6 – Mother's Day
Sokka stared at his surprise visitor. She met his eyes without flinching, her expression cool and collected. He glanced down at the royal seal she'd handed to him as proof of her identity, but he put more stock in the eyes in his head than that worn piece of marble.
Even though her clothes were faded and patched up, and her graying hair pulled back in a simple knot that her ladies would have never allowed, there was no denying that this woman was who she said she was. It wasn't that Ursa was holding herself with the kind of pride that had Zuko and Azula staring down their noses at others; it was more like she had a quiet grace that was as much benevolent as it was natural. She had the kind of carriage that only came with being completely aware of one's position and situation. She spoke in an even timbre, but there was power behind her voice, and confidence despite being away for so long.
Yet, despite that, Ursa looked tired, and worn, but her expression was determined and her stance impatient. She had just handed him Azula's head on a platter, but as with all things that involved Fire Nation royalty, Sokka stepped lightly—he was already in deep with her son, and involving himself with her machinations as well made him more than a little uncomfortable. Because he was certain as there was a sun in the sky that she had something up her sleeve. She was Fire Nation. It was kind of their thing.
"How much time do you want to waste by standing here?" Ursa inquired slowly. "I'm telling you that Azula is on the move and if we don't reach her ships before she does, I won't be able to stow you away."
"How many ships are there exactly? How many men has she been hiding here?" Toph demanded.
"Three ships, with two dozen more coming from the Earth Kingdom, and she has some followers remaining in the Fire Nation. She has seventy-five men here, but there are more who will meet us en route. She's hidden the exact numbers from me," Ursa replied.
"But there are enough of them to make her confident enough to move against Zuko," Toph sighed.
"You've been here all this time, and it's only now that you're coming to us," Sokka said, crossing his arms over his chest, not willing to trust her so easily because wouldn't it just be hilarious if they voluntarily placed themselves in Azula's hands, providing her with very valuable hostages?
"I haven't had a chance to get away until today," Ursa said, a bit of frustration leaking through her icy facade. "She watches me closely, but today, she's distracted by final preparations, and I was able to leave without her asking too many questions. Please, Sokka. We have to go now."
Sokka glanced at Toph, who was pacing restlessly around the room.
"She's not lying," Toph said to his unanswered question. "But that doesn't mean Azula isn't using her."
"Of course, Azula is using me," Ursa said. "All my life...well, let's just say I know how to handle it. This may be the only chance you'll have to get behind her lines, and be the best chance Zuko has to stop this from becoming another war. If not a world war, but a civil war."
"How do you propose to keep me hidden for over a week before we reach the Fire Nation?"
"I can't offer you much of anything once you're on board. I have my son to think about, and I might put you at risk if I sought you out because of how closely I'm watched. Once you're on the ship, you're on your own, Sokka. Her crews are made up of disenchanted soldiers and mercenaries. They do not trust each other, and I doubt they recognize their brethren—you'll be able to blend in."
"Your powers of persuasion rivals Zuko's," Sokka muttered.
At the mention of her eldest, Ursa looked down at her hands.
"He won't be happy to see me, not like this," she murmured sadly. "But I have to think about Xinjin. He's at Azula's mercy, and he's too foolish to recognize her for what she is. He's been alone for so long, been without his true family, that he listens to every word she says with his heart. I do as she asks because of him. She holds us both by the bonds we have with our family."
She looked up, her golden eyes piercing through Sokka's doubt.
"I know this is all very hard to believe, in such a short time, but please believe me when I say this is our only chance to surprise Azula. You've fought her before; you know how she thinks. And she knows all of you very well. She knows you've been following her, and she knows what role you've played in Water Tribe affairs all these years. She's been preparing for this for years, perhaps even all her life. This is our only chance. Once the ships leave the South Pole, it'll be a war."
Sokka rubbed a hand down his face, picturing the maps he'd left behind in the kitchen and remembering the week he'd just had. The Water Tribe didn't have the means to stop Azula and her small army if they were to challenge her, so that was out of the question. Whether or not this was a trap, he wouldn't have a better chance at getting this close to his quarry. If he had to throw himself under the wheels of Azula's crazy train, he would, and it could very well come down to that. He threw Toph another glance, saw the hard expression on her face as if she already knew what he was going to say.
"Let me get a few things," he said.
