Chapter 1: Stand and Fight
If it can be taken away…
There was a low, aquatic shimmer to the walls of the small, wave beaten cave, radiating up from the inch thick seawater that glowed and shimmered under his careful bending. It swept up the unmoving, burnt and torn form laid out in front of him - barely breathing. Barely alive. He didn’t even know why he was trying. Healing wasn’t his forte. Wasn’t something he’d trained in or even experimented with. Something so completely out of his realm of expertise that it took all his focus to just improvise what made sense at the time and hope it would work.
It was easier to take something away than to give anything at all.
His own body rebelled the strain he put it through. From the swim, to the incomprehensible bending - at first instinctive, then desperate and now entirely by the seat of his pants. He knew the chi flows and bent to aid them. He knew the veins and how to alter the course of what laid within. He knew the pressure points and what they could do to both. How to bend the body’s natural energy against itself. Not how to bolster the same. It was a slow, painful reversal punctuated by his own shuttered coughs and the occasional need to raise a hand back to himself to settle his aching neck, stressed lungs, burning eyes, and at least one fracture in his left arm that had nearly impaired his entire attempt before it began.
It didn’t feel right, but then how could he possibly judge that when he had, himself, expected oblivion before anything else? Was he so incapable of letting it end? Or simply too terrified to be alone again? He’d accepted it, hadn’t he?
Some resolve that had crumbled in the deafening, freezing darkness that should have stripped them both of life. Beaten back by some long honed instinct to fight. Survival wasn’t even the beginning of it, but it was what drove his actions now. Now that he couldn’t even surrender himself to inaction, neither could he allow his brother the same.
“… Just like old times,” he breathed through a heavy rasp, pausing his bending to let his hand rest against Tarrlok’s bruised and burnt shoulder, squeezing once, lightly, though he didn’t expect a response.
Chapter 2: So Cold and So Sweet
“Everything that’s realistic has some sort of ugliness in it. Even a flower is ugly when it wilts, a bird when it seeks its prey, the ocean when it becomes violent.” - Sharon Tate
It was the first thing between them since they’d washed ashore days earlier. Noatak had been content with the silence of those days. Of being able to keep himself focused on the monumental task of simply getting his brother to the state of being able to speak again. Of stabilizing him to the point of being able to move at all; to move them both to a better location than some random, cold, defenseless cave along the coastline. Tasks easily accomplished when he set his mind to them. Something to keep his mind separate of where it needed to be to answer such questions.
He shifted back towards the low fire he’d crafted towards the middle of the dilapidated, stone room still illuminated by the rays of a setting sun: the sturdiest part of some long abandoned structure just off the coast. The soft crackle of burning embers seemed to emphasize the silence that lingered as he searched for some form of response, let alone an answer he wasn’t sure he even had. Instead, he found himself plucking up a stick of expertly drawn and quartered buck-rabbit roasting over the low flame - another skill he seemed incapable of abandoning - and held it out to the younger man beside him.
“You should eat.”
“I should be dead,” the immediate retort, even as Tarrlok slowly turned to his side in order to better face his brother.
“… You’re not-”
“- so eat.”
“Why?” Tarrlok flatly demanded once more, this time wincing both from the gruffness of his own voice and the slow discovery of all that should have killed him days ago.
“… I can just make you eat it again,” Noatak eventually settled on, extending the food again with a pointed arch of his eyebrow.
In spite of the open threat, Tarrlok could only force a dry sort of exasperation into the huff that escaped him with a wry twist of his lips. Even now, no admittance. Even for him. Even after everything. “‘How’, then,” he insisted instead, still trying to find the power to push himself up when his brother suddenly moved close enough to catch him in the process and, with surprising care and unsurprising strength, guide him up against an animal fur covered mound that helped keep him upright. He grit his teeth against the irritated pangs of what he was quickly discovering to be a rather large burn over the front of his form.
“It wasn’t enough,” his brother simply answered this new question with ease, settling at his side and pushing the stick of meat into his hand, holding it there until Tarrlok grasped it on his own. A faint smirk twitched at the corner of his lips, though his gaze drifted away from the man at his side. “… And though it may not be my speciality, I remain a formidable waterbender. It wasn’t difficult to get us to shore.”
Of course. Silly him for thinking his tenacious, demanding brother could ever submit to death. Especially one given by his hand. Silly him for thinking it would even be so easy for him. “… And me?” An arch of a singed eyebrow accompanied the question, his gaze lingering only a moment longer before he focused on the task of getting whatever kind of meat he’d been handed into his loudly complaining stomach.
“… You’re all I have left in the world.” The soft repetition of words that had lingered in his mind even as he slid the glove in place… unscrewed the gas can… “I wasn’t about to leave you alone.”
A hard grimace he couldn’t blame entirely on the bristling wounds that still littered his body. Tarrlok drew a slow, steadying breath and shifted his gaze back to the brother returned to his side with a weighing expression. “… You could’ve at least found me a healer,” he eventually replied, deciding to stick to immediate concerns for the moment and deal with the rest later, now that he been forced into having one.
The tension still bunching Noatak’s form slowly bled away as he turned his gaze - wondering, bemused - to his brother again, making sure he’d heard what he’d thought he’d heard and in the way he’d thought it was meant. “I did the best I could.”
“You healed me?” There was no keeping the surprise and skepticism from his voice even if he’d wanted to - not that he’d even considered trying, in his current state, with his current company.
The elder gave an awkward shrug. “No one else was going to.”
Another, faint, almost amused look quirked the edges of Tarrlok’s lips into the semblance of a wry smirk. The irony was almost too much to manage just then. “… Allow me to rephrase: you know how-”
“If I knew how, you wouldn’t still be half burned.” The underlying assuredness of the statement easily bordered an arrogance all too intrinsic to someone to whom success came easily.
Tarrlok gave a soft snort and took a small bite of the tough meat, doing his best to manage the aches and pains of a not-so-expertly-healed body he hadn’t expected to even remain in possession of in the first place. “… You could use some practice.”
Chapter 3: No Happy Endings
Post-boat Tarrlok and Noatak in which Tarrlok isn’t a very good patient, Noatak isn’t a very good doctor, and they remember what it’s like to bicker with your sibling.
He couldn’t say he’d had any particular expectations of death, at least, not when his hand hovered over the gas tank, the soft hum of the glove charging around his hand. His sole intention, then, only an end.
“You should move your arm more.”
Tarrlok gave a soft sigh and raised his less damaged, left arm to irritably push the tangled strands of his hair out of his face again - it would return shortly, he knew. It needed to be washed, combed, doubtlessly trimmed… He offered his brother little more than an irritated glare for his trouble and returned to his previous activity of staring out the sole window of the stone room the elder had dragged him to. A sharp, all too familiar tingle lit through the unused limb seconds later, drawing a sudden, hissing gasp from his lips as he whirled his attention back to the man unquestionably at fault for the discomfort.
“Stop.” Spoken through grit teeth: irritation clear and unyielding in his tone.
“It’s not going to improve if you let it-”
“Is it really so difficult to just let things be?” Not what he’d intended to say, but then, nothing was as he intended it to be, so he wasn’t sure why he bothered.
Noatak looked both faintly surprised and repressing his own irritation with the subject, but nevertheless ceased his (careful, targeted, well-intentioned) bending and allowed his brother control over his arm once more, returning instead to his current task: sure hands honing the bone from the previous day’s kill.
Silence. Again. Such a thing didn’t usually bother the ex-councilman. Usually, or at least if he’d done his job right, it meant he’d won. That the other person had run out of rebuttals, of excuses, of anything at all to say, and he was poised to swoop in for the kill. He was good at it. It got things done. It ensured his own peace of mind.
With Noatak it was anything but.
His brother was stubborn. Always had been, though for a moment, days ago, he’d thought some of that stubbornness had finally been worn to acceptance. Had misinterpreted his brother’s silence entirely. This was no victory. He felt trapped. Perhaps rightfully so, he somewhat ruefully thought while carefully bending the fingers of his right hand in a slow, rhythmic fashion to reduce the pain of the action. The avatar’s silhouette stood in his mind’s eye; unyielding even in terror. Unbroken even in defeat. He’d thought he’d won against her, too.
No better than Amon, indeed.
“… You really intend to keep going?” he heard himself ask as he started flexing his wrist as well, trying to keep the joints from stiffening and locking up.
Noatak shift his gaze back towards him again, briefly wary before softening. “We’re here aren’t we?”
“Yes,” the younger slowly allowed, measuring his breath to manage the pain of working his arm out. “But for what purpose?”
