Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar
It was an hour before midnight. Aang, Sokka and Toph headed to the Outer Wall on Appa. The Royal Earthbender Guards were as accommodating as ever to the Avatar and his companions. Several guards were briefed earlier about Sokka's plan and they've been awfully respectful, cautious, and regarded the last airbender with a devout awe, which had been quite the usual attitude among the masses lately. This was the boy who saved their nation, their homes and their families.
"Avatar Aang, may you grace us with the honor in accompanying you in your mission," their commanding officer, Zhong Chen, spoke.
When Aang, Toph and Sokka seemed reluctant, another officer took a step forward and spoke, "We will prove to be faithful and formidable allies to you, Avatar."
Zhong Chen regarded the younger officer, Pei Ban, with a raised eyebrow.
"Thank you, but we can handle this on our own," Aang said, "it's a simple assignment that requires only Toph and I specifically," he clarified.
"What he's too nice to say is you'll just slow us down," Toph added, "no offense."
The officers nodded respectfully, bowed, and took their respective posts in the Outer Wall. Sokka briefed them momentarily for the last time and wished Aang and Toph luck. Soon they were off trekking the forest alone.
The pair was wearing black fitted clothes. Additionally, Aang had a dark hood on that covered his head and shadowed his face. Since his fever, Aang had been growing his hair out, opting not to shave daily and as a result, short stubble of dark hair obscured his arrow. But without proper cover, the blue ink on his forehead and neck was still visible. They blended into the night as they slinked and slid with earthbending toward the large, conspicuous Fire Nation army. Aang opted to go barefoot, mimicking Toph, in order to get a more concrete view of the enemy's camp through the vibrations in the earth.
With great haste, they eventually reached the outside perimeter of the encampment. Their position was far enough so they couldn't be located or heard, and near enough to get accurate vibrations from the inhabitants of the campsite. Aang could see several red tents up. Most of them were tiny and some farther away were quite large. There were campfires that had been recently extinguished, wooden tables set up, a number of torches positioned here and there. The air was quite and calm. He could only hear soft muffled voices but aside from that, the campground was fairly silent.
"Got it?" Aang asked Toph referring to the information and details they needed to gather with their seismic sense.
"Yup, an army, like you said."
Aang nodded out of habit. "Around six-thousand men."
"Seems about right," she replied.
"What about Mai, Ty Lee and Azula? I'm not that good with recognition yet," he admitted to her.
Toph placed her hand on the ground. There were still a lot of people walking and fumbling about, it was clouding her 'vision'. She took a deep breath and placed another fist on the ground. When there it was: three familiar heartbeats, figures, and breathing patterns.
"They're here alright," she said. "They're in one tent. Northeast."
"No drills. There's a hundred or so tanks, and some other freaky machinery," Aang added.
"Do you feel that? It's like a weird kind of stomping… some animal… thousands of them.
"Komodo rhinos," he stated calmly.
"And those slimy giant lizard thingies,"
"You mean mongoose dragons? I sense them too,"
"You sure know your animals, Aang,"
"As a matter of fact I do," he proudly stated with a smile.
"They have hundreds of messenger hawks too,"
"Very efficient of them," he said with a sardonic laugh.
"What are they still doing here anyway?" she asked, peeved. "You won, they lost. Now, scram!"
"We'll discuss that with the others later," he told her quickly. "Take your last look and we're out of here,"
"Seriously? That's it?"
"Yeah, Sokka said─"
"Forget what Sokka said," she told him, a mischievous grin forming at her lips. "Stop being such a goody two shoes!"
"We already got the information, Toph," he replied lamely.
"But not really… yeah we have the numbers but we don't know why they're here," she retorted. "We don't know anything about their plans! We should get what we can while we're here. This is our one chance of being two steps ahead of them."
"You're right," Aang muttered thoughtfully. "What do you suggest we do?"
"Hang around for a little while," she told him. "Oh! Let's get close to Azula's tent," she grinned, "where the magic happens. Maybe listen in on things for a bit. Ten, twenty, thirty minutes tops then we're out."
