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"So, Guifu." The older woman lifted her head, turning to look at Toph as she spoke. "You still up for escaping?"
It seemed to take a moment for Toph's words to register. She didn't really blame Guifu for the confusion. After so many years (decades, even? Toph still hadn't gotten an entirely straight answer from her), the idea of escape wasn't something to be so lightly tossed around in her mind as it was in Toph's. But the bone and metal of the cell bars were finally speaking - singing - she could reach out, now, and play with them, feeling how they would stretch and shear and bend.
She had to turn back, glancing in Guifu's general direction, to get an answer. "Of - of course," the woman spluttered. "Are your burns finally feeling better, then? I'm sure in a few days, I could -"
"How about now?"
Toph's grin was wolfish as she reached out - elbow going back, hand flat to strike with the heel of her palm. A satisfyingly familiar pose. Back, and then forward - the bone and metal bent and splintered.
"Or now," Guifu spluttered nervously. "Now is fine too."
Two fingers outstretched into a hook, Toph bent one of the metal bars behind her; it snaked in the air like a whip as she pushed apart the rest of the reinforced bone. As soon as her feet hit the ground of the hallway she innately relaxed. Dirt. Stone. It was like being home again, even if everything was blurred and distant from the burns on her feet. Every step stung, but it was a good sort of pain. She was thoroughly sick of the numb pins-and-needles of cold that came with being trapped in a cell meant to contain a Firebender.
A small clatter to her left - Guifu followed, stumbling out, tripping on her numb feet. She took a deep breath, let it out again, flexed her hands. It had been a long time since she could feel anything but the harsh chill of her cell.
"Guifu, do you know -?"
"The exit's down that way, I think," she said, speaking quietly. "At least, that's where I've always seen guards come from."
Toph gave a nod of acknowledgement before she was off. It was aggravating to be so light on her toes, but she could at least feel that Guifu was right behind her. There was no time for idle chit-chat - there had been plenty of that in the days previous, anyway - now they were simply running. Heavy footsteps ahead. Someone ploddingly large, walking away from a group of people sitting heavily on benches. These guards were far less unnerving. They weren't silent, but instead they spoke too loudly, laughed like braying donkey-pigs at each other's jokes, and spoke of their masked masters with awed reverence.
So, much easier to spot.
Guifu's voice was small, a soft whisper behind Toph's shoulder. "If we stick to the shadows, we can -"
More heavy footsteps - the fat guard stumbled out. Toph raised the metal scrap she had been carrying with her like a whip and it struck out with viper-like swiftness to land a solid blow on the guard's bald head. Guifu did not say anything about the bright crimson slash it left behind - not even a murmur or a gasp. Instead she watched the guard slump to the ground, lifeless, as Toph's nostrils flared in anger. The guardsmen in the break room continued to laugh among themselves, clueless. Guifu mutely bent over, dragging the body into the shadows. Someone could find it later - after they were safely away. Toph didn't even pause to think of that, instead continuing to press forward, the bloodied metal girder snaking out behind her.
The hallway continued on, smelling comfortably of dirt until finally they hit wooden stairs (which Toph climbed with noticeably more trepidation). Wisps of fresh air scurried down the steps until they found themselves outside. Guifu mutely tugged at Toph's sleeve, leading them to both crouch down behind a nearby shed. Toph dug her toes into the dirt, letting it sting against her raw, half-healed burns. Heavy stone walls - perhaps a palisade - guard towers... this was a fortress. A few scattered buildings were within the walls, and from the noise coming on the other side of the wall, it seemed likely they were beside the barracks.
Guifu drew in a shuddering breath that caught on her lips. It was enough to pull Toph out of her strategist's mindset. "...Are you all right?"
The older woman took a moment to answer. Toph couldn't see how the moonlight was pouring down on the scene, sweet and silvery, or how the stars were still in their constellations, or the wispy clouds playing around the moon gave it a glowing halo - all things Guifu thought she would never see again. "I'm fine," she answered quietly. But Toph understood what her tone said as well as her words. I can be sentimental later. Let's move.
"The main gate's to the north. Is there a side-gate, or..."
