AN: Super-minor characters are fun to write, especially when they're so minor you get to make up their names.

Avatar is one of the few shows geared towards kids where it doesn't feel silly to write serious fic. The show has always handled violence very realistically. Gives fanfic writers a lot of room. Plus Amon is smart. We all know those metalbending cops are doomed.

This isn't quite what I'd expected it to be but I'm satisfied. Played around with repetition, style-wise.

Warning for violence, of the torture-prisoners-with-cattle-prods variety. I think it's in T range…? I'll bump the rating up if people feel it ought to be.


Water, Water, Everywhere

It was normal, they said, to have a crush on the Chief at first. The rookies always fell hard and fast. It was expected, especially from some kid right out of the academy, born in a dumpy village thirty miles from anything, a hamlet half-abandoned during the Hundred Years War and never fully rebuilt.

It was normal for kids born in that village to want to leave—and not just in that village but in any of them, really. All the towns with shrines and lanterns, no plumbing or paved roads, just chicken-pigs roaming dirt streets. All the remnants scattered across the Earth Kingdom, left crumbling by war and left ignored afterwards, the money going elsewhere, to the big cities, modern things now, hulking towers of steel.

Tai Zan was from a place where people still left food out on moonless nights, for angry spirits or lost soldiers' ghosts, or both. He was from a place that still remembered the war, and the rules of it, and the occupiers who made earthbending a capital crime. They still sort of feared earthbending, where Tai Zan was born. It was a fear passed down, a fear absorbed through the trees and fields and the Fire Nation tank that sat rusting in the woods.

The villagers left food at the base of the tank, too. In case those lost ghosts wore red and breathed flame. In case they decided to come back.

But Tai Zan was an earthbender, and a son of the modern age. He knew of progress even if it had passed his village by. And he was not afraid of ghosts.

As soon as he was old enough he made the trek to Republic City: rode in on the back of an ostrich-horse drawn wagon, which proved embarrassing in a place filled to the brim with gleaming Satomobiles. His parents had been against the move, had wanted him to stay and till the fields, tend the shrines. They knew earthbending as something that caused others to Take Away, and could not understand his fascination with this in-born gift.

They were not benders. Tai Zan sometimes thought, when not feeling very charitable, that his parents and neighbors, that everyone in his village from the chief to the dead in the ground, were still living in a war long-ended. They still rationed food and spoke in whispers outside and mistrusted the fledgling democracy being set up out of Ba Sing Se. They still trusted in the divine wisdom of the Earth King, and the divine brutality of the Fire Lord and his kin. They feared Republic City because firebenders freely walked its streets. They didn't see.

Tai Zan had no patience for them. The earth urged him forward. He heard it whispering in his blood that he should leave, to learn his own might.

Ba Sing Se was far away and Omashu less important by the hour, but Republic City! Republic City, just a week's ride to the coast, the newest and most grandiose city of them all. Its earthbending police force was more exclusive than even the Dai Li…and yet it was an exclusivity of talent, not of name. Any half-wit noble's son could be made one of the rank-and-file in the capital these days.

Republic City was different. It took only the best.

Tai Zan was untrained and broke when he arrived there, just another poor kid from the forgotten places come to join the squad. He was allowed to train at the academy. He was not one of the rising stars, not one of the best, his movements sometimes stiff at the joints, but his reflexes were strong. And he was diligent. And he worked hard, learned quickly. He took to metalbending, a specialty required to join the police force, easier than most.

Tai Zan felt the earth in his veins. If it did not sing to him the way it sang to the police chief, Lin Beifong, still it was with him. To grasp it, to pull it up in great clumps, was to understand its core. If he had any concerns about non-benders it was that he thought it sad, people for whom the earth was nothing but dull rock.

But then, he did not often think about non-benders before the Equalists arose.

He graduated from the academy and was made a cop. Spent a year chasing thugs and gang members down narrow alleyways and through trash-clogged sewers. Wrote home to his parents, lied when he wrote that he still left food out for the spirits at night. Secretly doubted there were such things left in this modern world. Even the Avatar, of whom the newspapers reported updates now and then, seemed a relic left over from superstitious times.