Another, weighted pause between them. “We can start over - just like we should have been -”
Tarrlok didn’t bother withholding the short bark of a laugh that cut of his brother’s words. “What makes you think… I didn’t mean it?” the snide demand as he shifted to more firmly hold the other’s gaze. “The world has no need nor places for us anymore… if it ever did at all.”
A short frown tugged Noatak’s features as he regarded his brother. “The world has no need nor place for many of the people in it,” he bluntly countered. “We are no different.”
“Right,” Tarrlok huffed, turning his gaze aside instead of shaking his head. “Forgive me, the bloodbending makes it difficult to remember how equal we are.”
That, at least, drew a narrowing of his brother’s eyes in response. “Would you really prefer death to trying again?”
“Is that what you’ve taken to calling ‘running away’ now?” the flippant reply. “You’ve certainly learned to turn a phrase over the years.”
“Is that a ‘yes’?”
“It’s not a ‘no’.” Another, brief silence during which Tarrlok slowly straightened where he sat before somewhat begrudgingly adding, “Though I admit my opinions might be colored by your inability to heal someone properly.”
Noatak pressed his lips to a flat line, his expression somewhat dry as he struggled between irritation and a soft sort of amusement he hadn’t felt in some time. “I’ll be sure to take that into consideration,” he eventually settled on.
“Consider finding someone who knows what they’re doing,” Tarrlok caustically retorted, though there was no real heat behind the words. “For someone who was trying to rid the world of bending, you don’t seem to have any issues about using it yourself.”
Eyebrows rose challengingly. “If you’d prefer I didn’t try at all…”
“Right now, I’d prefer not feeling my right arm - and I know you don’t need bending to make that happen.”
At least his forced survival wouldn’t be a boring one.
Chapter 4: Interim
“Certainty is the mother of quiet and repose, and uncertainty the cause of variance and contentions.” - Edward Coke
They found a healer three days later.
Or rather, Tarrlok was told it had been as long when he awoke on a stiff bed that was nevertheless not fur on moss and leaves and dirt. There was a bandage over the right of his face that made it itch and sting. He was told that meant it was healing. He was told not to move his body too much. He was told to eat the soup, to drink the bitter tea no matter how it made him gag; of how lucky he was to be alive, of the old herbalist institute nearby that had founded this little clinic for the smaller towns in the area…
He wasn’t told of how he’d gotten there.
Not that it was such a large mystery: simply that he remembered none of it. Obviously something must have happened, but what he could only guess. He was fairly good at that, though, and so wiled away his waking hours contemplating how bad he must have gotten to force Noatak to drag him halfway to Republic City just for the sake of a healer. Given the amount of bandages present, he wasn’t particularly worried over being recognized. Wasn’t particularly worried anyway, but his brother, well, if they weren’t assumed dead by then, there was no telling how far and wide his face had been plastered for the sake of arrest. He wasn’t so sure he was particularly worried about that either.
In fact, he couldn’t find himself sure of much of anything, still.
It wasn’t every day one averted death by no will of their own and he wasn’t even yet certain he was thankful for it. Perhaps the best thing he could hope for was some mild form of acceptance of this new state of being. The pain, at least, no matter how it seemed to numb to white noise over the hours, did wonders to drown out the emptiness yet lingering at the edges of his senses.
He was certain that emptiness would never be comfortable.
Chapter 5: The Overflow
Tarrlok had the time to revisit and rejudge his choices and mistakes. Noatak didn’t. And now even a simple practice form can bring out far more than either of them anticipated.
Love and Hate aren’t mutually exclusive.
No matter how he tried or wished it, the mist wouldn’t move. It felt lifeless even as it clung to him; the fog low and making everything around him hazy. He moved forward - one careful step in front of the other - and reached a hand out to feel for terrain that was ultimately empty before him. The air felt thick and heavy with the weight of the water hanging in it, making each breath a fight to work in and out of his body. A strain that slowly seeped into his limbs as he moved. Had to move. Always forward - or whatever felt like forward.
A dark spot emerged amidst the blurry white haze of everything else surrounding him and he turned; instinctively moving towards that which was different around him. Minutes passed and the shadow grew as he closed in on it. It took shape. Slimming. Shrinking. Details slowly emerged until the shadow did as well and he saw before him a woman obscured by the hood of her thick furs and dark hair. Blue eyes the only thing easy to see in the blurred ambience. She wasn’t more than his shoulder in height, couldn’t have been more than half his age, but when she looked at him, there was a weight in her gaze.
He opened his mouth to say something - he wasn’t sure what, perhaps ask her who she was, where he was - but was stopped by a small smile somehow visible on her face in the blur of his vision. She reached out to him, fingers soft and strong as they curled over his shoulder.
— --- ---
“Are you sure you should be moving that much?”
Tarrlok spared a glance over his shoulder before returning to the slow pace of his form, allowing the gentle movements to draw out the aches of his body: draining them out into the energy around him. “Weren’t you the one telling me to move more often?” he lowly returned without bothering to direct the quiet words.
“Moving one arm is not…” Hesitation wasn’t something normal for Noatak, either with his brother or in his old life. He was decisive, driven, self-assured. Always. He strategized. Calculated. Planned.
“Not a water-bending form?” his brother lowly supplied, turning on one heel as he swept his arms across his body and into a guard towards the far end of the small copse.
Noatak inclined his head in acknowledgement, not merely to the words, but all the reasons he hadn’t said them.
“If I stay in that room much longer, I swear it won’t be me you’ll be worrying after,” Tarrlok flatly related, ending the statement on a short huff.
Amusement quirked a short smirk into Noatak’s expression and he stepped further into the copse, unable not to critically assess the form as his brother finished it. The man’s execution was a little sharp for the sweeping movements, but to his eye it was less a matter of skill and more a matter of style. He supposed Tarrlok always had favored ice to water. “You should try something more useful if you insist on aggravating all of their hard work.”
An eyebrow rose. “Oh? You’ve stopped using me as a test subject, then?” the haughty retort, though the younger man seemed more exasperatedly amused than actually irritated with his admittedly haphazard healing methods.
“Don’t tell me you aren’t relieved.” Noatak turned as he answered, settling almost casually into an easy stance that had so quickly sent pure terror into the very man now lingering at his side once more.
“… I won’t,” was the only answer he was given as his brother settled across from him - a stiff tension lingering in sore muscles even as he tried to ease it out of his body. A memory of pain that would not be so easily given over to calm.
Neither offered a bow to begin. A shift of weight and the slight twist of his forward leg preceded Noatak’s initial press: the movement mightily slower than either would deal in an actual fight - practice or otherwise - and the punch easily drawn by a partially bound hand into the other’s stronger hold. Decades of distance did nothing to loosen them from habit and memory. It seemed almost too easy how their bodies fell into the form of their youth; one advancing as the other deflected, stepped back„ redirected, pressed forward in turn. They adjusted in silence, at first to deafened senses, then again to the reduced motion of burned limbs, then again to well hidden wounds exposed by the stiffness of movement in the grander sweeps as they flowed through the copse. Back and forth. Push and pull. Trancelike.
“You would be good at chi-blocking,” Noatak began again, seemingly out of the blue after long minutes of silence. He caught his brother’s uninjured wrist as he spoke, tugging up and back towards himself to offset his companion’s center of gravity.
“Of course I would,” Tarrlok shortly huffed, allowing himself to be pulled forward so that his words ended just as he entered his brother’s personal space. “That is your idea-” He drew up out of his stance, straightening as he kept their faces close; two sharp gazes tracking the other in unblinking precision. “-of ‘more useful’?”
A moment of silence bloomed as the elder found himself, for once, struggling to read the younger. Pale eyes narrowed and he firmed his hold on the wrist still in hand. It did nothing to alter the sudden loss of his balance to kicked out feet from Tarrlok’s sudden movement, but didn’t matter either way. Instinct, as always, kicked in and his sudden drop was replaced with a less than graceful backward roll that spun him back to his feet in time to catch the punch swung in from the side less than an inch from his head. The same hand twisted to grasp the injured wrist in a sharp hold he used to turn the burned arm up and around, curling his brother’s advancement into a pained spin that dragged out a sharp, wavering, watery gasp and sank him quickly to his knees in mimicry of their previous fight.
