By the time Sokka and Katara had gotten the skiff off of the derelict Fire Nation battleship and into the water it was early evening, and large puffs of black smoke had appeared on the horizon. The rest of the village had packed light, so hopefully they were long gone by the time the soldiers showed up to capture them. Sokka and Katara had packed light as well, but brought the uniform from Ji-Shi-Wan just in case.
The skiff was a metal ship, small in comparison to the battleship it rested within and so resembled, but twice the size of Sokka's kayak. It seemed to be designed for a single person to be able to operate it, and it had only one cot in the pilot's cabin, but had space for probably around five men. While it wasn't the most comfortable, it was certainly sufficient for their needs.
They wouldn't be able to navigate via stars until nightfall, so Katara practiced water bending off the side of the ship, while Sokka appraised the boat's controls. As the sun fell low in the sky, they saw the telltale smoke rising in the direction of their former home: Zhao had mobilized his forces. Hopefully everyone would be long gone by the time Zhao and his men got there. Besides, their mission was fraught with danger as well, and they would need to be careful to avoid the Fire Nation. Even after they got to the Earth Kingdom, they would have no way of knowing where was safe, and how to find the right person to show the evidence of Zhao's crimes.
Zuko had been thinking a lot since Azula left Gaipan with her retinue. His banishment was an opportunity to prove himself, but he would not do so on his father or Azula's terms. He would do it for the Fire Nation. With no guarantee he would ever return to palace life, despite his sister's claims, his service to he country was all he had. And he knew he could serve by doing more than just paperwork.
Due to the relaxed security this far from the war front, some bandits had recently seen fit to attack travelers along the roads near Gaipan. They hadn't managed to do any real damage, and hadn't yet attacked any supply convoys, but had mostly been targeting Fire Nation civilians and isolated guards. Given time, however, they could recruit more vagabonds, and begin doing serious damage. There might even be a small revolt, if the Earth Kingdom people began supporting the bandits. He had seen reports of similar events happening elsewhere in the colonies, especially since Iroh seemed to be offering support to local insurrections as a way to undermine the Fine Nation's grip on the eastern Earth Kingdom. Zuko intended to stamp out any such outlawry in his town.
The soldiers stationed at Gaipan had been given standing orders from the regional captain to search for the bandits, but little had been accomplished so far. Witness reports said they attacked from the trees that lined the roads, and as a lumber town, burning major parts of the woods to capture a minimal threat was out of the question. There simply weren't enough men to constantly patrol the vast stretches of forest, so as long as lumber production was unaffected, there was not much the captain could do.
Zuko had a plan. That night, after leaving his office, he disguised himself as a hunched old man. He wore a hood, and in the dark, the bandits wouldn't be able to see his face until it was too late. He took a length of rope and a broad sword, both hidden beneath robes, and set off down the wooded path.
By the time Zhao arrived at the water tribe village, it was abandoned. Those kids, who had somehow infiltrated the Fire Nation's most secret research facility, had also managed to outspeed him and warn their tribe. He was furious, and that he wouldn't have new research subjects to exercise that fury made him even angrier. But he wouldn't be denied for long. He would find those children, and when he did, he wouldn't even bother with any research pretense.
He would make them suffer.
"Prepare the ships to set sail." He told his attendant, a malicious smile creeping onto his face. "And send a message to Dr. Agaki. We're going hunting."