During his long hours of confinement, Tarrlok's rage dwindled to misery, his mind returning again and again to the moment when Amon had blocked his bending. Stolen, he wanted to say, but it wasn't right. Something wasn't right. He could still feel it, feel as if he should be able to bend, feel water calling to him, feel—you're a bloodbender, Korra had gasped, and it felt no less true now than it had been then. He didn't even have that comfort. Amon, whatever his rhetoric, had not truly made him a non-bender: just a broken bloodbender.
Bloodbender. The word seemed to rattle around his skull. He'd loved his element from the first, snow and ice and water. His father had taken that from him, made waterbending a nightmare. But with his father's death, Tarrlok had thought himself finally beyond Yakone's reach. For years he'd lived as a proper waterbender, joined the very council that had condemned his father. To be reduced to what Yakone had made him—bloodbender, bloodbender—
He hated it. He hated bloodbending, he always had. Hated using it even on animals, even on the Avatar. But on the Equalists . . . ah, that was different. He'd felt a trace of his father's exultation, then, thought that perhaps this was how it had felt for Noatak, every time—and then, somehow, Amon had broken through, seized him and taken his bending. How?
Tarrlok still had no idea. He remembered only Amon's icy grip on him, something deep in him writhing, twisting in torment, just as Korra had writhed under his bloodbending. As he had writhed under Noatak's, all those years ago. Yes, more like that. There'd been the same kind of power and precision to it. How odd, that the loss of his bloodbending should feel so exactly like bloodbending itself.
How very, very odd.
Tarrlok's eyes narrowed. Suppose Amon were a bloodbender. That would certainly explain a good deal. That moment when he'd felt the man falter under his grip, then throw it off—another bloodbender could do that, provided he were strong enough. The man's notorious acrobatics—yes, Tarrlok remembered his father teaching them to predict their opponents' movements by the shifts in their bodies, even to slow them down. Noatak had been better at it, of course. He'd been better at everything. Tarrlok hadn't an inkling that he was a highly skilled waterbender in his own right until he'd gone south. A bloodbender as gifted as Amon must be, to overpower him so quickly, might as well be seeing the future.
And the removal of bending—Tarrlok's brows grew together. He definitely had not heard anything about that, and he knew Yakone would have gleefully taught it to him and Noatak, had he known anything of it. Healing, though, affected the chi. Perhaps bloodbending could achieve some kind of reverse effect. It would be painstaking work, though, requiring a strength and delicacy of touch to rival Noatak's.
Tarrlok had never met a bender who could measure up to his brother. Still, Amon's bending had felt just like Noatak's.
Just like Noatak's.
Tarrlok scrambled to his feet, one arm wrapped around himself. No. No—impossible! Noatak was dead. Even had he lived, he wouldn't have become this monster. He couldn't have . . . Amon had taken his bending. Taken his bending even as Tarrlok tried to bloodbend him—
Tried to bloodbend Noatak.
His own childish voice echoed in his ears. I won't do it! I don't want to ever bloodbend again!
Tarrlok lifted his shaking hands to either side of his face. Then he looked around wildly. His cell was a large one, clearly intended for multiple occupants, and the room had been fitted with more. Yet he had seen no other prisoners. He hadn't seen any Equalist drones, either, just their leader. Amon brought him quite decent meals every few hours—Water Tribe fare, even—and occasionally asked questions that Tarrlok, naturally, refused to answer. He'd assumed the separation from other prisoners and quality of food and drink constituted some kind of bribe, but if so, his recalcitrance did not affect it. Tarrlok had been relieved, but otherwise thought little of it.
He screamed with laughter.
Tarrlok was still laughing a few minutes later, when Amon arrived with his dinner. The mask managed to look taken aback.
“Oh, I'm not mad,” Tarrlok said. He stepped forward, searching for any sign of his brother in his enemy. What might even be left to find? Noatak would be forty now, with nothing of the teenage boy in his frame or demeanour.
Amon set the meal on a nearby desk, unpacking it; he'd already assured Tarrlok that he didn't trust him with string. His hands were pale; Noatak's had always been dark. Tarrlok felt a low stirring of hope. Perhaps he wasn't Noatak—perhaps Tarrlok's position alone had won him these small favours. He closed his eyes, listening; he could not touch the water animating the other man's body, but he could still feel it, as he felt everyone. Nobody would be as familiar to him as the brother who had accompanied him through the long years of their childhood.
Tarrlok opened his eyes. He was very tired.
“I know what you are,” he said.
