Toko Week 2013: AU
"I'm tellin' you, this guy's a monster. Shake 'is cage, put 'im in the ring wit' a fighter, an' you got you'self a real match."
Toph couldn't tell what the speaker looked like- she had to keep still if she didn't want an Earthbender like Xin Fu to catch her eavesdropping on his office- but she didn't feel the loss. The man's muttering, the gravel-like sound of his voice, his habit of smacking his lips after each complete thought: all of it contributed to a sense of him that Toph found delightfully vivid. Voices were (as far as she was concerned) a window into the spirit, but this voice was especially fun to listen to.
He also had some very interesting things to say.
"I know how to put on a good show," Xin Fu replied, "so let's get down to price. Are you selling or renting?"
"I'm doin' both, sir. You wanna buy, I'm willin' to sell. You jus' wanna pay for some fights, you pay for a fight. An' perm'net damages, o' course."
Toph was intrigued. Xin Fu was a control freak of a show-runner; when it came to the Earth Rumbles and all the spin-off fights, he owned the arena, had contracts with all the Earthbenders, planned the matches and storylines, and announced the events. He even owned the badgermoles they used to clean up the post-match debris, and rented them out between events to do labor jobs around Gaoling. The only thing he didn't own was Toph, and he had been grinding his teeth together when she finally got him to agree to that deal. Otherwise, Xin Fu didn't use outside contractors for anything. But he had Mister Mutter here in his office talking about renting a "monster" for some fights.
"What about injuries on my guys? All the official Earth Rumblers are under contract to me, and if they can't fight, I'm losing money. My guys are professionals and know how it's really done, but can you guarantee that your guy plays fair?"
"Er, well, no, 'e's a bit ex'itable-"
"Then I want provisions for compensation. Or we could..."
"If you just sold him to me, we wouldn't have to worry about that. But considering how dangerous he is, I wouldn't be willing to pay any more than... oh..." Then Xin Fu named a number, and Mister Mutter spat in reply.
Toph had to keep from curling her toes. So that was Xin Fun's angle. He wanted to own, after all.
"Then I guess we can't make a deal," Xin Fu said lightly. "And if we don't have a deal, then I'm free to let my Fire Nation contacts know about who you're carting around in a cage."
Fire Nation? Xin Fu had Fire Nation contacts? And this monster would be of interest to them? Toph's curiosity was growing like a healthy badgermole cub.
"Er- 'e ain't no one special."
"Don't bother. He has a very distinctive visage. All I need to do is say that a certain Pri-"
"Eh! You can't do 'at!"
"That's business, my friend. And if you don't like the way I do business, you can always discuss it with my employees. The Earth Rumblers help me enforce my contracts. Or lack of them, as the case may be."
There it was, the Xin Fu Special. Before he was master of the Earth Rumble arena, he had been one of the Earthbenders who fought for the pleasure of Gaoling's audiences in the underground. That was all before Toph's time, but she had made the effort to learn all about the fighting league she had joined as her Earthbending outlet, and Xin Fu had plenty of legends to his name. Like all Earthbenders, he liked to fight at a distance, but his 'gimmick' was that he was also an expert grappler. It was said that once Xin Fu had you in his grip, the fight was over. That went for his deal-making, as well. Mister Mutter was quiet for a while, and then he named another number. Xin Fu just named the first again. Finally, Mutter muttered his agreement, and Toph heard the jingling of a big pile of coins. The deal was made.
Toph might not be a grappler, but that was okay because she had her own gimmick. And it was time for 'the Blind Bandit' to cut herself into this deal.
As far as anyone else involved in the fighting league knew, Toph didn't spend any more time in the arena than was necessary for her scheduled matches. They didn't even know her real name, although Toph was pretty sure that Xin Fu suspected. The truth, though, was that Toph spent every possible moment she could away from her parents' complex, and there were few other places worth visiting in Gaoling at night. Even when there wasn't a match, Toph could usually find something interesting in the Rumble Arena. She kept to the unseen corridors, even bending her own passageways through what everyone else assumed were solid walls, and used the Earth-sense that her blindness had forced her to finely tune to listen in on all kinds of interesting things. Sometimes she eavesdropped on Xin Fu, other times she scoped out the competition in the training gyms, and occasionally she just wandered around exploring.
