Last time, on Part 14 of Strings: After Amon rejected Korra's attempts at diplomacy, the anti-revolutionary forces planned and executed a devastating strike on an Equalist weapons base, destroying many of the Equalists' mecha-tanks and airplanes. Hoping that it would help him regain some status and respect, Tarrlok participated in the raid, and succeeded in wiping out the Equalists' ammunition stores. However, before he could leave the scene, he was trapped by a team of Equalist reinforcements that had arrived from the main base. He neutralized all of them using waterbending, save for Amon, who seemed to be immune. As a last resort, Tarrlok attacked Amon with his bloodbending, only to have Amon shrug off the effects - before overpowering him and taking his bending.
Korra draws her fist back, breathing in. When she lashes out again, the torrent of flame that emanates from her fist makes the bright red steel arm of the mecha-tank glow as dark as blood.
She keeps the stream of fire going until the steel begins to melt, softening and losing shape. Underneath her armored vest, her chest and back are damp with sweat. There are five other firebenders in here with her, all targeting different areas of the weapon, and the sweltering heat of their flames is starting to get to her. She's lost count of the minutes that they've been in here, but this is the last machine that her team has to destroy. They had shut and locked the doors behind them, to keep the Equalists from protecting their precious weapons. Added security, sure, but it feels like an inferno in here. The officer next to her looks like he's about to faint.
They only stop after the mecha-tank is reduced to a charred, unrecognizable, and unsalvageable heap. Korra breathes a sigh of relief, mopping her damp brow with her arm.
"We've done everything we can here," their captain says, moving toward the door. "It's time for us to leave. Chief Beifong was very clear about us getting out before the reinforcements from the other base arrive."
They throw the doors open and rush out into the hallway, none of them bothering to detain any of the Equalists pushing past them, struggling to defend their weapons. The warehouse is in such a state of havoc that just looking around almost makes her dizzy. In an attempt to combat the fires, the Equalists had turned on some kind of water spray system - torrents of water gush from the ceiling, along with weird thick, heavy, foamy white stuff. It gets on Korra's face and hands as she runs, and it doesn't feel anything like snow.
On top of everything else, the lights are out, but this horrible alarm is blaring ear-splitting noise, intermittent flashes of red light cutting through the darkness. It's so disorienting that she doesn't even recognize Mako and Bolin in the crowd until they're right next to her. Korra grabs Mako by the arm, gesturing toward the ceiling. "Do they have enough water to put out the fires?"
Mako makes a face, grimacing at the shrieking of the alarm. "What?"
"I said, do they have enough water? We don't want anyone to get burned!"
Comprehension dawns on his face, but he has to yell to to make himself heard. "Yeah, they do! We checked it with Asami earlier."
A chain of Equalists move in front of the entrance to the warehouse, trying to cut them off and keep them from getting out. Bolin bowls right through them, grabbing one by the waist and pushing him into his companions, and Mako and Korra run through the gap, slamming through the doors.
The world outside is blissfully different, and Korra breathes deeply, chasing the scent of smoke and burning steel out of her nose. No Equalists pursue them; they're probably all too busy extinguishing the fires. The police officers ahead of her jump into the armored cars they had arrived in, and the tense-looking Beifong and Saikhan count them off as they do, Saikhan looking over a list clutched tightly in his hand. "Korra, Mako, Bolin," he says quickly, wiping sweat from his brow. "That's the last of you. We don't want to lose anyone to interrogation-"
Lin frowns, looking them over. "Where's Tarrlok?" she asks abruptly. "I thought he had found you, Korra."
Korra's shoulders stiffen, and she hops out of the car. "Why? Is he not out here yet?" Stupid Tarrlok, is her first thought. Probably off trying to play hero, and do the whole "I will be the city's savior" thing again.
The police chief shakes her head. "No, he hasn't reported back yet." Her frown grows more pronounced. "His orders were to destroy the ammunition in the basement and then come straight out."
"No," Korra says slowly. "I don't know where he is, I haven't seen him…"
The basement. The words echo in her head, and finally, she remembers. The transport tunnels linking this warehouse to the other Equalist facilities are all located in the basement, Asami had told them, pointing at the diagram. Reinforcements should come in through here.
Korra freezes. Some small voice inside her is telling her that there's nothing to be worried about, that she's just being paranoid, and even if Equalists did show up, Tarrlok could handle himself and will be out here in a second-
But some other instinct overrides that. "I'm going back in," she tells Lin, turning toward the warehouse.
She hears Lin yell something at her, probably an order not to reenter, not to do anything rash, but she runs anyway, vaguely conscious of Mako and Bolin following closely behind her. Inside the factory, it's still dark and pouring water and foam from the ceiling, but thankfully, the alarm is off, and the Equalists who had been in front of the door are gone. Everybody seems to be somewhere else right now, checking to see what kind of damage had been done, and there's nobody to see them charging toward the door leading to the basement.
Korra descends the narrow staircase quickly, nearly tripping in her haste. "Careful!" Bolin exclaims, in a hushed whisper, and Mako brings a flame to his palm, giving them some light in the darkness.
They come to a sudden stop at the base of the stairs, crashing into one another. Korra looks around in confusion, and out of the corner of her eye, she sees her friends doing the same. They had splashed onto the end of the staircase. They're standing in several inches of cool, stagnant water; the basement is flooded, and the dark room echoes with the sound of dripping. Korra ignites a flame in her hand as well, illuminating the sodden masses of ammunition on the shelves.
