heard of your feats in Ba Sing Se," Zhao smiled at him, trying to show him a little respect in the context where he was a source of information, "I do wonder however, where is her royal highness?"

He coughed before trying to make an excuse, "She was just dealing with that confidential message- I'm sure she will be on the deck in a moment." Zhao raised a brow in thought before nodding at his statement.

"Fair enough- is there anywhere I can wait for her highness?" he asked, the Captain thinking momentarily; he didn't know exactly where the Princess would want him to house the Admiral while he waited, so he decided to just give another excuse.

"This vessel doesn't have any suitable areas for formal meetings- I'm afraid you'll just have to wait here on the deck, if you need something, I can ask the servants at once." he explained, adding a bit of an offering in exchange, hoping that would appease his desire.

"Of course- if it wouldn't be a trouble, some tea would be wonderful- I haven't had a brew today." he requested, the Captain bowing slightly for him.

"Yes- I will get a server immediately." he told him, quickly turning to pace over to the central access into the brig at the centre of the deck, before going down the stairs into the ship.

Quickly pacing himself to the kitchen of the ship he signalled a servant with a whistle, "One of you- the Admiral is on the deck and wants some tea, get a cup for the Princess as well." he requested, knowing that even in 'casual' conversation, the Princess would be expected to drink tea with him- it was rude to let a guest drink tea alone.

Pacing back through the halls of the brig, he made his way back to the deck stairs, shuffling himself up with some speed- he didn't want to seem lazy in front of a guest, even if he looked down upon him; as he returned to the deck he walked up to the Admiral with his two guards, nodding at him as he returned.

"A tea-server will be up momentarily, as will the Princess." he affirmed to Zhao, who nodded before glancing back over to the bridge.

"She is taking awfully long- are you sure she was just reading a message?" he questioned the Captain, who looked back at him and nodded with a face of slight offence.

"Of course- I know what the Princess is doing during waking hours- it is my duty to ensure her safety." he explained, Zhao nodding understandably.

"What of protecting her- you're here serving me- isn't this a bit above an elite guard?" he asked, trying to appeal to his sense of self-importance, making him chuckle lightly.

"I am following my Princesses orders- she commanded me to await your arrival on the deck." he explained simply, before hearing a thumping noise ahead of him- Azula stood at the door of the bridge, noting the arrival of Zhao.

"Admiral- I see you have come to my ship, what is it that you desire?" she asked him, speaking in a somewhat more deferential tone that the Captain would ever expect her to- he guessed it was a case of keeping your enemies closer than your friends.

"Your highness," Zhao bowed, "I simply have come to discuss the matters at hand with you- I hope that you wouldn't mind going over some of the issues we are facing." he asked, Azula shrugging.

"It cannot hurt to reaffirm your strategies Admiral." she commented, before staring him down, waiting for Zhao to ask some kind of question.

Hiding his discomfort of her stare, Admiral Zhao simply nodded and looked toward the sea, "This conflict will be dangerous- you know this well enough from your experiences with your disastrous shipwreck." he explained to her, "I believe that it would be in our best interests to ensure your safety at all times- the wilds of the Western Territories are dangerous, full of bandits and undesirables who want to see us both dead."

She raised a brow at his statement, "What exactly are you proposing? I am certainly capable of defending myself." she questioned him.

"We are talking about large forces of guerrilla fighters- there is threats everywhere- and from what you have already gathered, conspirators working for your brother may try to undermine our every step. I believe you must remain safe from these threats, not a front line target." he explained, Azula chuckling at his claims.

"Ah- typical- you think the woman can't get her hands dirty- trust me when I tell you, I am ready to handle whatever is thrown my way- my question is are you?" Zhao stepped back, somewhat aggravated by the Princesses assumption, but held back any anger in fear of a reprisal from her highness- if her brother could burn his face, she could kill him in an instant.

"I-I am capable of handling the threats in our path, I simply desire to ensure a continuity of leadership, you are the claimant to the throne, after all." he explained, Azula nodding at his argument.

"My life is not in the balance at this time- when it comes to be so, your arguments can be reasoned for- right now we're travelling westward toward the homeland, unbeatable at sea." she argued, Zhao nodding with a slight bow, conceding the validity of her argument.