Tarrlok tipped his head back, his penetrating blue gaze clear and directed in spite of the stabbing pain shooting through his twisted and bent arm that made his whole body tremble against the strain of it and tears prick at the edges of his eyes. “I hate you,” he said. It was hoarse, and probably quieter than the man had hoped for - weaker - but still out in the cold and bitterness lingering between them. Noatak dropped the arm as if stung, half a step back before he caught up with his actions and then simply fell to silence. A short, empty, breathless laugh escaped his brother as the younger man dragged his damaged limb close once more, bending over around it as if cradling the injury. “… You have no idea… how strongly I wish we’d both left this world in that boat,” the raw, barely heard rasp that followed the start of a short rocking motion.
Noatak raised a hand slowly, hesitantly, towards the curled up form not a foot away, staring at the broken, burnt, damaged man that was supposed to be his hopeful, gentle, weak little brother. No, not weak. Too tender, perhaps, but the jagged edge was something he’d done, wasn’t it? “I-“
“You left.” The scathing declaration was given with only a slight rise in Tarrlok’s head and bent away from as he was, Noatak could only wish to see the expression now etched into it.
“I had to.” Somehow, the words slid out far more easily than anticipated. He wasn’t sure how, but was for the moment merely grateful they did. “You saw what it was doing to me - to us - that’s why I wanted you with me. I wanted-“
“I know what our father did to us, Noatak, not our bending,” Tarrlok coldly interrupted, gaze resting now distantly on a far tree rather than dare look back to his brother so close behind him who felt now so far away. “I saw that man whither to nothing and nearly take our mother with him after you left. I’m actually thankful she died before she could find out the truth about you - about either of us.”
“You shouldn’t have seen either of it,” Noatak quickly cut in before his voice could be filled once more by all that flowed into him from the mere utterance of his name spoken out loud after so long. “Everything that happened to us, that twisted us away from each other, was because of the curse I was finally able to rid you of-“
A short bark of a laugh stilled his tongue.
“Spare me the rhetoric,” Tarrlok breathed, only then moving to turn himself back towards his brother; his healing scar wholly visible then even under the haphazard fall of hair around and over his face. Their gazes met again in another, brief moment of silence, both weighing and searching; both wanting so desperately to see what they needed in the other. “I hate you,” he repeated and found himself gratified to see a grimace catch his older brother’s expression before it could be suppressed. It spurred him to add, “but I cannot bear another lifetime of thinking you dead to me.”
Noatak was careful, then, to remember his brother’s wounds as he knelt to draw the man into a close embrace. “Then hate me,” he lowly conceded, allowing his eyes to fall shut and shifting his hold to tighten it without causing too much more pain.
Chapter 6: The Olive Branch
“Love is not consolation. It is light.” - Friedrich Nietzsche
Tarrlok was a shrewd politician with years of machinations… Noatak knew because he’d watched them take shape. Even still, it was hard to remember now, with his brother so consistently distant. So separate. The reminder sneaks up on him and he’s not so sure he minds.
Noatak looked up in time to have a crisp piece of paper shoved straight into his face. A cursory glance over the careful kerning, the stiffness of the paper and the colored imprint at the bottom was enough to tell him it was some sort of official documentation, but, at the current distance to his face, rather difficult to focus on actually reading the text. “What is it?” he asked while setting aside his current project - some mix of herbs and what not he’d offered to help with in an attempt to work off the medical care - to carefully pluck the paper out of his brother’s hand and bring it to a range at which it could be read.
“A will,” Tarrlok said with all the care he’d given routine sewer maintenance reports.
An eyebrow rose and Noatak turned his attention to skimming the contents of the decidedly short document. “… Your will,” he softly corrected, tone markedly neutral as he stewed in the implications of that.
“You can get it to Republic City, can’t you?” his brother immediately returned, though it seemed much more a statement than a question.
Noatak frowned. “… I can…” The slow, contemplative drawl dipped into a sigh at the end, a hand raising to press over his eyes.
“‘But why should I’?” Tarrlok supplied with a brief inclination of his head as he sat. “I wasn’t the wealthiest man in the city by far, but I waswell off-“
“… Then have it sent to someone who could make real use of it,” Noatak argued on a low exhale as he lifted the hand from his eyes.
“Like the people who run this clinic?” the younger dryly inquired and sat himself down across from his brother, leaning forward slightly to catch his full attention. “If you want to do this, we will need money. I already made some arrangements before-” A low exhale.
Noatak’s lips pressed into a line, unable to debate the clear logic of the matter, but disliking the solution all the same. “‘Already made arrangements’?” he pressed instead.
A small, sardonic smirk tugged at the mending flesh along the right of Tarrlok’s face. “The longer it took to deal with you, the more sense it made to have all of my affairs in order.” He set his elbow to a knee and leaned to the side as he held his hand out for the paper his brother still held. “And when that mess with the Avatar happened, well, it seemed like a better idea to have a backup plan-“
“You made arrangements in case you needed to fake your own death?” Noatak summarized with a noted tone of surprise as he passed the paper back and straightened where he sat. That couldn’t have been right. He’d kept tabs on his brother since the moment he’d had the spare man power for it. He knew every step he took. Every person he met with. Every pressure tactic. Every backdoor deal. Every dull detail… Slowly, an all too amused smirk drew over his features - and perhaps a hint of pride. They were brothers, after all. “No, just in case you needed to disappear. And without going around the law.”
For the first time in a long while, Tarrlok could revel in the success of a plan long since set to motion. He spun the paper around in his hand so he could hold it from the top as it faced his brother, a full smile gracing his lips for once since they’d first reunited. “So long as we’re within the first couple of months, my assets will still be under government lockdown with everything that’s happened. Once a will is found, however…” A light shrug. “Well, legally they’re bound to it. And I doubt they’ve appointed anyone other than Tenzin by now, so the law will be followed. So get it to the city, and let him push it through properly… I’m sure Avatar Korra has given him the story by now… he’ll be eager to see ‘some good’ done with the money,” he wrote off with a faint scoff, pushing the paper back to his brother again. “And we can collect a little at a time when we reach civilization again.”
Noatak could think of plenty of other things that fell into the category “some good” far more than using his brother’s machinations in his old life to fund their transition into this new one, but couldn’t bring any to bear just then. Tarrlok’s sense of accomplishment was infectious. Not that he’d ever had trouble understanding why and how his brother could convince so many people of so many things over his years as a councilman and otherwise. Curses weren’t the only the only thing shared by their blood, it seemed.
He took the document again, crisply folding it into thirds for travel. “I’ll take care of it.”
Chapter 7: Convergence
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” ― Søren Kierkegaard
They have different approaches.
Civilization is a growing city in the Earth Kingdom, just a ways inland off an inlet. Tarrlok sees prosperity and opportunity. Noatak feels the release of tension in so many muscles - the relieved flood of blood near deafening after being so long focused on his brother’s far subtler reactions - and knows not to ask after the other man’s plans as he slips away to deal with his own.
Tarrlok is subdued, but the smile comes easily as he meets, greets, and spins a tale over paperwork. A master wordsmith, there’s no rehearsal, no web to be caught in as he makes up the details, unhurried, calm and open to the questions of the bank manager, the notary, the commerce minister’s aid. His story is true, after all. It’s easy enough to allow them to fill in the details on their own. He’s learned the hard way that it’s easier to let people come to their own conclusions than forge them beforehand. They’re more apt to believe themselves, anyway.
Noatak is quiet, but charismatic. He knows he is and that confidence carries over in all he does. It makes people trust him and open up. It brings him news. They tell him tales of his own making and he smiles, nods, nudges the conversation to abstracts and theoreticals with words that spin worlds out of nothing. You can’t kill an idea, they tell him in echoes of his own words, and they aren’t even sure he’s gone. It’s rumors, you see. And, oh, a conspiracy theory. Experience tells him to bring that to an end before it spins out of control. He plays the skeptic, invites discourse, asks after family. And it’s all honest curiosity; a quiet empathy.
The day is already turning to night by the time they find each other again. Tarrlok knows not to bother looking and is found outside a small cafe, looking and feeling far calmer in new clothes, hair properly tended and tucked back in a low ponytail. Noatak smiles at the sight and takes a seat without a word to either. They don’t talk about their day. Tarrlok knows better than to ask after his brother’s lengthy interrogations. Knows they weren’t even in the same district once through the hours. Knows this new life is too tenuous and his hold on it too delicate to withstand the inevitable argument to follow. Noatak knows to keep his remarks to the pleasant - for now - instead of satiating the curiosity of with whom and how his brother spent his time to have come away so obviously content. Doesn’t want to know, really, because he already understands too much about government - this government. His own experiences do nothing to better the image painted by disillusioned immigrants. And, really, if his brother is content to be at his side, his thoughts can suffer a day in the darkness.