Mako's eyes widen, and Bolin whistles quietly. "Wow."
Tarrlok had done his job. But where is he?
"I don't see him anywhere," she says, and she refuses to let her voice betray any of the growing fear inside her.
"Let's check the transport tunnels," Mako says grimly. "Just in case."
"I'll take that one," Bolin offers, moving toward the one on the right.
They tell him to be careful, and he turns back, giving them a thumbs-up, before disappearing into the darkness.
"We'll take that one." Korra leads the way into the second tunnel. She can still hear her heart pounding, even as she splashes through the water. The dancing light of Mako's fire casts eerie shadows on the walls, but he stops, a few minutes in, extinguishing the light.
She turns to him questioningly, opening her mouth to speak, but he lifts a finger to his lips, before pointing down the tunnel. Listen, he mouths.
It takes several moments for her to pick up on it. Footsteps, up ahead - two, maybe three people, trying their best to move through the ankle-deep water as quietly as possible.
"Should we run?" Mako whispers.
"No," Korra replies quietly, narrowing her eyes. "I have a better idea."
With one swift, sweeping motion, she freezes the water underneath their feet. The ice races down the tunnel, quick as lightning, and it isn't long before the echoing cries of dismay reach them. She offers an arm to Mako, who tests the slick ice with a tentative foot. "Hop on."
He takes her arm, and a little waterbending trick her mom had once taught her sends them gliding over the ice at breakneck speed. They go past long straight stretches and a few curves before the three trapped Equalists come into view, futilely struggling to break free of the ice.
Even with the masks and goggles on, Korra can tell that their expressions change when she and Mako skid to a stop in front of them, Mako igniting another flame in his hand.
She doesn't waste any time. There's no time for subtlety and politeness now. "Where is Councilman Tarrlok?" she demands, pointing back toward the direction of the basement.
The three of them exchange glances, and remain stubbornly silent, as if they hadn't even understood what she was trying to say. Korra snarls in frustration, clenching her hand into a fist, and the ice that had trapped them by the ankles shoots upward, encasing them from feet to shoulders. As she tightens her fist, the ice's grip grows more vicelike, until one of the Equalists gives a soft grunt of pain. "I said," she begins again, making every effort to repress the fear surging inside of her - "Where's Councilman Tarrlok?"
She's vaguely aware of Mako giving her a worried look, laying a hand of restraint on her shoulder. She shakes him off. He doesn't get it; he doesn't understand. Tarrlok had promised to always look out for her, and she has to return the favor for him.
Losing patience, Korra tightens the ice again, and one of the Equalists scoffs, harsh and bitter, as the breath is driven out of his body. "Councilman Tarrlok," he spits, voice heavy with derision. He doesn't look or sound any older than Tahno. "Corrupt piece of slime-"
"Shut up!" she yells, before she can stop herself.
The Equalist sneers. "The noble ex-councilman tried to bloodbend Amon. What a fool."
She hears Mako's quick intake of breath, and Korra stares, stunned. No way. But…if Tarrlok had bloodbended Amon, there was no way Amon could have come out of that okay. "What do you mean, tried to bloodbend Amon?" she asks coldly, her mind racing.
"Amon did something you couldn't, you see," the Equalists taunts, and it takes an effort for her to keep herself from punching him in the face. "He overcame Tarrlok's bloodbending - brushed it off like it was nothing. And then he took his bending."
"Serves him right," one of the other Equalists adds scornfully. "After everything. Should have happened a long time ago."
The words don't even register. Nothing after and then he took his bending.
"What?" she asks hoarsely. Mako's hand is steadying on her shoulder, but her stomach turns, and suddenly, everything about this dark tunnel feels so surreal, like she had just walked into a nightmare. "No. You're wrong. Tarrlok is a bloodbender. There's no way Amon could take his bending, Tarrlok would rip his organs open before he could even try."
"I know what I saw," the Equalist says cuttingly. "The bloodbender lost his bending just like everyone else has. He had trapped us in ice, and the second Amon took his bending and he blacked out, the ice melted to water."
Her mind seems to have slowed down to a snail's speed. Nothing makes sense anymore. How can this be? Korra sees her ashen expression reflected in the Equalist's green goggles, and behind the mask, his lips twist in a smirk, as he looks her up and down. To her surprise, he laughs, short and unpleasant. "Look, she's upset about it," he says scathingly. "You should be happy his bending is gone, after everything he did to you!"
Her lips won't move right, won't form the words that she needs them to. "Shut up," Mako snaps. He looks at her, visibly worried. "Korra-"
"Look at her, I think she's going to cry. Some Avatar you are," the Equalist says, withering condemnation in his voice. "You're so messed up that there isn't even a name for what's wrong with you."
She hears herself snarl in anger again, she sees her fist lash out, colliding with his face, snapping his nose. Mako is saying something that she can't hear, doesn't want to hear, and Korra storms toward the other Equalist, ignoring the first one's cries of pain and the hot blood splattering down onto the ice. She grabs him by the collar, pulling him so close that she can see through the goggles, into his frightened eyes. "Where is Tarrlok? Where did Amon take him?"
"I don't know!" he splutters, trying to jerk backward. This one doesn't look old either, just about her age.