"Hurry," Ursa urged.
Sokka ran into his father's study and opened the safe—then opened the compartment behind it. He heard Toph's footsteps behind him, but didn't turn as he packed a bag with the essentials. He would have to wear his white parka and snow pants, to better blend in with the landscape. As much as he enjoyed announcing he was Water Tribe by wearing their trademark blue, he'd rather not be a moving target because of it.
"I don't like it," she hissed. "I don't care if she's telling the truth. You might as well walk into a fire, with all the good this will do you. We need you out here, not in there."
"I beg to differ," Sokka said. "If anyone can get out of a sticky situation like that, it's me."
"As usual, your sense of duty is playing hide and go seek with the truth," Toph snapped. "Whatever it is you'd promised Zuko, forget it. There are bigger things at work here, and worse comes to worse, we'll need you out here leading the troops. You're taking too big a risk by trusting a ghost to take you to a woman who wouldn't hesitate to throw you in the freezing ocean and see if her abilities are greater than Mother Nature herself by boiling you to death."
"You paint such a pretty picture," Sokka said bemusedly.
"Sokka," Toph cried, not in any mood to joke, and Sokka heard the note of desperation in her voice. "Listen to me, this is a mistake. We're not going to see you again if you get on Azula's boat, not unless the princess there has some kind of invisible cloak you can hide under. It's a bad idea, Sokka. Bad."
Sokka stood and put a hand on her shoulder. Toph ducked her head, hiding her face from his eyes, but he tipped it up with a finger on her chin.
"You're gonna have to trust me, Toph," he said gently. "I'll get us all out of this."
She lifted her chin from his grip and turned away.
"Stubborn bastard," she muttered. "I don't suppose asking to come along will result in an answer I might actually like."
"You heard what Ursa said. She can only take one, and I could probably hold up being curled up in a barrel in the belly of a ship better than you could."
"No argument there. Good luck, then," she said brusquely.
She started to leave, but Sokka reached out and took her arm. She resisted him but he held fast. The corners of her mouth turning down, Toph tilted her chin up, but refused to turn her head towards him, and her arm was tense in his grip.
"I'll be back," he assured her with the lightest voice he could muster. "I promise, Toph. I'm not gonna let some spoiled Fire Nation brat take me down. Her brother tried and failed, so you could say I'm ahead right now. Those are good odds."
When she didn't answer, he sighed, and moved to hug her from behind, his arms around her, and he rested his chin on her shoulder. She stiffened at his touch, but her hand came to rest over one of his, and held tightly. Sokka smiled.
"Come on, Toph," he said teasingly. "Is this how you really want to say goodbye? I know you've got a stirring pep talk inside that's just dying to come out."
Then, to his surprise, Toph turned and threw her arms around his neck.
"Be careful, you idiot," she said, her voice muffled as she pressed her face against his shoulder. "You better come back because if you don't, I'll spend the rest of my life trying to find you."
Closing his eyes, Sokka held her tight, tight enough to feel every breath she took and fit his own to hers. Close enough to feel that her heart was racing...or maybe that was his.
"Who'd be stupid enough to argue with that?" he asked hoarsely.
Toph started to pull away, but Sokka kept his hands on her, his brow furrowed.
"Watch Ty Lee," he said. "She knows your weaknesses, Toph, and she'll play with them just to amuse herself. Don't let her do that to you, please."
"Don't worry. She won't get out."
"I'm not worried about that. I'm worried about you. Just try to be cool, alright?"
"Cool as ice," Toph reassured him with a smirk that made him feel a lot better. "I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself, which is more than I can say for you."
"I resent that."
Again, she started to pull away but Sokka didn't let go. Exasperated, Toph turned towards him.
Honestly, he didn't know what, but he wasn't ready to let go just yet.
"Thank you for coming this far," he said. "Really. I wouldn't have been able to do it without you."
"You wouldn't have been able to do a lot of things without me," Toph said with a cocky smile.
"Hey, that goes both ways."
"But if we were to measure just how much each of us can do..."
Sokka laughed and hugged her again.
"Yeah, that sounds about right. Be careful."
"You, too, Snoozles. Be safe."
And before Sokka could react, Toph got on her toes and unerringly pressed a light kiss against his lips. She was gone before he realized what she'd done, and then there was Ursa waving at him to hurry. Blinking, Sokka, picked up his bag and followed her out the door.