"I do not doubt the power of my fleet- please heed my advice Princess- for the sake of our nation." he stated, the Princess glancing at him momentarily before turning to face the railing of her ship.

"I understand your grievances with my brother Admiral, I know you want him less on the throne than I do- trust me when I tell you my leadership, resolve and pure drive alone will grant us a great victory- you, your fleet, and all the men that follow my word into battle, it is all my responsibility- do you understand?" she asserted to Zhao, who nodded with a sense of near shame- something she thought the man could never bare to muster, before glancing to his right, where a servant had arrived, standing with a tea pot and cups.

"Admiral, your highness- your tea." the servant simply stated, before pouring each of them a cup, the Captain standing awkwardly to the side watching the whole conversation unfold.

"Captain- could you tell the helmsman to be ready to cast off? I want to be at Pohuai as soon as possible." she requested, the Captain bowing at her command before pacing off to the bridge, far less urgent than before; Azula turned back to Zhao, who was quietly sipping from his tea cup, glancing at the Admiral's burnt side of his face, making the vain man twitch and look away, trying to stop himself from grumbling at the Princess in offence.

"How did it happen?" she asked him, making the Admiral glance back at her with a fearful reminiscence; any person would usually be sympathetic asking such a question when they find a person with a half burnt face, but the Admiral was not a person she could find empathy for- she simply desired to know what actually happened between Zhao and her brother, someone who by this point seemed to be an enigma to even her.

Finishing sipping from his tea, Zhao begun to explain, "Despite my best efforts, your brother bested me in our Agni Kai duel- I underestimated his abilities and I- I failed- look at me- I dishonoured my title, my lord, and my nation." he told her, his eyes solemn with a sense of loss and regret- something Azula never thought she would see in the man's eyes.

"But Zhao- this is Zuko we're talking about- the weak, incompetent child who dared to speak against his father." she commented, in a sense of disbelief that her brother could so simply do what he did- he burnt Zhao's face like it was nothing- exactly like their father, which confused her to no end; Zuko was the little angel of their mother and she was the monster of her father- that was how the world had spun her story to her- and to think that she might have thought wrong- that her mother wasn't just wrong, but completely misunderstood her beloved Zuzu.

"He had no remorse- he mocked me before he did it." Zhao commented, looking away from Azula as he explained.

"Wouldn't you do the same?" she questioned, the Admiral shrugging his shoulders."I'm not in a position to even make such a claim- your brother defeated not just me, but your father; he might be a fool- but he beat us both." Zhao explained, trying to avoid making himself seem like a pitiful excuse of a man, but she still thought exactly of that as he worded his disgrace.

"Zuko is not the same boy that I knew- he must be treated as exactly what he presents himself- a ruthless traitor who is willing to kin-slay to achieve his goals, that of which we don't know to be certain." Azula thought aloud, he then turned back to her.

"Well- he actually did tell me before our duel- it's not the best situation." he looked at her stoically, "The reckoning of the Fire Nation- the judgement of all that acted dishonourably- whatever that means in his mad eyes- I don't know."

Azula raised a brow, "My brother has really gone mad- all that time at sea made him worse in the head, not any wiser than the day he left." she thought, Zhao nodding.

"And his insanity will cost our nation dearly- I'm sure you understand that already." he muttered, sipping from his tea cup.

"Yes- does that conclude our discussions?" she asked him, who nodded, and handed the servant his empty cup.

"Yes your highness- I believe that is all that needed to be accorded; thank you for the tea, I hope that you stay safe." he affirmed to her, before signalling his guards to follow him across the gangplank, which was raised a few moments later behind them.

She raised a hand to the bridge, where the Captain was standing above her, nodding at her signal; a few moments later Azula could hear the rumbling of the ship's engine as her ship begun to move away from the Admiral's flagship. Glancing out to sea she felt a sense of calm from the waters, but felt internally in turmoil over the words Zhao had spoken to her- if Zuko was just as bad, or worse than her, then who was the real monster?

