Dusk had fallen. The cover of nighttime would suffice to conceal their presence from anyone who might just happen to glance in their direction from Omashu's heights. It was their starting point, even if nothing guaranteed Sokka's plans would proceed smoothly from this moment onwards.
"Okay, so… now that we're here, we really need to talk about what we're going to do," Aang said, crouching down by the small fire Zuko had started for the group, just beyond a mountain peak that kept their current whereabouts hidden.
The moose-lions rested at the foot of that very mountain, sleeping lazily after the fourth day of march all the way to Omashu. They had eaten their fill, and now it was everyone else's turn to do the same thing: Appa welcomed the hay Aang had procured for him from their supplies, just as everyone else gathered by the fire to cook a proper meal – Momo took to stealing whatever chunks of food caught his interest, even though Aang was feeding him plenty of fruit so far.
"We're taking Omashu. That's what we're going to do," Toph answered carelessly, languishing against a large rock. Aang's eyebrow twitched.
"And we all know that's easier said than done," Aang said. "We've got everything you wanted to put your plan into effect, right, Sokka? So… what do we need to do now? Are we ready to move out by morning, just as we are?"
"Not just yet," Sokka admitted, letting out a deep breath as he ran a hand through his hair. "We meant to infiltrate the city through the sewers you mentioned. It'd be a good idea to confirm they're still usable for that purpose… but I think we need to scout the city to figure out the key locations we need to strike at. As much as I know where King Bumi and the Governor are, it's not enough with just that. The local communications office needs to be seized if our plan is going to work."
"And you didn't think to ask in the fortress if anyone happened to have a map of Omashu?" Anorak, off to a corner, asked bitterly. Sokka scoffed.
"Right… because you and your friends would've readily given me a map of the place if I'd asked?" he said. Anorak's brow furrowed. "We both know that's not likely. So, as unacceptable as it may seem for you, we will have to figure out the general layout of the city as we go."
"It's a huge city," Anorak said. Sokka shrugged.
"Hence the need for scouting," he said. "If we can't pull this off yet out of lack of information, we'll just shepherd the moose-lions away by morning and take more time to understand the city properly."
"Yeah. That's a good plan," Anorak said, with a dry grin. "Let merchants and travelers see you guys crouching about here, trying to figure out how this city works…"
"We can give them good business if that happens," Kino said, beaming. Anorak rolled his eyes as Sokka let out a deep sigh.
"I get it, though, I get it: we can't afford to waste time, so we should take action to remediate this problem right away," Sokka said, folding his arms over his chest. "We'll go in right now: Toph, do you think you can decipher the city the way you did with Fire Fountain City, back in the day?"
"Huh. Sure I could," Toph said. "Might not be that fast, but I can do it."
"Right, let the blind woman figure out your directions. Feels reasonable," Anorak said. Toph smirked.
"It's been a good while since someone was stupid enough to underestimate me because I'm blind. I kinda missed it…" she said. Jet, beside her, smirked at her reaction too. Anorak rolled his eyes.
"Isn't it dangerous for all of us to march in there now, though?" Katara asked, glancing at Sokka uneasily. "I'm not saying something will go wrong, but if something did…"
"We'd all be captured and screwed?" Sokka finished. Katara nodded. "Well, the good news is that, as long as Toph's with us, getting tossed into prison won't be a deal breaker, she'll just bend the doors out of the way. But that's not what we're going for… so let's just call that Plan B, huh?"
"Plan B is winding up in prison?" Anorak repeated. Sokka shrugged as the man's wide eyes were lost in the horizon. "You're all doomed."
"And you're not helping much with that attitude, mind you," said Kino, pouting in Anorak's direction. The man plainly ignored him.
"What I'm thinking right now is… we'll split in two groups," Sokka said, shrugging. "Some of you will stay here and ensure the moose lions stay put, too. Anorak, clearly, will be in that group…"
"Thank you," Anorak said, with a dry grin. Sokka smirked.
"The question is who'll want to stay with you for now, but sure…" he said. "The others will head inside the city to scout it and look into everything we need to make our attack as efficient as possible. Toph has to be on that team, and I'll be there too, I know the city to a degree…"
"I know it too, or at least I did a hundred years ago," Aang pointed out. Sokka bit his lip before shaking his head. "What? I really did know it!"
"I'm not questioning that you did… I just don't think you should come with us," Sokka said, remorsefully. Aang's eyes widened. "You're too valuable. You're the Avatar, and we can't risk you falling in enemy hands, whether those of us who head into the city now end up imprisoned or not."
"Sounds like the same logic ought to apply to Prince Zuko, shouldn't it?" Anorak said, raising an eyebrow. The Avatar and the Prince eyed him warily.
"I suppose the argument can be made, yes…" Sokka acknowledged. Zuko scoffed.
"Isn't the argument perfectly applicable to you as well, Sokka?" he said. "You're supposed to be dead. Getting caught in Omashu, of all places, would be catastrophic for you."
"I know, I know. But I'm not going to send Toph alone in there, that'd be a bad idea…" Sokka said. Toph huffed.
"Does that mean you don't trust me, eh, Dog?"
"I trust you more than I should, likely, but I don't want you taking off on such a dangerous mission alone," Sokka said. Jet shrugged.
"I can go too," he said. "I'm pretty much a nobody, aren't I?"
"Me too!" Kino exclaimed. Sokka winced. "W-what? You don't trust me? I thought you wanted...!"
"Can you lot stop assuming my refusal to let you join missions comes from distrust?" Sokka huffed, rubbing his forehead with his fingertips. "Kino, you're a Fire Nation deserter. While you certainly have gone ignored by soldiers in the past, I don't think it's a good idea to have you taking a risk like this one right away, let alone when you already have a pretty serious mission to pull off later, be it tomorrow or whenever we set the actual plan in motion."
"Isn't that the case for everyone?" Zuko asked. Sokka shook his head.
"I'm planning on infiltrating prisons and breaking out whoever I can anyway," he said. "Whether we get caught or not, going on this scouting mission will help me push that particular line of work forward. Kino, though… he has to be the one to persuade the slaves at the gates to turn against their masters. I don't doubt they'll have plenty of cause to listen, but it won't be easy to fight this battle if we can't get their support at the earliest stages."
"So… you think we should head into the prisons anyway?" Toph asked, raising an eyebrow. "Like… do you want us to do that so it's easier to figure out where everything is, according to any trustworthy rebel you can find?"
"It's one possibility, if you can't figure out enough with your seismic sense," Sokka said. "It's going to be the middle of the night, identifying all the buildings and their functions might not be too easy for you if everyone's in bed, so…"
"Maybe you can find a big military office and steal their maps of the city?" Kino suggested. Sokka nodded.
"Not a bad idea either," he said.
"I'd agree but I wouldn't be able to read those," Toph pointed out. Sokka smiled.
"Hence why you can't go alone," he said. Toph chuckled and shrugged.
"Okay, fine. Guess that makes sense," she said. "But then… you, me and Jet? That's not a bad idea. I can only imagine Sugar Queen would rather stay with Aang, so…"
"Well, you don't have to just assume that just like that…" Katara said, blushing slightly. Sokka smiled.
"Do you want to come with us?" he asked. Katara sighed, running a hand through her hair.
"To be honest… not that much. But you do worry me, big brother," she said. "Don't do anything stupid, will you?"
"I'll make sure not to," Sokka said, nodding. "And besides, we'll be back here once we've figured out everything we need to unravel. Whatever information we gather, we'll share it with you guys before we take action. We'll do this as quickly as we can."
"Then… it'll be the three of you?" Aang asked, eyeing Sokka, Toph and Jet with uncertainty. Toph smirked.