It can’t last for long, but they both know that. They eat and drink things they have not contributed to for the first time in weeks and muse about future plans. How long should they stay? Where should they go? Did you get a place for the night? And lingering underneath it all the festering unspoken. Can we let it go? Are we out of his shadow? Can we be free of everything behind us: do we want to be?
Did you hear the Avatar can give people their bending back?
Chapter 8: Dark Water
“The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” - Albert Einstein
The war of words begins. No one ever said starting over was easy, especially when the person you want to be with gives you nightmares. Tarrlok trying to work out some anxiety. Noatak being a creepy stalker. Clashing ideologies.
The edge of the city was smoothed over to a stone pavement hewn by the careful craft of earthbenders long trained in their art. Lamp posts hummed with the regulated flow of electricity of firebenders: a familiar, soft white noise. Above, the moon shown still partially diminished by the city’s nighttime glow. A moon whose tug he should have felt deep in his bones, especially in the middle of the night; especially in the middle of a waterbending form.
He didn’t miss the irony.
Couldn’t, really; an unfortunate side effect of being forced to critically assess one’s own failures. Panic had long since been replaced by a sort of empty acceptance - not quite apathy, not quite depression. On nights like this: the echoes of terror.
Tarrlok had never felt the need to practice the forms past the unwavering memorization that cemented the moves, the theory, the method deep into muscle memory. Not since the nights in his youth when, unable to sleep from waves of tension and fear and uncertainty, he would slip out of their home and into the moonlit tundra to push the unwanted energy into the snow and ice. More than once he could recall his brother sneaking after him, setting a hand on his arm, tapping his legs lightly and silently correcting the sloppy work of a jittery child. It was one of his fonder recollections even now when he’d slipped out of their current lodgings in a cold sweat because of the man his brother had become.
The pacing helped calm a racing heart, and though the movements tugged at an painful reminder of what he’d lost to the nightmare that woke him in the dead of night, they never the less offered jumpy nerves a way to direct the jumbled energy out of his form and hopefully back to sleep.
Noatak was a pleasant memory. Amon was not.
His movements were slow, methodic, and with a certain graceful flare they’d certainly lacked in his younger years. Confidence eased in through familiarity and smoothed the transition from thought to action. He flowed softly, silently from each stance, each gentle shift of weight, each glide of his hands, wide, through the cold night air, until, finally, he returned to his point of origin, completing the circular path of the form with a measured exhale and a slight bow.
“… I’d ask about ‘old habits’, but I’m fairly certain this one died off years ago.”
All the self control in the world couldn’t keep the jump of his heart from his brother’s senses, and so Tarrlok didn’t feel quite so upset with himself for spinning so sharply towards the direction of the commentary, partially bound hair swinging only slightly with the movement. He stilled immediately after, drawing a short breath as Noatak stepped from the shadows of a lone building and into the stark light of street lamps, casting sharp slants of darkness over his form. To Tarrlok’s gaze, the lighting brought forth a brief, but all too potent image of an emotionless mask covering his brother’s less daunting features and he froze. The gait, the simple confidence of a straight back and hands clasped unconcernedly behind it, even the slight cover of darkness: all of it was exactly the same.
He was aware, on some level, of other words escaping into the frigid air as the memory clamped down on his psyche once more, forcing him into a shaky step backwards, and then he was lost. The night closed in around him like old, wooden walls locking him in, keeping him from escape. Another step back and his breathing quickened, hands twitching at his sides, knowing their uselessness even as entrapped in the vision as he’d become. Weakness. Fear. Shame. All of it coursing through him in torrents so swift and so torturous that it instantly seized muscles in a mimicry of the bending that had so efficiently locked him in place; shoved him down as a hand dropped commandingly to his forehead-
“Tarrlok!” It was the twinge of worry hissed straight into his ear that snapped cold memory to warm present. He blinked, trying to focus a dilated gaze and steady trembling breath into some semblance of normalcy once more. “Are you-?” His brother pulled back and he realized the warmth he’d felt was the man’s arms carefully steadying him against the weakness in his legs that sought to drag him to the pavement.
“I…” A short, steadying breath and Tarrlok set his jaw firmly against the weakness and the unwanted show of it, straightening with a push against his brother’s hold. “I’m fine.” A measured exhale, followed by another, now more careful step back to entirely break them apart with a brief shake of his head.
Noatak frowned. It was an all too knowing expression and Tarrlok, wanting nothing to do with it, turned to step past the older man completely. So much for calming his nerves. “We should get back-” A hand on his arm caused him to stiffen before he could repress the reaction and he twisted in place, attempting to dislodge the grip. “I said I-“
“I’m sorry.” The words were short, and Tarrlok stilled for a moment, uncertain he’d even heard them. Noatak’s hold only tightened. “I only meant… to free you from its taint-“
Something snapped. Tarrlok spun, no longer with the intent to dislodge, but invade instead: lunging forward fast enough to catch his brother by a single hand on the partially opened lapel of his coat. “Taint?” he sneered as he dragged them close enough to share the same breath. “You influenced all of my actions far more than mybending ever has-“
“And you ‘influenced’ them more than I ever did,” Noatak unwaveringly returned; infuriatingly calm as he kept his brother’s gaze.
“You think I don’t know that?!” Even as he said it, the haunting words slipped through his mind once more. The accusation that he was no better than a mere criminal - a terrorist far worse than his father had been - that now ran his blood cold where before there had been nothing but prideful rage. His gaze narrowed. “But I recognize my mistakes for what they were-“
“It doesn’t change that you needed to be stopped.” Short. To the point. No longer Noatak, but that mask again.
“You had no right!”
“I had every right!”
“All you did was incite panic-“
“I gave people hope!” It was Amon that shoved him back, sure and confident when he was again stumbling back from the older man’s prowl. “Panic was nothing but the flailing of those desperate to keep their power over those who’d never been given a chance to begin with! It is your own fault for relying on something you knew changed people-!”
“Everything changes people, Noatak!” The scathing retort drew Tarrlok up again and he regained the frame of mind to lower his voice to heated undertones as he pressed forward once more. “Father’s teaching ‘tainted’ me. You leaving ‘tainted’ me. Power ‘tainted’ me. Life ‘tainted’ me. My bending was no less and no more an influence on who I became than anything else, but it was as integral to me as any other sense and tearing it from me is no different than ripping sight or sound from anyone else.” A short, sharp inhale as he leaned in closer. “And you cannot begin to understand how that emptiness can gnaw at you because you’re too afraid to lose the power that separates you from everyone else.”
That careful, controlled fury that he’d seen narrow the eyes behind the mask, now out in the open, seemed to give off so much more emotion than he remembered. Indignation, frustration and something else he couldn’t place. “I would expect you, of all people, to understand that our methods can’t always match our goals. I can’t remove bending from the equation without bending. They had no leader and no hope, but what they needed was an idea… and power. Dirtying my hands for the sake of the movement - giving them something to cleave to - I would gladly do it all over again just to give them a fighting chance.”
“And what happens when you succeed?” Tarrlok immediately pressed, giving no room and no pause. His heart hammered away as if more than mere words passed between them: sheer adrenaline the only thing keeping the cloistering shadows from dragging him into the past for the third time that night. “What were you going to do once you’d gotten rid of every bender in the city? Martial Law? War? Did you honestly expect to win against the nations you were alienating? Did you plan on kidnapping every last bender you could find? What about their children? What about the next generations? What then? At what point do you give up your own power, Noatak?”
The uncomfortable rustling of stiff cloth was, for a moment, the only sound to accompany Tarrlok’s heavy breath in the wintry air. Noatak’s expression changed only slightly; a mild softening of his features as he simply held his brother’s gaze, allowing his silence to speak for him.
“… Never?” The knowing smirk that curled Tarrlok’s lips held a hint of self-depreciation wholly absent from the expression only months earlier.
“I shouldn’t have had to,” Noatak said instead: Amon vanishing shade by shade from his tone and presentation. “I admit… the Avatar surprised me. It was far earlier than I expected-“
Tarrlok stepped back. Just enough. Just for the air to clear his head. “… You expected it to be taken.” It was almost comical if it didn’t make him want to cry in pure frustration. His brother… was far more terrifying than he thought and for all the wrong reasons.