The darkness of the prison of the brig made Sokka shudder in it's sight, looking across at the half-conscious and broken Long Feng- a man who he had put in his place, proving that he couldn't try and take power by abusing the weak- that was at least how he justified his actions to himself. Looking upon the former Grand Secretariat, he could only feel a sense of regret- the man's arms and legs were broken prior to him being handed to their custody, and he hadn't personally given him the best treatment he could have offered- it was all to prevent him or his organisation from trying something of course- but this made him confused- he couldn't admit to himself whether he did it out of self-preservation or a desire to protect Azula from the Dai Li and their insidious plot.

Long Feng pulled himself up from his bed, eyeing off the Water Tribe warrior who stood in the shadows across the room from him, "Barbarian- you've come to seek my wisdom?" he mocked, making Sokka chuckle.

"No- I don't think you can offer much good advice seeing where you ended up after all that." he jested, making Long Feng roll his eyes, "I want information- something that you seem to have in abundance." he asked of him, Long Feng glaring at him with a face of disappointment.

"Oh savage- you know how to make a man talk, don't you?" he mocked Sokka, who glared at him, holding his hands on the bars of Long Feng's cell.

"You know why I was sent to capture Azula- the Order of the White Lotus- what do they actually want to do?" he asked him, who chuckled before lying himself back onto his bed.

"The Dai Li and the Order have some common interests, one of them being the liberation of Ba Sing Se- however we disagree on the fate of the world after the Fire Nation is finally dealt with." Long Feng explained, Sokka sighing at him in frustration.

"The Dai Li doesn't matter anymore- they're sitting around in your shit-hole of a city trying to make sure the Fire Nation doesn't rat them out." he grumbled at Long Feng, "I want to know what the White Lotus wants with Azula." he asked, the Grand Secretariat chuckling at him mockingly.

"Oh- aren't you a romantic- what next- you'll kill the next man who lays his eyes on the Princess?" he jested, Sokka hammering his fist on the bars.

"I can just as easily beat you to death you bastard- remember that." he gritted his teeth at Long Feng, who doubted his threats with a smirk, laying his head down onto his somewhat uncomfortable pillow.

"The White Lotus- at least some of them- probably want her dead- she's an obstacle in their goals- just the same as she was to my people, but she's out of my way now, despite having broken my limbs." Long Feng explained, the Water Tribesman chuckling at his claims.

"Out of your way- you're imprisoned right here- she has you under her foot and she can squish you at a moments notice." he argued back.

"I am but one member of my organisation- they will achieve my goals with or without me being in the city." he explained.

"I already know well enough what those are- and I'll have you know I do agree with you in some parts- your methods, however, are disturbing beyond belief." he explained to Long Feng, making him chuckle audibly at his comments.

"Well, we can still make an asset out of you Water Tribesman." he mocked, Sokka holding his hands on the bars, staring the practically immobile earthbender down.

"Watch your tongue- I'm sure we can find a way to break that too." he warned, Long Feng making no response, simply lying on his bed without a word, "I am not here because I'm a prisoner- but because I have honour, that's more than you could ever say." he insulted, before walking away from the prisoners cell to the heavy metal door that led in and out of the prison.

He opened the door, nodding to the guard stationed before walking along the halls of the brig, feeling that he had got the confirmation he desired; the Order of the White Lotus wanted Azula dead- her brother had something to do with their plans- he would get to the bottom of it and ensure that she didn't suffer for the crimes of her forefathers. Walking through the brig, he made his way to the stairwell and made his way up the bridge of the ship, each climbing of stairs distracting him from the thoughts he was experiencing- he was worried, and rightfully so, but he knew he ought to not fuss over the ordeals of the Princess too much- he was here not as her guard or some kind of intelligence officer- he was here to advise her, because for some reason she had the initiative to respect and harness his ideas and plans for something productive, at least in his eyes. As he reached the top of the ship, he made his way out to the viewing platform, where he noticed that he wasn't alone at the top of the vessel- the Captain stood solemnly looking out to the waters before them, eyeing off the land on the horizon.

"So- feeling lonely, Captain?" he asked, the guard looking at him with a consideration of whether his statements were empathetic or mocking.

"Depends- I'm unsure if you'd make me feel more or less lonely." he suggested to him, who opened in his mouth and looked on in offence.