"Yep, that's right. All three gladiators will get the job done. Team Gladiator!" she declared proudly, to Jet's amusement. Aang blinked blankly at her declaration before rubbing his chin in deep thought.
"That's a good name… our team should have one too," he decided, smiling at Katara. She scoffed, nudging him with an elbow.
"Isn't it obvious? We're Team Avatar," she decided, and Aang's cheeks flushed. Kino gasped.
"You two can be Team Avatar, then, and me and Zuko will be… Team Prince Zuko!"
"What the hell? Why would you and me be on a different team if we're going to stay with them and… why would the team be both my name and my title if that's not the case with the others?"
"Well, Team Prince just didn't sound right all on its own!" Kino remarked. Zuko rolled his eyes as his companion pondered figuring out another name for their so-called association.
"And for that matter, you two shouldn't be Team Avatar either because only Aang's the Avatar," he said. Katara pouted.
"You'd been behaving too nicely lately. You just had to go and be a grump…" she said, shaking her head as Aang chuckled.
"If that's how it is, then what about when we're all together? Seems like we're all too different to use a singular name that works for each of us," he said. Sokka shrugged.
"Team 'tear Ozai a new one and end this bloody war' has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?" Sokka said, simply. The others smiled awkwardly at him as he reached for one last helping of food. "Or I can come up with a less violent one after this is over, if you guys really need me to…"
"Well… you probably shouldn't. Didn't Azula think your sense for naming things was terrible?" Zuko said, with a weak grin. Sokka nearly choked on his food before shooting Zuko a reproachful glare. "I'm just saying…"
"So, wait… you think we should keep that one or you think my opinion is overruled?" Sokka said, raising an eyebrow. Zuko let out a soft chuckle.
"I think we'll be a nameless group, altogether, until she gets a say upon the matter. I figure you'd agree with that," Zuko said, with a shrug.
Sokka blinked blankly for a moment before smiling and nodding in Zuko's direction. All debate regarding whatever their group was called was a matter of jest… but his heavy heart seemed slightly less burdened upon letting himself think, again, of a future where he and Azula wouldn't be apart anymore.
It sufficed to help him focus again. To remind him that whatever complications might come up in his plan in Omashu, he had to attain victory no matter what. This was but a starting point, the first reconquered city, if all went according to plan. More would follow… but the most important of them all was the Fire Nation Capital itself: that was the ultimate goal, and that was where they would be headed in the future if their efforts in Omashu paid off as they were supposed to.
Once Sokka, Toph and Jet finished their meals, they prepared to approach Omashu's chasm. Sokka asked the group staying behind to keep an eye on Anorak and ensure he wouldn't sabotage their mission, no matter how disgruntled he was over being among them right now. Anorak hadn't given Sokka an answer at all after the Gladiator had asked his question, and Sokka suspected that he'd choose to run off indeed, as soon as a chance came up. That he hadn't done so yet was odd, however… perhaps his curiosity had been stoked, much like it had been with his initial taming of the moose-lions. Sokka intended to succeed, whether he helped or not, but Anorak's waterbending might be a great asset in the battle if he chose to stay.
"Okay… I think I see it now," Sokka told Toph as they progressed past the bridge that linked Omashu with the outside world: a few metallic grates stood on a lower level of the city, and while nothing liquid oozed out of them, it was easy to guess that they were the sewers Aang had told them about.
"Well, I don't see anything, myself," Toph said, letting out a deep breath as she wiggled her fingers slightly in preparation. "Want me to build a bridge? A set of stairs? A sled? It's your call."
"Uh… make stairs first, by carving them by the side of this big cliff?" Sokka said, leaning down and patting the sturdy rock with a hand. "I'll let you know when to stop and switch to making a bridge instead."
"You mean, once we're on the level of that sewer thing?" Toph asked. Sokka nodded. "Well, then… here goes nothing, boss."
"Boss? You're calling me your boss?" Sokka asked, smirking in disbelief. Toph shrugged.
"I mean, all things considered, whatever nonsense those guys might say… this really is Team Gladiator, isn't it?" Toph said, striking her hands forward: a chunk of earth molded and changed, shaping into steps down which she and her companions would climb lower down the chasm that hugged the city of Omashu. "You're the brains, the one leading us, the one coming up with all the crazy ideas… the one who's going to convince the prisoners to join us too, I bet. And the one who's going to shut up all those White Lotus bigshots by proving you don't need them, and that they're the ones who need you. See?"
"So… it's Team Gladiator just because of me rather than all three of us?" Sokka asked, glancing back at Jet. The shaggy-haired man smirked and shrugged.
"To be fair, you two wear that title much better than I do," Jet said. "I barely remember bits and pieces of my time as a gladiator, and I know I want nothing to do with that life. Meanwhile, the two of you were the biggest gladiators in the League, right?"
"Heh, he got way bigger than me in the end," Toph said, carrying forth with her bending as they talked and walked down the stairs. "Maybe my victory streak lasted a long time, but I couldn't beat Combustion Man myself…"
"Well, I barely feel like I beat him, and it's not like it was a legal fight, in the end," Sokka said, sighing. "I… I don't really want to think about it much, if I'm honest."
"Must have been hell, but I'm just saying… you achieved stuff people like me only ever dreamt of," Toph said. "And now everyone and their mother, maybe even their grandmother, calls you 'the Gladiator' as though the rest of us didn't count. And you know, it pisses me off but… at the same time, I get it. I'm not trying to get all sentimental here, Dog, but… if I'm gonna be second-best to someone, I'm glad it's you."
Sokka smiled a little and nodded in appreciation of Toph's words. He and Jet continued to follow her down the chasm until, at last, they were close enough to the level of the sewers to switch into building the bridge instead. Following Sokka and Jet's indications, Toph crafted the bridge gradually, taking her time and being far more thorough than she had been on a similar occasion… Sokka could only smile as he recalled it, shaking his head slightly.
"I suppose the Millennium Dragon and his sponsor aren't competing with you over who crosses first this time, huh?" he asked. Toph snorted.
"I knew you'd bring that up eventually, I just knew it," she lamented, shaking her head. "You're still mad because I almost killed you two? Because… you should be, I think. I'm not over having done it either, so…"
"You almost killed them?" Jet asked, blinking blankly as they crossed the bridge carefully – Toph made it wide enough for the three of them to walk comfortably while she extended the earth little by little across the chasm. "How so?"
"Eh, I wanted to win and they were beating me to it," Toph explained, simple and to the point. "So I just… did something really stupid, knocked down Omashu's bridge just as they were crossing it. But they made it through, beats me how, and my big efforts to win went nowhere. Worse than that, I really thought Sokka was going to kill me, but I guess he was too happy to win the Race…"
"Too happy Azula was alright after that disaster of a fourth stage, if anything," Sokka said, his voice gaining a dark, threatening edge. "I guess maybe I got back at you for all that in our last fight…"
"Heh, and then some. Destroyed my pride and left me covered in wounds," Toph smirked. Sokka chuckled.
"Well, I'm sorry for that, to a fault. To be honest… I never thought I'd beat you that way," he said. "I'm just guessing here, but… you weren't really knocked out, were you? You were responsive and conscious too quickly, I think, to have been knocked out…"
"I was for a moment, actually… but when I came back to my senses the countdown was almost done. I wasn't exactly in any shape to keep fighting anyway," Toph acknowledged. "I had no more strength inside me. And I don't just mean physical strength…"
"I get it," Sokka said. Toph hummed. "It's… well, not the same, but similar enough to what happened to me when I first faced you."
"Only, you weren't going to threaten to kill me the way I did back then, right?" Toph said, with an innocent voice. "You're too nice for that…"
"You've tried to kill him multiple times, Toph?" Jet asked. Toph grinned guiltily. "Heh. You two have a very weird friendship."
