Disclaimer: I own nothing.
A.N: This story is my take on how Amon becomes the man he is. I wrote this story before seeing the season one finale, so this is very AU.
A.N#2: Written to Mumford & Son's "Hold Onto What You Believe" and Tan Dun's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon soundtrack.
A.N#3: Edited this old fic 04.01.19.
Zhu: meaning vermillion, or red.
Amon: meaning educator or builder; hidden one.
Hitherto Called Mine
Zhu smelled the smoke long before she came across the wrecked carnage of the farmhouse. It stung in her nose and watered her eyes, but she led her ostrich horse towards it nonetheless, her steps measured and unhurried. She had smelled the particular scent before when a group of firebender bandits destroyed half a town to escape officials. This part of the southern Earth Kingdom was filled with nothing but farmland and peasants. As Zhu crested a small ridge, she had no doubt something similar occurred here. Telltale blast marks and scorch burns littered the area surrounding the remains of the farmhouse. Splay-prints from many ostrich horses told of six riders, ringed in a semi-circle to watch the carnage.
Firebenders, she thought. Her heart hardened. As she got close, the waterbender brought an arm across her nose at the dark stench of burnt flesh and hair. Heat still simmered in the air as gases rushed to escape into the atmosphere. She took her staff to shift smoldering boards. She broke off coughing as she uncovered the bodies, now nothing but charred bone and blackened meat, their forms still twisted in agonized embrace. She left them alone. The vultures would take care of the rest.
Zhu was fully prepared to continue on had it not been for a small sound. A moan, low and faint. She stopped, ears perked. She waited for it to appear again, this time heading for it. For some reason it led away from the main burn site, towards what had been a small stable. A lump appeared, its form huddled. What she had first taken as a pile of rubbish was a human. A boy, no more than sixteen. She knelt down.
Ugh, she thought as the stench of burnt skin filled her nose. She rolled the boy onto his back and grimaced. What was left of the boy's face was nothing but a mess of ridged flesh and exposed muscle, as if someone melted wax. The nose was nothing but a snake's flat slits. Where had been eyebrows were bumpy ridges. The mouth was a slit, slightly open. A pink tongue twitched inside. He moaned again and Zhu wished he didn't.
It'd be better if he were dead, she thought. With burns that extensive, it would be a miracle if he recovered. She took little of the healing lessons at the Northern Water Tribe, just enough to apply a field dressing if she came off worse in a battle. Her forté came in fighting. She left the healing to her more patient female companions. She glanced down at the dagger at her side for a long moment, considering ending the boy's life.
Then he moaned again, and Zhu muttered an earthbender's oath. She got up went to fetch her ostrich horse where it was grazing in the lettuce. With a little maneuvering, she draped the boy over its saddle, towards the withers. The creature snorted under the weight, then went quiet. Zhu swung herself up and with a "Ha, ha!" spurred it to a swift, loping run.
The healer's hut smelt of jasmine and pickled gooseberries, tangy. Zhu hung in the background, arms folded, as she listened to the healer grunt and prod the boy. A few hours ago the boy had stopped making sounds, and was listless and hot to the touch. Zhu knew better to keep her hopes up, and questioned yet again the validity of her actions. It wasn't in her nature to take on lost cases. She closed her eyes and pretended she was on the road again, forever on the move. She shifted, then stared at the grass door. Late afternoon sun speckled through the gaps, casting golden light. She remembered that particular quality of light was rare in the North Pole, where the sun's glare was heatless and pale. Not like here. She stared at it, lost in thought.
Zhu remembered where she was and turned her head, frowning. "You sure, old man?"
A rough guffaw left the healer as he regarded her from his mat. "He's in rough shape, but if you do as I tell you, he'll make it." He bent closer to the boy's misshapen face, despite the rancid smell. "Hmm. Strange that only his face was harmed. I've never seen such a severe localized burn."
"I suspect a firebender attack," Zhu said from her corner. "My guess is his family had a tussle with the local gang, and came up the losing end. He's the only one I found alive."
The healer squinted at her. "What makes you think it's gang related?"
Zhu's mouth twitched. "In a small, backwater place like this? There's always a local extortionist."
The healer grunted, then looked back at the boy. He heaved his heavy body up from the floor and made his way to the rows and rows of jars filling the walls. Zhu's eyes narrowed. "You know of them."
The man was quiet. "I'll have a salve ready for you in two hours," he said, back to her. "Come back then."
Zhu allowed herself a quiet moment of irony before pushing off the counter. She kept her arms folded. "What's your price, healer?"
The healer paused. "Twenty yuans."
"That's enough to pay off the firebenders from doing this to you too?" Zhu asked, already bringing up the money from the folds of her traveling cloak.
"Two hours," the healer said.
Two hours found the room filled with the soft, scraping sounds of salve being applied to skin. It was thick and dark in the light of the fire crackling in the centre fireplace. Zhu watched as the healer applied it with nimble fingers, its slick surface catching the orange highlights. It had a bitter smell. It reminded her of her mother's sea prune soup, where its bitterness deterred most foreigners. Zhu shook the thought away and focused on the boy. With something like a mask covering the ridges of his destroyed skin, he appeared calm. Or dead. His chest continued to rise, but that was all the indications of life. She wondered what type of life he would have after he healed.
What am I doing? she thought. She was Zhu, the loner, the hand-for-hire. The thought of being tied down made her skin crawl, and she never traveled with another. It doesn't have to be forever, she thought. I'll just heal the kid, then dump him off at the nearest village. If he stayed asleep for all that time, more power to her. Who said anything about commitment? She released the breath she had been holding since she found the boy. Already her body felt lighter, as if she were in the coolness of battle, her body a whipcord of power and bending. Yes. It was decided.
"What you see is Tomo's work," the healer said. His hands never stopped the gentle rhythm, nor did he look up. "If you possess half a brain, you won't attempt to go after them. He and his thugs are dangerous, and are more than willing to hurt a nice-looking girl like you."
Zhu felt her lips pull back from her teeth. "Good thing I'm not very nice," she said.
The healer looked up. His brow furrowed. "You're not from around here, are you."
"Then promise me, traveler: don't go near them. They're practiced killers."
Zhu had considered going after them. Though no saint, seeing pointless destruction of people who couldn't fight back ticked her off. She killed in self-defense before, though rarely went out of her way to kill for the moral highroad. It wasn't in her nature to avenge in a throe of passion. If anything, she thought, the vengeance belongs to him, not me.
An idea, vague, distant, twitched in the back of her mind, but she shook it away before it could fully form. No. She had decided to give the boy away. Better live an orphan in a village than with a traveling nomad. Her lifestyle wasn't fit for a kid. But, she decided, if this Tomo character ever gave her any trouble, then she would show her teeth. Content with the decision, she shrugged at the healer.
"Fine with me, healer. Just fix this kid."