"I doubt that I'm that much of bore- unless you're still angry at me over your failings on the Royal Barge?" he asked, the Captain glaring at him and rolling his eyes.

"Of course you came to gloat- why am I not surprised." he commented, Sokka opening in his mouth and looking at him in offence.

"Man- it was just a question- no need to get antsy over it." he defended himself.

"Urgh- why are you here, or did you just want to start an argument?" the Captain questioned, the Water Tribesman sighing as he lay his arms to rest on the railing.

"Came to get some fresh air after I went to question that snake down in his cell- nothing overly productive, I might add." he explained, the Captain gruffly nodding in agreement.

"That bastard ought to have hung for his actions against her royal highness- but she had enough mercy to hand him in with just some broken limbs." the Captain thought out loud, Sokka agreeing with the sentiment.

"Well I was going to beat him to death- then again I'm unsure what I would have done if she hadn't told me to stop." he admitted.

"I do have to admit, you did a good job that afternoon dealing with the Dai Li- the best I've seen a non-bender put up in a fight for a long time." he admitted, Sokka chuckling at his unexpected compliment.

"Ah well- most nations aren't overly reliant on non-bending warriors, but my people- we have to make use of what we have." he explained, "I always wanted to defend my people- to defend those who cannot defend themselves- to serve justice- it was my calling, for as long as I could remember." the Captain raising a brow at him.

"So what are you doing here then- Water Tribesman turned Fire Nation adviser?" he asked, genuinely confused by his idealised view of the world.

"To help someone out- someone who needs my help, whether they'd like to admit it or not." he explained, making him chuckle in consideration of his wording.

"Don't let her hear you say that one, or she'll beat you far worse than she did during that training session."

The orange haze of sunset covered the sky as a Fire Navy fleet approached it's target- the great fortress of Pohuai Stronghold; days of non-stop travel, fearing attack from all sides, the fleet was finally safe in harbour and most certainly stronger with the support of more forces. Princess Azula smiled at the sight of the stronghold, well aware of it's necessity to her plans for the colonies- she had little desire to remain holed up in a military installation against her will, but she was planning to ensure that wouldn't happen; turning to her side she eyed off the figure of Admiral Zhao, who stood on the helm of his own ship as it approached the port- she was well aware that the man she would have to rely on was inherently unreliable in a sense- his desire for power and unbridled vanity was unmatched amongst his peers, meaning that he would fight for her as hard as he could- that is as long as it benefited him in some way. Examining the fortress from a distant, she noted the layering of walls and massive expanse of it's grounds- it was designed to house a large number of troops and supplies, which is exactly what she desired for her plans- any potential invasion of the homeland, no matter how undesirable it might be, could not logistically be achieved without control over Pohuai and the colonies that she could command from it. The Fire Nation Princess turned around to face her two most relied upon subordinates- the Captain and Sokka- who despite his best wishes, had become a functional part of her crew- he wasn't much good for tea-serving or cooking, but he served a far more valued purposes of strategic insight, good conversation and a well-rounded critique- although she would never admit that last part to his face.

"You both will be accompanying me to meet with General Shinu, along with a group of guards- Captain, I assume you can pick out some men who are ready to do their jobs?" she asked, the Captain nodding.

"Of course your highness- I'll assemble them on the deck immediately." he bowed before walking into the bridge to find the guards she had spoken of.
Turning to him, Azula raised a brow, "Are you ready to figure some things out?" she questioned, Sokka smirking and raising his own brow.

"Well- what kind of things- the sneaky illegal kind again?" he asked, the Princess rolling her eyes at his comment.

"No savage- I simply want you to strategise- plan out ahead to ensure that we will be able to handle whatever comes our way." she explained to him, the Water Tribesman thinking amount her statement momentarily.

"So... you think there might be something out there?" he pointed out into the wilderness around the fortress.

"Perhaps- my people might hold this fortress and the adjacent areas under a tight grip, but I wouldn't be surprised if a few guerrillas have slipped through their lines- outside of the colonies, I fear that the Fire Nation's military control is rather nominal."

"The Fire Nation is a tough bunch- but they're used to hammering this into the ground until they've destroyed them- the Earth Kingdom can't exactly be destroyed." he explained, Azula glaring at him for a moment.