"There are stables. South-east corner. Probably a side-gate nearby." Toph nodded at this as Guifu continued to crane her head around the corner. But the older woman drew in a breath so sharp it made Toph flinch. Before she had a chance to ask what was wrong, the older woman's slim hand reached out to gently touch her shoulder. "Forgive me, Lady Beifong. I see something that I must finish."
Toph's confusion was coupled with icy fear, but she didn't try to reach out and restrain Guifu. Instead she let the older woman quietly walk out into the fort's courtyard. A perfect chance to use the distraction to get closer to the stables, in any case, but she kept herself focused on what she could feel was going on. A barrel-chested guard was busy talking with another just outside the stables; his voice was brash and loud. Guifu's steps were even-paced and soft compared to his erratic stomping. Had he been drinking? Likely. Certainly explained how when he turned to see her, he didn't seem surprised as much as he did amused.
"Well! Look at this. The old nag's out of her pasture." His hands went to his belt, thumbs hooking on it. Toph braced herself lightly on the corner of the stable's nearest outer wall, wiggling her toes into the dirt, trying to get every detail she could. "Guess we'll just have to start tying you up, too..." His fingertips tugged at his belt again, going for the buckle, as if he intended to use it to bind her.
Toph hadn't actually seen Guifu firebend, as such, but her cell spoke to her prowess well enough for Toph to believe it. Now the older woman dropped gracefully into a stance that seemed familiar to Toph somehow. Guifu's fingers drew fire from the air with a snap of a spark. Even from her hiding spot, Toph swore she could feel the blush of heat hit her through the air.
And suddenly an argument she had overheard years prior made perfect sense.
She was honestly not an eavesdrop by nature: it was just that she heard so much more than others did because they were too distracted by seeing things. And Zuko was not subtle - none of them were, at that age, but he was especially unsubtle when begging. She remembered feeling the light taps against the ground as the Fire Nation prince, not yet Firelord, bowed in full kowtow to Aang. His request had been heartbreakingly earnest, tugging at his voice as if threatening to unravel into tears. Zuko understood the reality of the situation: he accepted it. His father would likely have to die. (After all, it seemed only Aang at that point was wholly averse to the idea.) But whatever Aang did, Zuko pleaded, let it be swift. Pulling the air from Ozai's lungs. Making a blade of ice to slice his throat. It made Toph uncomfortable to hear how much Zuko still loved his father, despite everything, and Aang shimmied in nervous circles as if Zuko's panic was infectious. The Avatar denied again and again that he would kill Ozai, but Zuko was hounding him, unable to rest until he had Aang's promise. Yes, if Ozai died, he would die quickly. And at the time, it had seemed a rather silly promise to make, if you had asked Toph. A bending battle was about decisive action. If you had an opportunity, you struck. You did not wait and draw things out.
But now Toph understood.
Spirits, she understood.
The jet of fire danced out from Guifu's fingertips to wrap around the brash guard. It was a fine-tuned skill to even do such a thing. A firebender of her skill could just have easily turned a spark into a bolt of lightning, leaving the guard dead near-instantaneously, or sent a searing bolt through his chest to neatly knock out a clear hole of ash and flame. But instead the flames stuck to his body, clinging to his clothing as if he were suddenly wearing tar and pitch.
He howled. He screamed. He made new epithets for Guifu that Toph had never heard before, and used plenty that she would never want to hear again. But eventually he sucked the flames into his mouth and words were replaced with gargling screams. He rolled on the ground in pathetic attempts to put himself out. His skin split and rolled back in charred gashes. His hair was reduced to ash and then merely to smoke. He thrashed. He writhed.
He died very, very slowly.
A sickening smell came with the smoke, almost like roast pork, but with a familiar tang of blood that made Toph's stomach heave. The other guards were panicking, now. A distant bell was being raised in alarm. But none seemed eager to approach Guifu, or to help save the burning guard. It was as if for a few moments they were mesmerized by the sheer cruelty of the act. Guifu stared them down, eyes steely. Her fingers gently flexed. The burning guard finally gave his last gurgle.
The world exploded into movement.
Alarm klaxons ringing in earnest, the guards charged, weapons drawn. A snap through the air - Guifu drew her hand up and around, a line of lightning following her fingertips. It lashed out to hit the guards with a thunderclap and sizzle, leaving the smell of ozone in its wake. A yell to Toph's right - they had noticed her - a sharp jab up into the air, and the stone answered her call, creating a solid wall to push them back.