What need now for Avatars and mysticism, in this world of iron and mechanics? What need in a world where Chief Beifong ran a police force thousands strong? It was possible to separate bending from folklore: look at the Satomobiles. They were made of human stuff and no less wondrous for it. Tai Zan did not worry much about the spirits. He was a cop and he did his job.

To be promoted after only a year was rare; Tai Zan was still a rookie to most eyes when he arrested a leading member of the Triads and the Chief took notice. She moved him to her personal squad, which gave him a technical rank. As far as his new comrades were concerned Tai Zan hadn't earned the rank yet, and they gave him the basest assignments. He was more likely to swab toilets in the staff room than ever be sent out to fight by her side.

Nevertheless.

He did earn the squad's trust, eventually, and he did see her fight. She was so reserved, such an unknown. Her famous mother aside, no one knew much about her…where she lived, who she lived with. Chief Beifong kept herself a deliberate mystery and did not fraternize much with her men.

Tai Zan wondered where her scars had come from. No one knew. He wondered if she believed in spirits and the innate necessity of the Avatar. No one knew. He admitted to himself that he loved her, a little bit. Loved her or at least the sight of her, steady hands and perfect aim, the earth itself a docile creature under her command.

Her voice was low, curt when she gave orders, but she took such pride in her troops. Not that she ever said as much, but Tai Zan thought he could see it in her eyes. She told him to scrub toilets and he did so with gusto. He was a good earthbender but she was Beyond, and that was alluring, a metaphor for Republic City in its own right.

Here was the city. Here was the absolute pinnacle. Beyond this point nothing else could grow. You were a kid from nowhere and yet you were welcomed into a world that cheerfully ignored the old war, the ghosts with skull helmets and burning hands. This world of gears and skyscrapers and it wanted you, she wanted you, the best earthbender in the world gave you a spool of metal links and said she trusted you to wield them.

Tai Zan walked around the station house with shining eyes, earthbending his way through walls without realizing he'd missed the door. The other men in his squad, older and used to Chief Beifong, used to the way she hated idle chatter and sometimes fell asleep at her desk, laughed in gentle jest.

It was normal to fall in love with the Chief, they said. Just as long as you knew that she would never love you back.

-i-

There were no spirits. Tai Zan did not believe in spirits as things that could reach between worlds. If they were there at all they were separate and inconsequential. There were no creatures made of fog and too many limbs that could crawl out of your dreams and devour. Republic City was too modern for them. There were no spirits.

If he followed anything, it was the Chief.

It was Chief Beifong who ordered her men down the tunnel below the rich man's house. The Avatar and the Air Nomad leader followed, but it was the Chief's men who led the way. Tai Zan had raided Equalist camps before and he'd been given some training in the brutal sort of hand-to-hand favored by chi-blockers, but he'd never gone up against an army's worth. Tai Zan and his fellow cops were still adapting to this new enemy.

They'd never fought off mechanized creatures before. No one had. Not even the Chief.

The battle in the hidden factory went well for the first heady moments, and then suddenly it was all wrong: Tai Zan felt his metal wires being wrenched by the machine-thing he was fighting against, heard them rip out of the holster strapped to his back. Another cop, Corporal Jee, was trying to wrap his own wires around the machine's legs and slide the earth out from under its feet, at the same time. But it was hard to bend metal and rock at once and the machine clung stubbornly to its footing.

Tai Zan looped his wires tighter against the thing's chest cavity and hoped his holster wouldn't snap off. His grey uniform clung to him with sweat, the cloth helmet slipping low. The wire spool was unraveling off his back at a frightening speed.

In the background was the Avatar, hurling handfuls of fire in petulant fury, and the Nomad propelling himself forward on a flow of air. In the background was Chief Beifong, leaping with her long legs onto the front of Hiroshi Sato's personal machine, digging at the opening with blades strapped to her arm. Corporal Jee was swearing as his grip began to falter, the Avatar was practically stamping her feet, even the Air Nomad looked frustrated, but Chief Beifong only shook the hair from her eyes and dug in further. She ripped at the machine, prying at its quaking parts, with her jaw set tight and her mouth pressed into a thin line.