"Actually, I'm done," he said, leaning back. "Replace the salve every few hours or so, until scarring appears."
"Why can't I just leave him here with you until he's stable?" Zhu asked.
"Lodging is ten yuans a night."
She stared at him. The healer held her gaze. Behind them, the fire crackled and hissed. She shrugged. "Fine. The sooner I get out of this place, the better. It stinks here. Where's the nearest village?"
"Two week's journey in that direction," he said, pointing towards the west. "You should reach the Plains village then."
She slapped the money in front of him. The sound made the boy's head twitch. "Here's your yuans," she said, enjoying the way the healer glowered at her. "We'll be on our way at first light."
She watched the healer bow his head before he heaved himself up. Before he entered the private quarter of the hut, he paused at the doorway.
"Judge me all you want, traveler," he said. "But in this day and age, there is little we nonbenders can do against the cruelty of the benders. If there's anyone you want to blame, it's them."
Zhu felt the thoughts in her head slow and become still. She waited a full moment, chest cold. With slow motions, she uncorked the water skin around her waist and allowed the dormant water within rise up until it was a swirling ball in her hand. She saw the healer's eyes widen and body go still, like the way wild rabbit dogs became when they noticed her hunting them in the woods.
"Never lump all benders with criminals and murderers," she said. "Especially the ones who've done nothing wrong."
The healer lifted his chin. "All benders are guilty at some degree," he said, and Zhu could see he actually believed those words. "I doubt your own record is stellar, or why else would a waterbender be so far from home? Mark my words: benders are going to get what's coming to them, one day."
The sun had barely begun to turn the sky gray before Zhu had the boy loaded on the ostrich horse and ready to leave the healer's hut. The world was cool and her breath misted in front of her. She tied the traveling cloak tighter around her chin and watched as the boy stirred. His lids fluttered, but soon fell quiet again. She made sure the hood around his head was still secure before clicking at the ostrich horse to move. She was on the road again, where her heart was at its most comfortable. The bob of the beast's head was hypnotic and soon Zhu found herself drifting without thought, her body light. The words the healer said were already far behind her. This world would always have benders and those without the ability. As far as she was concerned, he was a fool.
She continued walking until the peregrine blue of the sky lightened and turned rosy. The bottoms of the clouds became streaked with yellow and orange and soon appeared ablaze. The metaphor reminded her of her passenger and she stopped at a small grove of trees for some breakfast. He was heavy in her arms, a boy toughened with farm life and wry with muscle. His head lolled in her arms.
She put him on the ground with more gentleness than she thought capable and started to make a fire, relishing the normalcy of the movements despite the obvious change. She began to hum an old waterbending tune and before long had a small fire nipping at her fingers. She shushed it with more wood and watched as it ate its meal with hungry mouths. Her stomach growled. She left the fire to get at the traveling food in the saddlebags, choosing her favorite selection and what to feed the boy. She turned around.
The boy was staring at the fire.
Zhu became aware of several things at once. Such dark eyes, she thought, unable to help notice how deep the colour was. They remained on the fire, unblinking, as if transfixed. At first the waterbender was glad his eyesight was intact—a small comfort, she thought—then she became aware of how fierce the stare was. She resisted the urge to slap her face as she realized why.
Nice one, Zhu, she thought. With slow motions she crouched down in the boy's line of sight. The dark eyes snapped to her and an instant Zhu felt as if the wind knocked out of her. Hatred stared back. The young woman forced herself to remain still. She locked gazes and refused to look away. The boy's unblinking glare intensified to burning point.
"I saved you yesterday," she said, "from your burnt home. You were the only survivor. I swear I had nothing to do with your family's death, or do I wish you harm."
The boy was dead for all he moved. He didn't speak. A minute passed, then two, stretching wire-thin. At last he looked away with a minute turning of his head, eyes staring straight ahead into the sky above. Zhu let him. She put a hand to her chest and felt her heart pounding beneath the ribs. Someone with a stare that strong could grow into a powerful force, Zhu thought. She had no doubt this kid could become something if he didn't get himself killed. Zhu knew what burned in his chest. Though those fires were long cold for her, she knew the smoldering desire for vengeance would keep him alive past the danger of infection, and for the days beyond.
She sobered, rocking on her heels. Anger was good for a while, but left unchecked it would warp the soul as easily as it did flesh on a face. She hoped the village she dropped him off to had a good teacher, just as she had when revenge threatened to rule her life.
Zhu went about finishing cooking breakfast, the sizzling scent of heating meat filling the tiny campsite. She scraped off a little bit to feed the boy, but when she went to feed him, he refused to open his mouth, his dark glare searing. Zhu crouched by his side and tch'd.
"I promise you, it's not poisoned." To prove it, she took a strip and ate it. The boy watched, but turned his head to avoid it.
Zhu leaned back. "If you don't eat, you'll die, then you'll never have vengeance on those who hurt you."
The boy's body went rigid. The slack hands twitched, then curled into fists. Zhu watched, careful to school her face into neutrality as the boy looked at her. The glare's force was softer, more inward. Zhu nodded.
"That's better. Now eat." She rolled up a little bit of meat and held it over his mouth. After a moment, the salve-covered lips parted and she pushed the food through. The boy's stare broke off as discomfort filled his face. When he swallowed Zhu was ready with the next slice, until the ceramic bowl was empty.
Zhu fetched her supply of healing salve and by the time she returned the boy's narrow chest rose and fell quickly and his eyes were closed. Humming a tuneless Water Tribe lullaby, she applied the greenish paste. Her nose wrinkled at the bitter smell and the slick texture on her fingers. The boy watched her, unmoving, unspeaking, until she finished. His breathing resumed its normal rhythm.
She could feel him tracking her every movement as she cleared up the campsite and prepared the ostrich horse for travel. When she bent down to pick him up, he offered no resistance but hung in her arms. With a grunt, she hoisted him on the saddle upright, his upper body resting on the ostrich horse's neck. The beast shook itself at the unaccustomed weight, but settled. She patted the silky neck and feed it some of its favorite seed. Then she clucked at it and they were off on the long road, the sky and land stretching before them in long, unchecked expanses of nothing.
As far as Zhu was concerned, the healer's salve was worth every yuan. Eleven days had passed since she found of boy from the wreckage and she watched as the limp body became mobile and limber. He rode the ostrich horse or walked. The boy applied the salve himself once a night and ate with only the mildest of discomforts. Zhu gave him new clothes, including a hood and cloth which left only his eyes and forehead exposed. As wonderful as all those improvements were, still not a word passed his ruined lips.
The waterbender wondered if his voice was damaged in the firebenders' attack, but at close examination of his throat showed no damage. She wasn't surprised, and didn't push the boy for conversation. Once, she knew a man who had gotten into a mining accident and couldn't speak for a whole year afterwards. He just needs to be ready to talk, she thought. She shrugged the feather-light touch of unease aside. After years of traveling, she was used to the quiet. The only thing she couldn't acclimate to was the look in the boy's eyes whenever she caught a glimpse. She shivered at the amount of hatred in them, and began to think his hatred went beyond simple vengeance.