That's how she knew about the basement, and that Xin Fu liked to keep his secrets down there.
When she visited, the night after Xin Fu made his deal with Mister Mutter, she found a new addition to the facilities. What had once been a closet for old costumes had been opened up, its doors removed, and a series of thick stone bars put in place to separate the space from the rest of the basement. Xin Fu had a new prison, it seemed. And inside was a man. From her position on the far side of the basement, Toph stomped a foot and extended her Earth-sense to make a more detailed appraisal of the prisoner. He was pacing, his heart and pulse afire- heh, probably the right word- with nervous energy. He wasn't tall, but far bigger than Toph. She could feel the sculpting of his muscles; they weren't very big, but they were solid. The guy- and it was definitely a guy- had an overall tough feel to him, but it was toughness like old leather, not the strength of stone. He was worn and weathered and frayed, but he couldn't be snapped as easily as it probably seemed to those who relied on their eyes.
He wasn't unobservant, either. Toph was pretty sure she was in the shadows- the world was one big dark blur, she couldn't sense any glow-crystals nearby, and she definitely didn't hear any torches- but the prisoner had detected her anyway. She wondered how.
"Come out and face me! You can't keep me locked in here!"
Toph would have to keep on wondering for now. She left as silently as she had arrived.
For Toph, 'the Blind Bandit' was just one of her disguises. The other was 'Toph Bei Fong.' During the daylight hours, she let the maids style her hair, wrap her in fabrics like some kind of meat roll, and guide her to a walled garden where she was free to wander to her heart's content, so long as her heart was content with a patch of space that wasn't even as big as her bedroom. She could sense the private guards her father paid- former military, because Dad always bought the best of everything- in the distance, just barely out of sight behind the leafy bushes. They were supposed to be watching her the whole time, "because you are blind, Toph, and you can't be expected to take care of yourself," but she had slowly but surely been working in little snatches of privacy, altering her paths day-by-day to put the garden's leafy bushes between her and the guards. Perhaps, someday soon, she would be able to go a full hour without being watched.
Like a pet in a cage.
'Come out and face me! You can't keep me locked in here!'
There was a match that night, and Toph made it last as long as she could.
The crowds loved her. She was the perfect gimmick, a tiny little girl who looked far younger than her twelve years but had more than enough confidence for someone twice her size. She showed no respect, bantering insultingly with all of her challengers, refusing to take anything about them seriously. She insulted their manhood, their fighting styles, their gimmicks, their names. She was what the audience wanted to express, their love for everything about the Rumbles hardened by a superiority that refused to let the stupidity of Xin Fu's 'showmanship' fool them. The only thing real about the fights was the fighting itself (except when Fire Nation Man was involved). And Toph was as real as it got.
The other Earthbenders were piled up with muscles, and thought that strength and power were the source of victory. Toph, though, had never had strength. The badgermoles who lived beneath Gaoling did, but they weren't hobbled by ego or aggression or attitude. They just moved the Earth, as efficiently and smoothly as possible. And they did it all without seeing.
Just like Toph.
And so Toph had learned from them, hiding from the world and unlocking the abilities within her. The other Earthbenders said that she had a unique style, that she held her body differently and used strange motions to call up the Earth. They figured that the reason she hardly reacted to attacks against her was because she couldn't perceive them properly, not being able to see. Those guys were, of course, idiots. Toph hardly reacted because she didn't need to. She could tell when a giant boulder that was bigger than her whole body was flying at her head, but she also knew that she didn't need to do anything more than shift her weight to avoid it completely. She knew how massive the other Earthbenders were, but she also knew that that a single small rock slammed into a sensitive place would have greater effect than any number of boulders.
That's why she was a winner.
That's why she was the greatest Earthbender in the world.
That's why no arena, any size, could cage her.