"Don't lie to me!" She tightens the ice again, desperate to get some answers, but he spits at her instead, and she jerks out of the way just in time to keep it from getting on her face.
"You're a cruel bitch!" he yells, trying and failing to get to his bleeding teammate. "Amon was right about you!"
Korra lunges at him, but Mako grabs her fist right before it can make contact with his face. "What are you doing?" She tries to twist out of his grasp, but he just holds on tighter. "Let me go!"
"No, I won't," he says firmly. "Korra, come on. This isn't you. We have to get out of here now."
"I'm not going anywhere until I find out where Amon took Tarrlok! They know! They're Equalists, they have to know!"
"They're our age, they're probably just grunts. They don't know anything. Come on. Let's get out of here and tell Chief Beifong and Saikhan what happened. It's going to be okay."
He's trying to be soothing, and all it does is make it worse. "No," Korra protests, and she feels her throat closing over. "No. I'll make them tell me something. I will."
Mako puts his arm around her waist, making her turn away. "Make the ice go away," he says softly. "Please. We need to get back, and they need to get out of here too. That guy's going to be in serious danger if he bleeds too much, and you know that. I know you don't want him to be really hurt."
"Korra," he says again. "Please."
She looks into those golden eyes, and something inside of her relents. The ice melts, splashing into water and freeing the Equalists, and out of the corner of her eye, she sees Mako take some kind of cloth out of his pocket and throw it at the Equalist whose nose she had broken.
The trip out of the tunnel is a blur. Mako starts calling Bolin's name as soon as they reach the mouth, and they find him standing outside of the other tunnel, looking anxious. His face goes pale when he sees them. "Bad news?" he asks weakly. "Korra, are you okay?"
She can't say anything.
"Amon kidnapped Tarrlok and took his bending," Mako says tersely.
"Oh, no." Bolin's brow furrows in confusion. "But...how?"
"We'll tell you later. We need to get out of here now."
The staircase feels impossibly long, and putting one foot in front of the other and dragging herself up is harder than it should be. Korra doesn't even realize that they're back outside until Lin and Saikhan are right in front of her face, asking her what's wrong, and where's Tarrlok?
"Amon took him," Korra says flatly, fighting the nausea that washes over her. "And his bending."
Saikhan's jaw drops, and Lin blinks, like someone had hit her. They look as horrified as she feels, and Lin actually reaches out, trying to comfort her. "Korra…"
She barely feels her hand on her shoulder. Her world is spinning and unsteady, and the feeling of nausea grows worse by the second. Black spots creep into her vision, and she closes her eyes, biting the inside of her cheek to stifle a sob.
When Korra opens her eyes again, something is wrong. The air around her had been still, but now it's moving, wind whipping around them at terrifying speeds. Lin's hair is swept into disarray and Bolin staggers backward, losing his balance.
The realization hits her a few moments later than it does everybody else. It's airbending. She's airbending.
-Except that she can't airbend, she's never been able to, and this isn't something she's doing on purpose.
The shocked expressions on her friends' faces are the last thing Korra sees, before everything goes dark.
The first thing Tarrlok registers upon regaining consciousness is the splitting pain in his head. It keeps him from opening his eyes fully, the first two times he tries. He manages, the third time.
He's curled up on his futon at home. The hunting trip last night had been terrible. His nose had started bleeding after making the first wolf stay still, but Father had insisted that he take the next step, and make the wolf move. Sit, stand, chase his tail, bite his own paw. He had almost fainted, at the end of it, but Noatak had helped him walk home, and led him to his room.
This room is dark and windowless, like that one, but this is a cell. Stone, instead of ice. Metal bars to his left. No door.
The sound that escapes his throat, as he pushes himself into a sitting position, is the closest to a whimper that he has come in the past twenty years. The disorientation is passing, and it's all coming back now - Amon overcoming his bloodbending, like it was nothing. Overpowering him as easily as an adult against a helpless child. I am the solution. Fingers digging into his arm, forcing him to his knees, the mask looming over him in the dark, the thumb resting against his forehead, the grip holding him still-
Tarrlok buries his face in his hands, and even that doesn't stifle the moan of distress.
He's going insane. The loss of his bending had driven him insane.
It takes several minutes for him to summon the resolve to stand. He's unsteady on his feet, his muscles stiff and sore, but the first thing he does is search the cell. It's empty - no cot, blankets, or pillow. He had been huddled against the wall for spirits knows how long.
Tarrlok finds an attached bathroom - thank goodness, he thinks, and then has to laugh, the sound coming out strange and broken. It's not much. There's a toilet, tiny shower stall (no soap), and a rusted metal sink. He staggers over to the sink first, without even thinking about it, and wrenches the tap open. There's a short delay before the water comes, spurting out erratically, splashing everywhere.
He tries to bend it. To freeze it, and when that doesn't work, something simpler - just making it move, like he had been able to do as a child.
It doesn't respond to him. Nothing happens. The water feels him, and he feels the water, and it's nothing. It's just wet on his skin, and it feels sickeningly dead. He fumbles with the tap, desperate to make it stop. It hurts. It's nothing, and it hurts.
The tears start then, despite Tarrlok's best efforts to hold them back, and they don't stop. He bends over the sink, but the water gets on his sleeves, and he staggers backward, trying to get away from it.
