Underground

"You look pretty," the handler told her, in a low and smoke-scarred voice. The crowd cast a thick haze of noise over the arena, which almost obscured the sound of Hippo's body crashing to the floor of the ring.

"Oh, please," Toph snorted. "They're not here to watch me be pretty."

When Toph thought of pretty she thought of the dolls that her father brought when her father returned from her latest trip overseas. She had been told that they were pretty many times. To her hands they have the impression of empty porcelain and smothering lace, until the servants put them in their case and Toph's memory of their touch fades behind glass.

This makeshift arena could not be any further from pretty.

"Yeah, fuck you too, kid," the woman snorted and, far more insultingly, attempted to shove Toph off in the right direction. Toph sniffed in disgust. The woman's heels creaked noisily against the concrete, and she was going to have to be a hell of a lot quiet than that to touch the Blind Bandit. Toph was not going to get worked up over someone who smelled like she'd bathed in a batch of over-processed nail-polish remover.

She probably held down a day job as a hostess or a hooker. Toph was determined not to be shocked by things like that anymore.

"Hey guys," Toph greeted Xin Fu's pair of medics as they slogged past her, straining under Hippo's weight. They weren't real medics, of course, but that was okay. Toph wasn't a real street-fighter either.

"Every time I ruin my back for this. Every time. Asshole thinks he's a fucking sumo, like this is fucking Kyoto. Fuck," one of them swore, in Mandarin, thinking that Toph wouldn't understand.

"Try not to make a mess, eh kid? The Boulder gave us a lot of work tonight," the other medic asked in Cantonese.

Toph shrugged, grinning. "I'm not making any promises. If you want the night off then you can ask him to forfeit. Bet it'd save him some teeth."

The Mandarin-speaking medic grunted in response. Toph gave him a thumbs-up before sauntering off on her way. Xin Fu was still introducing her, but if she cut things any closer she'd miss her cue.

"- and I give you your champion, the greatest street fighter in Hong Kong, The Blind Bandit!"

Reverb from the jury-rigged loudspeakers did all kinds of funky things to the acoustics in the converted warehouse, but Toph was beyond caring about that. This was the fifth time she'd stepped into the ring and it was just as gloriously, giddily perfect as the first.

A sea of sound eddied and swelled around her. Bracelets clinked. The betting agents called out their final odds. Cell-phone cameras snapped to attention. Aluminum beer cans clicked open. Cigarette boxes shed their cellophane with a soft hiss. There were cheers and jeers and catcalls. Toph's audience spoke at least for languages and seven dialects of slang but that didn't matter because every single sound they made was united in approval and anticipation.

They were here for her.

"You have proven yourself a worth foe, Blind Bandit, but today the Boulder will show no mercy!" The Boulder postured, on the other side of the ring. Boulder wasn't a bad guy. Toph almost felt bad that she was going to have to make him cry like a little girl.

Almost.

"You're all talk and no wins, Boulder," Toph sassed back.

She assumed a fighting stance, and the crowd noise fell away as she sunk into a state of concentration. Smell wouldn't help her, with smoke and sweat and Hippo's blood heavy in the air. It all came down to what she heard.

Boulder bellowed when he charged. Either Boulder was a very slow learner, or he liked to make it easy on her. His voice wove left and then right, trying to mess with her head, but the rush of air near her right cheek didn't leave any room for confusion on that score. Toph shuffled to the side and deflected his beefy fist with a slap of her crooked hand, then shifted her weight to let him trip over his own momentum.

Once Toph had physical contact with Boulder it was easy to estimate where his throat was by the hoarse sound of his breath. A swift strike to his esophagus as he fell was all it took to take him out for good.

"Motherfucker," she thought she heard Boulder mumble. It was hard to tell what with all the grit rasping against his teeth.

Toph raised her fist to the sky, smiling as wide as he cheeks would allow. These moments always passed too quickly and she was determined to savor ever second that Xin Fu allowed her. This was her truth. This was her. A bolder, better being than the one that wore her skin every other day of the month.