She was terrifying to watch. The earth groaned and swayed under her feet.

Tai Zan told himself the Equalists could not win. They couldn't defeat her, not now.

He heard Corporal Jee curse again and saw one of his wires snap as the machine lurched forward. It made an unnatural whirring noise from deep inside that Tai Zan couldn't figure out, but before he could readjust his wires the whirring changed to a sharp crackle. He saw the terrible blue come jolting down the very weapons he'd thought were his own and Corporal Jee screamed just once.

The electricity rushed him first along the wires, and the pain followed after. Tai Zan screamed too. Then his jaw locked up and his muscles seized. He couldn't bend himself free, because the pain was too tremendous for concentration. He felt himself slump to the ground, tangled in his own wires as the machine pulled free.

The world was rushing past his vision, leeched of all color. He imagined he heard the Chief shout and thought, Now she will come to save us. It sounded like someone was laughing, but that couldn't be.

Tai Zan fell unconscious but not before he heard someone say the name Amon. Amon the faceless in his demon's mask. The Equalist leader. The man Chief Beifong called insane. Tai Zan's last coherent thought was that Amon could never win here. The city was too modern for him. The city had the Chief.

There were no demons in Republic City.

-i-

He was unconscious for the worst of the indignity, thrown bound and gagged into the back of a truck. By the time Tai Zan came to the truck was already moving, the back kept in almost total darkness by the heavy canvas covering. His arms were so tightly tied they were numb. His head was groggy and his stomach heaved: for all the work the metalbending cops did in airships, Tai Zan had never quite adjusted to the steady sway of mechanized vehicles. His body remembered lurching ostrich-horses.

Slowly, panting for breath behind his gag, he turned his head. The truck was too dark to see if any of the other cops had been captured with him, except for one. Corporal Jee was trussed up beside him, eyes closed. His breathing seemed very shallow.

Tai Zan began to squirm, as the truck rattled him around. The metal floor beckoned against his legs but his head was still filled with fog. To bend metal took the utmost concentration, the utmost force. But that the truck was whole meant the Chief had escaped. An electric shock wouldn't have kept her from breaking free. She had escaped, and soon she would come for her men.

To be rescued by Chief Beifong would be an honor and an embarrassment both. Tai Zan shut his eyes and stretched out against the floor, feeling the fresh ache in his limbs. He imagined the truck bumping along the road and willed the earth to swallow the tires or else to yawn open in a great chasm. The earth did not answer. He thought for a moment that his bending had already been stolen and felt sick to the core.

But he remembered, after that terrible second where he thought he would rather tear out his own throat than be rendered useless, that there were symptoms he did not have. He'd seen the survivors of Equalist attacks. Former benders were always weak and forgetful, always had trouble finishing their sentences, always looked distant and confused. Tai Zan focused past his headache and knew his body remained his own. He could feel the earth, sitting stable in his blood.

Tai Zan tried again to move the ground. It was lack of skill that kept him here. Without his hands free to flow through the stances, he couldn't move what he couldn't reach. His spool of metal wires had been ripped from his back; the truck bed was cool where it touched his skin through the torn uniform jacket.

He thought of the Chief and narrowed his eyes.

Rolling to one side, he rested his head against the floor until the nausea passed and then straightened his back. This time he kept his eyes open, staring into the darkness, imagining the ground he knew was there. With a muffled grunt he tugged

And felt the truck jolt. Not much, not enough to slow it down, but he heard the screech of tires and was relieved.

Then there were footsteps.

Tai Zan looked up, wide eyed, in time to see the cattle prod as it reached for him out of the darkness. It pressed against his chest and held there, endlessly. As before, the pain came only after the sight of the electric shock.