Tarrlok ends up on the bathroom floor, back pressed against the wall. The sink is in front of him, taunting, and he buries his head in his hands again, forcing it out.
Even the tears on his face feel different. His entire body feels different - his blood, nerves, organs. It's not a feeling as much as it is the lack of it. For as long as he can remember, he's been a waterbender. It's all that he's ever known, and in its place, there's emptiness.
He cries until there are no tears left, and his body aches from the force of it. Afterward, Tarrlok wipes his face with his sleeve, composing himself, and stares at the wall dully.
Noatak had been with him, when he had waterbended for the first time. The two of them had been playing on the coast. His head droops, and he closes his eyes, feeling sick. It can't be. But he remembers Noatak's bloodbending grip - he had never forgotten - and that was exactly what he had recognized in Amon.
But… Tarrlok blinks, unable to keep himself from flashing back to that night; to the sight of Noatak walking away, into the snowstorm, ignoring his pleas. How had he survived? How had he come to Republic City? When?
The realization hits him again, leaving a bitter taste in his mouth. If he's right, and Amon is Noatak, that means…for all these years, twenty-four long years, Noatak had been alive. Living, breathing, walking, reading the newspapers. And he hadn't done anything to contact him. Not once, in all those years. More than two decades. Not even just to try and see if he had survived Yakone's abuse.
Tarrlok rubs his temples exhaustedly, fighting back the uncharacteristic scream rising inside him. He can't go down that road now. What's more inexplicable is reconciling the Noatak he had once known with this ridiculous, unreasonable Amon persona. After all this time, he can recite Amon's vision for "true equality" word by word: Rid the world of the evil of bending. It was a plausible (if irrational) motive for a non-bender whose family had been killed by a rogue firebender. But for a born waterbender…
The answer comes more easily than he had expected, and the memory takes him back years, to the arctic tundra. Yakone had been walking ahead of them, muscles taut with anticipation at seeing how their skills had progressed. It was about a year before Noatak had disappeared. He and Noatak followed in silence, while he tried to fight back tears of fright and anxiety. Noatak had tried his best to distract him, pointing out interesting cloud formations, but had finally given up. If both of us had been born non-benders, he wouldn't have any way to do this to us, he muttered, shoving his hands in his pockets sullenly, his eyes burning with resentment. It would have been better that way.
Tarrlok had thought so as well, so many times. He had lost count of the times that he had looked up at the moon and wished he was a non-bender. He glances down at his hands now, and he has to laugh, strangled and bitter, at the irony.
He stands with difficulty, making his way back to the cell. For the first time, he notices the small carton left near one of the bars. It's white and oily, obviously some kind of food. Instead of reaching for it, Tarrlok rattles the bars, trying to pull them apart, to see if there's any way he can twist through them-
It's no use. They're solid iron, placed close together. Not even Korra could wrench them apart.
The thought of her makes his chest clench up in despair, and Tarrlok sinks to the floor, reaching for the carton. Maybe food will do something to ease the gnawing numbness and emptiness inside him. The takeout carton is stamped with Narook's insignia, and when he opens it, he finds it stuffed to the brim with seaweed noodles and fire-shrimp. It had been one of his favorite dishes as a child, and the food he ordered most regularly from the small eatery - once a week, at least.
Tarrlok stares at the food until his vision starts to blur, and then he drops the chopsticks, feeling a shudder run through him. The whole time, Noatak was Amon and Amon was Noatak. They had been living in the same city - perhaps within twenty or thirty miles of one another - for at least five or six years, maybe more. They had walked the same streets. Visited the same restaurants.
While he had read about Noatak in the newspaper, Noatak had been reading about him. Keeping tabs on him. Maybe Noatak had walked past his house, near Yue Bay, without his mask on. Noatak had spearheaded the revolution that he had been fighting against for the past five years. He had formed a task force dedicated to hunting his own brother down.
And all along, Noatak had been the one tormenting Korra. Threatening her and her family and friends, filling her with more fear than she would ever admit to.
He's torn between laughing at the irony, again, and crying. It's the tears that come out, and Tarrlok huddles into himself, helpless to stop them. Noatak could have said something, anything, years ago. Why hadn't he? It would have never had to escalate to this.
After the tears finally stop, he forces himself to eat, mechanically chewing the cold food. For the first time, it brings him no joy. Tarrlok sets it aside halfway through, and gets up, pacing from one end of the cell to the other. He tries the bars again, and then runs his hands over the walls, searching for something, anything, that could help him escape.
All it does is confirm what he had already guessed. There is nothing, no way out. For the first time in his adult life, he is well and truly powerless.
And a prisoner. In the beginning, for months, he had thought so little of forcing Korra to come with him when he fled Republic City, as his hostage. She had yelled and screamed and railed at him in rage and frustration and despair, and he hadn't batted an eyelid.
Tarrlok buries his head in his hands. How the roles reverse, he thinks to himself wearily. It had been his desire for power and control and prestige that had drove him to attack Korra in City Hall, triggering this chain of events. And it had been his desire to regain his lost status that had drove him to bloodbend Amon - Noatak - and, in doing so, ensuring the loss of his own bending. The spirits have their own way of getting even. Of doling out punishment.
There is a slow creak from the other side of the room, and Tarrlok sits up straight, startled. It's difficult to see in this dark, but finally, his eyes focus.