"So you think it's futile trying to try and control these lands?" she asked, Sokka raising his hands at her as if to state the obvious.

"I don't think the Fire Nation should have started their war in the first place, let alone try to conquer the world." he complained, before turning to walk back into the bridge.

"I'm going down to the deck- I'm assuming you'll want to greet the General personally?" he asked her, who looked at him for a moment before smirking and making a light laugh.

"Actually- I've got a better idea." she told him, making him raise his brows before shrugging in dismissal, walking into the bridge and closing the door behind him.

Glancing back out over the railing, she looked at Zhao's ship enter port, and decided that she would best head down and follow his lead to go meet General Shinu- she decided she would come down to meet him after the Admiral had made his introductions, personally so that she could observe the relationship of the two men. She knew that Zhao was not well liked by many of the other high ranking officers in the Fire Nation's military, and observing his conversation with Shinu would best show the attitude the General held toward him- the worse he thought of the Admiral, the better it was for her; she knew the less he thought of Zhao, the less likely he would give him any purview to her commands and discretion which she would prefer to keep away from Zhao when necessary. Turning from the railing, Azula walked into the bridge, glancing at the helmsman, who she had already given explicit commands on docking her vessel, before walking to the stairwell of the ship, making her way down to the the deck floor; as she walked out she noted that the Captain had most certainly and quite hastily assembled a few men to accompany her, while Sokka stood in his armour by the railing of the vessel, looking at the port as their ship closed in on the long stone pier.

She walked up to her subordinates and acknowledged them, "Men- I hope you are all primed and ready to do your duties- as should be expected of your ranks." she told them, a berating in all but the tone she held, as if to make sure they explicitly understood her without making her seem to aggressive- she was sure to try and act the part of a diplomatic and polite Princess when it suited her, and the meeting she was about to have would require that of her.

She walked up to where the gang-plank was to be drawn, standing next to Sokka, who idly stood by in a slight daze, "So- back to what I was saying- the Fire Nation occupation of these lands." she begun, making him look at her and roll his eyes.

"So are you trying to aggravate me?" he asked, the Princess chuckling at him.

"No Sokka- I want to understand the situation more holistically- I don't like the dirty Earth Kingdom peasants myself, but I ought to understand why they're still bothering to fight back." she simply explained, leading him to point at his own face.

"See me- I didn't end up here on a holiday- I was fighting against your people after mine had their villages pillaged and our benders stolen- we had already lost, we had no other choice." he told her, Azula considering his statements for a moment.

"Aha- so you're saying because you had nothing to lose, you were willing to continue fighting?" she asked, Sokka nodding before shaking his head.

"No- I- we- we don't have nothing to lose- my people still are free from your rule, but the Earth Kingdom isn't- how do you think people like Jet and his Freedom Fighters exist?" he asked her; she shrugged her shoulders before raising a brow at him.

"So you meant what you said in Ba Sing Se- about developing the city would help the city become more peaceable?" she asked him, to which he returned with a nod.

"Well yeah- it's better than nothing- and if you're not willing to forgo ruling these lands, at least have the courtesy to let the people here live their lives in peace and maybe a little prosperity." he told her, Azula nodding before silently looking out to the horizon, looking at the ships as they entered the harbour behind them.

"Your honesty- it's appreciated." she quietly told him, making Sokka turn to her with a small smile of his own appreciation; their eyes caught each other momentarily before she turned to signal her men to get their gang-plank with her a motion of her hand.

The gang-plank was quickly retrieved and lowered onto the pier, after which the guards filed behind and in front of her down onto the pier; Sokka followed in suit, acting as he had for the last previous official situations as one of her guards, although his swarthy skin tone and blue eye colour caught him out as a foreigner in their midst. As the group moved along the pier, they approached Zhao's own squad of guards, which had met with General Shinu- standing on the pier between them and the stronghold; she walked ahead of her guards to catch their conversation and she planned and wasn't disappointed with what she heard.

"Admiral- I am on the side of the Princess, do not doubt it for a moment- I believe in our nation and our proud history of warrior rulers- she is no different from her grandfather and father before her." Shinu argued, Azula missing Zhao's prior statement and therefore the context of their argument, but she assumed it had to do with the enforcement of loyalty to her as the rightful ruler of the Fire Nation.