They were one day away from the Plains village when the boy went missing. Zhu woke up to a cold fire and an empty sleeping roll. The ostrich horse was gone. It took a few minutes for the reality to hit. She rose and swore explosive firebender oaths until she was calm. She gathered what little the boy hadn't taken and ate a cold breakfast. The sky was glowing red and orange and air cool by the time she reached the Plains village. She wiped the sweat off her forehead and went to the first stable she could find. She pounded on the owner's door until a light went on and a heavy body stomped over. The door flew open.
"Can't you read the sign? We're closed," the man said. Zhu held out forty yuans.
"I need to buy the fastest beast you have," she said.
"Buy it in the morning." The man turned to close the door.
Zhu stopped it with her foot and forced it open. "Now," she said.
The man sneered at her. "What makes you think you can just barge in here and demand the stable opens? I said, come tomorrow." And with that, he slammed the door shut in her face.
Zhu swore under her breath and stepped off the man's stoop. She looked around her. The place looked like a ghost town with its dusty streets and dark windows. The sunset around her was fading into the darkness of night. She sucked on her teeth, then decided. She slunk off and waited for night to fall before moving. Using a little oil from her belt, she greased the hinges. Then, allowing a little of her water out of its skin, she pushed the lock on the stable's door and broke through.
She slunk into the quiet, musky area, smelling the thunderous odor of animal and letting it wash over her. She could hear them breathing in their stalls, their tails swishing. She covered her face in her red scarf and lit up a small lantern. She unhooked it from the wall and moved towards the stalls. She looked at every ostrich horse and decided on a large black one. Its ink eyes regarded her as she unhooked the bridle and saddle nearest to it and, with practiced movements, tacked it up.
As she was tightening the girt it began to shift and jab at her. She shushed at it, but not before it kicked. The collision of clawed foot on wood had Zhu wincing. She hurried with the rest of the tacking and was maneuvering it out of the stall when light flooded the stable. Zhu stared as the man stepped from the door, face scrunched with rage.
Zhu jumped herself up onto the ostrich horse and hung on as it lurched forward, cawing. Unleashing the rest of her water, she threw the man on the ground and flung the door wide moments before the beast could crash into it. They exploded into the night and she kicked it to a furious run. Behind her was a cacophony of yells and bellows. A rock flew past her ear and she swerved the ostrich horse to avoid a spontaneous upheaval of earth.
Earthbender! She looked over her shoulder and lashed out a whip of water. The man ducked behind a pillar of earth, but by then Zhu was half a mile away, bent low over the beast, urging it to greater and greater speeds, the wind whistling in her face and hair. She let out a whoop and laughed into the night, yowling like the song dogs the Earth Kingdom was known for.
Zhu had a feeling where the boy went, and with two days behind, she knew she had to move fast. She rode the ostrich horse into the night until it was near to collapse. She dismounted it and let it drink and graze as she napped. When she awoke she ate a quick bite and mounted the beast. It was far larger than her previous ostrich horse and with a far longer stride. Its mixture of hair and feather gleamed in the warm mid-summer light. She kicked it into its quick lope, finding her rhythm with its unfamiliar stride.
As she rode, she questioned her actions. Though she told herself she was only retrieving what the boy took, and perhaps teach him a lesson, she knew she was deceiving herself. Why can't I give up on him? she thought. It'd be better off that way. I'd have my life back and that's that. But she knew if she let the boy try to achieve his revenge now he would die, or perhaps suffer a worse fate. She was herself in him, and the long-dormant part of her yearned to teach him what she learned, just as another taught her what she knew.
As she rode, she realized she wanted to help the boy attain his goal. Is that wise, though, a small part of her said. You've seen the hatred in him. If you hone that power, you might regret what you forge.
Heavy thoughts plagued her until she needed to let the ostrich horse rest again. She dismounted and walked besides the sweating creature, the familiar sensation of walking soothing her. Scenery became familiar as she recognized the places they had stopped at previous campsites. She hurried past them. She could see the prints of her old ostrich horse, no more than a day old. A feral grin curled over her face. She was catching up. She was glad she picked such a strong beast. Before long it was ready for another long strip of racing, its gleaming beak golden in the sunlight. She mounted it and the cycle began again.
It was early evening when Zhu reached the Earth Kingdom village where she had first found the boy. She clicked the ostrich horse up towards the old farmhouse, but found the light too poor to discern tracks. The boy wasn't there. She sat up on the saddle, musing. She then turned around and headed towards the centre of the village, where the taverns and pubs were.
She wasn't disappointed. For a small town, the taverns were aglow with golden lights. Laughter roared from the open windows and the smell of alcohol and tobacco wrinkled her nose. Tying her ostrich horse at a tether, she entered the biggest one. Smoky air and loud voices assaulted her as she walked in, but she paid no attention to them. Keeping her eyes to herself, she went over to the bar. She waited only a moment before a bartender appeared.
"What can I getcha, lady?" he asked.
"Water," she said. "And a little information."
Zhu leaned in close and winked at him. "If one was so inclined, where would one find Tomo and company?"
The people nearest to her looked her way and moved off. The bartender paled and tried to smile.
"I'm sorry, I don't—"
"Don't play games with me," Zhu said. "Someone I know is looking for them and is bound for a world of hurt. I need to save him. I know Tomo's whereabouts, I find my companion. Please?"
The bartender frowned, but Zhu refused to move. At last his sighed loudly through his nose and with a single cut of his eyes, looked over her shoulder. Zhu turned to follow his gaze and found herself staring into the laughing visage of the town's extortionist. He was no more than thirty feet away, a group of rough young men surrounding him. He appeared a slick bearded cat among a barrel of lump fish, his hair slick and gleaming, his limbs languid, gaze lazy. Zhu judged him no older than herself. She counted five others who looked at him with reverence.
That makes six, she thought. Now where's our little friend? She turned back to thank the bartender but found him already gone, a glass of water in his place. She picked the glass up and felt an urge to whip the water out and spear Tomo right through the skull with it. She let the moment pass. She looked back towards the firebender and scanned the crowd for the familiar scarred face. She frowned, her fingers drumming on the bar's wooden counter. Then she saw the cowl and face-band and knew.
The boy was sitting at a table in the corner, black gaze locked onto Tomo with the intensity and hunger of a predator. His hands were out of sight, the drink in front of him, untouched. Zhu maneuvered her way around the jostling crowds with the ease of a master waterbender, allowing the flow of the people dictate her movements.