Amon - Noatak - steps inside, closing the door behind them. He holds a lantern in a gloved hand, and the yellow light throws odd shadows around the room. For a few long moments, there is silence.
"Have you eaten?"
The inquiry is impassive, and Tarrlok tries to search for a resemblance in voice - in this one, compared to the one he hasn't heard in so many years. There's nothing of Yakone in this voice.
Tarrlok inclines his head warily, and even though he knows that he's being foolish, the seeds of doubt are planted again. What if it isn't Noatak after all? Korra had once described Amon as having yellow eyes. He can't put a name to the feelings that sweep over him at the thought. He would rather Noatak be dead than be this-
…Would you, Tarrlok? a small voice asks him. Would you really?
Finally, Amon steps forward, making his way toward him, and as hard as Tarrlok tries to remain still, he cringes.
But Amon just sits down in front of him, out of arm's reach, setting the lantern beside him. Without saying a word, he reaches up, tugging his dark hood down, and then removes the mask. He doesn't give any indication of hearing Tarrlok's sharp intake of breath, as he looks up, allowing him to see his face.
There are no scars - proof that this Amon isn't what he told his followers he was. But there is no resemblance to the old Noatak, either. The skin is all wrong. It's several shades lighter than his own - it could be the skin of a Fire Nation citizen. Even the features don't look Water Tribe. His eyes aren't Noatak's bright blue, but a dull blue-gray, and the confusion growing inside him is enough to make Tarrlok feel sick.
"Who are you?" he asks hoarsely. "You're not my-you're not…"
The man blinks once, before glancing down at the floor. "Your stuffed wolf had a purple collar," he says, at last. "Made from the trim of one of our mother's dresses. She wore purple often, to match the stone on her betrothal necklace."
The words hit Tarrlok like a slap to the face, worse than the most violent blow Korra had delivered in a fit of anger. It drives the breath from his body, and he can't breathe in again. There's no room for air inside him right now. All there is is defeat, and a crushing, impossible despair worse than he has felt in years.
Noatak is watching him - waiting - but he turns away. For the first time in a long time, he has nothing to say, he can't say anything, even though there are a hundred things tangling inside him, desperate to be let out.
"I'm sorry," Noatak says finally, carefully, in a soft tone that's so different from Amon's confident, flawless oration. "I didn't want to do it, but I had to. I - part of me was relieved when I came to the cabin in the mountains and found that you and the Avatar were already gone."
He stops, and when Tarrlok remains silent, he sighs. "You should have stayed in the Earth Kingdom with the Avatar," he says flatly. "I never planned to pursue the two of you - I trusted that you would keep the Avatar out of my way, and that way, I wouldn't have to hurt you."
"You didn't want to hurt me?" Tarrlok explodes, even though that had been the last thing he had planned on saying. There's too much emotion in his voice - unadulterated anger and hurt, childish in its intensity - and he hates it. "If you really didn't want to hurt me, then you wouldn't have left!"
There's a flicker of some unreadable emotion in Noatak's eyes. "I couldn't stand it anymore," he replies steadily. "I wasn't like you, so weak that I could just take all the abuse thrown at me, without fighting back. But I offered to take you with me. I offered you a way out."
"I couldn't just go and leave Mother with him! Did you even think about what it would do to her, to find out that both of us were gone?"
A spasm of anger passes over Noatak's unrecognizable features. "She didn't care enough about us to protect us from him, and you-"
"She didn't know! You can't blame her, she didn't know!" It's louder than Tarrlok has yelled in a long time, and Noatak looks back toward the door, worried, but he doesn't care. Noatak doesn't know how much their mother had mourned him, how she had never recovered from the loss, how she had sunk into a depression that had ultimately killed her, how losing Noatak had made Yakone worse than he had ever been, to their mother and to him-
No, Noatak had just walked away, and left him and their mother to deal with everything that had happened after, the horrible downward spiral into the worst violence he had ever seen. And here he is, now, judging him, and judging their mother-
If he could reach Noatak through the bars, he would choke him. But he's out of arm's reach, and so Tarrlok's hands close on the only thing he can reach - the almost-empty carton of noodles, with a few noodles and pieces of shrimp left behind, and the cold, oily soup congealing at the bottom. He throws it at Noatak, at the face that doesn't look anything like the brother he once had and loved.
He doesn't catch it. It spills on him, noodles and shrimp and soup splattering the mask on his lap, his face, his clothes. Noatak stares at him, and even though the mask isn't on, it might as well be, for all the blankness on his face.
He rises smoothly, gracefully, and flicks a couple of stray noodles from the mask's surface, before sliding it on. Noatak turns and walks away, and when he's at the door, he turns back to look at him. "For all you know, you weren't the only one my Equalists captured. The Avatar could be in the cell right beneath you. Did you ever think about that?"
The words make Tarrlok's blood run cold, and for a second, he forgets everything else. "Noatak-" he calls, stricken.
Noatak walks out, slamming the door behind him.
The first thing Korra registers upon regaining consciousness is that there's something warm on top of her feet.
Her eyelids feel swollen and heavy as lead, and she struggles to force them open. For a few moments, everything is blurred, and the first thing that comes into focus is the white dog curled up at her feet, looking at her with worried eyes. Sitka, Korra tries to say, but the word won't make it out of her sandpaper-dry throat.
The dog licks her ankle.