"Guifu! THIS WAY!"
Her footsteps were light but Toph could still clearly hear them as they rushed into the stable. The ostrich horses whinnied and crowed, nervous from the smoke in the air and the noises of battle outside. With almost professional speed, Guifu went to lead them out of their stalls, picking a handsome roan and a mild-mannered dapple-grey. "If you can hold them off - there are pre-packed saddlebags, I think..."
Toph nodded curtly. Walls weren't much of a distraction to her, not when she could focus on the earth beyond them, feeling how the hamfisted benders among the guards were trying to call the rock to them. Easy enough to counteract. To push. To crush. Maybe she would have time to think about the ethical ramifications later, but her feet screamed at her in pain, and hunger gnawed at her down to the very bones. So spirits damn them: Toph was getting out of here.
"Do you ride?" The soft sound of a saddle being fastened securely: leather rasping against leather and brass buckles falling into place.
"No - I prefer my feet on the ground." Toph grimaced before waving a hand in front of her face. "You know - blind?" Guifu immediately winced. "But it's fine. I'll make do."
"Here - take the grey. It'll follow the roan, I'm sure..." Guifu reached out to help Toph, but as soon as Toph hooked her hand in the ostrich horse's feathery mane, that was all the guidance she needed. She vaulted clumsily up onto the saddle, grasping for the horn and then the reigns. The animal gave an irritated squawk and nearly threw her, but to her credit, she stayed in the saddle. "The side entrance is a bit to the east out of the stable doors," Guifu said hurriedly, pulling herself onto her ostrich horse. "I'm sure we can -"
A sullen frown had snuck onto Toph's face as soon as she landed in the saddle. It was, after all, too close to being really blind. And with irritation came impatience. Her earthbending was much clumsier than usual, but it was powerful, though blunt: rock slammed into the wall, and then beyond, punching out a solid entryway through the fortifications before, finally, bending up with the earth to form a makeshift bridge across the moat.
Guifu said nothing, instead urging her ostrich horse on. A clatter of claws against the ground - Toph's followed by instinct. Eventually she gave up holding onto the reigns and simply clung to the beast's neck under pretense that more connection with the animal meant more chances to read what tiny vibrations she could feel of the earth underneath the ostrich horse's feet.
And they ran.
A few arrows zipped by after them. She felt the ostrich horse shy away as Guifu responded with a bolt of lightning. There was a scream. The distant sound of something heavy falling from a great height. The ostrich horses kept running at full gallop, their claws splaying, kicking up the dirt of the road.
The summer night was pleasantly warm, and it was easy to focus on that and the soft sounds of the forest around them. Every leaf crunch might be a guard, but they pressed on in silence, too frightened to stop and investigate - or even to talk. Eventually the ostrich horses were starting to wheeze in exhaustion, moving from a gallop to a tired trot. There was the small murmur of a creek somewhere up ahead. Guifu was even bold enough to start talking to her ostrich horse. Sshah, shh. There's a good girl.
"I think we're safe," Toph declared finally, sliding clumsily down back onto the ground. The ostrich horses noisily lapped at the stream, and she limped over to a nearby rock, sticking her feet in the cool water.
Guifu repeated the words, sweeping her stringy hair out of her eyes. A small bitter laugh leapt out between her lips and she put a hand to her mouth as if to catch it and put it back in. For a moment she covered her face, wiped away tears, and drew in a shaking breath before turning to affectionately pet one of the ostrich horses. "I think that's the most beautiful sunrise I've ever seen," she finally said, voice cracking a little. And a few moments later she seemed to realize what she had said. "Not - not that I meant it in any - as any insult, Lady Beifong -"
Toph let her head drop back as she gave a relieved smile. "Just because I'm blind doesn't mean I want the entire world to be, Guifu. ...And it's Toph. Just Toph." She stretched her neck before carefully considering what to say. "...What's the sunrise look like? Other than being the best you've ever seen?"
Guifu smiled - a tired, small, but genuine expression - and folded her hands in her lap, looking up into the sky. Out in the forest, a bird started to sing louder than all the others, in the midst of a sweet rivalry to see who could greet the day best.
They were safe.
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