As Toph stood proud and as tall as she could at end of her headline match, Xin Fu's voice projected out over the crowd: "And next week we'll have something even more unique! Something you can't see anywhere else in the Earth Kingdom! Next week, come and see... the Wild Fire!"
He was still in his cage, down in the basement. The air was starting to get a little funky.
This time, Toph didn't try to hide. She walked up to the cage, stopping just short of where the prisoner would be able to reach if he stuck his arms through the stone bars. She faced him, for politeness' sake, and waited. She didn't have to wait long.
"Let me out of here!"
Toph shook her head. "Can't do that. If Xin Fu found out, I'd be done here."
"Let me out now!"
"You don't listen very well, do you?"
The prisoner was breathing heavily, like a little tempest. "So you've come to gawk at the Firebender. Just another honorless peasant."
Toph shook her head again. "I came to warn you. Xin Fu announced that you're fighting next week. I can feel that you're tough, but you're a little out of shape. Even if you're in a cage, you still need to exercise. Look, try this." She began demonstrating some basic squats, but the prisoner didn't react at all. "Hello, are you getting this?"
His breathing had calmed by now. "I know how to fight. I don't need your help. You're working for him. The man who bought me. You want to help him put on a show."
His voice was like a growl, and he tried to put strength into it, but Toph's sense of hearing was as developed as her Earthbending. She heard the way the edge of his tone refused to cut, the hidden brittleness that he tried to hide. "I'm just trying to help. Xin Fu is going to make you fight. If you're as dangerous as they say, he'll probably start you off with someone who has experience but isn't as popular. Like the Gecko. Xin Fu never loosens his grip, but you can push back a little if the crowds like you and you can put on a good show."
"I am a Prince of the Fire Nation! I am no Earth peasant's slave!" Toph was about to speak again, but then the prisoner roared, "Get out!"
Toph gave him a gesture that she had learned from the other Earth Rumblers and walked out.
Toph didn't usually pay attention to the other matches unless she was waiting for her cue to go on, but she made certain to catch the debut of the Wild Fire. Xin Fu put a large cage up around the main ring, and the prisoner was carried in encased by a slab of stone that looked like a coffin. When the bell rang, Xin Fun stomped a foot to shatter the stone box and release the Firebender. The Gecko immediately scrambled up the bars of the cage with all four of his limbs, while the Firebender scrambled to his feet and made a wild punching motion. It was the first time Toph had ever observed a Firebender. He wasn't at all like she was expecting. His moves were quick and snapping, like a human whip. She liked the way he struck so precisely, or at least tried to; she felt some wavering that probably meant his forms were sloppy. She could also feel his muscles weakening quickly as he continued his attacks. He started quivering only a few minutes into the match, and Toph realized that he was over-exerting himself, putting too much strength into each blow.
Although, he seemed to be making some really nice fire. Toph could feel the warmth, a light caress against her skin, and even the big bright blur that was the main arena in her perception flashed a little sharper when she heard the roar of his flame.
The Gecko beat him like a borrowed bell.
The prisoner obviously had no idea what he was doing, beyond his Firebending. He acted like he was in some kind of formal duel, always facing forward, always maintaining his stance, focusing entirely on his opponent. That was all well and good, but the Gecko was an old hand at this kind of thing. He teased, he faked, he showboated; he never touched the ground, hanging from the bars of the cage like a monkey, swinging away from the flames. The Firebender responded to everything, and his forms grew even sloppier. The crowds laughed at him, and that got him even more enraged. It was a horrible little cycle.
Then, just before things dragged on too long, the Gecko finally stopped swinging from the bars of the cage and dropped down to deliver the final blows.
The Firebender didn't have the presence of mind to resist when they put him in a new coffin and carried him back down into the basement.
"Here, I brought you some water. It's cold. It will feel good on your bruises."
He didn't respond. Toph waited for half an hour, then kicked the bucket over and went home.