It all comes rushing back - it hadn't been a nightmare, after all.
Korra pushes herself up abruptly - what is she doing, just lying here uselessly? - but the sudden movement sends a spasm of blinding pain through her head. She cries out in shock and pain, and her vision goes black for a second.
When it comes back, Mako, Bolin, and Asami are there with her, Bolin holding a steadying arm around her shoulders. Mako presses a hot cup of tea into her hands, and Korra blinks, overwhelmed. "Drink it," he says. "You're probably dehydrated, and that's making the headache worse."
She takes a sip, uncomfortably aware of the concern and worry written on all of their faces. "What happened?" she asks, reaching up and touching her head tentatively. She can't feel any bruises or bandages. "Was there a fight?"
Mako stares at her incredulously. "You don't remember?"
Korra frowns. "No, the last thing I remember is telling Lin and Tenzin that Tarrlok…" She can't say it yet, still can't wrap her mind around it, and she gestures sharply with her free hand. "That Tarrlok was gone. Look, what happened?"
Mako and Asami flinch at her rising voice. "You went into the Avatar State," Bolin bursts out, seemingly unable to hold it back any longer.
Korra stares at him, unable to believe it. "…What?"
"You were just standing there and talking, and then your body shook like you were going to throw up, and you closed your eyes and we thought you were going to pass out - but then when you opened them again they were all blue and glowy and the airbending started, and…" Bolin stops and takes a deep breath. "It was awesome," he says, with feeling. "Really scary, but awesome."
Airbending? Korra looks down at her hands, feeling the numb, spreading sensation of shock. Part of her wants to ask if this is all some kind of sick joke, but one look at their faces brings that line of thought to an end. The only thing that repeats in her head now is the teachings of the Order of the White Lotus: While in the Avatar State, the Avatar has access to bending techniques that they themselves may not have yet learnt - but they have no conscious control over their actions and can cause great collateral damage.
Great collateral damage. Collateral damage collateral damage collateral damage. Her thoughts slow to a horrified crawl. The factory had been nearby. The police vehicles. People. Lots and lots of people.
"The factory," she croaks. "The police, the Equalists-"
Mako and Asami exchange a glance. "The factory doesn't exist anymore," Asami tells her slowly, gently. "But none of the Equalists inside were hurt badly. There were some broken bones and concussions from the flying rocks and the wind-"
Korra groans, burying her head in her suddenly sweaty hands. She can only imagine what Amon is going to say about this. She hadn't meant to, but- Avatar attacks and harms innocent citizens in fit of uncontrolled rage!
Mako rests a soothing hand on her shoulder. "Look, Korra, it's okay," he reassures. "We took them to the hospital. There's some damage to the police vehicles, but nobody on our side was seriously hurt either. It could have been way worse."
"Yeah, but…" Her shoulders sag, and she wishes, brief and uncharacteristic, that she could crawl under the covers and go back to sleep again. That when she wakes up, everything will be right, and she'll meet Tarrlok on the beach and tell him about this horrible dream she had. "The fact that I did this - and not even around Amon, either - is just…"
Bolin nods. "It was crazy. It was like you weren't even Korra anymore." He sits down on the edge of her bed and looks at her with wide eyes. "I didn't know you could do that."
Mako nods. "It was unreal."
Korra shrugs, wiping her palms on the blankets, still trying to piece it together. Nothing comes, except for the memory of this overwhelming sense of rage, and sorrow, and loss. "I didn't know either. I didn't plan on it. Everyone always told me that the Avatar State can be brought on in times of emotional distress - the Order of the White Lotus was always afraid I'd trigger it when I got mad at them about something."
"It can't be that easy," Bolin says, sounding bemused. "Otherwise you would have gone Avatar State on the refs every time they made a bad call during a pro-bending match. Or you would have flipped out on Tarrlok when he kidnapped you."
"Well, I don't know. I have tried to force it out before, but it never happened." Korra drains the cup of tea, setting it aside. "It doesn't work that way, I guess. There are specific things that trigger it. Once, Master Katara told me this story about how some Earth Kingdom general tried to force Avatar Aang into entering the Avatar state, by putting Katara in danger."
"How would that…?"
"He loved her," Bolin replies, rolling his eyes at his older brother. "You know, like you would get all, Mako smash, if anyone tried to crush Asami with massive rocks."
Asami winces. And it's only when a slightly awkward, confused silence falls over her friends, that Korra realizes that a story about the previous Avatar and his love might not have been the best idea. To her horror, she can almost see them putting two and two together.
"Um," she says abruptly, wondering how quickly she can backpedal without making anyone suspicious. "That didn't work, though! Aang went into the Avatar State once when these thieves kidnapped Appa. His oldest friend. So, uh, as you can see, if the Equalists wanted to get me mad, kidnapping my friends…does that. That's just how it works with Avatars."
Mako and Bolin nod slowly, in unison. Korra unclenches her grip on the edge of the blankets slowly, wondering if her subtle emphasis on the word friend had worked.
"I'm sure that Korra would have reacted the same if something had happened to any one of us," Asami says, bending down and straightening the covers, her hair falling forward to hide her face. "Thank goodness that we're all okay."
"Thank goodness," Korra replies fervently, feeling herself relax. Crisis averted. Her stomach chooses that exact moment to growl, and she places a hand on it self-consciously. "Hey, could someone get the bag of seal jerky out of my room? I'm starving."