It was unfathomable, this pain on a weakened frame. Tai Zan screamed himself hoarse into his gag. His whole body danced, his teeth chattered, his eyes rolled up into his head. He saw white flashes, heard the roaring of blood in his ears, tasted something metallic and bit his tongue so hard it bled. Still the pain came on. The cattle prod finally lifted but the shock lingered, paralyzing his whole body. His mouth filled with blood and spit but he couldn't swallow. Tai Zan seized again, stiffened out against the floor, and for a second time blacked out.

He drifted awake a minute or an hour later, to the faint smell of roasting flesh.

Corporal Jee was awake now and making muffled protests. Tai Zan, barely conscious, saw through a dreamy haze the bone-white fingers of some terrible spirit caress Jee along his side. The man's muted cries were so horrible Tai Zan moaned to drown them out.

Go away, he thought wildly at the spirit, before remembering that there were no spirits here. Only machines and electricity, lightening forced out of thin air. No spirits. Only Corporal Jee, who was thirty eight and married and an immigrant from one of the old Fire Nation colonies, who loved the beach and the theater. Corporal Jee, who spasmed at Tai Zan's feet for a full minute before falling utterly still. There was a new smell now, the sharp stink of urine.

Someone nearby was making pathetic whimpering noises, little involuntary gasps. But there was no one else in sight and Corporal Jee was clearly unconscious. Tai Zan realized the whimperer was himself.

The truck rattled on. The pain subsided eventually but Tai Zan could not bend. The electricity had befouled his brain and he could think only in brief bursts of sickened clarity. He knew the Equalist with the cattle prod was still sitting in the darkness, waiting.

At some point Tai Zan fell asleep. He dreamed of ghosts in red and green.

-i-

The room was wide and poorly lit. Crates sat in the corners, dust drifted down from high-above exposed beams. Tai Zan, still bound and gagged, huddled against a wall. Corporal Jee was nearby. There were no other metalbender cops there, but there was a metal door at the room's far end and someone on the other side kept wailing in a raspy voice.

The floor was earth, but that meant nothing. There were Equalists with cattle prods everywhere, some not bothering to hide their faces. The punishment for resistance did not need to be said. Tai Zan didn't try.

Corporal Jee looked at him. They stared at each other, as if to confirm the situation. The fact that they were both alive changed things. They were both from Chief Beifong's personal squad, after all, and the police force was trained for hostage situations. For now, staying calm and docile was key. Tai Zan drew his tied knees to his chest. His head was beginning to clear, and Jee was shifting closer. They would wait for as long as it took for the full effects of the cattle prods to wear off, for their guards to grow sleepy or distracted, and then—

The room grew suddenly still. The Equalists were looking either at the door or at each other, and in their eyes Tai Zan read sneering or discomfort. Then it struck him: the wailing had stopped. He glanced back at Corporal Jee, whose face had gone very pale. The man said something through his gag that Tai Zan couldn't make out. His tongue still hurt from earlier; he wasn't sure if it was blood or fear that he tasted now.

The door swung open. If this was a great legend, some tall-tale of Avatar Aang out of the war, it would have squealed on rusted hinges, but it didn't. It made no sound. Tai Zan stared at its metal bulk as if he could crumple it through thoughts alone. Beside him, Corporal Jee shifted and looked away, but Tai Zan couldn't avert his gaze. Some horrible curiosity held him still. Wasn't he a metalbender cop? Wasn't it his job to investigate? Any moment now Chief Beifong would arrive to tear the room apart. He trusted her enough to know this would be true.

Any moment now, and a figure stepped out from the doorway. It wasn't the man who'd been screaming, the man who was presumably another cop, someone else Tai Zan knew. Any moment now but the person who approached them had no scars at all.

Corporal Jee shuddered. Tai Zan could see him shaking, could feel himself shaking, but earth was a strong element and it could withstand a lot: Tai Zan did not look away. He met Amon's gaze, such as it was. The masked Equalist leader looked down at him and Tai Zan pictured a smile. Oh, any second now…!

There were no spirits in Republic City.

Amon looked from one cop to the other. His movements were large for such an enigmatic figure. Perhaps they had to be, to convey his emotions. He spoke with his hands and shoulders when he told the nearest Equalist, "That one is next," and pointed at Jee.