When Toph had first discovered her Earthbending, she had been too tiny to realize it was something to hide. Her parents hadn't been enthusiastic, but decided that learning how to use it at the most basic level would ultimately be safer. So they contracted Master Yu- owner of Gaoling's most successful Earthbending school, because Dad always got the best- for regular private lessons. It didn't take Toph long to realize that downplaying her power would be better for everyone involved, and even as she privately refined the style she learned from the Badgermoles, she purposefully stopped showing any signs of progress in front of Master Yu. She had hopes that someday he would give up on her and leave her alone.
Master Yu liked her parents' money a little too much.
"That's fine, Toph. No need to exert yourself. Take as long as you need for your breathing exercises."
At least it left her time to think. She couldn't get the Firebender out of her head. She wanted to; her fury at him raged like a fire in her heart, and she was convinced that he deserved whatever he got from Xin Fu, but he stuck in her mind like he was stuck in his cage. Why should she care if he just rotted away in that basement? If she helped him- if she made him a winner- then it would only end with them having to fight each other, and who wanted to get fire thrown at their face? The guy was an ungrateful jerk and he deserved to have The Hippo sit on him for all Toph cared.
"Good, Toph. Your footwork is almost getting there."
He had claimed to be a Prince. There was no doubt a massive family waiting for him at home, looking to rescue him so that they could dress him up in silk and give him a golden rod that he could fondle all day. It would be good for the Firebender to learn a little about how real people had to earn a living, down in the dark. Someday he would look back on his time locked in a cage, look back on beatings that left his body raw, and present it as a funny story to tell friends at banquets. Toph would be doing him a favor by letting him earn some more character.
"Okay, Toph, time to take a break. You rest and I'll give your parents their regular report. Don't strain yourself; you can join us when you're ready."
And yet Toph couldn't deny that she was going back down into the dark to try again.
"My name is Toph. Toph Bei Fong. I don't tell anyone that, but I'm telling you. What's your name?"
He was silent for so long that she was ready to storm out on him again when his scratchy voice lit up the darkness around her.
"Nice to meet you, Zuko."
"You can't get me out of here?"
"They'd be on us like sweat on The Hippo, and then where would we go? Gaoling isn't exactly a friendly place to Firebenders."
"Can- can you get word to someone?"
"My- I have an uncle- he was traveling with me. When they captured me. Maybe he thinks I'm dead, and went home. It's been... a year now?"
"Is there a way I can do that without sending a note? I can't exactly write."
"I'm blind. Thanks for noticing."
"Don't worry about it."
"So. What can you do for me?"
The bucket wouldn't fit through the stone bars, and Toph didn't want to risk moving them, but she wasn't daunted. She had brought a bolt of cloth from home, something that no one would ever miss in the jungle of silk that was her wardrobe, and dunked it into the water. Once it was good and saturated, she handed it to the Firebender- Zuko- and he eagerly sucked on it. Time stretched on in the dark, the pair passing the wet cloth back and forth, and after he had his fill, he began applying the cold damp fabric to his bruises. They felt unpleasant to Toph, like muscles that had been turned soggy, but she could sense them shrinking a bit as the heat was drawn out. Eventually, Zuko handed the cloth back and waved away another offering. He must have forgotten that she was blind, but she would let it pass, this once.
"You said that already. So, Prince Zuko, you ready to learn how to be an Earth Rumbler?"
"Okay. The first thing you need to learn is to stop fighting fair. Figure out what you can do that your opponent can't, and then smash his face into it and rub until the bell rings."
Fire Nation Man was a popular character, but that didn't mean the audience ever rooted for him. Just the opposite, they liked nothing more than to see him suffer a humiliating and painful defeat; whether what they were seeing was real didn't matter. Of course, Fire Nation Man wasn't actually from the Fire Nation, and he wasn't even the first character created by the Si Wong Sandbender who played him. He was a figure created to be booed, to be reviled, a little play to the Earth Kingdom patriotism on which all true Rumble fans prided themselves.
Then came the match where he faced the Wild Fire.