Zhu hid behind the bodies, ducking from view, positioning herself for the perfect attack. At last she was a few feet behind the boy, hidden from his peripheral view. With cat's feet she snuck up on him. When she was within range she struck. She caught the back of his neck and hung on tight. With the reflexes of an experienced fighter she captured the boy's swinging hand. There was a knife. With cool eyes she tightened her grip until he dropped it. It clattered to the floor. She bent to his ear. He was breathing hard.
"Don't struggle, or you die," she said.
The boy stiffened beneath her. With the barest of motions, he nodded.
"Up." She released the hand but not the one on his neck. He stood up. He was taller than she was but with her pressure he was forced to round his back. "Let's go."
Together they walked through the hoards of patrons. Zhu prayed not to attract the firebenders' attention, her eyes latched onto the door. Then she reached it. She opened it and pushed the boy through. When the door was closed behind them she threw the boy forward. The boy stumbled and fell. As limber as a weasel he rolled and popped back to his feet, half-crouched as through ready for a fight. His forearms corded as his hands twisted into fists. The cloth around his lower face puffed and sucked in as he breathed. Zhu walked down the steps, noting his form and strength.
When she was on the ground she said, "Well, that was one stupid thing I saved you from."
Zhu's eyebrows shot up. The voice was stark contrast to his face. Rich and smooth, it was a promise to the sonorous one he would have in adulthood. The word was laced with enough hatred and anger to burn, and she hid the flinch as she regarded the fuming boy in front of her. She crossed her arms.
"Because you're not ready," she said.
The boy snarled. "Ready for what?"
Zhu leveled him a look. "You go in there and what. Maybe hit Tomo with your knife? Yes, that's right. I know who did that to your face and to your family. I know what drives you, boy. But as much as I applaud you on your recovery and your flight to get here, you wouldn't last one second in a fight with a bunch of firebenders. It would be a suicide run." She took a step forward, palms up. "But with my help, I can teach you to fight and move like shadow. I will help you achieve your revenge. Do you accept this?"
By then the boy had righted himself up and was regarding her from beneath his hood, eyes dark in the tavern's light. He was a far cry from when she had first found him, moaning in the patch of burnt grass. Now she could see his ropey strength, lean from a farmer's life. Looking at him made her realize her worries and fears were meaningless. True he was filled with anger, but that would pass with training. He would get his revenge on Tomo and be at peace, just as she was with her own demons.
At last the boy nodded. Zhu felt herself smile. "Good. Very good. Then you should know I am called Zhu."
The boy lowered his head. "Amon."
Though Zhu told herself she should scold Amon for stealing her ostrich horse and most of her supplies, she knew had their positions were reversed, she would've done the same. In her hotheaded youth, she was as dangerous as a loose cannon. One had to hone that power into a razor's edge, into a balance of backing away and striking. Her waterbender master taught her the element of change, of yang, and through years of pain and blood understood the form of power, of skill. As a waterbender she was conscious of the chi, of the energy flow of world, just as the moon governed the waters' tides.
She knew how to merge defense with offense, to use her opponent's own power against him. One had to be resourceful and cunning to emerge victorious, and wondered if Amon had the shrewdness to become a great fighter. She looked over her shoulder at the boy riding behind her. Despite the summer's early afternoon and rising heat, he wore the hood and black face-cloth, as if to hide what he had become.
If that's going to be a permanent thing he's going to have something better, she thought. She shrugged the thought away. First things first. She led Amon towards a small glen of stunted trees. They were traveling north, away from the Plains village where she knew a bristling reception waited for her. She sighed. It was yet another place she had to avoid or hide her identity. She pulled at her ostrich horse's reins and halted him. She dismounted, as did Amon.
"Set up camp," she said to him. "I'll look for a good place to start training." She left without seeing if he would respond. A good pupil did everything the teacher asked, and physical labor was good to strength the mind and body. It didn't take very long to find what she was looking for, and was nudging rocks away when felt Amon's presence behind her. He waited for her, slender and silent, ominous in his hood and face-cloth. Zhu regarded him.
"That didn't take you long," she said.
"Seen you do it enough."
Zhu grunted. "What I'm about to show you won't be nearly as easy, or as short. If we're going to do this right, we're going to start from scratch. You're not getting your revenge for several years."
The boy's body tightened. "You said—"
"I'm going to teach you how to fight. Didn't say it would take a day."
Amon regarded her from beneath the hood. "Why are you doing all of this? You are a traveler. Your clothes aren't from around here. Your skin is dark. The way you walk is different. Nothing is keeping you here. Why save me? Why help me?" His words were like weighted stones, diction clipped and perfect. If Zhu hadn't known, she would've guess him to be the son of a merchant or high society, not some crude farmer peasant.
"I am doing all of this because I see me in you," she said. "Long ago I was rudderless and adrift, full of rage and brimstone. But a teacher found me, and saved me. And just as I found you, I plan on helping you become the man you were supposed to be."
A strange furtive look crossed the boy's face, but it passed so fast Zhu question whether it was there. The boy bowed his head, and Zhu thought no more of it.
"Then teach me," he said.
Zhu sat in the tree above the campsite, watching through the leaves at the her companion. Four years had passed since the day she found him half-dead, face burned and blackened to nothing. Four years ago he was nothing but a boy, filled with directionless rage and hatred. Now he was a young man, body taut and corded from years of methodical training and meditation. Under the tutelage of the waterbender, he understood the power of yin and yang, of hardness and softness, of the yield and the resistance. He understood brute force meant nothing, but the ability to give and absorb opposition was the way of combat. Capture your opponent's centre of gravity, she had said many times, and you will defeat him.
Zhu never told him origins of her teachings, and Amon never asked. He was the perfect student: quiet, willing, persistent. He never complained. He never whined. He astonished her with his rapid growth. As she had suspected, he was a natural tactician. His resourcefulness never ceased to amaze her, and several times had to stop from glowing with pride. She had never seen so fast a learner.
For all the brightness, there was a dark undercurrent. For all of her pride at the boy's prowess, she still withheld the fact she was a waterbender.
In all the four years they had traveled together, never once did she bend in his presence. There was something about the looks he gave benders—earth, fire, or water—that refused to leave her mind. Glimpses of old misgivings gnawed on her whenever Amon went deathly quiet when a bender made their presence known, be it through accident or purpose.
Firebenders were the worse. Zhu knew many good people who could bend the mercurial element, but never once did she see Amon warm up to one. His looks forever remained chilly and aloof, and he departed from their company as soon as etiquette allowed, or sooner. By the next morning he would be his normal self and Zhu would bury the incident away until the next time it happened. She hoped his eventual revenge on the firebender Tomo would curb his apparent hatred of all benders.
One other thing bothered her. Early in their partnership, the boy would stop and ask if she "saw that." She always said no, what are you looking at, but the boy never said. He then returned to the task at hand as if never interrupted. Those occurrences had all but stopped now, but now and then she saw him look up and watch some unseen thing. One time she joked that he could see the spirits, but the boy never laughed. Then came the incident. The boy disappeared.