A faintly uncomfortable shrug of his shoulders was the elder’s initial response. “In the end… no matter how much power… no matter how many accomplishments… no matter how things change, I’m still only a man. One man, and a single man can’t be everywhere or last forever. But an ideal can. If the world had thought that much power could come without bending, even eventually being torn down wouldn’t matter.”
They stood in momentary silence, each watching the other with a careful, weighing gaze until Tarrlok broke the stillness with a vague shake of his head. “In the end, we were both more monster than man.” A faint twitch of his lips echoed a previously self-assured smile that used to so easily grace his expression as he held his still healing right hand out to his brother.
Noatak eyed him only a moment longer before extending his hand in return, clasping forearms in a way he’d never had the chance to share with his brother; as a warrior and equal. “This time - Together we can keep the monsters at bay.”
Chapter 9: Water Under The Bridge
“All emotions are pure which gather you and lift you up; that emotion is impure which seizes only one side of your being and so distorts you.” - Rainer Maria Rilke
A moment between the brothers to attend to wounds both physical and not. Noatak has no machinations - Tarrlok has never given up the practice and has no qualms using his skills to ease the sharp edges still between them.
… Noatak still isn’t very good at healing.
Noatak’s back was a shock of black and blue edging patched up gashes and burns and Tarrlok allowed himself a moment of irritation over not having noticed the extent of the damage previously. That it was still like this after so long made it clear enough that his brother hadn’t been addressing the wounds nearly as much as his own. It made sense, of course, and even if finally being able to see the extent of the damage he’d inflicted brought about a pause and a low, under-breath sigh, Tarrlok could not fault the man for focusing on him instead. Some part of him was even sickeningly proud that he’d at least managed so much destruction, even if it wasn’t fatal or as consistently visible as his own. It did creep up around broad shoulders and down beyond the waistline of his pants, seeming to cut off in jagged swaths before it ended up anywhere usually seen amongst his brother’s unforgotten habit of wrapping himself head to foot in fabric.
Tarrlok’s fingers lingered where his gaze did not; carefully feeling out the edges of burns and gashes with no remorse for the violence of his own actions they represented. Indeed, the frown that slowly formed was far more thoughtful than anything else, and far more a result of his muffled ability to really feel out the depth and breadth of the wounds any farther than the skin. For a moment, it was almost as if a soft note drifted out to his blunted senses: a quiet signal of distress from a chi flow he should have easily felt thrumming beneath his fingertips. But it was silent. Frustratingly mute along with the recalcitrant blood rushing unheard and unfelt under the gentle pressure of questing fingers.
He shook his head and sat back, taking in all he could see once more as he sorted through the best course of action. “… You really aren’t any good at healing, are you?”
A faint snort, though Noatak didn’t look up from the newspaper he’d laid out in his lap, followed by, “It’s not as easy as it looks, you know. Especially not on yourself.”
Tarrlok rolled his eyes to the ceiling - knowing his brother probably sensed it at the very least - plucked a pair of scissors from the semi circle of medical supplies arranged on the floor around them, and began to carefully remove the bandages in some places now stuck to his brother’s form. “Even an apprentice knows not to cross your primary dorsal flow.”
Noatak paused for the barest of moments in the turning of a page before finishing the motion with a faintly amused smirk. “Is that so?”
His commentary was mostly ignored as his brother finished removing the last bandages and set them aside. “If you’d let someone take a look at this before…” Tarrlok sighed, trailing off at the end as he critically cast a gaze over the newly revealed gashes along the upper back that had been among the most heavily bandaged. More difficult on yourself indeed. Noatak had seemed stiff the few times they’d shared footwork over the past few days, sure, but this was a bit worse. It seemed ‘stiff’ was his brother’s acquiesce to something that, by all appearances should have at least induced grimaces and restricted movement. “Have you done anything for this area?” he absently murmured as he trailed the increasingly stiff fingers of his right hand up the trail of his brother’s spine, not really expecting the sudden jerk from his touch that followed.
“No,” Noatak curtly ground out, hands crumpling the edges of the newspaper in his gasp before a slow breath could even out the tension of his form.
”- gave me something for the pain,” the elder brushed off with a pointed roll of his shoulders in defiance of the still tender wounds the movement irritated. “You were worse off.”
“That was the idea,” Tarrlok merely sighed, pulling away again to gather a small bowl of herbs soaked in water and dipped a small wash cloth into it. “You should have someone take a look at it,” he lowly chided as he wrung out the cloth and then, with surprising care, gently dabbed at the torn, burned and ravaged skin before him.
“And undo all of your hard work?”
Silence fell over them once more, though neither was particularly upset with its presence. Noatak returned to scanning the smoothed out periodical and Tarrlok to making sure his brother’s wounds were, for once, properly seen to. It was a little strange, still, to think of his prodigal sibling as incapable at anything - especially bending - but the evidence was littered all over the battered form. If anything, the swipes of partial healing seemed to indicate a difficulty with reach and, probably, visualization. He understood, in a way, the difficulty of sensing something that was so much a part of you that separating it out was simply impossible without some sort of aid.
“How many ribs?”
Noatak’s lips twitched to knowing amusement once more. “Three. The base of my skull as well.” He could practically feel the smug pride radiating from the man behind him, but couldn’t find it in himself to be worried or even irritated by it. That his little brother had managed so much without the aid of his bending was something he, too, prided himself on.
Quite the pair they made.
“Is that all?” Spoken with a hint of disappointment.
“And my arm,” Noatak clarified. “I had to fix that before I could attempt anything with you, though, so you never saw it.”
A skeptically raised eyebrow followed this explanation and Tarrlok extended a hand forward, pressing his fingers firmly into the honed musculature of the older man’s left arm, digging down and persistently into each bend, dip and flex until he reached a patch of skin just beyond the joint of the elbow. More stiffness than there should have been. A bump like a patch in reinforced ice when he pushed beyond the muscle. “Here.” His brother remained still, glancing over to the hand on his arm and simply inclined his head in response to what wasn’t really a question to begin with. Another press followed, feeling out the mended bone and muscle and flesh with nothing more than touch; frustrating as it was, he was determined to work beyond the stolen sense. “It’s not smooth… but it’s strong.”
A light nod as Noatak’s arm was released and he brought it around in front to work out the tension that lingered from his brother’s probing. “It was easier-“
“Because you could see it?” Tarrlok interrupted with a thoughtful frown and settled back to set his gaze on the more intense injuries again.
“In part,” Noatak acknowledged with a flex of his arm, shaking it out lightly and then returning to his previous activity without thought to the nature of their conversation and Tarrlok’s pressing curiosities. He had, by then, accepted that such would be slow to leave. He’d seen it before with others’ whose bending he’d taken. The understanding and, in part, the want to learn didn’t fade with ability. Not for those who were truly skilled. Not in those in whom it really was an extra sense and not merely a tool. And though part of him still quailed at the thought of the sheer amount of damage between them, he remained far more relieved than anything else.
“Then, between the two of us, we should be able to mitigate some of this,” Tarrlok lowly suggested, turning away enough to pick up the small container of numbing agent he’d talked out of a nurse with an overplayed wince and a bit of coin the previous day.
This, finally, drew his brother’s full attention. Noatak closed his paper and twisted back towards his brother with a quirked eyebrow and a repressed wince. “… You have something in mind.”
Tarlokk inclined his head in response, already dipping his fingers into the numbing solution - his right hand, so he could at least benefit in a few minutes when it would become impossible to feel the appendage any longer. “I can see what you can’t, so just focus through me and we should at least be able to restore a mending flow down your back.”
The other eyebrow rose.
“Don’t give me that look,” the younger scoffed with a pointed stare. “You were the one concerned about visiting a city doctor.” His expression slowly shifted to a smirk and he made a short, twirling motion with his other hand. “Now if you’ll just turn around, I believe the sink is close enough for you…?”
Noatak couldn’t decide if he was more irritated or… somewhat amused by his brother’s tenacity. Proud, even. Emotions were slippery things - all the more so recently. Thus, his lips pressed into a line once more instead of settling on any one particular expression and he turned around again with a wave of his hand to draw a stream of water from the sink next door. The motion was an instant reminder, no matter how subtle, to any practiced waterbender of exactly how skilled of a a bender he remained in spite of his allegiances.