The man began to struggle but he was trussed too tightly. Amon did not do the dirty work of dragging him off to the back room…only watched. His shoulders twitched at every grunt and muffled curse. Once Jee was out of sight he glanced at Tai Zan—again there was the sense of a smile—before strolling back to the room. There was no other word for it. He strolled, casual and unhurried, closing the door behind him as if in idle thought.

Tai Zan kicked at the ground with his heels, felt the ground waiting for him, knew he could do nothing. Another sustained electrocution might kill him outright. Amon had brought him to a place where there was earth below his feet and yet it made no difference.

Amon was taunting him. Again Tai Zan tasted fear, but he wrenched his lips and fought the sour taste away and told himself to stay calm. Inside that room Corporal Jee was losing his bending, and he would be next if he couldn't manage to escape. To be cut off from the earth, from that knowledge of the world, the whole world, all its valleys and peaks, its bumps and whorls known with a touch of finger to rock, to lose that…

Non-benders couldn't possibly understand it. Their bodies were whole, had formed without the need.

He was sweating now in his torn uniform. He wanted so badly to earthbend but fear of those cattle prods stilled what would have been sluggish movement anyway. The Chief, though, would not have hesitated. Was surely not hesitating now. She would surely be here soon.

Only, was that Jee crying out? Because he was usually so taciturn, so hard to ruffle. It could not be him. It sounded more animal than man.

Did it hurt, to lose your bending? Could you feel some sacred part of yourself being ripped away? People survived it, didn't they? The Triad leaders and those pro-bending kids, they were still alive. Half-gone, half-ghost, but alive and why was Jee still screaming, wasn't it over yet, how long could Amon choose to drag it out? The Chief said it happened quickly: one touch and you were no longer what you'd been.

But Jee was still screaming. And the other man, the man before. Where was he? Unconscious? If all Amon wanted was to steal their bending then why was he doing it alone? The Chief said he was drawn to pageantry. Everything he did, he did to draw a crowd.

Tai Zan's thoughts looped in circles, round and round. Earth everywhere but he couldn't bend it, demons with untold powers in metal-modern Republic City, Chief Beifong defeated-!

Maybe there were spirits here after all. Maybe they were made of metal now.

-i-

"Tell me who you are," said Amon. "Without your bending. Without your privilege."

The thing about Amon was that everything he did was for show. There was a demon dressed in white mask and mystery, his smile carved to his face, and that too was in some ways an act. Amon told the world he had no face but underneath the painted façade surely there was a gashed grin, something raw hacked into the flesh.

The thing about Amon was that he felt it his duty to right the world of all its wrongs, wrongs Tai Zan hadn't ever thought to notice on his own. Were the non-benders really so downtrodden? Amon said they were and he said it with gusto, with delight, and he was a specter made for the radio and the stage and the arena blasted wide. He was not someone who could have done much in the era before mass communication. He would have been ignored during the war, or else killed by some offended army leader.

But this was the modern era, the era of steel and progress. In the forgotten crevices of Republic City, in the most squalid of the slums that ringed it and in the most desolate of the outlying fields, the people heard him preach.

"I like to understand my enemies," said Amon. "And if you are a bender, then you are certainly my enemy."

The thing about Amon was that he believed in his cause with all his might, with a passion that must have bordered on pain. Perhaps it kept him up at night, perhaps he felt it in the ruins of the face behind the mask. He told the people he'd lost his world to benders and he told the world they would be next. He was their savior. He was their prophet. He was their method of revenge, as well.

"I said, tell me." Amon nodded, and the guard at his side hit Tai Zan hard across the face. The Equalist leader must have been well-versed in the old stories, because he relied on his own violence only when he thought it poetic. He would strike at the Avatar or Chief Beifong, for instance. For Tai Zan there were Equalist guards.

Tai Zan's head lolled. He could not think straight. It was as if they'd electrocuted him again: he heard the rush of blood in his ears and thought that he would puke.