“I doubt that,” said Amon, moving the package two inches to the left before continuing to unwrap it. Always the perfectionist.
Tarrlok scowled, but accepted the strips of jerky that Amon handed him, taking advantage of the opportunity to look straight into his eyes at such close quarters. They were, of course, the same blue as his own. He glanced quickly away, pulse pounding.
If Amon heard it—if, ha—he did not much care. He stood silently to the side of the room, seeming perfectly unconcerned: Tarrlok, though, could feel the slight tension of the muscles, the readiness for action. Better not to provoke him: not until he'd finished eating, anyway.
Tarrlok ate and drank docilely enough that Amon stopped examining a distant wall and returned to watch him, his manner distinctly suspicious. Normally, it would have been enough to ruin Tarrlok's (and, he suspected, anyone's) appetite. He filled his mind with memories of every foolish, unimpressive thing Noatak had ever done, and finished the rest of his meal under his brother's supervision.
Amon, relaxing a little, turned away. Tarrlok called after him:
“Taking control of the city and terrorizing the Avatar? Dad must be so proud.”
Amon froze. His heart raced with Tarrlok's. Then, slowly, he turned back. Even that small movement was threatening; Tarrlok sneered at the blank mask.
“Going to bloodbend me again, brother?”
Amon reached back and untied the mask, revealing a pale face diagonally crossed by livid red scars. Even his features little resembled those Tarrlok remembered—they looked more like Tarrlok's own, now, than Noatak's. Only his eyes were unchanged.
“I would rather not,” he said coolly.
Tarrlok studied the scars. “Were you really beaten by a firebender?”
“I?” Amon—Noatak—Amon looked indignant. “Don't be ridiculous, Tarrlok. It's paint.”
“Of course.” Tarrlok leaned against the back of his cell, folding his arms. He could feel the last twenty years like a chasm between them.
How did you survive? Where did you go? What have you done?
“I assume Yakone is dead?”
“Yes. He passed away a few years after you left. Mom, too. I came south and—” Tarrlok shrugged.
“Avenged your father?” Amon suggested, a distinct note of contempt edging his voice.
Tarrlok jerked upright. His hands curled into fists. “No! What are you talking about? I'm not the one—”
“I've watched you claw your way up.” He actually had the gall to look disapproving. “You seize more and more authority with every crisis that comes your way. You have taken control of Republic City at the expense of non-benders, just as Yakone did.” Amon's mouth twisted still further. “Clearly, he should have had more faith in you.”
“I've been protecting the city from criminals like him,” Tarrlok snarled. He moved towards his brother, then closed his hands around the bars. “Like you.”
“I am nothing like him!” snapped Amon, brows drawing together and lowering over his eyes. He walked right up the cell, hands clenched. He wasn't bloodbending; Tarrlok only scowled further. “I am fighting for the very people he exploited—and you after him, little brother.”
He glared down at him, his expression so very Noatak that his brother had rarely been less afraid of him. Tarrlok glared back through his hair. Amon, for his part, looked as if he would very much like to strangle him, and had absolutely no intention of doing so.
Abruptly, Tarrlok couldn't help but imagine how they would seem, if anybody could see them: the Equalist and the councilman, standing on opposite sides of the cage in exactly the same positions, wearing exactly the same expressions, hurling the same accusations. He dropped his hands and turned away, shrugging.
“I'm sure the great Amon has bigger problems than a crippled waterbender,” he said, and gave him the same smile he'd always reserved for Tenzin. “The city's not going to conquer itself, you know.”
Amon had already regained his composure. He studied Tarrlok as if he were an interesting species of gnatmoth.
“You have been equalized, not injured,” he said. His voice gentled very slightly. “You aren't a bloodbender any more.”
Tarrlok's smile turned bleak. “I'll always be a bloodbender. I—” He shook his head. It's not what it was for Yakone, he thought. You may be the greatest waterbender in the world, Noatak, but you are not the Avatar.
Something almost like regret passed over Amon's face.
“I wish I could trust you,” he said distantly, and lifted the mask to his face. Tarrlok swallowed. He'd take the artificial face over the mask any day, but he'd spent enough of their lives wallowing in weakness. He refused to look away.
“Why are you keeping me here?”
It wasn't like anyone would believe him, even if he did tell.
Amon paused, holding the mask half over his face. “You are my brother, Tarrlok,” he said, as if that explained anything, and then he was gone completely behind the mask. Tarrlok watched him stroll across the room and spring down the trapdoor.
It was only then that he realized he'd never addressed his brother by name.