Xin Fun spread out a heavy coating of sand all over the main ring before the cage was put back up. From what Toph heard, it had been dyed 'orange,' which for some reason would make the Sandbender that Fire Nation Man really was look like he was Firebending. Toph didn't get how they could use a poor trick like that when there would be an actual Firebender in the match, but she knew the real reason for it. They wanted Fire Nation Man to be able to fight his best, because even though he was a symbol of The Enemy for the crowds, he was one the audience knew, and laughed at, and considered harmless. Zuko was the real thing, and there would be a certain amount of cruel delight in seeing "their Fire Nation Man" beat a real one.
All that aside, Toph hated the orange sand idea because it meant that she couldn't see what was going on in the cage match. She heard the bell, she heard Fire Nation Man's taunting, and she heard the roar of real flames, but she couldn't actually 'see' anything. The two fighters were nothing more than vague weights on the fuzzy sensation that was the sand. The whole arena had become a bruise. She gritted her teeth as the crowd cheered. She couldn't stand actually being blind to what was happening to her-
-why was the crowd going quiet?
Then she heard Fire Nation Man cry out, and the crowd began laughing.
"What did you do?!"
"I... I did what you said. I stopped fighting like it was an Agni Kai."
"That doesn't tell me a whole lot about what actually happened. Spill!"
"I just ignored his sand and ran right through his attack. He didn't expect it. I guess because sand really hurts. He made it hit like a wave in the ocean. But I'd been on the deck of a ship during an ice storm. I can take stuff like that. Then, when I got to him..."
"Um, I did what you told me to do. I 'played to the crowd.' I guess they liked it."
"I grabbed him and slammed his face into the bars of the cage. Then I... I pulled his pants down."
"...you pants'd Fire Nation Man?!"
"Yes? Is that what it's called?"
"And after that I stopped fighting. I just sat there and pretended to meditate."
"So that's why they ended the match. Fire Nation Man probably couldn't get off the stage fast enough. Good one, Sparky!"
"Don't worry. I'm not taking 'Wild Fire' away from you. Now, I got to thinking, I can't send a letter to this uncle of yours, but maybe I can at least find out about where he is now. If you're a Prince, he has to be someone important who people might talk about, right? Maybe I can listen for him."
"He is! Or, he used to be. Uncle Iroh retired a few years ago and- what?"
"Your uncle is the muddy Dragon of the West?!"
Zuko's downfall came when they figured out his pattern. Toph knew all about patterns, because that's how she always figured out what her opponents would do before they even realized it themselves. Being a former champion, Xin Fu knew all about patterns, too, and even though Zuko was capable of following instructions when he was in the mood, he didn't have what Toph would consider to be an especially impressive imagination (pantsing Fire Nation Man aside).
For his next few matches, Zuko kept to a regular formula that he developed from Toph's advice. He stopped responding to the taunts and the crowds. He stopped letting himself get dragged into brawls that he couldn't win. He remained passive, protecting himself, refusing to go on the offensive until he had a good chance of punishing his opponent. When the Hippo threw rocks at him, Zuko just spent the whole fight dodging with his fancy fire footwork. When the Hippo began using his signature 'rocking the boat' move, Zuko just ran along the tipping floor like it was perfectly flat and steady, and popped a fireball into the air in front of the Hippo that actually knocked the fat man off his feet when it exploded with concussive force.
"I lived on a boat for a year," Zuko had explained later. "Why would a tilting floor be a big deal?"
But Zuko was only so good. He could only dodge and hit one person at a time.
"Next week, here at the Rumble Arena, we have a very special match up for you! Our wily Wild Fire will be locked in a cage with no less than four of our biggest and best fighters! Come see our new up'n'comer, The Boulder, team up with the banned-in-Omashu Headhunter, the one-time champion The Gopher, and Lee 'The Savage' Kahn! This time, Wild Fire will learn what Earth Kingdom pride really is!"
The crowd cheered, and Toph went straight home.
Toph went twenty-four hours without speaking and her parents didn't even notice.
"So what?" Zuko snorted. "I don't care how many people they put in there with me, I won't give them the satisfaction of seeing me back down. I am the son of the Fire Lord, I bow to no one."