Xin Fu's loudspeaker crackled to life, effectively ending the moment.

"Once again, your champion, the-"

The chain-link barrier that surrounded the ring clanked and clamored. Toph whirled instinctively at the first sign commotion.

"Wait!" Someone called, hitting the floor of the ring with a light scuff.

"What's your problem?" Toph asked.

"Please, I need to talk to you," the voice said, in an odd too-melodic Mandarin dialect. Toph had never heard anything like it. The roar of the crowd should have buried his soft little voice, but the intruder's words were perfectly clear. "I think you're supposed to be my teacher."

Oh great - some kind of celebrity stalker, or worse, a street kid with delusions of grandeur trying to copycat her success.

Toph wiped away a bead of sweat with the back of her hand. The spotlights were too hot on her face. She opened her eyes defiantly, feeling them dry under the heat of the bulbs.

"I don't think these people paid to watch two little girls fight today," Toph said, shuffling around Boulder to get herself in a position where she'd have more freedom of movement. The last thing she needed was to trip over his stupid carcass in front of half the Hong Kong underworld.

"Oh burn. Crush that girl, Aang! Do it for the Boulder!" some moron yelled from the sidelines, in a strange version of Japanese. What was that accent, Hokkaido? Maybe some kind of Ainu? What the hell was going on?

"I don't want to fight," the boy in the ring told her, contradicting his friend. They must thing she was really stupid. Like there was anything for a blind girl to learn but languages. Toph would resent her father for how thoroughly he was preparing her to marry the son of one of his international business partners, if the lessons weren't so ridiculously easy. "I need your help. The followers of the Fire, they're not gone, the history books are mistaken. If we don't stop it Korea is going to happen all over again and I-"

"If you step in then you step up, twinkletoes," Toph interrupted him testily. She was going to have to live for a whole month in the world of sterile air-conditioning and polite whispers and skyscraper suites that felt like cages because the only way out was to jump down to the streetscape through bulletproof glass.

She did not need to be interrupted by some nutcase right now.

The voice moved closer, to try to talk her more readily, was which was this Aang person's first mistake. As soon as he stepped within Toph's radius of attack she let loose with a downward chop. He'd be forced to block, of course, and as soon as he did he'd be caught within the claws of her praying mantis stance. Absolutely no one beat Toph at her own defensive game.

Only he didn't block. He let himself be hit. Toph heard a soft cry of pain and then whistling which could be, must be, i had /i to be a staff, one Aang'd carried so quietly she hadn't anticipated it.

The blow knocked her into the fence and she lay there, winded, while the spectators went unnaturally silent.

Then they erupted into cheers.

"My mistake! We have a new amateur champion!" Xin Fu crowed. He must be happy. He had an exciting new attraction now.

The heat of the spotlight left her. Suddenly, the goop they used to make her hair all spikey felt more congealed than cool. The sticky sateen of her costume clung unpleasantly to her skin.

Toph dragged herself to her feet, clutching her abdomen, and then headed for the exit.

"Please, wait! If you need to go do you have a number I can call?"

What had she been thinking, anyway? That if she did this enough times she'd somehow metamophrasize into an action star and be carried away from her stupid life by some errant, slumming producer? Toph wasn't a i child /i . Everyone said that the Bei Fong's demure, polite daughter was very grown-up for her age. She knew that her destiny was foreordained.

"Wait!!"

Why, so he could laugh? What a joke.

Toph walked past Xin Fu's thugs into the locker room and asked the handler's help in finding the bag with her normal clothes in it. Then she called for a car. In the absence of any prize cash, she hoped her driver would take jewelry when the time came to buy his silence.

- - -

Author's Note: This was interesting to write. So much of the reason why I love Avatar is because of the rich and complex universe that Mike and Bryan have created. I wanted to see what would happen if I took that away.

Most of the inspiration for this can be directly attributed to adrienne2 at livejournal's own efforts at creating a modern-day Avatar AU. She has yet to publish her own "Redux" fics, but I'm very much looking forward to the time when she does.

Let it not be said that I don't give credit where credit is due!