Zhu found him quickly enough, but he was unresponsive, cold to the touch. For two whole days he remained that way, until on the third morning he woke up and acted as if nothing had every happened. She questioned him until he growled at her to leave him alone. Though Zhu kept a watchful eye, the boy never relapsed, and the incident was swept away and forgotten.
Zhu leaned her head back against the rough tree bark and stared into the flame-blue of the sky. Huge fluffy white clouds doddered past like monstrous docile sheep goats. A dove kite flew overhead, forever predator and prey, crying its mournful yeek-yeek-yeek. She closed her eyes and breathed in the fresh scent of tree sap and grass, and suddenly had the urge to see snow. She opened her eyes and considered the itch in her blood.
For years she had taken Amon to the Fire Nation, much of the Earth Kingdom, and even several trips to the Republic City Avatar Aang and Zuko founded, but never did she take him to her home land to the north. Her mouth tightened. There was nothing left for her there but ice and rock. It was certainly a solo trip. I've been thinking about going solo for a while now, she thought. She had taught Amon most of what she knew. He was ready to fight and kill. Soon he would be ready to go out on his own.
She scaled down the tree and jumped the last few feet. Amon didn't look up from where he was whetting a blade. Despite the head of the day he wore all of his clothes, hood and face-cloth included. A bubble of excitement brewed in her belly as she thought of the gift she bought for him. It had taken her four years' worth of wages and bribery to hire the talents of an authentic mask-maker she knew in the Fire Nation. It was in her ostrich horse's saddlebag, wrapped in the softest sheep goat wool she could find. She had decided to give it to him tonight, after he defeated Tomo, her final gift before she went her separate way.
"So," she said.
Amon continued to whet the blade, the thin shiing! shiing! of stone on metal faint music. "So," he said, his voice sonorous steel.
"You're ready," she said. "Your training is complete. I have taught you everything you need to know from me. Now you can go to Tomo and take your revenge."
Amon's arms stopped, the shiing! falling away into nothing. He stood up and towered over Zhu by a foot. He regarded her, a strange mixture of hunger and something else, something darker in his gaze. He nodded once in his customary laconic fashion and turned to the blade.
"How can you've taught me everything," he asked, testing the blade's sharpness with a thumb, "when I have never beaten you in sparring?" The skin of his thumb split and between the meat of the lips blood bubbled free. He watched it was if transfixed.
Zhu shrugged. "It's not me you've to beat, it's Tomo."
Amon grunted. He put the blade down and turned to her. "You're right. You have taught me everything you know. I thank you."
Not everything, she thought, but bowed her head in return. The lie twisted in her stomach, but she pushed the sensation away. It was for both their sakes.
"When do you want to do it?" she asked. "We're not more than a few days away from the village."
Amon wiped his blooding thumb on a cloth. When he looked at her, she shivered under its hungry onslaught.
"Now," he said, and Zhu heard his face stretch into a grin.
Zhu made him dress first before giving her last parting gift. They were an assassin's garments, dark as pitch and seamless. Though she warned him against loose clothing, Amon insisted on his hood. She let him. The air buzzed and bristled with electricity and was hot to the skin. Though she felt the jittery pre-battle nerves, she made herself eat a little meat. Amon only drank buttered tea, baring his slitted mouth long enough to take a few sips.
Then, as dusk descended, she presented the mask. She did so with little fanfare, handing him the wrapped object without saying anything. Amon took it from her with slow fingers, and with the same methodical fashion removed the sheep goat wool until he was left with the gleaming white mask. Red lines edged the darker cream surrounding the bone-white. In the centre of the forehead shone a red circle. Amon stared at it, unmoving.
Zhu coughed. "The circle is the third eye, or something like that. Supposed to help you see clearly. Should be blue, though, but I think red suits you." She rubbed her nose and glanced away as Amon slowly moved to put the mask on. She listened to him tie it beneath his hood and added, "If it doesn't fit—"
Zhu looked back and stared into the polished surface. Deep within the open sockets, Amon's eyes gleamed. She took a step back as Amon raised his hands and let them glide, fingertips ghosting the smooth surface. The circle hung like a red moon, or dying sun in the middle of the forehead. The hands fell away and the young man stared at some point on the ground.
"Now, I have a face to show the world," he muttered, as if speaking to himself.
Zhu chuckled. "I know it's a good mask, but worthy of a world viewing?"
Amon didn't answer. Zhu didn't press. She moved off, feeling the warm glow of satisfaction the gift was well received. Now he just needs to defeat Tomo, she thought, and I'll return to my lonely life. She would miss the boy. He was good company. A bit laconic for her at times, but after such a traumatic past, she could understand. Never once did he speak of his life before the fire, nor did she ask. And after this night, or couple of nights, she would part from his life, as her teacher did years ago.
It didn't take long for Amon to make his move.
They were camped close to the heart of the village, hovering on the outskirts. After several nights of recon, they knew where Tomo liked to haunt. On a particular warm night such as this one, Zhu and Amon knew the firebender and his gang liked to take advantage of the hot springs. His numbers had swelled from six to nine since the last time she'd seen him. He was still the sleek cat she remembered, black hair slick, mouth cruel and lazy.
Zhu was curious as to what Amon would do to him. She was no stranger to gore and torture, but wondered if Amon could be capable of such dark paths. Then she shook her uncertainty away. Of course he was. The hatred Zhu remembered was well-hidden now, but she would bet all the yuans in her pouch he still nursed it. Still, she mused how he would do it.
Fireflies winked. The silver moon gleamed overhead. Zhu shifted, restless under the amount of power of the full moon. Amon was by the hot springs now. She herself crouched a little ways away, using her own dark clothes to blend in with the background. She swore she wouldn't interfere with Amon's fight with Tomo, but one non-bender v. nine skilled firebenders were odds she couldn't abide. She heard the approaching laughter and slunk lower. Blood hummed in her ears and the coldness of her waterbender's clarity slowed her breath. She clutched her water skin tighter to her side. To defeat these firebenders, she would need all her skill. She toyed with the skin's wooden stopper as she watched Amon slink closer. The voices were loud now. Males. Young.
Zhu tensed as the first one of Tomo's strode into view. The air about him rippled as he juggled a fireball, the shadows red hot.
Amon waited until the whole gang appeared and were in the state of undress before he attacked. Like his namesake the young man remained unseen until the very last second. His blade flashed and the laughter turned to an agonized scream as a severed hand flew through the air. Cries turns to roars as Tomo's gang struggled to abandon their clothing or try to put them on, disarray striking fast. Zhu saw her chance.
Slipping from the outskirts, she leveled her own staff at the two closest to her. The force of collision vibrated through the wood as she whirled and struck flesh. Confusion allowed her several more moments before the first flames licked up, hot and furious, aimed straight for her. Zhu rolled out of the way, leaping to avoid a sweltering blast. When she landed on her feet she stared into the face of her opponent, a pale-faced brute. His face scrunched in concentration as he threw a fireball at her.