"General, I simply need to understand the loyalty of all men before her royal highness, it is my responsibility." Zhao told Shinu, who grumbled at him with offence.

"Are you her personal enforcer- no? I want to swear upon her highness myself." he shouted in frustration, Azula stepping forward from behind Zhao's guards.

"Well- isn't it wonderful timing that I've just made my way here- Admiral Zhao, General Shinu." she acknowledged with slight bows, the General looking at her in shock upon understanding she had heard and seen his outburst before he knelt before her, almost in penance.

"Your highness- I'm sorry for my behaviour, I simply want to swear my oath upon you, as rightful Fire Lord." he explained, the Princess nodding with a smirk at the deference he held for her- the General was a pragmatic and well-thought man- his deference meant far more to her than a lying bootlicker like Zhao's could.

"Go ahead." she simply replied, Shinu nodding before dropping his head deferentially as he begun to swear his oath.

"My life I give to my country. With my hands I fight for you, Fire Lord Azula, and your forefathers before you. With my mind I seek ways to better my country. And with my feet may our march of civilisation continue." he swore upon her, who nodded respectfully at his show of complete submission as well as loyalty to her and his nation.

"That is all that is required of the formalities;" she admitted before to turning to the matter at hand, "General I require your assistance-" she begun, the General nodding immediately.

"You require the use of the Yuyan Archers?" he asked her, Azula nodding back, before he continued, "The Archers will provide you with an impermeable defence, and an efficient task force for any military operation." he affirmed to her, who smirked in agreement.

"That is exactly what I need- I will also require your stronghold as a supply point for my land forces that are heading westward as we speak- I'm unsure of the logistical support that you hold here, but I assume that there will be enough to feed and supply a small army of a few divisions worth?" she questioned, the General nodding, before turning around toward the fortress.

"We will be able to supply your army, but we will need time to prepare- the logistical support has always been taxing here, and that is why the Yuyan Archers were stationed here- to protect the life lines we have." he explained, Azula walking up beside him with a stoic face.

"I am planning to handle any potential threats along the way- I assure you that your men will no fall blow to any surprise attack while the Yuyan Archers aren't here to protect the stronghold." she affirmed to the General, who nodded with a smile.

"Yes that would be an effective use of our resources- handling the colonies and any subversive forces at once." he agreed, Zhao walking up to follow behind them as they walked along the pier.

"What of the fleet Princess? We have made our way this far west that the homeland is in our grasp." he explained to her with a face of confidence as well as pride- he knew that his forces could wipe the floor with Zuko's, if only given the word to attack.

"Remember Admiral- the enemy ships are our potential forces- we cannot sink my brothers fleet, as simple as that would be, if we would consequentially be left without a large naval force to make future operations possible- you wouldn't want that, would you?" she questioned him, noticing his clear change in attitude- she knew he wanted to take down the Northern Water Tribe as much as he wanted to reclaim the homeland- and making his life work complete would require as many ships as possible.

"You are right Princess- but we do need to project our naval power into the Mo Ce Sea- if we don't control it, your brother could just as easily sail an army east to take proper control over the colonies, and with them, the industry and manpower we would require to assault the homeland, if necessary." Zhao explained, both of them nodding in understanding.

"Perhaps a blockade, your highness? That would certainly deter your brother's forces from moving to the colonies." the General advised, Azula stopping her pace and nodding.

"That would be an effective use of our resources." she explained, before raising a smirk, the Admiral consciously noticing her face.

"What else do you think could be done?" he asked her, the Princess considering what could make the plan more effective.

"We ought to leave gaps in the blockade- but ensure they are close enough to spot ships moving through- if we can let a few of my brothers ships in, we can capture them and their officers, force them to choose our side- if not, we can have the officers killed and replaced- you do have quite a few on your side, don't you Admiral?" she asked, Zhao nodding with a smirk.

"It will be done your highness- no ship that passes my fleet will pass your grasp." he affirmed to her with an air of confidence that he held moments prior- making Azula feel assured that Zhao had been appeased with a little power-playing and authority; walking along the pier to it's end, the group made looked upon the walls of the fortress, three palanquins appearing before the group, held up by groups of non-bending soldiers.