Tarrlok chose to focus on the task at hand, raising his own to once again feel out the chi flow he knew drew along the length of the spine, no matter how invisible it remained to him now. The partially mended gashes and burns were unyielding to his prodding touch, but the tension in his brother’s muscles as he pressed into them was obvious enough to bring him pause and work some of the numbing agent in more thoroughly before continuing. As the muscles relaxed, he returned to the spinal trail, pushing his fingers more confidently against the wounds so as to feel out the precise path required -
“Space your fingers out more,” Noatak suddenly directed, eyes closed as he both kept himself still and split his mind between the low thrum of blood in the body behind him and the water undulating formlessly above his hand. Another moment passed in silence so he could feel out the slow adjustments his brother made; setting a thumb down on a spot precisely between and at the base of his shoulder blades. Fore and middle fingers followed, pushing into the same gash that had caused his earlier lurch, now just barely kept at bay from the solution rubbed into it by the prodding fingers. “… There.” The fingers stopped and held their positions as he wrapped the water around behind him, allowing the flow of blood in his brother’s upheld hand to direct the soft glow of water into place over the points and for a split second, his own blocked chi was as clear in his mind as any other’s.
And then it was gone; obliterated by the free flow of energy from the healing water into his body.
A soft gasp drew Tarrlok’s hand from it’s careful positioning and quickly around his brother’s shoulder instead, catching him as he sagged, the water splattering on the floor between them. “Too much?” it was almost a taunt.
Immediately, Noatak shook his head and made to straighten out of his brother’s hold. “Unexpected,” he clarified.
“Didn’t think it would work?” Tarrlok surmised. “I can’t decide if you’ve no faith in me, or so little faith in your own abilities,” he dryly continued.
“I didn’t realize I was that blocked,” Noatak said and finally pushed his brother’s hand aside, straightening where he sat. “Those three points… can be used to debilitate someone - largely mentally,” the low explanation that followed. “It can take a great deal of force, though, and usually makes it difficult to think straight or at least difficult to focus -“
“Impossible to sense on your own,” the younger summarized with a thoughtful nod of his head as he reached for a towel for the solution left on his hand.
“Difficult to sense on yourself anyway,” his brother elucidated, however sparingly. A brief sweep of his hand dragged the spilled water off the floor and back into the sink once more. “… Not unlike the breaking of a dam.”
The small gesture drew Tarrlok’s attention more so than the words. Interesting as it might be to learn the intricacies of chi blocking and how it could be applied medically, watching the other man thoughtlessly bend something - anything - was more of an accomplishment than whatever patchwork healing they’d just managed. “Getting the rest of this bandaged correctly might actually do some good, then,” he quietly noted instead of bringing attention to it.
Chapter 10: Old Habits, New Hobbies
“Nothing can withstand the power of the human will if it is willing to stake its very existence to the extent of its purpose.” - Benjamin Disraeli
Tarrlok seems to be taking most of the damage these days - trend that continues when leaving far better off than when they arrived catches the eye of a few… high risk traders. But while Tarrlok worries over his brother leaving rumors in their wake, it may be his own paper trail that poses the greater threat.
The shout was barely enough to draw Noatak’s attention away from the man bent back on the ground before him. The bender in his hold trembled; fear and desperation making him yank against the painful hold twisting his arm out behind him. Noatak only tightened his grip, snapping his other hand out to the back of the man’s neck and clamping down on the nerves there to still his prey. His gaze, however, lingered on his brother. Everything and the only thing left to him in this world… holding a hand to a still bleeding wound somewhere around his left ribs. The reminder of the damage this man and his already dispatched companions had inflicted ran his blood cold and he returned his attention to his task: his hand moving as if by it’s own will to set a thumb on a pale, sweaty forehead.
A low, irritated growl was Noatak’s only warning before Tarrlok swept his arm completely out of the way in the midst of stumbling into his personal space, nearly dislodging his hold entirely. “Are you completelyinsane?” the younger man hissed through clenched teeth.
Noatak shifted his hold on their captive to bend the man’s hand back towards his shoulder in an attempt to better orient himself for lending his brother help standing. “I’m fixing the problem.”
“Oh yes. Backing a bitter and desperate man into a corner is anexcellent course of action,” Tarrlok groused, swatting away the offered arm and straightening with a turn towards their gasping, half whimpering assailant still attempting to squirm his way out of discomfort and away from them.
“‘Bitter and desperate’?” Noatak stiffly questioned and stepped slightly to the side to more easily leverage his hold. “They’ve done thisbefore.” He swept his arm out to include the other three would-be muggers beaten and unconscious along forest edged road. “They’ll do itagain-“
“With or without-” Tarrlok cut himself off with a glance to the man’s terrified, hazel gaze now jerking between the two of them with something akin to hope from the sounds of their disagreement; panting, gritting his teeth, choking on his own fear, but still not saying anything. Noatak’s doing more than likely. He was angry enough and there was enough tension in the man’s neck - One swift movement boxed the man’s ears, followed by a swift chop to his neck that, no matter how he tried to repress it, caused Tarrlok to cringe from the way it pulled on his newest wound.
Noatak dropped the now unconscious man without a thought and swept up the nearest bit of water he could find - a now shriveled tree branch - to spin into place over the hole in his brother’s side, absently directing the blood attempting to seep out to hold at the edges of broken flesh instead. “They hurt you.”
Tarrlok put a hand briefly to his eyes to give himself a moment to settle the woozy sort of light headed pain that yet assailed him even with his brother’s attention finally to the wound instead of laying waste to those who caused it. He supposed the latter should have been endearing in some fashion. Really, it was just tiring - frustrating, even - to be forced to watch his brother so effortlessly dispatch the group (their metal bending leader and his three lackeys taken care of too quickly to tell if they were also benders) with the same calm, ruthless precision with which he’d led an army of activists against his own, careful planning.
“I’ve survived worse,” he flatly answered. Noatak’s lips drew into a line again - that same expression he had so often these days that Tarrlok had come to translate as the man knowing better than to say what he was thinking. He moved his arm up with a repressed wince for his brother to more easily get at his newest injury, irritably setting his mind to the price of new clothes when they reached the next city and whether or not it was worth it to try convincing his brother into bending the bloodstains out of the set he currently wore. “Are you trying to get her attention?” he said instead.
That seemed to grab Noatak’s attention again and he glanced up from his work, caught somewhere between concentration, contemplation and a tendril of worry. “‘Get her attention’?”
“The Avatar’s,” Tarrlok clarified on a frown, but Noatak was back to work again; his silence enough acknowledgement. “We already stayed in that last city too long as it is, with everything it took to get-“
“I know-” Calm. Cool. Collected amidst the small battlefield around them.
“Then why would even think-“
“He hurt you.”
Tarrlok exhaled slowly through his nose, tight lipped as he fought not to lash out at the childish response. Since when did something like thatdrive his brother to stupidity? Whether they agreed on the tactic or not, taking away someone’s bending would have been a beacon for trouble they did not need. Korra was one thing. A fully realized Avatar that had plenty of reason to track them down if so much as a scrap of evidence surfaced to suggest anything other than their deaths? His head hurt just thinking about it. “… Good enough for now,” he announced suddenly, stepping away abruptly to bend down and riff through the metalbender’s clothing for anything useful.
“What are you-?”
“He destroyed a brand new suit and injured me again,” Tarrlok snorted. “He can fund the replacement and medical supplies.”
“… Wasn’t his whole motivation money in the first place?” Noatak skeptically returned, looking out over the small group with a frown as he mentally adjusted to make sure they stayed oblivious to their surroundings a bit longer.
“I’m surprised you want to admit it’s anything other than an abuse of power,” his brother’s dry snark as he moved to the next man.
The flat expression returned, drawing the elder’s lips to a line once more. “… The method was.” A short, unimpressed snort was his reply. “And we already have enough to cover the damage.”
“Yes, but at our next stop, I’m buying a Satomobile, so we can avoid this entirely - what?” Tarrlok paused, instinctively moving a hand to put pressure on the half healed wound as he glowered at his brother’s expression. “What could you possibly have against-“
“Not looking like you have money would make us much less of a target to begin with,” Noatak drawled with an arch of his eyebrow.
“I refuse to look like some… vagrant,” Tarrlok sniffed, tucking the found items into coat pockets and moving to the next would be mugger. He paused part way through when the weight of his brother’s gaze became too bothersome to ignore and begrudgingly added, “… though it looks like we might have enough here to donate some as well…” His brother, the ex-councilman was quickly learning, was quite possibly theworst special interest group he’d ever had to deal with.
“I, uh, that is, er, Miss… Avatar? Um, Ma’am?”