They chuckled at Jet's conclusion as they finished crossing the chasm. The sewers before them still seemed to be in use in current times: their stench brought Toph to cover her nose and mouth frantically, making faces of disgust as she inched closer to the side of the mountain Omashu had been erected on.
"Guess this stench is worse than my bombs, huh?" Sokka asked her. Toph shuddered.
"You're not about to say you were using sewer shit to make those damn bombs, are you?" she asked, shaking her head. "Even I have standards when it comes to gross stuff, you know?"
"Guess you do, if these sewers disgust you," Sokka chuckled as he and Jet stood to the side of the sewer while Toph got ready to work.
She raised her hands, moving her fingers carefully as she touched the edge of the sewer's metal grate. After a moment, the whole structure shifted and deformed itself, crumpling until it had become an uneven ball of metal instead. Toph huffed, tossing what was left of the grate aside as she coughed slightly, in a hopeless attempt to escape the stench.
"Come on, then. I'm not going to be in there for any longer than we need to be," she declared, readying herself to climb into the tunnel.
There was no safe area to traverse the tunnels, filled with filth as they were: Toph had to raise chunks of earth – or at least, Sokka hoped it was just earth – that served as a solid foothold for the three of them, next to the languishing waste. They progressed slowly, tensing up whenever any new movements revealed that further waste was being tossed down the drains at the time, but they were fortunate enough to not wind up at the receiving end of any splatter.
"How far in do you want us to go, Sokka?" Toph asked, grimacing. "This is getting unbearable…"
"Well, I'd have thought we should get out of here so you can catch your breath, but… I don't know if that'd be safe," Sokka admitted. "Can you use your seismic sense here? Maybe sense a nearby area we could go to, a way out of here that won't lead us straight into a room full of Fire Nation soldiers, or so?"
"Huh…?" Toph grimaced before abiding by his suggestion, slamming her foot hard on the unstable grounds underneath their feet.
She had expected her attempt to use her seismic sense to fail in these circumstances, due to how deeply unsettling the smell was. But when echoing ripples of vibrations reached her, Toph frowned in perplexity.
"There's… one place over there," she said, raising a hand and pointing in the direction she meant. "There's people in there, but… it feels like those catacombs under Ba Sing Se, or the ones under the Fire Nation Capital."
"You mean… it's an undercity of a sort?" Sokka asked. "A place for Omashu's citizens to hide and protect themselves in case something troublesome happens?"
"Right… but if that's the cse, why are people in there right now?" Toph asked. Sokka frowned. "I can sense them, or well, I could when I used my seismic sense."
"Resistance members could be using underground bunkers to hide from the Fire Nation and keep their activities hidden," Jet reasoned. "Better than risking capture by scheming anywhere public, or anywhere the Fire Nation knows about."
"And if these were Fire Nation soldiers lurking down there, somehow?" Sokka asked. Jet shrugged.
"We're three former gladiators, aren't we? If worst comes to worst… I guess we'll just have to take extreme measures to protect ourselves and our cause," Jet said, glancing at an uneasy Sokka. "I know you don't want unnecessary bloodshed… but this isn't the time to take pity on the Fire Nation."
"It's not about pity. It's simply unsettling to think we might have to kill people for being in the wrong place at the wrong time," Sokka said, letting out a breath. "It's not my preferred mode of operation, even if I know it might be necessary, but I want to hope it won't be this time. We can restrain them, knock them out, tie them down, anything like that if they're foes. If they do pose a serious threat to us and our mission… then yeah, I suppose it'll have to be done, but not unless things escalate that much. Alright?"
"Well, you're the boss," Jet said, shrugging. "If that backfires, I'll make sure to stop taking your orders too seriously from now on."
"Heh, I hope it doesn't backfire at all, then," Sokka said, with a sarcastic grin. "Might not even be Fire Nation folks in the first place, like you said before. Anyway… we'll be careful. The stench is getting unbearable even for me, so if you can get us there, Toph…"
"It's been unbearable the whole time, Dog," Toph grunted, hands moving quickly to conjure more earth for the three of them to walk on.
Other grates and full gates loomed above and around them as they progressed further into the depths of the sewers. After about two more minutes of walking, though, Toph finally stopped and raised her hands in a bending kata: she cracked a wall open forcefully, rushing into the cavernous space she had breached with her earthbending.
"Stale tunnel air… so much better than rotten sewer air," she groaned, stepping through the tunnel opening quickly. "Come on, come on, the faster I close that shit, the better for us."
Sokka and Jet obeyed, and Toph bent the wall back into place after her two companions were through. The improvement was tangible for all their senses, and a sigh of relief left all their lips simultaneously for it. The respite, however, was brief: voices reached them when they were still cleansing their lungs, as well as the sound of footsteps against solid rock.
"Incoming…" Toph huffed, raising her hands defensively instants before three silhouettes appeared before them in the large, rocky location they had only stepped into.
"Who are you?! Identify yourselves!" exclaimed a man, aiming his bow and arrow in their direction. The others brandished swords.
Sokka let out a deep breath before stepping forward: the men wore tattered clothes, unkempt and old... it was clear to Sokka, immediately, that the garments were Earth Kingdom clothing.
"Are you… Omashu's resistance?" Sokka asked. The man snarled, clutching his bow harder.
"What's it to you?" he rebuffed. "Who the hell are you, and what are you looking for in here? A guy with an armor that sleek doesn't belong in…"
"In sewers? Or in contact with rebels against the Fire Nation?" Sokka asked, breathing out slowly. "I know you're wary. I won't pretend you shouldn't be. If you weren't cautious, you wouldn't have lasted however long you have as a resistance. But I'm not your enemy, if this is truly who you are. If you're not rebels, I'm still assuming that those outfits are a symbol of your support of the old Earth Kingdom regime? Thus… we wouldn't be enemies anyway."
"Well, the only way they'll be enemies is if they're Fire Nation soldiers pretending to be rebels of any kind…" Toph said, and it was her remark that did it. The archer scoffed, spitting on the ground as he lowered his bow.
"Curse the bloody Fire Nation, a thousand times over and a thousand times again. We'd never support them…" he said, frowning heavily. "But that doesn't mean you're trustworthy. Who the hell are you, I said?"
"We're gladiators. Three gladiators," Sokka said, breathing out slowly. The man's confusion, as well as that of his companions, only increased upon hearing that answer.
"Slaves?" he asked. Toph scoffed.
"I never was one, no," she said. "These two, though…"
"I barely remember my own time in slavery," Jet acknowledged. "Or as a gladiator, but still, it's true."
"And you?" asked the rebel, frowning at Sokka. Sokka gritted his teeth.
"I… was one, at least. You could say my master set me free… a few months ago," he said, lowering his gaze remorsefully before raising a much more determined set of blue eyes towards the rebels. "I'm the Blue Wolf, she's the Blind Bandit, he's the Savage Hook, and we're here to help you guys reclaim Omashu."
"You… wait, what?" gasped the first rebel, though one of them stepped forward, staring at Sokka intently.
"D-did you just…? No! That's not possible!" exclaimed the woman, though she didn't brandish her weapons in any menacing way. Sokka swallowed hard, wary of whatever sudden moves their new acquaintances might make. "I've heard of you! The… the Princess's gladiator?"
"What?!" gasped the first rebel. Sokka let out a deep breath and nodded.
"Yep, that's me. A lot of weird stuff has happened to me lately," he explained, stepping forward. "Believe it or not, my sponsor… she intended to set a lot of things right. She…"
"She made those… laws, didn't she? The slavery laws?" asked the woman, frowning. The rebel leader scoffed.
"No fucking laws should've been made in the first place," he growled. "We should all be free!"