Zhu dodged the raw power, skirting the strike, feeling the heat ripple in the air. It was like breathing liquid steam. Some of the hair in her ponytail curled and blackened. A harsh scent of burning hair filled her nose. The waterbender darted past another blast and, with all the strength she had, punched him on the bridge of his nose. The force snapped his head back. Blood spurted everywhere. He stumbled a step back.
"Damn bu," he said, holding his nose. He looked up. Zhu watched coolly as his eyes rolled into his head and he collapsed. She moved on. She turned her head and saw Amon thick with a furious battle with Tomo. Amon dodged everything the firebender threw at him, using his opponent's force against him as he struggled to get closer to Tomo. Zhu had little time to watch when her instincts screamed at her. She looked up and found herself ringed by the six other firebenders. She felt her lips peel back from her teeth as the circle closed, one of him sniggering.
"You're a long way from home, pretty girl," one said. "Afraid you're gonna get burned."
"Why don't you pick up ten more guys," Zhu said, "then we can call it a fair fight."
Her answer was a rippling arm of fire. Zhu pulled. A wave of water from the hot springs collided with the fire and an explosion of steam threw everyone back. Zhu wiped it out of her eyes and curled the water around her, feeling it respond to her lightest thought. She thanked Tui, the spirit of the moon, and unleashed the water in one massive strike, aiming to pierce her enemies' hearts. Several blocked the onslaught with fire, but two weren't as lucky. They fell to the ground, icicles the size of a man's thigh lodged in their chests. Zhu crouched low, heart beating.
One of the firebenders stood up and spat at her. "A waterbender, eh? Well, your tricks won't last you forever. There's four of us and one of you." He readied himself in a Fire Nation-style position, and Zhu guessed this one was Tomo's second. She wondered how many people he helped Tomo terrorize, or kill. Her fists tightened, then loosened. She righted herself and allowed the three other firebenders to corner her in a square. The moon hung above, a heavy flow of strength. Zhu breathed in deep, closing her eyes, basking in the power. In the background, she could hear struggles and explosions.
"Normally, I'd agree with you," she said, "But you seem to forget principle of waterbending. You get your power from the sun, while I from the moon."
The firebenders were moving when Zhu acted. Hands tented like claws, she arrested their limbs as she entered the water in their blood. She could feel them straining against her unwanted intrusion, like worms at the end of hooks, or fish. She twisted and caused one to bend a knee, arms sticking out like a bowing crane.
With a small movement of her elbow she twisted his neck around until the wet pop of snapped vertebrae rang in the night air. The straining grew stronger as the three others grunted against their unresponsive bodies, eyes wide, nostrils flared. Sweat beaded Zhu's forehead as she kept them where she wanted. She made short work of two, killing them in similar fashions. By now the last one, Tomo's second, was grunting with exertion. Zhu made him fall to his knees. Veins corded in his neck.
"Are you sorry for what you've done?" she asked.
The man spat the best he could between clenched jaws. "Fuck you."
With a final twist the man's head spun around full around once and was dead. Zhu let him slump, thoughts quiet, lip curled. She let him where he lay, shaking away the adrenaline pumping in her blood. She walked with unhurried steps past the dead bodies and headed towards the sounds of an animal in pain. Her hands tightened, but she told herself she didn't recognize the voice. She walked past the hot springs and stopped. The source of the agonized groans was strapped between two trees by rope, limbs outstretched.
It took a moment for Zhu to realize the man had no hands and feet. The bleeding stumps covered his arms and shins with blood. In the moonlight it appeared like black tar, glistening and fresh. Tomo's head lolled, semi-conscious. Zhu frowned at the choice of torture. She looked at Amon's still form. His back was turned to her, the broad expanse of his shoulders rising and falling with residual energy. When she stepped on a twig the head twitched. It turned so the profile was visible to her.
"You're a waterbender."
The voice was flat as dead water, colourless as rain. Zhu tightened. She nodded, even though he couldn't see her.
"Yes," she said.
Amon turned. His eyes blazed from within the mask. "Why," he asked, and in that single word Zhu's stomach twisted, as if wrapping around something bitter.
She stepped back, frowning. "That's my business," she said. "Why should it matter, anyway?"
Amon snorted. It was an ugly sound. "It does." He regarded the prone figure of his old enemy as if it were an insect. The firebender was unconscious, head hanging, body slumping against his bonds. The metallic scent of his blood wrinkled Zhu's nose. She tried to ignore the stiff way Amon held himself and went to move closer to Tomo. She felt the young man's heavy gaze on her like weights as she did.
"Why cut off his hands and feet?" she asked. She was close enough to smell the sour stench of sweat and fear on the firebender's skin. She leaned away and looked back at Amon, but found him walking away. A crick of irritation ran through her like a whip of water.
"Hey, I was talking to you," she said. Amon didn't stop, and before long blended in with the silver darkness of the tree cover. Zhu let him go. She stood in the body-covered glen, staring at the place he had disappeared. Behind her Tomo moaned but she ignored him. Even if he survived, she doubted he would be able to bend without hands or feet.
She moved away, deciding she had enough of this place. She went back to pick up her staff and refilled her water skin. Then she walked back to the campsite. It was empty. She remembered when she exacted revenge on the woman who killed her family, how after destroying her enemy, mourned for her mother and father afresh.
Zhu knew she hurt Amon by lying, but he would get over it in time. She shook her head. She had saved Amon and taught him how to survive in the world. Now he defeated the killer of his family. He was avenged. Her one regret was leaving on such a sour note, but the urge to travel the open world was stronger than her desire to wait Amon's anger out. If anything, it would help severe the mentor-student bond they had forged in the four years.
Zhu clucked at her ostrich horse, the same one she had stolen from the Plains village. She took enough to survive and a little of the money, then mounted the ostrich horse and kicked it into a swift run. She didn't look back.
A long ten years passed since that fateful night. Zhu was now a ripe age of thirty-four, and still traveled the four kingdoms with the restlessness of the first day she took up the road. Her black ostrich horse was dead. A brown female replaced it. Much of the materials she had with her were stolen or replaced. Her talents as waterbender-for-hire kept her money purse from becoming too empty. She watched as the world embraced the Industrial Revolution more and more. It exploded in Republic City, the capital of the United Republic of Nations.
Satomobiles, created by the now famous Hiroshi Sato, bustled along the roads in place of ostrich horses and dragon moose with increasing regularity. Zhu thought they were fascinating. As for the city, the dark thrum of its pulse intrigued her, and more and more she found herself visiting the bustling metropolis. Work was good there. It made her purse happy and her belly full. It also filled with new faces and people and a whiff of danger. More than once she had to fight off an uppity band of thugs. One occasions after a scuffle, she thought about the boy she saved fourteen years ago, and wondered about him. In all of her travels, she never crossed paths with him, or heard from him. After ten years, the dull ache faded into a dusty, bittersweet memory.