They had come for him, after Corporal Jee fell silent, and they took him to the back room before he could try to stir the ground awake. It was a tiny space, claustrophobic, smelling of dust and mold. The only furniture was a wooden chair, which they bound him to, before taking off his gag. Tai Zan had licked his lips, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dark, wondering at the weird sense to the room. There were chills running down his spine that had nothing to do with fear.

Amon stood before him, he saw. Stood in his grinning mask and polished boots, his arms held loose at his side, almost welcoming. Stood next to a little heap of…

The thing about Amon was that everything he did was an act.

So now Amon was talking to Tai Zan, who couldn't stomach his horror enough to concentrate. Earth was strong but over time it wore away; metalbender cops were trained but not in carnage better meant for war. He couldn't make himself look at the bodies, at Corporal Jee and whoever the third man was, lying face down, bloody, his limbs on all wrong.

It made sense now, why Amon was doing this thing bit-by-bit, in the shadows. It was a show but not for the captives he already had. He was planning ahead. This was the rehearsal.

Chief Beifong would come, and so would the Avatar, and the Air Nomad, and probably the Avatar's friends. Amon would make sure they found their way here. He would offer them his drama.

"You see?" said Amon, talking more to his masked guards than his captive. "Ask him who he is and all he can think of is earthbender." To Tai Zan he said, "The others were the same. It's disgusting."

"Stop," said Tai Zan.

"Answer the question, earthbender. You are no better than any of us."

Amon sounded so pleased when he said it. His deep voice practically purred. He flicked his hand, and the guard untied Tai Zan's right hand from the chair. Amon took it in both of his, gently. "Who," he asked a third time, "are you?"

Tai Zan was brown hair and square face and lean muscle, built thinner than the typical earthbender but better at swinging from airships on metal vines. He was average height and thick fingers and an enjoyment of bad Water Tribe takeout. He was good at math and he liked watching others play pai sho and his hand was cracking in Amon's gloved hands and he was screaming, screaming…

Amon said, "Your bones break, earthbender. Your lungs need air and your heart needs blood. Magic tricks aren't so impressive when they fail."

He must have thought the violence poetic, because his mask was beaming at the sound of broken bones.

"So we have our answer. I'm glad it was quick. There isn't much time to spend talking to you."

Tai Zan jerked his head, willing the earth to slam into the Equalist, to drag the chair away. Nothing. In response the guard cracked him over the head with his cattle prod, using it as a club. Tai Zan grunted and went limp. Blood dripped down his neck.

"Foolish boy, to come to Republic City. You would have been safer in Ba Sing Se," mused Amon.

"It's a long, long way," Tai Zan gasped out, remembering the old song as his mother used to hum it, patching clothing by lantern-light as night fell.

"Indeed it is," agreed Amon. "A long way. But you would have been safer. No matter. My revolution will reach the other cities soon enough."

"Muh. Murderer. You're going. Ngh. You're going to cause another war."

Amon shook his head. "I'm tired of war. It isn't what your Avatar says, I know. But I'm tired of seeing the world ripped to pieces, again and again. If it could stop. If it could end."

"You're out of your muh. Mind."

"If we could remove the temptation of the strong to harm the weak." Amon motioned, another little flourish. The guard bound Tai Zan's right arm back to the chair, pressing the rope tight against his broken hand. He cried with the pain of it and writhed. The earth did not writhe with him. Amon wasn't even looking.

"I've had enough with the Avatar's balance. Why not let us find our own? I've spoken to the spirits. I know what they want."

"The spirits don't run Republic City," Tai Zan shouted with what strength he had left. The guard was freeing his left arm now. "You c-can't know what they want."

"You're right. The spirits," said Amon, "play games with every word. They deceive. They hide meaning under meaning, they speak in riddles and code. I grew tired of it quickly. I tire of it still."

He reached out and with strong hands broke Tai Zan's left arm almost as an afterthought. It could have been a twig in his grasp. The guard shifted on his feet.

"Y'never met the spirits," mumbled Tai Zan, when he could think again, with what little voice he had after long moments of gasping agony. "Chief says…you were lyin'. 'Bout your face. Said it was an act."