"She agreed with that notion," Sokka said, startling the rebel leader. "But Fire Lord Ozai was never going to abolish slavery. The laws were meant to protect the existing slaves from further mistreatment… but I'm betting that, by now, he's ignored them completely and pretends they don't exist anymore."
"The Enforcers… they were part of those laws, right?" asked the third person, an older man. "Those ladies who were tasked with… I don't know, watching the markets? Wasn't that it…?"
"That and a few other things… shit, I hadn't thought about them," Sokka said, grimacing. "I wonder if they'll turn their backs on the Fire Nation if we just ask…"
"As long as we're persuasive, I bet they'll join in. They're locals, aren't they?" Toph asked, shrugging. The other three frowned at her words.
"You're… going to fight the Fire Nation? The Princess's gladiator is…?" asked the woman, puzzled. "Why?"
"Because it was about time someone did?" Toph replied, arms crossed over her chest. Sokka sighed.
"It's a bit hard to believe he's the one who decided that," said the rebel leader, scowling at Sokka. "If you were working for the Princess, surely you were in a good enough position to…"
"To make Ozai withdraw his troops from the South Pole, to sabotage his attempts to develop bombs to massacre the Northern Water Tribe, to help the Princess train Enforcers so they could help protect slaves?" Sokka finished, hands on his hips. The rebel fell silent quickly. "I acknowledge I fucked up plenty of times, but I didn't stand idly by her side, unwilling to do anything out of bounds just because I feared retribution. I spoke my mind, I took action when I could, I helped a group of rogue gladiators escape from an Amateur Arena and I would have done it again if the slavery laws hadn't proven a much safer way to protect them. I got luckier than others… and that's the whole reason why I can be here now to help finish this war in a much more aggressive way than I originally intended to. I meant for us to change the Fire Nation from within, and we made progress on that front, no doubt we did. But that approach isn't going to work anymore, so…"
"So, you'll fight directly now?" asked the rebel leader, eyes wide. "You… you're serious? And… what, you're here to get started with that? With just two more gladiators with you?"
"We're not just three people. We're… uh, eight. And two animal companions, so that's a total of ten?" Sokka reasoned, raising an eyebrow. The rebel leader's jaw dropped. "Ah, and I can't forget, twelve moose-lions, so that makes us… twenty-two, altogether."
"W-what are you…? Huh?!" the man's jaw dropped as Jet smirked next to Sokka. The Gladiator smiled and shrugged.
"Look… we're on the same page, right?" he said. "We want to set this city free. If you guys can afford to give us some information, that will be enough. If you want to fight by our side, we'll welcome that too. But we want the same things, don't we?"
"Well… we do, I suppose," said the rebel, eyeing Sokka warily. "Do you really think… eight people and fourteen beasts can topple Governor Ukano's rule?"
"Guess we'll find out," Sokka said, with a shrug. "But all in all? I know the Fire Nation fairly well. I know how they operate… I know their weaknesses and strengths, and the way to exploit both of them. Can a group of twenty-two effectively start an operation that will tear down this government? I guess people might think I'm overconfident, but… I actually think we stand a better chance than anyone would anticipate."
The rebel frowned… but the expression on his face revealed he was intrigued. He glanced at his two fellow rebels before sighing and jerking his head towards the cavernous chamber, deeper into the city's underground construction.
"Come along and explain whatever you intend to do. If it makes any sense… guess we'll trust you," he said. "If it doesn't… then the least we can do is give you whatever information you need and hope you can work miracles by yourselves. We've been trying to take back this city for a decade and it hasn't worked… it's hard to believe you can be victorious when you're an outsider."
"You didn't have the cavalry we're bringing in," Jet said, with a shrug, as they followed the three rebels. "It's not that we're overconfident, but… I'm sure you've never had an earthbender of Toph's caliber in your group."
"Sweettalking me as always: you know it's not the time for that, right?" Toph said. Jet snickered as the rebels frowned.
"We have a few earthbenders… not too strong, true, but still," said the man. "But… well, many of our best are imprisoned. They've been taken into custody over the course of the last ten years. And the strongest bender here… King Bumi is out of our reach, by his choice."
"What did you just say? By his choice?" Sokka frowned. "Isn't he… suspended in some coffin-like metallic structure, built to chi-block him if he makes any sudden moves?"
"The King tried to escape once," said the third of the rebels, as they led the way deeper into the underground. "It was a valiant effort that went nowhere: the eclipse started when the sun was far too low in the horizon, it barely affected the firebenders in the end, so he was defeated by the Fire Nation soldiers all over again. That it took about twenty of them to subdue a single earthbender would be great if… if he had succeeded at overpowering them. He failed, though…"
"And the true tragedy is that none of it would have happened if he had just… listened to Yung," sighed the woman, shaking her head. "He had prepared us all to defend the city from the Fire Nation, back on their first invasion, only for King Bumi to decide it would be better to do nothing. Sometimes it's… it's easy to think he's the whole reason why we're in this mess in the first place."
"He… he wasn't defeated, then? He gave up?" Jet asked, scowling. "That doesn't sound like a very good king."
"King Bumi wasn't an ordinary man. His mind worked in mysterious ways," said the leader of the group. "Unfortunately, that meant we couldn't tell when his judgment was correct or wrong. Sometimes he'd make foolish mistakes… sometimes what we thought were mistakes would turn out to be strokes of brilliance. We all hoped that would be the case this time, somehow, but… it's been ten years of waiting for the brilliance to pay off somehow. At this point…"
"At this point?" Sokka repeated.
The leader sighed as he slowed by a small fireplace at the center of a spacious, cleared area near a set of small, poorly structured buildings – Sokka suspected they were the rebels' base and current homes.
"At this point, we've as good as given up hope that we'll ever reclaim our city," he said, eyes falling remorsefully upon Sokka's as he glanced over his shoulder.
The Gladiator frowned upon hearing those words: he knew the sensation of helplessness these rebels had been overcome by. The belief that nothing could possibly stem the tide of horrors the Fire Nation had wrought upon the world… and the fear that nothing, and no one, would ever be able to stop it.
But he was here now, and he intended to turn that tide on itself, for better or for worse.
The woman of the three rebels stepped towards the small, rudimentary buildings: little by little, more people stepped out into the open, some old, some young, a handful of the right age to stand their ground and fight…
And then they stopped. Sokka frowned as he counted them quickly: there couldn't be more than thirty people, and most of them hardly appeared to be in fit state for battle.
"Is this… everyone?" Jet asked, stepping closer to the small fire. "These are all the rebels against the Fire Nation's rule?"
"Not really," said the leader, with a shrug. "There's about five times as many of us in prison at the moment. About just as many who grew tired, gave up and tried to adapt to life under the Fire Nation's boot. I would resent them for doing that, but they're the ones who provide us food and medicine when we need any, so…"
"What's going on, Bojun?" asked a young woman among those who had been hiding, reaching for the leader's forearm, her other hand upon her womb. Bojun sighed as he clasped her hand in his, glancing back at the newcomers. "Who are they?"
"They're the people who dug their way into our hideout," Bojun said, grimacing. "And they… they seem to want to help us take back Omashu."
"What?" the woman exclaimed as a rumor of curiosity and confusion spread through the rest of the crowd.
Sokka breathed deeply before stepping forward, raising his hands to soothe the group. They obeyed his wordless request gradually and he cleared his throat before speaking out loud.
"I know we're strangers, I know there's no real reason for all of you to trust us," he said. "We're not here to demand that you join us if you don't wish to… I can see you've been through a lot: you've fought the Fire Nation for a decade, and they've always won. But as arrogant as it may sound… I do believe that my allies and I have a good chance of defeating them."
"You and those two?" asked one young man in the group, brash and aggressive. Sokka raised an eyebrow.