Korra paused mid conversation to blink back over her shoulder at the young office aid curled partially behind the doorway, entirely unaware of the distrustful glare sent over her shoulder by the firebender at her side and thus rather uncertain as to why he seemed to be trembling in fear. She smiled broadly in an attempt to diffuse some of the tension. “‘Korra’s fine, you know! Or, uh, ‘Avatar Korra’ if you want!” she announced as she stepped over, stopping only feet from the exit, a hand on her hip from habit and one tapping the side of her face in thought. “Ah… Phen Phen?”
“… Vă-Văn Thuàn, Mi- Avatar Korra,” the young whip of a man hastily corrected, trying not to flinch at the increase in glare from her companion (had he interrupted something?) and cleared his throat quickly. “I, uh, just… you wanted to look over these, the ah, that is… the paperwork?”
Another slow blink followed as she attempted to parse through the man’s vague stammering before she realized the topic had to be the one she’d tried not to seem too overly invested in, lest she rile worries and tempers she had no want nor time to deal with just then, and quickly attempted to gloss over the slow pick up. “Oh! Uh, paperwork! Right! I should… ah… look at that… then.” The papers were quickly snatched out of Thuàn’s hands. “Thanks Van Damme-!”
“… Văn Thuàn-“
“We’re still on for tonight, right Mako?” Korra called out as she stepped backwards into the hall in order to flash the man a bright smile.
His gaze flitted from Thuàn - who shrank back and muttered something before deciding it was best to flee entirely - to Korra, rather openly vexed by the decidedly strange encounter. “I - yes, of course we are…? What are you-“
“Okay, great! I’ll see you then, I - ah, just some Avatar business, you know!” she explained with a wave and then vanished in a whip of wind, leaving Mako to ponder over the oddities of dating the Avatar. Or perhaps it was just Korra.
Official documentation wasn’t one of Korra’s favorite pastimes and, luckily, was not something she had to frequently engage in. Unfortunately, that left her completely bereft of the ability to make sense of the more complicated filings she did have the chance to see and, in a sense, made some things stand out more to her than those who witnessed the monotony of the city’s bureaucratic inner workings day in and day out. So while the Will of one of the city’s most well known councilman remained esoteric enough to require a helping hand to understand, the names of companies, people and various charities seemed a little, well… odd, to say the least.
Thus, Korra found herself at the Sato mansion for the fourth time that week, newest information in hand, and a somewhat sheepishly uncertain nervousness curling in her stomach.
Chapter 11: We Could Use Some Hope
The beginning of the "Kill Your Heroes" story arc of Tarrlok and Noatak's journey after Republic City.
The brothers find themselves in an Earth Kingdom city struggling to get by and the only healer in town - an untrained, uncertain waterbender - shows a surprising talent for dealing with Tarrlok's injuries. Their past isn't ready to let go, however, and some sleuthing back in Republic City raises too many questions about their convenient departure to be left alone.
"Kill Your Heroes" turns from the drabble-esque format of previous chapters towards a more continuous narrative. Korra, driven by uncertainty and a strange, haunting presence, chases down our wandering twosome as they struggle through rediscovery of themselves, coping with their pasts and finding a future in a world increasingly difficult to share.
He found her wandering around the edge of civilization; a small, young woman of water tribe decent frowning in concentration as she circled the dry ground with a pair of metal sticks held loosely in hand. Her pace was slow and careful: the dark dust slowly building up worn, brown shoes and clinging to the hem of a long, dark blue skirt placing her there for quite some time before they’d crossed paths. Well, he supposed they hadn’t quite crossed just yet. Rather, he’d curiously observed her progress in meandering criss-crosses farther and farther out past the old city walls in the distance. She appeared to be paying attention to the metal sticks themselves; pausing whenever they crossed, swerved in tandem, or swung out in opposite directions to mark the spot with one of three different colored flags. It was a mesmerizing task that she too seemed lost in, having passed him twice without a sign of acknowledgement.
Noatak stepped out behind her after the third pass brought her to a pause a few feet away. “Does blue mean something black and white don’t?”
“Oh, it’s just a higher possibility of-” The automatic answer turned quickly to a startled yelp when the woman connected the question to the sudden presence of another person nearby and spun around with a hop and stumble backwards that ultimately landed her on the ground, staring up at the man who’d interrupted her concentration through a worn pair of black, thick rimmed glasses. “I-I- who are- are you?”
An amused smirk tugged his lips before he could consciously stop it - a side affect of not having had to for so long, he supposed. “Isitoq,” he smoothly offered, pointedly gentling his smirk to a more charming smile and bending forward slightly to offer his hand.
She stared; wide, hazel eyes darting from the extended hand to his face and back again before enough courage was gathered to lift her own in return. It was quickly, embarrassedly returned when she realized she still held the metal stick in it and hastily passed the item to her other hand with a nervous laugh before finally taking the offered one to pull herself up. “Hana,” came the awkward introduction as she stepped back a pace to brush the dirt off her skirt.
“Then I apologize for startling you, Hana,” Noatak immediately offered, allowing her a moment to collect herself by way of surveying the area around them once more. “When I asked after a healer, I was directed out this way… Is there something I can help you with, however? You look fairly… preoccupied.”
“Not unless you happen to be a highly skilled waterbender,” she somewhat dryly answered, swiping the back of her sleeve against her forehead. “I take it you’re not the one in need of a healer?”
Noatak shook his head - a movement that still felt a bit strange for the infrequency he’d given it when a mask had held all expression for him. “Not unless you’re particularly talented in older wounds,” the smooth tease that followed. “My brother and I were assaulted on the way here and he seems to have a broken rib… he’s not very willing to let me deal with it, however.”
Hana chuckled softly into her hand. “Well, fortunately, I’m a good bit better at wounds than guessing where water is under all this earth,” she revealed with a broad sweep of her arm towards the area around her.
Ah, so that was it. Noatak’s eyebrows rose slightly as he looked out over the area again, turning to follow as she made to pass him for the city in the distance. “That seems an… odd job for a medic.”
“I’m the only waterbender in the area.” She gave a faintly uncomfortable shrug and glanced over her shoulder to make sure he was following.
“… And no one else for the job? Looks like an awful lot of work for one person,” Noatak mildly observed, unable to keep from checking for himself: listening to the endless hum in the back of his head and at the edges of his senses and comparing it to where the flags were laid. Well she didn’t seem terribly far off, though it was rather faint. Beyond what most benders could probably sense, at any rate.
“Just some government benders that come through in the summer,” Hana nevertheless explained, stopping by a dry bush to drag out a dusty, well worn bicycle and toss her supplies into it’s basket. “The winter’s been dry enough and with the spring we’ve had so far? We’re going to need a well in place before then - ah, did you walk out this far?”
“Is that a problem?”
“Ah, no, it’s fine!” she hastened to assure with a broad smile, turning her bike towards the city. “We can walk. It just takes longer, of course… ah, I’ll have to get someone out here to start digging some of this up and see how off I was… not ‘til tomorrow, I guess, if the heat picks up again on our way back…”
“Oh wow, I can’t believe that worked!” Mari bounced up excitedly, short cropped curls half a second behind as she spun from her flattened sparring partner to their instructor. “Will it really work like that against benders, too?”
“Better,” Amon murmured as he stepped over to offer a hand up to the man Mari had thrown to the floor. “A bender that can’t bend is panic stricken. They don’t know what to do with themselves. If you can land even just a few good hits on their limbs… it gets easier with each strike. Keep up that speed and they won’t be able to touch you.”
Noatak shook his head free of the memory with a drag of his hand back through his hair. “Why don’t I stay out here, then?” he suggested.
“Eh? Out here? But I- there’s really no need for that, honestly. I can take care of it tomorrow-”
“Please. I would like to help,” Noatak interrupted the nervous ramble with another smile, hoping it eased things a bit. “Besides, you’ll probably be busy with my brother for a while and you can send someone back once you reach the city.”
“… If you’re sure,” Hana frowned up at him, still rather perplexed, but unable, really, to completely write off an honest offer of help. She reached over to grab the sticks out of her basket again and passed them on to her companion. “Take these; they’re dowsing sticks. ‘sposed to work even if you’re not a waterbender, but, ah, it seems to help a lot if you are, so good luck!”
“So… someone’s… stealing from him?” Korra confusedly proposed, and fell back on to the pristine leather couch with a pout. “Er… is it still stealing, if… you know…?” She gestured loosely with her hand between them.
Asami’s expression softened as she watched her friend shift in uncertainty. She’d been flattered, really, when Korra came to her with mounds of paperwork (soon to be followed by mounds more, now in piles on the coffee table between them), lost and curious and perhaps more hopeful than she realized. No, definitely more hopeful. “Well, legally, I suppose it would be stealing from his estate, although…” she paused, settling back in her own chair to give the young avatar another, contemplative look.