Outside, they were nearly lost in the inky black night, but Sokka turned back to the house, saw Toph watching them go, and wondered...
What the hell just happened?
They ran across the ice in a steady pace, and Sokka was surprised that she was able to keep up with him. He'd heard time and again that the cold air took some getting used to when it came to physical activity, but she was handling it like an old pro.
A lot of things weren't adding up in his head when it came to Ursa's explanations, but he didn't want to ask anymore in front of Toph. If Toph even had a hint of his doubt, she would have broken his legs to keep him from going. And this was one of those situations in which the fewer people who knew the truth, the better. Now that it was just the two of them, he had the perfect opportunity to do some information gathering—he just hoped he would see the end of this for his efforts to bear fruit to something.
When they stopped to rest, and drink some water, Sokka glanced sideways at his companion. They were hours from the harbor, but Ursa was determined to make it there before daybreak. However, Sokka wasn't going to stand until he was satisfied with her answers.
"Go ahead," she said calmly. "Ask what you've been wanting to since we left your friend."
"How long have you lived here?" he asked, his breath coming out in white puffs.
"Almost as long as I've been gone from my home," she replied with sad smile. "I've gotten used to the cold, the snow, and the simple way of life, but I never thought of this place as home, especially not after Xinjin was taken from me."
"When was he given to the Chairman?"
"When he was five. Old enough to remember living here and remember me. He's angry with me, for letting them take him away, and Azula uses that anger to her advantage because...well, because she was once in a similar situation."
"All this time, you've been alive. Why didn't you go back to Zuko once the war was over? He would have forgiven you."
Ursa looked at him with eyes that had seen too much.
"Don't you think Azula would have found a way to stop me from doing that?"
Sokka took a sip of his water.
"One false move and my boy..." Ursa looked away. "Azula learned from her father, who made me keep quiet to protect Zuko, but my daughter is more cruel than Ozai ever was. My husband loved me, and showed me mercy when he could. She...I don't know who or even if she loves."
"You helped her set this up, didn't you?" Sokka asked quietly. "You helped her hide her men, her ships...because I don't think she would have been so successful if she didn't have someone who knew the land and its people. "
Ursa nodded, her lips set in a thin line.
"I had to," she said between clenched teeth.
"What does Azula have planned for Xinjin?"
"Not Azula. Ozai. He wanted Xinjin to be Fire Lord, not my Zuko. Azula is simply seeing to her father's final wish."
"Zuko sent me to find Azula," Sokka said carefully. "To stop that from happening."
"It was clever of him to do so. Azula had always worked against him and always will. That's the nature of their relationship. My boy has been fighting her since the day she was born. I had hope for him, so much hope, that he would change the way things worked. From what I've heard about the Fire Nation...he has changed things, and I'm so proud of him."
The moonlight reflected off the ice at their feet and lit up the sharp planes of Ursa's face where decades of struggle and sorrow had left their mark. Sokka wanted to reach out to her, but wasn't so sure if he would be welcome. She was a lone warrior, a mother bear protecting her cubs in any way necessary, and he respected that.
But that also meant that he would have to be careful with her because if the situation arose in which they had to choose between saving her son's life and preventing a war from starting, he knew that they would be on opposite sides.
And the only person on this ice cube he could truly trust was somewhere back there, letting herself get verbally abused by their prisoner. Even though he knew it would have been a bad idea, Sokka wished Toph had come along. He could have used the moral support.
Plus, he could then ask her what she was thinking kissing him like that.
"Are you finished with your questions?" Ursa asked, standing.
"Not at all, but we've got a long night ahead of us," Sokka answered.
She nodded and began to jog.
They watched the men load up the ships from a distance, flat on their bellies on the cliff overlooking Azula's camp. The ships were Water Tribe designed, which made Sokka's hackles go up, but at least, he knew their layouts. He didn't recognize the natural harbor where the ships were moored, and wondered if an ice floe had broken away recently to make the site for the camp, because this place wasn't on any map. Then, he saw the Water Benders amongst Azula's men, and his eyes narrowed.
"She has everyone on her team, doesn't she?" he asked Ursa.
"From all three nations," was the grave reply.