"Well, no, but you'll probably think a force of twenty-two isn't that much better than three," he conceded. The man grimaced. "And over half of that is of creatures, to boot… but that's not the point: we have a plan, and if you guys help us, we may be able to enact it the right way."
"How could we ever help?" asked the woman clinging to Bojun's arm. "What sort of plan is this?"
"Eh…" Sokka breathed out slowly before glancing at Bojun. "I'm going to guess you guys have at least one map of the city, right? It'd be weird if you didn't. I know where the Governor's home is, I know where the shitty statue is, too…"
"The statue, that's where King Bumi is…!" exclaimed the woman, and Sokka nodded before she could finish the sentence.
"We'll set him free," Sokka declared. Another gasp, this time of excitement rushed through the group. "We're setting the entire city free, actually. That's why I need the map and whatever information you can share with us: the prisons where your fellow resistance members are kept, the slave markets, and most importantly, the Communications Office… or, well, every place that's likely to have any messenger hawks that they might send to the Fire Lord to report what's happening. If we cut off their means of communication, the Fire Nation's armed forces will be weakened immediately…"
"The city is pretty big, though," Toph said, frowning. "Finding every place with a messenger hawk can't be easy, bet they use those all the time…"
"Uh… not really," said Bojun, raising an eyebrow. "That's how the Fire Nation communicates across long distances, but Omashu doesn't need messenger hawks for its normal activities. We have the delivery system for that."
"The delivery…?" Sokka repeated, perplexed.
In a matter of moments, the rebels provided them with a set of maps of varying details of the city: among them, one was a map of the city itself, highlighting key locations that the Omashu resistance had attempted to attack in the past, Sokka suspected… and another was a map of the numerous slides and chutes that comprised the delivery system of Omashu.
"The delivery system used to be centralized… here," Bojun told Sokka as they sat by the fire with the maps spread out. He pointed at a large opening around the center of the city. A large 'x' had crossed out the opening, however. "It was where parcels were kept, a massive storage area for resources of the city. But it was taken down and… and replaced by a Gladiator Arena."
Sokka grimaced, eyeing the 'x' again with a foreboding, unsettling sensation. The one time he had been knocked out in combat had been in Omashu…
"Ozai Arena," he said, bitterly. "Well, we can wreck it after we tear his statue off its spot first, why not?"
"Y-you… you'll do what, now?" asked Bojun, blinking blankly. Sokka raised an eyebrow as Toph snickered next to him. "Tear down that statue? T-the one at the top of the tallest pyramid?"
"Wouldn't be the first of Ozai's statues I bring down," Sokka shrugged: another gasp of amazement rushed through the group around them, and he blushed slightly for it. "I mean, it was a bit of an accident that time, but I won't pretend I regretted it at all…"
"Y-you're crazy. That sounds great, but you're crazy," Bojun concluded. Sokka smirked before studying the maps again.
"But then… what I'm seeing is that the network of the delivery system now seems centralized elsewhere," Sokka said, dragging his finger towards a Fire Nation-styled building, at a low position in the city. "Wait… no. This isn't the Governor's home, is it?"
"It was for a brief time, but it's the Communications' Office now," answered Bojun. "The upper Fire Nation mansion took longer to construct, they relocated there later. It's this one, see? They look like twin buildings…"
"I see," Sokka said, stroking his chin. "The upper one's the one I've been in, then."
"You've… been in the Governor's Palace?" asked the woman by Bojun's side, eyes wide. "W-why…? How? Have you tried to infiltrate it already?"
"Uh… not really," Sokka said, warily. "I was a guest there, you could say. Twice."
This time, the whole group fell silent as Sokka breathed deeply. Bojun and the other two were already aware of who he was, but it was foreboding to confess the truth to so many people now. He could only hope they wouldn't feel betrayed, whether by Sokka or by Bojun, upon learning he had agreed to help someone like Sokka…
"The three of us… we're former gladiators," Sokka said, gesturing at himself, Toph and Jet. The group gaped at them in perplexity. "No idea what you know about the Gladiator Business, but…"
"It's over. Not working anymore," said one older man, frowning. "You had to fight big guys in places like Ozai Arena?"
"Fortunately for me, I only was in Ozai Arena once. And… it wasn't pleasant," Sokka said, grimacing. Toph smirked.
"I fought there a few times myself. Funny how they named it after a Fire Lord when it was the most helpful fighting ring for earthbenders ever. Bet the irony went right over their heads…"
"They can't trounce Omashu's true spirit," Bojun said, firmly. "Ten years of this conquest and we're still fighting back. Our people, our city, are strong. And we will continue to be, whether your mission succeeds or fails."
"If we plan this right, it won't fail," Sokka said, breathing deeply. "At any rate, Toph here is the Blind Bandit. She was the top earthbender in the League… while I was the top non-bender, the Blue Wolf."
Nothing but silence after that. Sokka blinked blankly, anticipating retorts and outrage… but none came. The reason why became obvious slowly, however.
"Uh… you people don't know much about gladiators themselves, then," he said, with a weak grin. "Well, that's not terrible, I guess…"
"You're supposed to be famous?" asked one of the rebels, puzzled. "Is that why you thought we'd know of you?"
"Makes sense that you wouldn't, don't get me wrong," Sokka said, raising a hand reassuringly in their direction. "Both Toph and I happened to be sponsored by… well, important people in the Fire Nation. In her case… the Fire Lord's brother, Iroh."
"Wha…? The Dragon of the West?!" Bojun gasped, eyes wide in terror. Sokka nodded as Toph shrugged.
"Big fucking title for the scumbag he turned out to be, sure," Toph said. Bojun grimaced as Sokka breathed deeply.
"Whereas I… was sponsored by Princess Azula," he said, his voice grave upon speaking her name and title.
Now there was a reaction… and yet it wasn't the reaction he anticipated. Rather than rejection and horror, the crowd appeared to look to them with even more admiration than before… and he immediately realized they were misinterpreting the truth in their stories by jumping to their own conclusions.
"You rebelled against them? You left your sponsors?" asked the woman by Bojun's side. "And now… now you're fighting back this way?"
"Uh… wrong again," Sokka sighed, and the enthusiasm in the faces of the group shifted anew. "I mean… technically, gladiators are no longer necessary. Lots of them have probably escaped, I'm guessing those who didn't were either assimilated into other duties or sent to slave markets all over again, I don't know. But… Toph was never a slave in the first place. I was… but I, well… my sponsor wasn't who you probably assumed she is."
"What's that supposed to mean?" asked one of the men. "Isn't that the Fire Lord's daughter?"
"She's more than that," Sokka said, firmly. Now the eyes shifted into wariness, and he wasn't surprised for it, not in the slightest. "What do you know of Fire Lord Ozai? Other than the obvious, I suppose…"
"The obvious being that he's a warmonger on a throne, sending his troops to annihilate everyone else?" asked the woman by Bojun's side. Sokka shrugged.
"Basically," he said. "But I mean… beyond that. Not just what he's done to the rest of the world, but what he's done to his own people… nah, even closer than that: to his own family. Have you heard about the rumors that he might have killed his own father?"
The whole chamber fell deathly silent now. The wary eyes shifted into utmost shock now, and Sokka raised his eyebrows.
"I don't really know the details of it so far… but from what I understand, he tossed his wife aside for a throne," he said, with a shrug. "His firstborn son? He didn't like him because he wasn't as ruthless, talented and prodigious as he had wanted his children to be. So… he found an excuse to banish him, alleging disrespect, if I recall right, as the reason why he was doing it: the truth was that he wanted to get rid of him, outright. But he didn't do it before burning half his face as a punishment, too."