“Although?” the quick prompt to follow.
She didn’t want to say it. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. She didn’t want to say it and be wrong. She didn’t want to get Korra’s hopes up over nothing. It was understandable, from all she’d been told: this want to hold on to even a scrap of evidence that the councilman had somehow changed, that he wasn’t just… gone. There was a want in the other woman’s anxious expression. A silly, childish, idealistic hope. Maybe it wasn’t all ruined. Maybe there was still a chance…
“Although… it’s- Korra.” Asami leaned forward, hands clasped as her elbows rested on her knees, gaze steadily holding the avatar’s for a moment of silence she used to sort out exactly how she wanted to word everything before she said it. “You have a good intuition on these things. A lot of… this - his holdings, the companies and people involved, even the charities some of this went to - it’s all a little suspect once you scratch the surface. It’s a loop, most of it. A constantly moving flow of money - and there’s a lot of it. Honestly, I wasn’t nearly aware of how well off he was, and it’s not surprising that dealing with his estate after all of this would be so confusing. It seems to have been planned that way, to some degree. The newer items he was clearly rushed through and there was a… significant withdrawal recently-”
Righteous furor snapped far too easily over Korra’s expression. “So someone is stealing from him!” Asami sighed, putting a hand to her forehead as the other woman leapt out of her seat, punching her left hand with far too much energy. “I knew something was up! I-”
“You can’t steal from yourself,” Asami flatly interrupted, straightening where she sat to catch Korra’s gaze again on her way to a standing position. “In all likelihood,” she calmly continued once she had the avatar’s undivided - if somewhat confused - attention once more, “all of this -” She gestured to the stacks of paper on the table between them. “- is just a cover. Something to keep people busy while ‘Tikaani' collects the money.”
Unexpectedly, Korra’s expression fell suddenly and drastically serious. She crossed her arms with a pointed frown and glanced to the side. “… So you think so, too?”
Asami blinked: attempting to catch up with the abrupt change in demeanor. “… ‘too’?” she softly echoed, stepping closer to lay a gentle hand on her friend’s arm. “… Korra-”
“You think he’s alive,” the Avatar clarified, shifting slightly to loosen her arms and catch the other woman’s expression. “That’s what you were going to say, right? That ‘Tikaani’ is really… That Tarrlok staged this… he’s alive somewhere… out there… probably with his brother and they-”
“I don’t know,” Asami quickly, but delicately interrupted again, before Korra could wind herself up into whatever thoughts had been so clearly spinning through her mind for countless days. “I can’t say if all of this was ‘staged’, exactly, but it really seems like he… made contingencies. We don’t have a lot of evidence one way or another beyond that. But that’s why you asked me, isn’t it?” She didn’t really need to see the short nod that followed, and gave her friend a reassuring smile, squeezing her arm once before letting go. “Then let’s track this guy down - thief or otherwise, if you want an answer, following his trail will get you one.”
Korra felt a familiar tick of irritation when the ethereal pressure sank deep into her lungs and brushed in lingering touches over her skin even when she knew very well that it wasn’t actually happening. Well, it wasn’t physically happening. Enough conversations with Tenzin and his father’s spirit had gotten the point through that just because it wasn’t physical didn’t mean it wasn’t actual. All it meant for her, however, was pure frustration. If it wasn’t physical, it wasn’t something she was good at and thus left her markedly powerless in a situation she was supposed to have some talent dealing with.
But back to the fog.
Inhale slowly and straighten. Good posture and proper breathing would help her muddle through this again (or so she’d been told). Aang had made this look considerably easier than it really was. Here she was, a fully realized avatar - a connection built right in - and still having trouble making sense of anything other than the man himself prodding her with drastically simplified information. His memories, his self, once as far away as a star, now seemed so much easier than anything else. Everything else.
Especially this fog nonsense.
Did the spirit realm even have fog, really? You weren’t supposed to be able to bend there, after all, so it would make sense if the elements didn’t technically exist there. And if water didn’t exist, there couldn’t be fog, right? Right. So then why the heck were her attempts at meditation now mired in this strangely supernal fog?
Okay that was new. Korra’s brow furrowed as she wrenched wandering thoughts away from unhelpful whining to focus on the strange darkness coalescing into a form just at the edges of her vision. Instantly, the fog thickened, settling on her chest as an uncomfortable weight. The shadow wavered and she gasped for breath, refusing to let the image go just yet. Her vision blurred, swimming and twisting not so very differently from looking up at the surface of the ocean from far beneath.
A silhouette. Not just a shadow. Someone was there. The sudden clarity burst energy through the previously sluggish scene. Fog shifted to clouds - no, smoke - and swept away, wrapping around the shadow - the person - just a short distance away. Korra instinctively ran forward, forcing strained lungs and lethargic limbs towards the other being (human?) paces away and seeming to fade with the billowing exit of the fog/clouds/smoke into the darkness again.
“Come back! Who are you? I-”
A pair of eyes, glowing white. A large hand seizing her shoulder. The firm press of a thumb to the center of her forehead.
“Noatak!” Tarrlok jerked back from his brother’s violent lurch into the waking world, his good hand holding to the other man’s shoulder to steady him, regardless. Tension was slow in leaving his brother’s still taut muscles and after a moment lost to shuddering breath and far seeing eyes, he carefully settled on to the edge of the bed and shifted his hand to wave it in front of the endless gaze. “Answer me-”
“Tarrlok.” His wrist was caught in a firm grasp and directed aside as Noatak’s eyes shifted: gaining focus as his breathing steadied until he closed them all together. Another moment passed in silence before he dared open them again, and this time the tension in his form drained away entirely. “… I’m fine.”
A disbelieving snort was his initial answer, but other than a pointed frown, Tarrlok gave no real reply and stiffly pushed himself up to his feet again. “I’ll make some tea.”
“It’s half past seven anyway; might as well get up.”
Tarrlok stepped from the room, gathering his hair back with a sigh. Moments later, soft clinks and clicks drifted back into the small bedroom. The accommodations were comfortable but a bit cramped, with each bedroom having just enough space to round the bed, a shared bath on suite and only the sitting area between providing any true communal space. It wasn’t a particularly disagreeable situation for Noatak, given how often so much of his living quarters had been shared and tucked away in the past years. A window he could actually use was a pleasant change of pace. His brother on the other hand, well, even now he could hear the man grumbling over the quality of the provided hotplate - both in its build quality and the fact that no hotel in town had a proper kitchenette - for what would probably be the first of multiple times that day.
Noatak, in spite of still shaken nerves and the lingering adrenaline of vanished nightmares, felt a soft amusement quirk up the edges of his lips as he drew himself up from the bed and drifted into the attached sitting area. “You didn’t get anything too heavy, did you?”
“There’s no point while we’re in town,” Tarrlok answered with a roll of his shoulders, turning partially to glance back at his brother and then return to measuring out the tea leaves for when the water had finished. “We can have a proper meal in a little while, anyway.”
Noatak inclined his head briefly, gaze lingering on his brother’s movements as he slipped into a nearby chair. “Your side’s doing much better,” he said after a moment’s contemplation.
A nod. “For being mostly self taught, she’s actually quite effective,” Tarrlok mused as he searched for a pair of cups as well. “In all likelihood,” he added with a brief pause in his movements so he could glance aside to watch his brother’s response, “that is most likely the reason she’s so talented.”
The elder gave a vaguely curious look at this. “What makes you say that?”
Tarrlok’s gaze switched back to the pot of water on the hot plate. “What makes you look like you’re drowning in your sleep?”
Noatak’s expression turned dry. “I thought you were better at negotiating than that.”
“I was merely posing a question,” Tarrlok mildly returned, still not looking over.
“With the implication of not answering my own if I don’t reply,” the blunt, if not faintly amused follow up.
“Oh? Did I say that?” The younger removed the top of a small tea pot just as the hot water started to bubble and carefully began to poor the water into the new container.
“Hana does have quite the talent, you know,” he amicably continued, adding the pre-measured leaves to the teapot and replacing the lid. “There’s something to be said for experimentation, I suppose. She’s missing quite a few of the basics, but she never had anyone tell her what boundaries not to push, either.” He turned from the pot with a brief look to his brother and then eased himself into the room’s other chair.
Noatak gave a soft sigh at this. “I am not sure which implication you expect me to react to, Tarrlok-”
“Oh, the bloodbending one,” Tarrlok helpfully specified.