Shinu moved his hand toward the palanquins with a nod, "These will take us to the centre of the fortress- I wouldn't want her royal highness walking so far." he explained to her, making her offhandedly chuckle.

"Well it wouldn't be the first time I've walked more than the breadth of the royal palace." she muttered, the General looking at her with slight confusion, before remembering the fact that she had been washed ashore and forced to walk to the nearest settlement after being shipwrecked.

She walked up over to her given palanquin, far more ornate than the other two, although nothing comparable to what she was used to at home, and glanced over at it before the Captain stood beside her and nodded.

"We will walk in file behind the palanquins- don't worry in case you think some nutjobs are going to try and attack you along the way." he affirmed to her, Azula raising a brow at the Captain.

"Captain- it's only a few minutes ride- we can already see the walls from here." she assured him before getting into the palanquin- noting Sokka walking up behind the Captain.

"Urgh- so we have to walk, huh?" he asked her, who rolled her eyes at his attitude.

"Don't you start- you aren't stuck in a forest, so don't act like it." she told him, the Water Tribesman sighing at her rebuttal.

"From the sounds of it, we'll probably be stuck in one soon enough." he noted, before standing away from the palanquin as it was raised by the bearers.

The Captain stood beside Sokka and chuckled, "Aw- all that time at sea make you soft kid- I thought you were the tough warrior?" he questioned him, who looked back at him with offence.

"I'm completely capable of walking- hey- even running to the stronghold- doesn't mean I want to." he explained, the Captain chuckling at him as they watched Azula's palanquin begin to move forward.

"I sure hope that's the case- we can't have a slacker drudging through the wilderness if it comes to that." he mocked, making him glare back at him with frustration, knowing that he was most certainly right, even though he had personally avoided the experiences Sokka and Azula shared from their time in the forest.

The paper window coverings lit the Fire Lord's quarters up a hazy colour as he prepared to don his armour- Zuko had grown to disdain the large and clunky Fire Lord robes that he would wear around the palace and to formal events- wearing his armour meant he was far more mobile and capable of movement; the occasion meant that he wouldn't have to be wearing his armour, as he didn't plan to be having any meetings with the high command or any other officials of his nation. He drew his hair into a top-knot as to fit it with his regal head-piece, instead of his preferred phoenix-tail hairstyle, which he was forced to abandon due to his headpiece requiring a top-knot; the length of his hair dropped down his back, a longer piece signifying the parts of his hair that would usually be in his phoenix-tail, the parts that he had left from when his hair was shaved after his first duel with his father. He drew over his under-robes, a basic red tunic, the same he would wear when he was on his ship, before pulling over the armour pieces, which laid over his torso; he pulled his arm-guards over his wrists, before stepping into his boots and tightening them, giving him the full appearance of a Fire Lord prepared for battle- although that wasn't what he was planning to do with his day. He stepped over to his door, opening it before him, his guards turning and curtly bowing before him before standing to follow their Fire Lord as he walked down the hallway of the palace; he made his way down through the palace to the nearest tea-room, where his uncle was unsurprisingly sitting, awaiting his nephews arrival.

"Ah- Nephew, I see that you've dressed yourself up- are you ready?" Iroh asked him, Zuko nodding at his Uncle, who stood up, having finished his cup of tea.
He smiled at him, before raising a brow at his uncle, "Are you sure they will be here already? It was only a few days ago you said they had even replied."

"I am sure the crew will be here, as I requested of them- they can't enter the palace without permission, so I take it that they will be out at the gates." he explained, his nephew nodding intently.

"Well let's go then." he affirmed, beginning to walk, only picking up pace as his uncle stumbling to follow behind him; the two royals made their way through the palace halls, walking all the way to the large gold encrusted doors of the palace foyer, the main doors out of the large building.

The palace guards opened the doors before him, letting the Fire Lord and his uncle walk out into the large barren grounds outside the palace, looking down the long stone path that lead to the main gates in front of them.

Iroh pointed out, squinting as he looked toward the gate, "I can just make them out." he noted, his nephew nodding before they continued walking along, making their way down the stone path all the way to the gate, where the guards held up the crew, led by Lieutenant Jee, who noticed them immediately, kneeling before the two of them.

