The firenation merchant had informed the Bei Fongs of growing unrest in the firenation. A small rebellion was brutually crushed, but still her vicious idiot of a husband was paranoid about his control over the people. How he looked to make an example of someone... an example that would prove to the world how much he was to be feared.
(Ozai had always believed it was better to be feared than loved.)
Her Zuko...her precious boy...had spoken up against cruelty.
An example was made.
Ursa felt like she had cried all she could... and it wasn't enough.
Ursa couldn't help but feel like it was her fault. She should have never left him. She never should have left her children with a man like that.
After Toph had drifted off to sleep, she had taken herself to the bathing suite. She had walked without noise until she had closed the door behind her. Then she had held her knees to her chest and quietly sobbed and sobbed until she felt completely emptied out. She lay on the bathing room floor feeling spent and exhausted. Her sorrow was deeper than the ocean. Regrets were piling up in her head until they were as large as mountains.
She had always tried to chose what she thought was right.
It used to be simple.
Long ago, in a completely different life, Ursa felt like the task before her was simple and clear. It was her duty to ensure that her children would not turn out like their father.
She had promised herself that they would be responsible; they'd own their own choices and not always seek for someone to blame for every minor dissappointment. They would understand that every action has a consequence. She vowed that, unlike their father, they would never be vicious or deliberately cruel. They'd be good and kind. They would live with honour.
Oh how she used to lecture: We must act with dignity and compassion. When we make a choice, we must always strive to choose the lesser evil. We must graciously accept the consequences of our actions.
Sweet Agni, now she knew her precious boy had really heard her, though her lessons had not served him well.
The gracious acceptance of punishment – what a stupid, senseless thing to drill into children with a father like that.
She should have taught them something useful, like how to run, instead.
Why hadn't she taught them to run?
She should have held her beautiful children in her arms, and whispered "there's no shame in running away from a monster. Indeed it is the most sensible thing to do when there's a monster after you."
Ursa knew all about monsters...and how to leave them. She knew how to run so far and so fast that when you stop to catch your breath, you find that you are in a different place entirely. She knew how to run until she almost became a different person entirely.
But she was still that same person she had ever been. She was the sort of person who knew that crying on the floor did little to solve anything. She was the sort of person who had already made her mind up about what she was going to do.
She had almost convinced herself that the illusion of a peaceful and simple life she had built around her at Gaoling was real. You can't pretend forever – reality always catches up. She couldn't continue to be Nanny when Mummy was needed more.
She would run again now. She'd run towards where her son was sure to head. She knew his meticulous mind. He wouldn't give up even in the face of such an abusrd mission. He'd make a list and set out to scour the most obvious places first. He'd head for the Air Temples. Zuko'd go to the Western Air Temple first. It was the closest to the firenation. It was only logical. Then it would most likely be the northen air temple.
She'd wait for him there.
The Northern was the most accesible for travellers. She had heard, through refugee gossip, that there was a settlement growing in the Northern Air Temple – it was apparently the second safest place after Ba Sing Se. Convoys of refugees left from the great walled city. If she was fast and lucky, she could be there within two moons.
She'd hand in her notice. She'd help Poppy find a replacement. She'd tell the other woman to take courage and not let anyone make her feel inferior. She'd have time to explain to Toph about when and why she must go. She could do her goodbyes properly this time. She'd leave on her own terms.
She was going to get it right this time.
This resolution had formed in her stomach, harder than the rocks in Toph's collection. She knew what she had to do for Toph, her bold brave girl.
There are some things that children need to learn.
She should have taught Zuko how to run. She wasn't going to make the same mistakes with Toph.
Toph was going to learn how to fight.
Toph'd take all the knowledge Ursa had to give her, and be stronger for it. Ursa was going to teach her how to wait for the time to strike, how to use an opponent's force against them, how to slip away unobserved. Toph wasn't ever going to have an Ozai in her life, who would make her choose between impossible things.
Ursa knows there is a certain contradiction in wallowing in the regret she feels over leaving children she loves whilst choosing to leave Toph as soon as possible.
But both these things come from the same source of deep maternal love.
Her son will need her... her needs her now. She feels that in her bones. Her love for him is as much a part of her as her hands, or her bending. She longs to hold him in her arms and sooth his aches and carry all the hurt away. And while the Northern Air Temple is atop the highest mountains – there is no mountain high enough to keep her from him now that he has finally broken free of fortress her husband made out of the Palace.
Toph is to be polished up and married off when she comes of age, and nothing Ursa can do will save her from that fate. Toph will need to learn how to fight her own battles and stand on her own two feet – for no one will fight them for her. But Toph will not have to learn the hard way, not as Ursa did. Toph will never cower from anyone.
If she could save Toph from that fate, if she could find and comfort her son now – then her choices for the two of them will not have been all wrong.
She can't have always been wrong in her choices, she is sure.
She has only ever tried to do her best for her children, after all.