The increasing horror in the chamber should have bothered Sokka, it should have compelled him to stop... but it didn't. He shivered as he tightened a fist before finishing his story:
"And what about the daughter he used to uphold as his true heir, as the one who was meant to succeed him as Fire Lord?" he said, breathing deeply. "She… she dared step out of line. She dared go against his damn designs and legacy by becoming a far better person and leader than he could ever have hoped to be. She helped others, saved countless lives, more than she probably ever realized she did… and he repaid her for it by punishing her mercilessly, destroying her life and everything she had worked to build, all because she dared love the wrong man."
Silence still. Some of those gazes seemed confused… but others seemed to make the connection. Sokka breathed deeply again before attempting to soothe his own rage upon speaking of Ozai's sins as he had.
"So… believe it or not?" he said. "The Fire Nation people… they deserve better than that monster, too. The rest of the world deserves to be free, to regain their sovereignity, for sure. But there are good people in the Fire Nation too… people who have never known anything but that bastard's tyranny. People who, like Azula, learned to see the world differently and broke away from that fucker's legacy. And his response to that was to tear her to pieces in retaliation. She could've bloody fixed this whole continent without war… she was going to. He had been moments away from giving her a position and role that would have granted her enough power to set so many things right… and then everything went away in the blink of an eye."
"And… that's why you're here?" Bojun asked. Sokka breathed deeply and nodded.
"She ensured I would survive. Shielded me and as many people as she could from the Fire Lord's unjustified wrath and faced everything on her own," he said, bitterly. "She was my partner in every level that mattered… and I knew her better than her piece of shit of a father ever could. She no longer stood by any of what the Fire Nation ideology demanded. She knew so much better than that, she was a leader worth following to the ends of the earth… hell, she still is. So… what I'm trying to say is that the people closest to that bastard, Ozai, got splattered and burned by his cruelty anyway. Being his child didn't mean she'd be as bad as him… just as it didn't make Zuko as bad as him, either. That's the Fire Lord's son, the one whose face he burned: he's spent years living a humble life, away from the Fire Nation, building a home for his new family with his own hands. He's with my group now."
"He… he is?" asked one of the rebels. "The Fire Lord's son…?"
"And we have another Fire Nation army deserter, too," Sokka said, nodding. "I understand if you're wary, if you don't think you can trust them… but the truth is that a guy like Zuko has no reason to stand by a man who treated him like he was worthless for most his life. He's as dedicated to this cause as any of us are. So… if you're not comfortable fighting alongside people who were so close to the Fire Nation's highest circles and you decide against joining us, I get it. All I ask for is… information, really. I just want to know for sure if my plans can be realized, the best way to go about them, if that's possible, how to organize our forces and what targets to prioritize. I wanted Zuko to go to the Governor's place first, he'll be a familiar face for the Governor and his family, and he can ensure they don't cause more trouble than they're worth. Of course, he shouldn't do this alone… but I have no doubts he can pull it off. The first place for all of us to strike, however, should be prison: if we set your fellow rebels free, and they're in good enough shape to help us fight back, our odds of finding victory will certainly improve."
"How would you go about doing that? Setting them free, I mean," Bojun asked, puzzled. Toph smirked.
"Are those prisons made of metal, by any chance?" she asked.
"Yeah," Bojun said, matter-of-factly: his word was echoed by most the crowd. Toph smirked widely.
"Perfect," she cackled. Jet snorted and Sokka even smiled slightly.
"She's a metalbender," he said, simply.
Sokka wasn't sure he had ever seen so many jaws dropping collectively in perfect synch before, and he had been in the middle of a rather intense and chaotic battles with unforeseeable twists many times in the past. He really couldn't help but smile at their reactions.
"We can set them free as long as we have their locations. If they're willing to help us directly, all the better," Sokka said, breathing deeply as he looked at the map again. "From prison, Zuko's group would head to the Governor's place, hopefully underground so they're not noticed. The others… we should go to the Communications' Office directly, actually. It feels like, if we take control over that place, it'll be even easier to get things done. How does this delivery system work, anyway?"
"With earthbending," answered the woman by Bojun's side. "Earthbenders send carts up, gravity sends them down, basically. It's still worked by earthbenders to this day."
"Slaves?" Sokka asked. "Or Honorary Citizens?"
"Both," the woman said. "Some are earthbenders who joined the army… we don't know if out of true conviction or if they merely did it to avoid persecution by the Fire Nation's forces. Those Enforcers? There's… there's some members who used to be part of the resistance too. They chose to join to protect other slaves, they hoped to help set them free in secret…"
"Unsurprising," Sokka said, with a small smile. "Then… heh, where are the Enforcers' headquarters? The last time I came here they hadn't started operations yet."
"That would be over here," Bojun pointed with a finger at the right area: it was closer to the Communications' Office than to the Governor's residence or prison. Sokka bit his lip.
"And the slave market?"
Little by little, each new location elicited more uncertainties for Sokka: with Aang and Katara busy defeating the guards by the walls, reaching every single one of those targets one by one would be no easy feat. They'd have to split up further to continue gathering allies through the city… but perhaps they could take advantage of the chutes and slides of the delivery system to travel quicker to each of their targets. If they were truly manned by earthbenders, Sokka hoped that at least some of them would be willing to help. Whatever allies they could find along the way would have to serve to bolster their numbers, so that each of the smaller, key goals of their conquest could be achieved.
"And… you intend to strike right now?" asked Bojun. Sokka nodded. "Today?"
"After the sun rises, yes," Sokka said. "We have a distraction lined up to ensure the guards by the walls aren't paying enough attention to what's happening inside the city. Other allies will fight against the ones at the walls and defeat them when they're none the wiser."
"You say it like it's that easy…" Bojun frowned. Sokka smiled.
"Well… for the allies I have in mind? It might be," he said. "The Fire Nation hasn't dealt with benders like them ever before, let alone in Omashu. But the primary reason why I want everything done as fast as possible is because I don't want the Fire Nation mainland to learn about what's happening. We want to take Omashu without their awareness."
"That sounds difficult… though it could be doable, if you take the Communications' Office," said Bojun, frowning. "It's where they keep their messenger hawks… though I guess maybe they have some of those by the walls too. Maybe the governor has some of his own?"
"All of which are crucial targets that should be struck simultaneously to ensure none of them have a chance to contact the Fire Nation forces beyond the city's walls," Sokka remarked, eyes raking the map carefully.
"I'm not sure that taking down their communications like this will last long, though: there's likely diplomatic envoys and more troops sent to Omashu every now and then, and merchants…" Bojun continued. Sokka nodded.
"True, but I'm not planning on staying here forever," Sokka said, startling the others. "Me and however many want to come… we will be marching out to cause more chaos elsewhere after Omashu is secured. By then, I'll be ready to come back to life, far enough from Omashu to ensure you guys won't lose control of your city again once I direct Ozai's bullshit towards me."
"Wait… towards you? Not towards your forces but… you?" asked the woman by Bojun's side. Sokka nodded.
"The Fire Lord thinks I'm dead," he said. Everyone was startled anew. "He sent fifty ships, thousands of troops, to ensure he killed me. He did that after trying to kill me one time before too, in the Capital. I know it sounds ridiculous, I'm just one guy… but it's true. So… yes, towards me. He has one hell of a grudge on me, wants me dead, and he's so smart he's likely to go out of his mind upon realizing I'm alive and retaking Earth Kingdom cities… and he'll surely focus more on me than on what actually matters if he continues to be as bloody stupid and emotionally unhinged as he was back when I was still in the Fire Nation. So… yes. The faster we take Omashu, the better. The sooner I leave Omashu afterwards, the better as well. We're on course to end this war for the better, to reclaim much of what has been lost… and I believe we can pull it off if we plan things the right way. Yeah, not everything will stay on track… but the more we understand what we need to be wary of, what resources we can count on, the easier it will be for us to triumph and tip the scales of war in our favor at last."