"Let's check the surrounding tents too, they must belong to her top generals!" Aang was getting excited and jittery for this unexpected, yet promising detour. "Let's do this."
"Just stick close to me and make no sound," she stressed. "Remember, never take your attention off of the vibrations. You may have working eyes, but your feet are going to be more useful to you right now."
"Got it," the airbender replied earnestly. She grabbed a hold of his hand.
The pair snuck through the Fire Nation camp evading nighttime lookouts and a handful of wandering soldiers effortlessly. They reached the northeast portion of the camp where Toph had sensed that Azula and her cronies were present. It was not an easy tent to miss being the largest and grandest in the entire camp with a black, obnoxious Fire Nation insignia at the front. Aang and Toph approached the outside of the red marquee cautiously. They could hear shuffling inside.
A harsh, sudden squawk almost sent Aang flying from shock. He turned to Toph who looked just as spooked but apart from that, she did not seem to mind the abrupt noise a bird perched on a tree behind them made. Aang stared at the black bird, mesmerized, and it stared right back as if it knew who he was.
"It was so easy getting into the 'impenetrable city'," a familiar shrill voice exclaimed from inside the tent, "I thought it was going to take more than mere dress-up!" she laughed.
"A city of idiots," a cool, striking voice remarked. "If it weren't for the Avatar, we would've burned that city to the ground and revel in its ashes. He's the only one standing between us and victory."
"I'm surprised this is the same city your uncle failed to conquer Azula," a monotonous response came.
"Well Uncle's a fool just like the rest of them," she replied matter-of-factly.
"It was just too easy," Mai added.
"Up until the Avatar and his friends intervened," said Ty Lee.
"The Earth Kingdom doesn't deserve him. A bunch of fools playing at war. They don't know what real war is. They don't have the intelligence, capability, and technology that we have. Just compare our army and theirs…our security at the capital and theirs. Our military, our benders, our innovative minds, we're far superior. Not to mention their loyalty, or lack thereof. Ha! I was able to convince an elite team of earthbenders to betray their master, their king, their country!"
"But you are truly inspiring, Azula," Ty Lee interjected cheerfully. "We can't blame them."
"True," she replied. "Nonetheless, we will win this war. We are united as one, and as we stand together, no one will have a chance against us. It might drag on a couple of more years because of the Avatar's…persistence. But in the end the Fire Nation will reign supreme over all our inferiors."
Toph and Aang heard applause from only one set of hands, "wow, that's terrific, Azula!"
"Just imagine girls, if we had the Avatar fighting for the Fire Nation…"
"Oh the possibilities! We'd win this war quicker for sure!" Ty Lee cried. "That would be so wonderful!"
"Indeed," Mai finally spoke up again.
Aang was dumbfounded. It was as if they were voicing out what had been pestering him for the past few days. The meetings with the Council of Five only soured his mood and made him feel more and more hopeless. Azula was absolutely right…about everything.
"Any word on our spies at the Earth King's palace?" Azula asked.
Toph squeezed Aang's hand hard.
"None, Princess Azula," Ty Lee replied. "Maybe tomorrow!"
"Alright girls, it's getting late. You may stay here if you'd like. I'm going to my bed. Sleep well."
"Sleep well, Azula!" Ty Lee chimed, "We'll see you tomorrow!"
"Sleep well," Mai said.
The two earthbenders sensed her walking towards the royal tent's connecting bedchamber.
Toph pulled at Aang's hand and motioned for him to follow her as she moved on to another tent just a few yards away from the Princess'. This one was also large, but not quite as large as the previous one. It was the only grand tent that was empty so they opted to go in assuming it belonged to someone important.
"Any maps or plans or important scrolls?" Toph asked in a soft whisper.
Aang looked around the neat wooden desk, opening drawers. There were letters, rolled up scrolls and other artifacts but these all seemed like personal belongings more than war plans. He examined the desk and then the nearby shelf. There he saw a thick, rolled up scroll labeled General Jian: Ba Sing Se II.
"Here," he replied in a similar hushed manner. "It's got it all in this bunch."
"Just take everything important and let's leave," she said, "I'm getting claustrophobic in here."