Amon continued on, cheerfully, "I mean what I say. Bending separates us. I will bring the whole world together."

"Not the huh. Whole world. You're k-killing benders!"

"Punish the unrepentant," sang Amon, "and show mercy to the weak. Republic City has seen me show mercy, and now they will see me give judgment to those who won't relent."

"I think—" Tai Zan had to stop to howl as his arm was tied back again, the bone bulging unnaturally against the skin. He moaned and forced his words through: "I think you wish you were the Avatar."

"His legs next," said Amon.

"M'rcy? Forcin' people…people'r scared…"

"Benders are scared. They needn't be. I'll give them all the same chance I'll give you. Live without your bending or die, eventually, with it."

"Th' s-spirits damn you," said Tai Zan. Earth was a strong element, and he was a cop. He would endure. The Chief would come. This was the modern era. Only his parents still left food out for the skull-mask ghosts to find.

But Amon chuckled at the back of his throat, and Tai Zan knew what it meant: his comrades were dead. Soon he would be too.

What else could he do? Be the only one of them all to cower and plead for his life? Not even his life, but a wretched imitation. How would he face the Chief? He couldn't lose his bending, his self, he couldn't…but Corporal Jee had screamed for so long…

Tai Zan groaned. Earthbending made other people take away.

"You benders are so stubborn." Amon twitched his hands against Tai Zan's hunched shoulders. "How terrible for you, to become one of us. You see? How arrogant you are? Lose your bending and it won't be long before you want to join my revolution. Arrogant little earthbender. You insult the rest of us by your mere existence."

Tai Zan didn't answer. Amon said curtly to the guard, "Shock him."

"Wait."

"And when he's done flopping around, start on his legs."

"Wait."

"I'm sad it's come to this. You aren't the Avatar. Your death will mean so little. My hope is that this war ends quickly, before the innocent can suffer."

"Ahh. Already…"

"You aren't an innocent, little earthbender. But I offer you forgiveness." He reached out. Tai Zan watched that hand come closer and closer, felt the rhythm of the earth in his pulse: he was choking on his own terror but the hand kept coming, reaching for his forehead, coming for his life and purpose and he couldn't breathe, he couldn't—

"Wait," he shrieked, high and thin. "Don't…!"

Amon dropped his hand. Tai Zan took a shuddery, sobbing breath.

"Disgusting," said the Equalist, quietly. "And stupid. But I'll respect your choice."

Choices. The modern era of choices and machines. No spirits. But demons, and weren't they the same thing? Bone-draped demons. And the Chief…

With pain came clarity. Tai Zan knew she would not reach him in time.

Chief Beifong was following Amon's rules without realizing it. She was giving him all the control. Walking right into his trap. He'd let them escape once they saw, the Avatar and the others, because that was the point. The Avatar especially was so young and naive and quick-tempered. The government would use this as an excuse for their raids and laws and…

And the prophet would croon over the radio to his flock: see how they punish you. See how they would rather die than be one of you. See how easy it is to topple the masters from their thrones.

The Equalist leader wore no electro-gloves and held no cattle prod, but it didn't matter. He didn't need them.

Tai Zan realized this, one step after the next, because he was sitting here half-dead from pain and surrounded by the stench of death, looking into the framed eyes of something neither man nor beast. He understood. Stealing bending away wasn't enough for Amon. He was growing. He'd decided to judge the whole world.

Tai Zan sat bound in the chair, driven to the brink of madness with the agony in his limbs. He couldn't make the earth around him move but he heard it anyway, heard it calling him. Would it always feel like this, if he begged forgiveness and let Amon take his bending away?

There were no spirits in Republic City: only metal and Amon. But Chief Beifong didn't know that. She was the world's best earthbender, the smartest of them all, so Beyond that Tai Zan loved her without doubt or hope, and she didn't know a thing…

It was normal to fall in love with the Chief. But you couldn't expect her to love you back.

Amon reached for him from underneath the grinning mask, and Tai Zan thought he heard the spirits laugh.