The group of rebels remained silent again. Sokka breathed deeply as his eyes raked them all, knowing Toph and Jet stood behind him, firmly. Nobody appeared to be about to condemn them, even if he wasn't sure they were ready to join him, either. The helplessness in the most vulnerable of them suggested they were better off staying here, only offering assistance by telling them what to beware, where to go…
But Bojun punched his palm suddenly, and a ferocious steel gleamed in his eyes as he looked at Sokka firmly.
Sokka smiled slightly, surprised by the certainty of the rebel. The woman beside Bojun squeezed his arm gently before speaking out, too.
"You think you'll need earthbenders?" she said. "I can be of use, then…"
"But… Wenna, you're not in any shape for…" Bojun said, grimacing as he reached his hand instinctively towards the woman's womb. She clasped his hand and nodded.
"None of us are in any shape to continue living like this. I'm not raising our child down here," she said, firmly. Bojun breathed deeply before nodding.
"Just… don't overexert yourself, okay?" he said, before glancing at Sokka again. "We'll help you. I don't really know you that well, none of us do… but I don't know. Something tells me I should trust you. You have your own reasons to see this fight through to the end, and hopefully you also have the means to see it done. I don't know how many will want to join us… but I expect several people should. So…"
"I'm in, too!" exclaimed the woman who had been with Bojun earlier, when Sokka, Toph and Jet had entered their hideout.
"And me!" another rebel declared.
"Me!" a child exclaimed, and her startled parents gasped before telling her she couldn't possibly be part of anything like this…
Sokka's lips curled into a slow smile. His eyes fell upon Omashu's maps once more, upon the city they were going to liberate before dusk fell, on the very next day. His heart pounded powerfully in his chest in anticipation, in amazement upon finding the resistance movement of Omashu would stand by him… they would support him as he and his friends shook the Fire Nation's grip on the city until they forced it to let go.
The memory of the Cave of Two Lovers returned to mind inevitably, the beautiful paintings of Oma, strong and unyielding, creating a city that was a monument to the love she had shared for Shu. Their story had hit them hard… but the cycle had been broken. Azula had seen to it that he wouldn't die, unlike Shu… and what would Shu have done, if he had survived? What would Shu have chosen, if Oma had saved him and, in the process, condemned herself for allegedly betraying her people for his sake?
The best way to honor Oma and Shu, and the city that had stood strong across millennia, would be by fighting for it with every ounce of strength he could muster, honoring their love as well as the one he shared with Azula: The Earth Kingdom would rise anew, and it was only fitting that the dawn of their rebellion would see its beginnings in Omashu.
The crackling sound of the fireplace continued into the night. They'd taken turns resting, but by now it was clear that none of the members of the group who had stayed behind would get remotely enough rest on the night of their impending attack on Omashu.
Kino had given himself the duty of watching for Sokka's group, whenever they returned. Katara tended to the fire, warming some more soup over the flames. Aang watched over the resting moose-lions, perched atop a tall rock. Zuko laid against the base of the same rock, glaring at the fire instead of sleeping. Anorak kept his back towards the glow of the flames, eyes upon the horde of moose-lions nestling in the less steep terrains below them.
It wasn't too surprising that it would be Anorak, hands holding his head, who would speak and break the temporary spell of silence on their group.
"We really are going to do this?" he said. Zuko grunted, and Anorak glanced at him with uncertainty. "I… I know you intend to. But it's only… the White Lotus does everything by weighing the dangers, by thinking things over, by trying to ensure all plans have alternatives so that they won't fail."
"And even then, they have failed," Zuko said, cuttingly. Anorak winced. "In no small part because of the crazy guy we'll follow into Omashu by morning…"
"I know, but… that just worries me even more," Anorak said, frowning. "His plans… even if his scouting mission works out, they're not ironclad. They're not so thorough that he can guarantee this will succeed… and yet we're doing this, all be damned. How do we know we're not going to make things worse? How can any of you trust him so easily? And I'm not even talking about the reasons why I don't… it's fine if you don't feel as uneasy about him as I do. But you do understand the risks if this venture fails?"
"Do you?" Zuko asked, simply. Anorak grimaced. "If you do and you don't like them… Sokka said you could leave. It's not like we'll stop you."
"I'm… not leaving," Anorak said. Katara raised her eyebrows.
"Then you're staying with us because you think you must, and not because you trust we'll do things the right way?" she asked. Anorak breathed deeply and lowered his head. "You know… my brother is a really resourceful guy. Some people might even call him a genius. But me? I call him an idiot more often than you can imagine. So does Zuko. And we're still here."
"True… and I don't really understand why," Anorak said, eyeing her with uncertainty from over his shoulder. "You know he could fail…?"
"Of course I do. Of course Zuko does. All of us know this could end in disaster," Katara said, with a shrug. "But… that's why we're working together. That's why we're here: to do our damnedest to make sure it isn't one."
"You've never seen him in action. Not the way we have," Zuko said. "He doesn't plan things to the last inch because that, too, can go sideways. He adapts, he improvises, and he always does completely insane things that nobody can even believe were possible. Will he do that this time too? Beats me… but if he can't, the rest of us will be there to make sure things work out. His plans weren't perfect in the South Pole, either. He came up with… with a crazy scheme, on the spot, to ensure the Fire Nation forces would go wild upon being baited by his silhouette in the middle of the night. They were about to retreat after taking a few losses and we couldn't afford to let them do that: Sokka came up with the perfect way to keep them engaged, on the fly. Then, he continued to lead us into destroying a fleet of Fire Nation ships that outnumbered us massively… and as impossible as the odds seemed to be, we won.
"None of us thinks he's infallible… but we know what he's capable of. We've seen it… and I guess you'll see it too, once dawn breaks, as long as everything's gone well."
Anorak breathed deeply as he rubbed his brow with his fingertips. The whooshing sound of wind revealed Aang had dropped from his current spot atop the mound of rock, and Anorak grimaced upon finding the Avatar standing before him.
"You're afraid?" Aang said. Anorak scoffed.
"Well… I think, if you guys aren't, you're utterly crazy," he said. "Maybe it will go well, but if it doesn't…"
"The White Lotus won't be compromised. We won't say anything about them," Zuko said, firmly. Katara nodded. "None of us have provable ties to the White Lotus to begin with, so if you're worried we'll fall into enemy hands like fools, your Order won't be in any danger over our carelessness."
"That's…" Anorak grimaced. Aang raised an eyebrow.
"You're not afraid for the White Lotus… or at least, not that way," Aang said, resting his weight on his glider as he studied Anorak intently. "You are scared… but not as scared of failure as you're scared of success, aren't you?"
Anorak gasped: Aang's words startled him. His initial impulse was to deny them… but a strange rush of guilt seemed to seize his very soul as the Avatar's remark sank deeper and deeper in his heart.
"I… w-what the hell am I supposed to…?" Anorak said, gritting his teeth as his mask seemed to come undone. "What am I supposed to understand from the White Lotus if… if a single man with his friends manages to take back Omashu when we never have achieved anything like that, on the basis that it would be too difficult and too dangerous?"
"Huh… well, I guess that you should understand that this man and his friends are a lot more impressive than meets the eye," Katara said, smirking. Anorak huffed.
"I'm serious. What does it say about the White Lotus that we've done nothing without planning extensively, often to no avail, and achieved… nothing?" Anorak asked. "What does it say about… about everything I've devoted my life to? About the leaders I've listened to and followed? You guys… your way to do this could be wrong. It could be, and yet… if this is the only way to get results, could it really be wrong?"