"We shouldn't just take stuff. They'll know we were in here and abandon this plan."
"Okay, fine. Can you remember it all then?"
He examined the rolled up bunch of scrolls, it contained at least 6 large parchments, and some had drawings on them. He scrunched up his eyes, carefully inspecting all of them with scrutiny, reading every last word. Then he read everything twice over to be sure.
"Done. Let's go," he said after a long time, and rolled up the parchment.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, I know it now. I'll explain in detail when we're far enough."
"Okay make sure you return it as it was."
The pair reached halfway through the dense forest, far enough to avoid being in earshot of anyone in the Fire Nation campsite. When they confirmed that no one was nearby, they talked freely as they travelled.
"Can you believe how stuck up and self-important those prissies were?" Toph balked, half laughing, half groaning. "They were all like 'no one can stand before us because fire,' as if it's that simple. And the way they were talking about you─"
"Let's discuss that later," Aang interrupted softly, "I might forget what I read before we reach the Outer Wall."
"Oh yeah, that─" Toph remembered. "Spit it out."
"They're planning on conquering Ba Sing Se through these metal flying machines," he started grimly, "Airships. They'll just fly over the walls and into the city. It said in a footnote that these machines couldn't be scathed or pierced by earthbenders throwing rocks from below. The metal will be built thick and will fly high."
"That's like the only defensive attack the Royal Earthbending Guards ever do," Toph said dryly.
"Exactly!" Aang groaned in displeasure, placing a palm on his forehead. "Remember, when we broke in the Earth King's palace, then Azula broke in the Earth King's palace. Ugh, who hasn't?" he scoffed. "She's right about one thing you know, the Earth Kingdom's military is nothing compared to the Fire Nation's!"
"And about another thing,"
"Huh?" Aang looked up at her.
"She was right about another thing," she clarified. "You're the only thing standing between them and conquering the Earth Kingdom."
"But it shouldn't be like that!" he shot scathingly. "The Earth Kingdom," he stressed, "should stand between them and the Earth Kingdom."
Once they reached the Outer Wall, an irate and sleepless Sokka was impatiently waiting for them. Arms crossed, foot tapping furiously on the ground, while a scroll hung loosely from his belt. They told him of their unexpected detour while he berated them for directly disregarding his original plan. Toph and Aang then relayed what they learned: the numbers, the confirmation on the escaped prisoners, the conversation they overheard, the scroll in the general's tent, while Sokka took notes. Aang shared everything he remembered from the war plan he read to Sokka and anticipated his input.
"Aang, can you draw the airships?" Sokka handed him a piece of parchment, "while it's fresh in your head."
"Er, I'll try," the airbender took the parchment reluctantly.
"Aren't you glad we decided to stay and snoop a bit more, Sokka?" Toph asked smugly.
"Yeah, yeah," he dismissed. "Anyway, we have to be really selective in who we trust in the palace," he whispered to the both of them, eyes darting from one side to the other, "and we have to warn Katara and Zuko to do the same."
"I think we should just trust no one," Aang spoke up from his parchment, "except each other I mean," he added quickly.
"Aang is right," Toph agreed. "No one gets to know about everything we found out except Katara…and Zuko I guess."
"What about the generals?" Sokka inquired.
"They're pathetic anyway," Aang said harshly, "won't do much if they knew or not."
Sokka regarded him with look of concern and confusion. "Well, I think they deserve to know. At least the ones we deem trustworthy. I am very fond of General How," he added, stroking his chin.
"Whatever Sokka," Toph replied. "I'm pooped. Can we please head back to the palace now?"
"Wait, Aang's not done."
"Here," Aang handed him the piece of parchment. "It's the best I've got."
"Hey," Sokka examined the rough, hastily made drawings. "These are actually pretty good," he said hesitantly.
"Better than any of your drawings that's for sure," Toph snickered.
"But you can't even─" Sokka started, "you know what, never mind."
A/N: There's a reason Azula's conversation with Mai and Ty Lee seemed a bit repetitive as the one they had in an earlier chapter. Please tell me what you think in a review.