Until one day the rumors reached her ears.
It had been whispers at first, told in the dark corners of taverns and pubs where gossip bred. Zhu heard only snatches at the beginning, when it was all too implausible to believe.
"A man . . . a man who can take bending away . . ."
". . . they say he wears a mask . . ."
". . . followers are chi blockers . . ."
". . . rounding up benders, no one's safe—"
"He is Amon."
Zhu wouldn't believe it. She snorted at the rumors and left. But the rumors followed her until she demanded for proof. A flyer was thrust into her hands, and in that moment knew what was whispered was true. Amon stared up at her, eyes blank, the familiar mask drawing chills down her spine. One arm was raised, as if to rally troops. 'Support the Equalists,' she read.
"What are the Equalists?" she asked, and got her answer. Her horror grew as she learned about the rallies, the sacrifices. Her skin flushed and chilled as she heard in great detail how he stole a bender's bending away as neatly as gutting a pig bear. Zhu wanted to throw up. She booked a room in a small Earth Kingdom and spent the night staring at the ceiling. The past, once so hazy, jumped into clear view. Had she somehow been responsible?
But I didn't teach him much about chi, she thought, or anything about taking it away. He must've learned it from another source. He must've taken on another teacher,she thought, trying to make sense of the mess in front of her. The decision to confront Amon and to see what all this was about was plain. There was no question.
The next morning Zhu ate an early breakfast and saddled up her little brown ostrich horse. Her breath fogged in the autumn air. She wrapped her cloak tighter around her throat and shivered. She kicked the ostrich horse into a run and she allowed the loping rhythm to wash over her until it was all she knew.
Zhu sold her ostrich horse at the outskirts of Republic City and walked the rest on foot, using the extra time to put her thoughts in order. All around her the city life teemed. The pale sun beat down as shouts and conversations streamed about her. Screeches from the trolleys and the hum of the Satomobiles' engines made it hard to think. Buildings, the largest for hundreds of miles, soared overhead. Smoke roiled from the factories, stinging in the nose and eyes. Street urchins played their games, their keen eyes quick to pick up morsels of information to sell for the right price.
Zhu steered clear of their sticky fingers. She waited for a lull in the traffic before crossing. She glanced around at the business suits and clean dresses and knew she stood out like an unagi among of elephant koi. Her dirty traveling clothes screamed foreigner. Her dark skin said northerner. Her staff clicked against the cobblestones as she made her way deeper into the depths of the City.
She passed by the statue of Avatar Aang in the channel, forever positioned as a proponent of balance and good-will. She was a eighteen when the Avatar passed on. When she heard the new one was a girl from the Southern Water Tribe, a grin stretched her face before she could stop herself.
Then she remembered why she was in Republic City. Her grin fell away. She walked without direction for a while, eying every the people bustling past her.
She hurried down the street to avoid the incoming traffic and turned down a corner and spent the next several minutes considering ways to draw attention to herself. Laughter pulled her thoughts away and she glanced at a gathering of urchins. She headed towards them.
As one the small gang ceased their game-making and watched Zhu approach them, one hardnosed boy standing at their head, shrewd eyes regarding the stranger. When she was within talking distance the boy glowered beneath his flat cap.
"Whatcha want, lady?" he asked.
Zhu took out the money she made from her ostrich horse and held it before him. "You interested in making some money?" she asked, and smiled at the way his eyes glowed.
An hour later found Zhu lounging at an open air café terrace, sipping at a lukewarm tea and squinting in the sunlight. Her gaze followed the flow of the trolley cars and taxi mobiles. She glanced at the town's clock and tightened her grip on the teacup. She braced herself. Moments later a scream ripped through the air and everyone within the vicinity looked over to where three street urchins stood in the middle of the street, two huddled around a prone one.
Cars honked and swerved. One Satomobile continued to hurtle on its path, horn blaring. The two urchins tried to rouse their prostate comrade, faces tight with fear. A woman screamed from the crowd, her gloved hands covering her eyes. The sewer caps exploded off as Zhu waterbended the water underneath. She twisted and whirled, forcing the great streams of water to stop the Satomobile's tracks. She grunted under the car's squealing strain, and resisted the urge to overturn it entirely. She instead redirected its path and spared it the briefest of glances as it stumbled to a halt by a lamppost.
Within moments it was over. Traffic had all but halted. Sewer water covered the streets in a foul-smelling film, but Zhu ignored it as she jogged over to the three urchins. She knelt down as if to check on them and whispered, "Well done, boys," before rising and declaring them alright.
People gathered, low murmurs rippling about the crowd. When the press appeared Zhu said it wasn't a question of duty, but of moral upstanding to help the 'poor boys.' When the police made their presence known Zhu answered all their questions demurely. As she did these things she kept glancing around, hackles tight, wondering if and when Amon heard the news a new waterbender was is town.
At last she was released. Zhu wandered away, her part finished. A cold had settled near her heart, like frost. It refused to thaw as she thought about the boy she knew before. Her stomach flip-flopped. It had been ten years since the last time she saw him. Though no means weak, she didn't know his current abilities, other than the fact he could take bending away.
A frisson of fear swept through her. Her bending made up her identity, who she was. Even the thought of being a stranger to the flowing, ever-changing liquid quickened her breath. But not confronting Amon was worse than not doing anything, so she stayed. She stayed in the open as the daylight turned to dusk and dusk turned to night. Streetlamps, gas-powered to produce eerie greenish glows, seemed to darken the murky shadows. A light rain began to drizzle from the skies.
Zhu's breath puffed in the chilled autumn air, but not all of her shivers came from the temperature. Her soles tock'd on the bricks as she made her slow aimless journey, her shoulders hunched, a hand tight on her water sack. She entered a wide, empty plaza.
Zhu almost sighed in relief when she heard the first footstep behind her. She walked a few more steps before stopping. Her breath slowed. She turned around and saw no one. Zhu narrowed her eyes but didn't react. She looked up and scowled at the figures crouching on the trolley cables above. She looked down and saw where once the plaza was empty was now filled with black-dressed bodies. Each wore a concealing gasmask, their eyes gleaming acid green in the night. Amon's chi blockers.
She knew one well-placed strike from them was deadly to her bending abilities. Zhu counted ten. She shook herself from her crouch and cleared her throat.
"Take me to Amon," she said.
No one moved or spoke. Zhu frowned. "Didn't you hear me? I said take me to Amon."
Several tightened and coiled like snakes. The tension thickened as they began to advance, their steps silent, their glass-piece eyes glowing. Zhu removed her heavy outer coat and waited until they were in striking distance before whirling into action. Using the falling rain about her, she quickly amassed a sizable whip of water. The chi blockers dodged and leapt out of the way of her bending.
