Yakone had never been a nice man. He hadn’t been nice in his life in Republic City and he hadn’t been any less unkind to his children after, in the outskirts of the Northern Water Tribe.
Tarrlok, his youngest, had borne most of the brunt of his anger and displeasure for years but it had increased greatly once Noatak, the eldest and beloved brother of his that he had looked up to for so long, ran away and presumably perished in the tundra.
It had been a painful time for all of them. Yakone abruptly ended his bending lessons, depressed and angry.
His mother, Tula, had been so overcome with grief that she stopped. She just stopped everything.
She sat in her sealskin-covered chair day after day, a blanket draped over her, rotting away from starvation as she refused to eat anything. He remembered very clearly the nights he had spent, pleading her to snap out of it, to do something. She passed away six months later, leaving just Yakone and him.
He paused his musings when he heard a thump downstairs and a creak.
Tarrlok sat up a little straighter.
When Noatak opened the cell door and looked at him, a faint expression of expectancy for him to follow his brother as always, Tarrlok felt every atom in his body pulling him to do so.
After all, this was what he used to dream of; a second chance with Noatak, to do it all over, but mostly to have his brother back once and for all.
However, a part of himself had Tarrlok livid. How dare he have the gall to just come back and ask him for allegiance, as if the past twenty years had meant nothing? Did he even have an idea what Tarrlok had gone through during that time?
But betraying that small, angry part of him, he stood up and let Noatak lead the way.
As the small boat sped away to some unknown location in the Earth Kingdom, Tarrlok half-heartedly listened to Noatak while it felt like someone had just reached into his chest and twisted his heart.
His eyes flickered between the rack holding rows of Equalist weapons and his brother, a horrible realization dawning upon him.
He had to do it. The madness wouldn’t end otherwise. Noatak would likely fall back into his old ways, and there’s no knowing what would happen once he did.
He quietly sucked in a breath, trying to keep his emotions at bay as he reached for a glove, because after all, it was the first time since he’d properly met his dear brother after that fateful day and now it was going to be cut far too short.
Tarrlok completely shut out Noatak’s happy musings and, as silently as he could, began unscrewing the gas cap. His brother had fallen silent, and he hesitated, stopping his hand just as the cap was about to be removed.
He bit his lip as he screwed the lid back into place, silently removing and placing the Equalist glove back where he found it, barely hearing Noatak sigh and begin his contemplations once again as if he had just woken up from a dream
Not being able to quite look at his brother properly, Tarrlok turned his head away and prayed his brother would never give him a reason to do what he didn’t have the courage to carry out.
They took refuge in a little town, spending the night in an abandoned apartment after trekking through kilometers’ of forests and grasslands, barely taking any time to rest. Noatak insisted that they were most likely being searched while Tarrlok constantly resisted plunging his head into nearby water bodies.
And then there was the added fear of being recognized in the village. They had changed into local clothing and removed and hid anything that even hinted of their true identities, but they still didn’t sleep well that night.
Noatak had nothing to worry about; nobody had seen his real face long enough to properly recognize him but Tarrlok had been on newspapers that travelled to the far reaches of the Fire Nation. Something had to be done.
So, the next morning, Tarrlok cut off his hair to a more respectable length and did everything he could to hide his face, from letting his hair flow free to just keeping his head down. It would take a lifetime for him to admit that he felt more then a tinge of sadness when he did it.
They spent a few more days at the town, which went by the name of Yue Bay Port City, which was such a mouthful for him that he simply decided to call it Yue City, which was just as good if not better than the original, before travelling further into the Earth Kingdom.
Settling into a new place, fixed on a particularly tall hill, and making a temporary place for themselves at a homeless shelter, they began doing exactly as Noatak had hoped for when he unlocked the door to his makeshift prison.
Tarrlok was also reminded of how stressful job interviews were. He had taken two part-time jobs when he arrived in Republic City all those years ago but he had to go through what felt like hundreds of interviews that had left him unable to consume anything except ice.
You could say he didn’t handle stress very well back then. He still doesn’t but he’s better at hiding it now.
Praying the same thing wouldn’t happen this time; Tarrlok walked into the small room and sat down on the rickety wooden chair, tactfully asking permission before doing so.
Answering question after question, for around an hour, while not being able to grab even a sip of water left him exhausted but it was, in a way, worth it when he was called in for work a day later.
Tarrlok did not have a pleasant night. He had been tossing and turning, mumbling incoherent pleas and clutching his thin blanket like a lifesaver, according to his brother.
Pretending he had no idea what Noatak was talking about and had no memory of having nightmares, he wondered where the sudden onslaught was coming from.
To this day, he could occasionally feel phantom pains of a heavy body pinning him down to a bed and the soreness of a throat worn down from screaming into a pillow.
He remembered vividly what the hunger pangs felt like, because a teenager can only get so much from stale bread and ice, and what it was like, asking a ghost to come back and save you from hell.