"That won't be enough," Mako says, heading toward the door. "I'll bring you some dinner from the kitchen."
"Bolin, do you mind going with Mako?" Asami asks mildly, handing Bolin the empty cup of tea. "I don't think he'll be able to carry something to drink back here with the food."
Bolin grins and salutes both of them smartly. "At your service!" He strides after Mako, leaving the door open.
Korra reaches over to pet Sitka, feeling the dog nuzzle against her hand, and out of the corner of her eye, she sees Asami close the door. "Thanks for remembering the water," she says. "I'm still parched."
As hard as she tries to sound normal and casual, the words still come out a little wooden. For the second time that day, she swallows against the tears that sting her eyes and the back of her throat. Her mind keeps throwing these sick, awful images - of Tarrlok hurt, starved, beaten - at her, and they won't go away. Forget food, forget water. All she wants is to get out of here and demand that Asami take her to Amon, and find Amon and kill him for harming Tarrlok.
Asami sits down on the corner of her bed, making it creak slightly. "You would have reacted the same if it was any one of us," she repeats, her voice barely audible. "…But Tarrlok is more to you than just a friend, isn't he?"
Korra freezes. She lifts her head slowly, staring at her friend and trying to figure out whether she had actually heard her correctly. Asami meets her gaze evenly, not backing down.
"What are you talking about?" She had been going for indignant, shocked, possibly disgusted - but it just comes out hoarse and slightly panicked. "Tarrlok and I aren't-"
Asami shakes her head wearily. "Look," she says, cutting her off. "Don't bother. I know."
It's just a few words, but they're enough to make her stomach plummet. "How?" Korra manages. She couldn't have been more shocked if Asami had reached over and hit her.
"I saw you two," she replies, turning away briefly, as if trying to escape the memory. "Kissing. On the morning that you delivered your radio address to Amon."
No way. No way that had been possible. Stunned, Korra thinks back - the way Tarrlok had complimented her, how sweet he had been, how she had grabbed the back of his neck and pulled him down for a kiss…
Without looking around. For once. She had been that carried away. And they had only pulled apart after hearing the sound of a door slamming… She'd thought it had been in another hall, because she hadn't seen anybody after the two of them had separated.
"We heard a door slam," Korra says flatly, quietly, unwilling to even begin thinking about the implications of this. Of their secret being out. "Was that you?"
Asami nods, grimacing. "Yeah. I…found a different way out, and ran straight to the kitchen."
She remembers that. She remembers walking into the kitchen and seeing Mako, Bolin, and Asami all sitting together. "Wow," she mumbles, her head spinning. "Congratulations. You acted pretty cool for just having almost walked in on that."
A frightening realization hits her then, and Korra leans forward sharply. "Wait, you didn't tell Mako and Bolin, did you?" she demands, narrowly remembering to keep her voice down. "Did you say anything to anyone?"
"No, I didn't. I promise." Asami hesitates. "Korra, I…"
"No," she interrupts, not even caring that it's rude. "No. That right there on your face is the reason I didn't want to say anything to anyone!"
"There's nothing on my face!" Asami snaps back, wounded. "Look, when we started over, we agreed that we wouldn't keep any secrets!"
"I know, but-" Korra closes her eyes for a second, struggling to control her temper. This was the last thing she needed today. "I didn't want to lie, but I knew you guys would react badly."
"I'm not reacting badly, I just want to understand this-"
The sound of footsteps coming down the hallway, and Mako and Bolin's voices, makes them fall silent abruptly. "We'll talk later," Korra whispers, finally noticing the hurt in Asami's eyes. "I promise."
She nods, before trying to smile, and that's when Bolin opens the door with a flourish. "Dinner and refreshments for the lovely lady, prepared by yours truly and assistant chef Mako!"
Mako gives Bolin a withering look. "Assistant chef?"
"Fine, co-chef," Bolin grudgingly concedes.
Eating is the last thing her mind wants to do, after that conversation, but Korra's stomach gives another fierce growl as soon as Bolin sets the bowl of noodles down in front of her. She starts wolfing it down, and a few minutes in, there's a soft knock on her door.
Korra looks up, startled. Tenzin is standing in the doorway, looking pale and tired, and she swallows the massive mouthful of vegetables with difficulty, waving a chopstick at him in greeting. "Hey, Tenzin."
"Mako and Bolin told me that you had woken up." He crosses over to her bedside, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder. "How are you feeling? We were worried."
"I'm okay. My head was killing me earlier, but it feels better now." Korra sets the tray aside, the worst of her hunger temporarily assuaged. "I missed the debriefing, didn't I?"
"There wasn't much to it. The Equalists' weapons collection is no longer a significant concern to us - the only tools they have left are their airplanes and whatever ammunition they stored at the hangar."
"Alright." She tilts her head to look back at Tenzin, narrowing her eyes. "Who do you have out there looking for Tarrlok? How many people? Asami, you know most of the locations where Equalists keep prisoners, right?"
Tenzin clears his throat, looking a little uncomfortable. "Lin deployed one team after you told us the news."
"One team?" Korra asks incredulously. "Are you kidding me? Tenzin-"
He lifts a placating hand, and to her surprise, she sees a flicker of genuine regret on his face. "Korra, from what you told us, it's already too late to keep him from losing his bending. We have no reason to suspect that Tarrlok would be seriously hurt as a prisoner - none of the police officers that were kidnapped and held suffered any significant mistreatment beyond having their bending taken."