Toph stomped hard enough to rattle the bars of his stone cage. "I'm not talking about backing down. Just ask Xin Fu, the next time you see him, if there's anything he thinks you should do to make the match more interesting. He'll get that you want to play ball, and he'll make sure they don't beat you too bad."
"I will not give that swine more power over me."
"What do you think you'll be doing by letting his thugs beat you into submission? Because that's what this is. He's sick of you not acting like the animal he paid for."
She was actually startled when Zuko growled, leaped up to grab the stone bars of the cage, and gave them a rattle that felt to Toph like someone was screaming in her ear. She hopped back from the cage, reflexively breaking her contact with the Earth. When she realized what she was doing, Toph felt her face heat up; not only had he gotten to her, but she felt almost betrayed, like he wasn't allowed to make her feel that way.
Either Zuko didn't realize, or he didn't care. "And what kind of animal do you think I am? You just want someone to lord over who's safely in a cage. That's why you refuse to bring my uncle!"
"I told you, I haven't heard-"
"Let me out of this cage or never come back!"
Toph laid in her bed, swaddled in layers of silk sheets like she had just been brought into the world, and luxuriated in the lack of feeling. With her head immobilized by a labyrinth of pillows, she couldn't hear anything, and the lack of windows or torches turned the usual overwhelming blur of the world into a seductive reality of all-encompassing void. She couldn't move, she couldn't turn, she was like a Queen of the old Kingdom, from before Chin the Conqueror, when monarchs were sealed in tombs in poses like they were sleeping, while their subjects waited for the day when the Earth would awaken and reanimate the bodies of the Kings and Queens once more.
Toph lay in the void, and thought.
She thought about her parents, and the walls and the gardens and the guards and the way they tried so hard to gild her life and turn her into a precious statue of gold. She no sooner tried to move a finger before they grabbed it and held it immobile for the gold foil to be wrapped around until she was as trapped in life as she was in her bed right now.
She thought about Xin Fu, and the coins and the crowds and the thugs and the arena and the way of life where the rewards were doled out with reluctance tied to strings. Xin Fu's arena was a haven where the outcasts of Gaoling could find a place in the world, but it was a place Xin Fu ruled with an iron fist and those who refused to submit would sooner or be later left out in the cold.
Toph thought about herself, and how no matter how loudly she proclaimed her independence and invincibility, she seemed to spend most of her time reacting to other people's attempts to control her. And if she was really as good as she said she was, then who was the one keeping her trapped?
The crowds were louder than usual, or Toph was just hypersensitive to the noise and the stomping and the wild buzz of pumping hearts. The crowd chanted for their champions, and waved giant sheets of paper that Toph hoped had something witty written on them. Food was sizzled, sold, and spilled on the floor. The air was rank with the sweat of excited, antsy fans. The locker room smelled even worse, and the noise was even harsher. The Earthbenders traded barbs and predictions for the coming fights, while the headliners made graphic promises about what they would do to the Firebender for the pleasure of their fans. Xin Fu was the only quiet one, the only still one, the only wisp of cold on the air as he observed it all. He was like a block of ice, absorbing the heat of the whole arena and leaving the air cool and stale and tasting of gold.
Toph passed through it all, endured it, and let it wash away as she made her way into the depths.
She found the 'handlers' making their way down to the basement. Toph had learned about them during one of her crawls through the walls of Xin Fu's little kingdom. Like the Rumblers, the handlers were Earthbenders, but they certainly weren't fighters. These men were merely builders, using their power to raise walls and homes during the day. They were moonlighting for Xin Fu, managing the bars of Zuko's cage and building the coffins used to transport him through the arena's murky hallways.
Toph snuck up on them just as they were on their way to the basement.
They never had a chance to fight back.