He knew what living with the devil was like and he could never scrub out the memories, even when he was miles away in Republic City and getting ready for the Council Elections.
And Noatak, sitting in front of him and chatting with him as if he hadn’t left Tarrlok to rot and die in a tundra full of abuse and despair, had no idea how badly it had scarred him.
Because in the end, Tarrlok realized he had to save himself. He realized that he couldn’t depend on anyone else to see through the facade, and that no one was going to show up and realize how badly he was breaking and rescue him. In the end, he had to be his own hero, no matter how hard it would be.
And Noatak, filling up his baby brothers’ bowl and fussing over him in a way that Tarrlok had yearned for so many years, hadn’t a clue.
Week’s later, on a day of blue skies and warmth and picturesque clouds, Noatak cornered him in the near empty shelter, finally demanding an answer about his nighttime mutterings and he wasn’t taking the excuse of Tarrlok having no idea anymore, realizing full well it was a lie.
Tarrlok refused to say anything, shoving his brother away when he started getting aggressive, before hissing outthat nothing was wrong and you have no reason to worry.
He knew that the confrontation would be continued, so he stormed out for work and returned in the dead of night.
But he was unprepared when the moment actually came, when Noatak walked up to him and asked, so very abruptly, what their father did to him. There was no build-up, no beating around the bush.
There was no answer.
It didn’t take a genius to notice that his brother was paying more attention to him than normal.
Of course, Noatak already paid a landslide of attention to him, considering they haven’t met properly in, say, twenty or so years, but it was starting to exceed the normal limits.
Like how he stared at him when he thought Tarrlok wasn’t looking, or how he started tagging along when he went out to the shop to work, or how his questions starting becoming a bit more personal.
Is Mom still there?
What happened to Koza? That kid who lived across the village? He was such a nuisance.
So, what happened? After I left, I mean.
For some of the questions, he answered quickly and to-the-point, possibly in an indifferent way, and for others, he shielded around the subject, giving only bits and pieces of a proper answer.
But how could you blame him? There was either nothing at all to tell or too much for one day.
Mother died of stress. Not long after you left.
Koza went to the Capitol and never contacted his family again. Last I heard, he was a moderately successful storeowner.
I… Well, nothing really. Life just went on. Dad died a few years later and… It was all very uneventful… Look, it’s complicated and a very long story. I’ll tell you some other day.
Noatak came home to the shelter drunk one day. It wasn’t uncommon to see people like that around this place, especially here, so no one questioned it. In fact, most of the homeless here drank alcohol, so he wasn’t unaccustomed to it.
But it wasn’t normal to see Noatak drinking. Alcohol was dangerous, making you lose control of your actions and your mouth and your thoughts. It wasn’t the sort of thing his brother would like.
However, he turned a blind eye and let him stumble to his sleeping pad, minding his own business.
He was totally unsuspecting of a mattress sliding directly beside his own and his brother flopping down next to him as Tarrlok aired his covering.
Pausing, he thought to question Noatak but ended up deciding not to. After all, he was drunk. And what was the harm?
It was probably one of the most uncomfortable nights he had experienced since escaping from Republic City. Noatak insisted he attach himself to Tarrlok all night, hugging him like there was no tomorrow, even when tomorrow had arrived.
Worse was how Tarrlok hadn’t noticed just how… touchy his brother was. It was as if Noatak had never hugged him before with how much his hands were roaming around.
When he was fully convinced his brother would not wake anytime soon, Tarrlok slowly unlatched his hands and shifted further away, almost rolling off his mattress.
But, to be honest, it all started when Noatak sat him down in a far corner of the town, and asked with as much sincerity and care as he could muster.
Tarrlok, what did Yakone do to you? Tell me what the bastard did.
And Tarrlok wasn’t sure how that sentence triggered it. Maybe it was relief that he wasn’t the only one in the world who cursed Yakone, or that big brother was finally here to take all the pain away and protect him, or if the genuineness he heard in the tone was the kindest he had heard in an inhumanely long time.
Whatever it was, everything came spilling out like a waterfall.
The nights he spent with Yakone on top of him, crying to the point of oblivion. The days spent with a growling stomach when the neighbours wouldn’t spare food for a boy from a tainted family.
The nights spent blowing some stranger in exchange for a piece of bread. The days spent being Yakone’s personal punching bag.
The nights spent losing hope in the world and the days passing by in a blur. Being pushed over the edge by Yakone’s suicide. Falling into depression, hearing things that told him to do terrible things to end his suffering and almost doing them.
The nights he spent in an apartment chugging on medication and days spent quietly clawing and deceiving his way to Council standards.
And how much he had yearned for Noatak to show up on the doorstep, an apology at hand and ready to help fight off all the monsters with him.
How, when Noatak actually showed up and ended up taking his bending away, Tarrlok loathed him.
And when Noatak finally embraced his baby brother, his lionheart, he whispered a promise that was so fierce in its emotion that both of them believed it with all there might, Tarrlok knew he was finally where he belonged.