"General, Fire Lord- it is good to see you both again in health." he greeted them, Iroh walking up to him and patting him on the shoulder.

"It is good to see you again Lieutenant-" he affirmed, before turning to the rest of the crew, "and all of you as well- it has been too long since we had a good music night!" he exclaimed, making the men chuckle at his sentimental joy over their time on the ship.

"So- what are we required for? You wanted to meet us personally, General." Jee asked, Iroh nodding and letting his nephew walk forward to begin explaining.

"Men- my Uncle called you back to the homeland so you could be dismissed, but the turning of events over back in the Earth Kingdom has led to- well- we had to make a decision." he explained, the Lieutenant raising a brow at his vague description; realising that Zuko had been rather vague with his words, his uncle stepped forward to finish his explanation.

"We would like you all to return to service under Zuko's command- he requires to go to the colonies, because of the recent news, you might have heard- his sister is organising a rebellion, and Zuko has decided to go and sure up the moral and defence of our cities there- you don't have to rejoin us, and if you did it would only be temporary- we don't exactly trust many of the people around here, and you are all the most trustworthy sea-men we know." Iroh explained, Jee nodding at his explanation.

"I will go- it would be an honour to serve under you, your majesty." he sincerely bowed to his Fire Lord, who appreciated the respect from the subordinate who he had butted heads with more than he would have liked to.

"I'm grateful of your hard work and loyalty for those five long years-" he begun, holding Jee on the shoulder, "you all had the choice to leave, but you remained by our side- that's the kind of loyalty I can't find anywhere else... even if it was out of respect for 'Retired General' Iroh." he explained, glaring at his uncle jokingly, before chuckling.

Jee smirked and admitted, "Your Uncle is a likeable man- what else can I say?" before he turned around to the crew, "So who of you wants to serve on his majesties ship?"

All of the hands rose up, one by one, making him smirk in confidence, before nodding, "Thank you men- you will be well treated and your service will be rewarded- I promise you that." he affirmed to the crew, before turning to one of the guards that remained stationed by the gate, "You- I need you to send a message." he ordered, the guard shocked at being directly commanded by the Fire Lord.

"Of course your majesty- what is it?" the guard asked

Glancing over toward the palace, he begun to explain "I want his message seen by my Imperial Guards and the War Council- it details my orders and plans while I am out of the capital." handing him a scroll with his seal on it.

"I would handle this all myself but we are on a tight schedule- the Fire Nation's unity is at risk." he explained to the guard, who saluted him in response.
"It is my honour, your majesty." he affirmed before turning to pace his way up the pathway toward the palace with the official message.

He turned to his uncle, "Now that the issue of organising the guards is done- I expect the war council to continue to hold my orders in place while I am chasing down my sister." he explained, Jee raising a brow in shock.

"Your majesty- you mean to say we're hunting your sister down?" he questioned, Zuko shaking his head.

"No, my sister's overconfident attitude will lead her to us- and when that happens I must be prepared to do what I must." he told the lieutenant, who nodded in understanding, before Iroh patted him on the shoulder.

"I hope you understand the ramifications of our actions Zuko- this next meeting with your sister will not be peaceful, let alone with words- your claim to the throne was made the same way your sister intends to claim hers." he explained to his nephew, who nodded stoically in understanding.

"I know Uncle- I don't want to make any mistakes- the fate of our nation is in our hands." he affirmed, before he turned to Jee and the crew.

The Fire Lord, his uncle and crew begun to walk through the streets of the Caldera City, catching the eye of those who hadn't personally seen the Fire Lord since his coronation, walking so casually through the street with his crew like equals; he was happy that he had his crew by his side again, people that he could trust in his time of uncertainty- looking forward, he couldn't help but to smile in thought of Mai and their future meeting. The man who had once seen himself as the dishonoured Prince, a shame to his family and nation, finally found some semblance of hope and camaraderie, from the people that he had been somewhat begrudgingly stuck with for five years, to his own admittance; Zuko was not the same angry boy that wanted to find the Avatar- he was his own man, and he found comfort in a sense of self-confidence he had thought he would never find again.