"I don't think anyone wants war to be the answer," Aang said, with heartfelt sorrow. "Sokka sure didn't… he wanted to stop the war and fix the world gradually, and it seemed Azula could have made that happen once she became Fire Lord. This is the only choice he has left…"
"Fighting now isn't the only choice," Anorak said, but his words lacked conviction. Aang smiled.
"No… but it does seem like the right one, if just to me," Aang said, with a shrug. "The world has been waiting for this for too long. For a hundred years… a hundred and ten, to be precise. I don't know if Sokka's way is the only way or not… but I know in my heart that the time to fight is long overdue. The longer Fire Lord Ozai stays in power, the harder it will be. So… this is it. And I know you're worried and this could go poorly… but if it doesn't, we will finally begin to take back what the Fire Lords have stolen. It will be one more step forward… a step towards restoring balance."
Anorak grimaced. If this worked, even Jeong Jeong would be forced to acknowledge Sokka had succeeded where he had failed. He would have to respect the Gladiator he had found so abhorrent all along… a concept so unthinkable that Anorak couldn't imagine it happening. But if this succeeded… if it did, he would be wrong to do so, wrong to cling to whatever preconceptions of the world he had built his position around. Even if the White Lotus as a whole rejected what Sokka dared do…
Even then, Anorak wanted see this operation through to the end. Whether Sokka succeeded or failed… Anorak realized now that he wanted to be here, to find out for himself if the fabled Gladiator might be as extraordinary as his strongest supporters believed him to be.
"I…" he said, glancing at Aang. "I will be part of this. I don't know what role he would let me play, but… I want to help fight back. It may not be much help, I'm no Avatar, but…"
"Anything you do to help will be plenty," Aang grinned. Anorak offered him a weak smile of his own. "The more forces on our side, the better our odds, right?"
"Right," Katara said, smiling at Anorak. "My brother prefers it if his teammates speak their minds, by the way. If you don't like something, don't trust someone… if any choices he makes are unsettling, tell him about it. Zuko and I always talk back to him when he's saying or doing anything stupid, so…"
"Huh…" Anorak said raising his eyebrows. "And it doesn't upset him?"
"Not in any way that counts," Katara laughed. "He knows he's not perfect. He wants to hear what we have to say, and if we don't say anything… well, it's because he's making sense, surprisingly enough. I think this plan has a good chance of working…"
"As do I," Zuko said, firmly.
"So, if things aren't promising or you notice any issues in the plans we're working on, you should just speak up and tell us," Katara said, shrugging. "No one should try to win every battle alone… but we're not alone. We have each other, and we'll hold one another up for as long as we need to in order to win this war."
Anorak swallowed hard and nodded. He had spent all his life following leaders who were absolute, whose wisdom he could never question… but that wasn't the case here. Even if the Gladiator was their leader, they weren't silent subordinates. No one here acted that way. They were, in some ways, equals… everyone mattered, every voice counted for something. What mattered was using that voice in a reasonable way, then…
He smiled slowly, even if it seemed as though his entire worldview was falling apart. Maybe this was the answer for a question he had never dared ask. Maybe it was fitting, in the end, that only a man who was already so open to change within himself, so ready to alter the way so many cultures and armed forces worked, could be strong enough to redeem the world as a whole…
"Ah! I see something by the chasm! I think they're back!"
Kino's voice drifted towards them weakly, sitting outside their small crevice in the mountains. Even so, everyone raised their heads and, without a second thought, marched out towards where he watched the city.
The whole group that waited by the mountainside stood by Kino, waiting to glimpse the movements: the shadows by the edge of the chasm revealed there was someone there… and after about five minutes, it became easier to glimpse the shadows of three people, once again. Toph, leading them, was the first to march up to the rest of the group, a triumphant fist raised high.
"We're good to go!" she declared. The other four gasped in astonishment.
"W-what, really?!" Kino winced. "Like… right away?"
"Well… we could have some food first," Sokka acknowledged, climbing over the mountain area slowly as they reached the rest of their allies. "I'll explain the fully detailed plan by then. But we've secured allies… secured maps, too, and we have figured out the key locations we need to strike to succeed."
"H-how?! Just like that?!" Anorak gasped: as much as he was growing to wrap his head around Sokka's group, as well as how it worked, the Gladiator still seemed to surprise him in more ways than expected.
"Well… wasn't as hard as expected because we found Omashu's resistance pretty quickly," Sokka explained, with a slight smirk over Anorak's reaction. Kino whistled.
"Woah! That's helpful. They should know the city way better than any of us, right?" he said, grinning at Zuko. He smiled too and nodded at Sokka.
"Then… we're getting started by morning?" the Prince asked. Sokka nodded firmly.
"We're damn ready," Toph said, cracking her knuckles. "We're taking back that city tomorrow."
"Are you sure we can we pull this off in a single day?" Anorak asked again, looking at Sokka in perplexity. The Gladiator smirked still.
"Sounds doable to me, with everything we've learned today," he said. "We'll have allies on our way to breaking out the resistance members from prison. We should have enough forces by then to hit two other key locations while Aang and Katara take care of the first key location at the walls, and Kino secures us even more allies."
"I'm ready to wreck those prisons, myself," Toph said, proudly. Jet smiled.
"And I to get ferried around by you in those slides and carts. Sounds fun," he said, and Toph smirked. Aang's eyes widened.
"Wait, the slides…! Bumi taught me how to slide down with a cart, it was so funny and…! W-wait, you're saying we can use them for this? Really?"
"A crucial element of this battle, believe it or not, may just be using those slides to our advantage to move across the city quickly," Sokka told him. Aang's eyes glistened with amazement. "I'll explain more now, while we have a bit more to eat… the idea is to set things in motion as smoothly as possible. But if we're all in…"
"We are," Toph said, firmly. Jet nodded beside her.
"You don't even have to ask," Katara stated.
"I know I'm ready. The sooner we get going, the better," Zuko said, arms folded over his chest.
"Oh, I'm so excited… or nervous? Maybe it's both?" Kino smiled awkwardly, scratching the back of his head. Aang chuckled, patting his friend's shoulder.
"We're ready to follow, Sokka," he said. "As we were in the South Pole."
"Well, I wasn't in the South Pole but still…" Toph said, shrugging as Jet chuckled beside her.
Sokka breathed in before glancing at Anorak. Where he had expected more uncertainty, more questioning… he found, instead, that the waterbender appeared anxious in a strange, novel way.
"I… don't know what you'll want me to do," Anorak said. "But… I'm with you all. I'm with you."
Sokka raised his eyebrows in surprise… but he smiled afterwards. He had hoped Anorak would eventually choose to help them, considering he hadn't scrammed right back to the White Lotus when Sokka gave him the chance… but only now did it seem that Anorak was certain of joining forces with them, of seeing this battle through to the very end.
"Alright then…" Sokka said, breathing deeply. "Alright. Let's replenish our strength, go over the refined plans… we'll head underground before dawn breaks. And before the sun sets in the horizon again by tomorrow, we'll have reclaimed Omashu."
A rush of energy seemed to pulse out from him, to circle around all his friends and then return with ten times as much strength upon reaching him again. His fists tightened as he felt that fire, that warmth, burning in his gut: it was a familiar sensation, one of powerful determination he had often felt when fighting against his fiercest foes in the Gladiator League. He had always fought for her, and the battle he was preparing for would be no different: his heart seemed to overflow with passion that compelled him to charge into the golden city of the tall pyramids… into a battle that would begin breaking Fire Lord Ozai's control over the fallen Earth Kingdom.
In honor of the 300th chapter's release, Kigozula is holding a Gladiator event on her personal Tumblr! Feel free to participate by submitting your entries, you can find the questions in her blog's topmost post! I'll be very grateful to anyone who joins in, and I'm also grateful to everyone who has kept on reading the story so far!