Sokka had already counted how many men were going back and forth, his mouth becoming grimmer by the second, but his eyes kept returning to the figure standing on the bow of the largest ship. Azula was a smear of red on the white landscape behind her, as she gestured violently at the men below. Sokka couldn't hear what she was saying, but his imagination could fill in the blanks. He spotted Jet on another ship, giving directions in a more moderate manner, but his hands kept restlessly going to the weapons hanging on his side.
"Tonight, Azula will have one final briefing, and that will be your chance to sneak on board," Ursa said quietly. "I will signal you from the main ship with a lantern once it's empty, and there will be an open crate in the belly of the ship in which you can hide. Once we're at sea, it will be in your best interest to replace one of the men early on, before they become accustomed to one another."
"Then here is where we part. Good luck, Sokka."
"Thank you, Ursa."
She looked at him with careful eyes.
"Don't thank me, yet."
Rising, she started at a more leisurely pace towards the encampment. Sokka watched as Azula started down the gangplank at the sight of her mother, but another figure, a smaller one, ran past her towards Ursa. However, the young boy stopped short before reaching Ursa, bowing to her instead of throwing his arms around her like Sokka guessed he was going to do. To his surprise, Ursa reached out and put her arms around the boy, kissing the top of his head.
The simple gesture convinced Sokka of her trustworthiness more than her aid and her words did.
He waited with patience learned from hunting with his father, ignoring the biting cold and creeping exhaustion. It wasn't until late into the night did they gather around a bonfire, and Azula stood atop a crate to speak. Sokka kept an eye on the main ship, but there was no sign of Ursa's lantern, and his heart started to pound in his chest as he considered moving closer to save time.
As the clock ticked, he knew he couldn't waste anymore time. Keeping low, he started to run down the slope, his attention split towards his target and the group of men not too far from where he was. He would have to climb up the rope tied to the ship's anchor, and he silently prayed that no one was on the main deck when he climbed on board. Fortunately, the group was gathered in the main campsite which was far enough away from the ships. He could hear Azula's voice, but not her words, and from the sound of things, he doubted there wasn't a single person in that crowd who wasn't listening to her. Not when their lives depended on it.
His breath came out in strangled gasps as he shimmied up the rope, but his hands were steady and sure. His muscles were tense as he pulled himself up on the deck and took no longer than a heartbeat to spot a crate to hide behind when his feet touched the wooden planks. Struggling to keep his breathing silent, he listened for footsteps, but there was only silence.
In the back of his mind, he wondered where Ursa was. He didn't spot her amongst those gathered before Azula, but he didn't have the time to investigate that. She did what she could. The rest was up to him.
Looking around the edge of the crate, he spotted the stairs going below decks. On silent feet, he ran to it, going down the steps three at a time. He ran full tilt down the narrow corridor until he came upon a turn, and he threw himself against the wall to listen for any footsteps. When he was satisfied, he crept along the wall, moving carefully until he reached the storage room.
There was no open crate. Heart pounding in his chest and his temper threatening to get the best of him, Sokka moved quickly to move a few from one corner, giving himself enough space to crouch down in the shadows. Stripping off his parka and pants, he settled down in the pocket he'd created. In one hand, he had his boomerang, and the other, his bone knife. Ursa hadn't been able to secure the ship at all, and though he told himself that Azula had probably cornered her the second she showed up, he didn't like how this had turned out—Ursa knew what could have happened, yet she'd assured him she could get it done. Something had gone wrong, somewhere.
If he was caught, he would attack Azula before she could think to move. He would do what he had to to take her down while he still could. He just wished he'd had a chance to ask Toph what she was thinking when she kissed him, and to ask Katara if she really meant to blend their family with Zuko's. But, that was the sacrifice he was willing to make.
The minutes ticked by, and he waited. Footsteps and voices began to echo above his head, but they weren't pushing off just yet. It would be madness to leave the South Pole at night when it would be difficult to avoid the ice floes that dotted the waters around the continent, even though a half-moon lit up the sky.
Ty Lee's familiar voice carried down the corridor. Sokka tensed up. Now he knew something really had gone wrong. She'd escaped. Toph would have never let her escape. She was coming closer, but she wasn't alone. She was talking to someone else.
"I told you karma would find a way to balance the universe!" Ty Lee said cheerfully.
"Believe me," Toph growled. "It's far from balanced...but it will be very soon."