She ran up to them, each slap of her foot against the ground giving her a more complete sense of where each person was and the positioning of every part of their body. The last in line must have heard her as she rushed them, because he turned his head just as she came to a halt. Toph took her signature stance, reached out to the stone around her, and crossed her arms with slashing motions. The walls and floor and ceiling all came to life in a burst of dirt and fine stone that smothered everything, but in the midst of the earth cloud, Toph was directing stone with power and precision. She guided the pylons shooting out of every surface straight at the handlers, battering them senseless and pinning their limbs in place so that they hung suspended from the ground completely immobilized.
Beneath her new coating of stone dust, Toph couldn't help but flash a grin at her own success. That's how it's done, Toph Bei Fong style.
Had she been more alert, she would have detected the pulse of vibrations behind her sooner.
Toph spun and quickly punched out a pillar of rock from the ground to strike the approaching figure, but Xin Fu backhanded it to dust and rushed in at her. Too quickly to dodge, Xin Fu wrapped his arms around Toph and squeezed her against his iron-like chest as he lifted her up off the floor. She struggled against his grip, but it was like being pinned by a badgermole. She kicked at him and hammered her head against his nose, and his only response was to laugh at her. She desperately reached out for a connection to the Earth, but all she found was dead air. She was caught, caught in a cage of muscle and flesh.
"Is the Blind Bandit trying to steal my property? I thought you were too smart for this kind of trouble, but I guess you're going to have to learn the hard way: Nobody cheats Xin Fu. A reminder should bring the lesson home."
He squeezed tighter, pushing the air out of Toph's lungs, and she felt her own muscles turn to liquid. She was barely aware of him yanking one of her arms free and twisting it around in a way it wasn't meant to go and putting a burning pressure on Toph's arm socket. She cried out like a helpless little child-
-and then willed the dust that coated her from head to toe to explode with all the strength of her desperation. Xin Fu snarled as his body was battered by a thousand tiny particles not unlike grains of sand, but he kept his grip up until a twitch of Toph's face directed some of the cloud straight into his eyes, nose, and mouth.
With a choking cough, he finally let go.
Toph's feet had no sooner found the ground again before she became a storm of rock and violence that focused all its fury on Xin Fu, and didn't stop until his consciousness submitted and played dead.
Without even waiting to catch her breath, Toph hurried onward into the depths of the arena.
Zuko said nothing, but Toph had been expecting that. She ignored him right back and went straight up to the stone bars of the cage. They were smooth and cold against her fingers, and when she sent her Earth-sense into them, she could feel how dense they were, heavy rays of solidness that ate force like the darkness ate light. Their solidness was that of silk dresses, of well-tucked sheets, of watching guards, of walled gardens, of teachers and parents and Earthbenders who all thought that because she was tiny and blind she was less than them. They were the stuff of fear, a barrier that said, "You're not good enough to be free." They were tough and hard, but not as tough and hard as they were imagined to be. The most difficult part of breaking those bars...
...was believing that they could be broken at all.
Toph punched, and shattered them. Her knuckles resisted any notion of pain.
She pointed her face at him, even though she didn't need to. "What?"
"...what are you doing?"
"Standing around waiting for a whiny Firebender to realize that it's time to leave. Obviously."
"I am not whin- what? You're setting me free?"
"Full points for Zuko. Come on, we need to get going before Xin Fu catches up with us. I have some supplies stashed around the back of the arena. Once we've put some distance between us and Gaoling, we can start looking for your Uncle."
"You're- you're coming with me?"
"Duh. Like you could get anywhere around here without me. Here's a hint, secret underground badgermole tunnels are a lot safer for Firebenders to travel than Earth Kingdom roads, but that's only if you have a good guide."
"But you're blind."
"Lucky for you."
"Toph, I- thank you. But- you're a good kid. I'm trying to get back home. I need to- find someone, but- it's going to be hard. It might take years. And- and you can't-"
"Hey, there, Hot Pants. I'm not proposing marriage or anything. I'll help you find your uncle, see the sights- you know, metaphorically or whatever- and then after a while maybe my parents will have gotten the message."
"...yeah. Parents just need some time to figure these things out."
Toph smiled, and grabbed Zuko's hand. "Exactly. Now come on, we've got a road to hit."
And together, they walked off into the dark, a dark that was as free as the open air.