She had little time to wave around water before she was using hand-to-hand combat to avoid a deadly touch. Several times their fingers grazed her. Zhu had no time to shiver. She flipped away and pushed the water about her in a circle. Tightening her fist she turned it into ice. In her silent bubble she had a moment of respite. Her chest heaved as she struggled to catch her breath. She could see them beyond the blue wall of ice, dark, warped figures. She knew she couldn't keep the pace up for very long. She lifted her arms and took a deep breath.
The ice capsule exploded into a thousand shards. Zhu took the split moment of confusion to freeze the water around six chi blockers' air vents. They broke away from the attack, clawing at their muzzles of ice, one trying to tear off his mask. Zhu had little time to relish her victory. She brought up a shield of water to avoid bolas. Gritting her teeth, she met the four remaining chi blockers with whips of water, forcing them back.
She managed to repeat her ice trick twice before breaking into the defensive, fighting the two remaining enemies hand-to-hand. A hand slipped through her defense and hit her elbow. Crying out, Zhu whirled on him and kicked him as hard as she could. The chi blocker flipped away. Though it was only half-moon, Zhu entered their blood. Power flowed sluggishly within her as she wasted no time snapping the two necks. When they were dead she dropped to a knee, wheezing, lanks of hair in her face from her bun. Bodies littered about her, dead from suffocation.
The one who had tried to get his mask off lay on the ground, chest heaving as he gulped air. Zhu left him alone. She knew she had little energy for a second round, and forced herself to her feet. All about her rain fell, harder now, puddles forming in depressions on the ground. Cold runnels ran down her face and soon was soaked.
She lifted her head and called, "Amon! If you're out there, come and show yourself!"
Zhu almost gasped as a man stepped from the shadows of the alley in front of her. She knew before seeing the hood and familiar mask it was the man she saved.
He was taller, and broader at the shoulders. He wore a hood and a militaryesque cut of clothes. He stood around the bodies of his men unperturbed, as if they were nonexistent to him. She felt the man regarding her behind the porcelain, the red circle glaring at her like a bleeding sun, or wound. In the dim greenish yellow light his eyes were hidden from her but she could imagine their black depths.
"Amon," she said.
The man took a step forward and Zhu found herself retreating one. Amon stopped, the cold visage half-covered beneath the hood. Green eyes glowed behind him. Her heart sank as she realized the alley was filled with more chi blockers.
"Tell me it isn't true," she said. "Tell me you're not doing these terrible things."
A low chuckle bubbled from behind the mask. Zhu flinched. "You said long ago you wanted to help me become the man I am supposed to be," Amon said, voice raised to be heard over the rain's downpour. The stillness in his words was mocking. She flushed. "But you're wrong, waterbender. No one can turn me into what I'm supposed to be. Only I can accept my destiny, and that destiny is to return equality to the world."
"Remove it, you mean," Zhu shot back. "Since the beginning there has always been benders and non-benders. You need yin for yang. Hadn't I taught you anything?"
"Oh, you taught me a great deal," Amon said, voice a silken growl. "You taught me no one can be trusted, that the closest of allies can be, in fact, the greatest of betrayers."
Zhu stared at him, aghast. "I saved you," she whispered.
"Yes, you did, but that was out of typical bender's arrogance."
Zhu shook her head. "You're wrong. I saw a dying boy and brought him back to health. I taught you how to fight. I saved you from your first attempt at Tomo—" She stopped. She held a hand over her mouth, after all these years finally understanding. He cut off Tomo's hands and feet to stop him from bending.
Amon nodded, as if reading her thoughts. "So you realize my intentions," he said. "You were always a little blind that way."
Amon waved a hand in the air. "I suppose it doesn't matter if you know. After the destruction of my face, I could see the spirits. They heard my pleas, and taught me their greatest secret: the removal of bending."
"Only the Avatar can do that."
She could hear the man grin, could feel the wasted muscles in his face stretch into a leer. "Do you require a demonstration?"
Zhu was quiet. She glared at Amon and spat on the ground. "So it is true. A firebender took away your family and face and now you're waging war on all benders. I raised you as my own in hopes to take away your need for vengeance, but I see I failed. Now your soul is as warped as your face, Amon. You'll never find peace now." She raised her chin. "I hoped the Avatar takes you down."
Amon was still for a moment. Then he was a blur. Zhu had just enough time to kick up a shield of ice before he was by her side. She blocked several attacks, whirling and kicking, trying to centre herself and find the rhythm of the fight. Amon pressed all around her, relentless. He was stronger and faster and Zhu found herself losing her centre of gravity.
In an act of desperation she forced a wave of rain to collide with him. He grunted and shook it off, but there was space between them. She struggled to catch her breath. He glowered at her, shoulders rounded as he advanced again, stride predatory. Zhu bared her teeth. Before he was three feet from her she used her failing strength to enter his blood. Amon froze, eyes widening. She strained to keep him still, twisting his body out of his control. Arms trembling with exertion, hands shaking, she forced him onto his knees.
She only had a moment to see her student-turned-enemy where she wanted him before a stinging, numbing pressure spread throughout her limbs. She cried out as the chi blockers grabbed her and forced her hands behind her back. Someone kicked the back of her legs and she fell, grunting. She struggled until a chi blocker hit her stomach with a crackling electric stick. An explosion of cramps seized her muscles and she folded in half, teeth clenched against the pain until it faded. She panted, quiet in their iron grasps. Freezing water soaked her knees.
"That is quite a trick," Amon said, somewhat breathless. Zhu looked up and found him looming over her, his cold gaze piercing her heart. "Perhaps I should take it away."
Zhu spat at his feet and glared at him with all her strength. She felt like the hyena wolf of so many years ago, caught in the trap, able to see death in front of her. He bent down. She forced herself not to flinch as his hand touched her forehead. She shivered under its cold weight and told herself not to beg, even though all she wanted to do was cower and plead. When a sucking sensation ripped through her she bit on her lip and refused to scream.
A great weakness enveloped her limbs. She didn't realize the hand was removed until she fell forward to all fours. Her soul was lead. Her vision swam. She refused to collapse like her body wanted to. She gritted her teeth and in an effort and lifted her head. She saw Amon walking away, just as he had done years ago, his steps slow and unhurried.
Zhu sank to her knees and said, "You may've taken my bending away, Amon, but know I had you. You couldn't do it alone. You never could."
Amon stopped. For an instant she saw his shoulders tighten. His head inclined to the side as if to speak, hood turning, chiseled profile to her, and she knew she was seeing him for the man he truly was. She braced herself for a sudden attack, for the murder blow sure to come for her bold words. But the strike never came. The moment was gone, and whatever passed between them was lost. Without a word Amon looked away. He resumed his pace and was swallowed by the darkness, his footfalls echoing in her ears long after he left.