"Look," Asami adds hastily, noticing the mutinous expression on her face. "I'll go check the holding areas tomorrow, as many of them as I can visit. Everybody should be busy assessing the damage at the weapons factory, so I can offer to pick up a few prison guarding shifts."
It's not enough, not even close. Tarrlok had always told her that if Amon or the Equalists ever found them in the Earth Kingdom, he would have done everything in his power to keep her from being harmed. Now, the roles are reversed, and she couldn't do anything for him. She couldn't save him from losing his bending. And now, she can't even find him and bring him home. It's intolerable. Every muscle in her body, every fiber of her being, aches to find Amon and exact some vengeance.
And yet, all Korra can do is nod and mumble an agreement, trying her best to mask her concern. She can't do anything more to blow her cover and give the secret away. Tenzin is already studying her a bit too closely for her liking…and so is Mako, now that she thinks about it. Being too visibly worried about Tarrlok, and desperate to find him, would be a dead giveaway. She doesn't need anyone else starting to ask questions.
Despite her best efforts to hold it back, Korra yawns widely. To her dismay, it had the effect she expected it to; everybody looks at her in alarm. "You should rest," Tenzin suggests firmly. "Your body and mind have gone through a tremendous exertion. We'll talk more tomorrow morning."
"I'm not that tired-"
Everyone ignores her. "We'll check in on you before we leave for patrol," Bolin assures her.
One by one, they file out. Asami is the last to leave, and she gives her a significant glance over her shoulder.
Once they're gone, Korra feels all the breath leave her body in a long sigh. She leans back, resting against the pillows, and pets Sitka again. The dog looks up at her with doleful brown eyes, as if asking her where Tarrlok is. Just like that, tears well up in her eyes, and she blinks hard, trying her best to hold them back.
Korra leans forward, hugging Sitka close, and resting her cheek against her fur - just like she had done a hundred times in the Earth Kingdom. Amon took Tarrlok's bending. No matter how many times she thinks it, and how many times the horrifying image of the proud councilman forced to his knees, Amon's thumb pressed against his forehead, as he looks up in terror, plays over and over again in her head…she can't accept it. The thought of Tarrlok not being a waterbender anymore is like imagining the sky being any color but blue. Impossible.
It was just an inextricable part of him, of his identity, like it is for all benders. She had never truly respected him until she had seen his extraordinary ability, during their time on the task force. She had always thought that he was the best waterbender she'd ever seen, besides Katara. Truly gifted. An extraordinary bloodline, combined with a lifetime of hard work, Tarrlok had told her, once.
He had been able to bloodbend without the aid of the full moon, using minimal effort. He could bloodbend at unusually far ranges. She had never seen the full extent of what he could do, and she had never wanted to. It was an evil art, but still… More than once, she had privately thought that it made him one of the most powerful benders in the world, besides her.
She mourns for more than the loss of incredible, one-of-a-kind talent. He had hated bloodbending, but waterbending had brought Tarrlok joy. She has so many memories of the two of them together like that, in the ocean near their house in the Earth Kingdom. There had been violent, intense spars, with both of them holding back just enough to avoid doing the other serious harm, and there had been hours where they had just swam and played. There was this one time, where they had competed to see who could dive to the bottom to the sea and catch a clam fastest. When they had tied, she had splashed him, waterbended herself out of the ocean and fifteen feet into the air, and then swan-dived down into his arms.
It's only when Sitka turns, giving her a worried look, that Korra realizes how hard she's crying. She bites her lip to stifle the sound, wiping at her face harshly, and fighting to stop the shudders that wrack her body.
She had promised Tarrlok that everything would be okay when they returned to Republic City. He had been worried about Amon (for her sake, not for his), and she had promised him that they would be safe. That nothing would happen to him. He had trusted her, and agreed to come back. And now…
The truth is, if they had stayed in the Earth Kingdom, he would still have his bending. What if he blames her, when they find him? Korra's insides twist with guilt, and the thought triggers a fresh wave of tears.
The worst thing about this is that there had been a time when she had actually wished this on him, in the first days and months after he had dragged her to the Earth Kingdom as his hostage. I wish Amon had found you and taken your bending, she had yelled at him once, after he had easily overcome one of her attacks. You deserve it a hundred times more than the Wolfbats ever did!
Tarrlok had just smirked at her, and at that time, his arrogance had made her sick. If you think Amon could defeat me, you're even more stupid than I thought. He's just a man, and no man can fight bloodbending like mine. He had come close to her then, narrowing his eyes. Not even the Avatar herself.
Korra wraps her arms around herself, sickened by the memory, and she can't remember the last time she had wished so hard that she could just take something back.
She sits in silence for several minutes, before stretching her arms out and cracking her knuckles, shaking the thoughts away. There's no time for regrets now. Now, all she has to do is find Tarrlok and Amon, and at least try to make things right.
Regardless of Tenzin's urging for her to rest, once night falls and Mako and Bolin reluctantly leave for their patrol duties in the city, Korra stumbles out of bed, haphazardly pulling the covers straight. She makes her way outside and over to the stables quickly, glancing in the direction of the meditation pagodas, where Tenzin often sits. Asami had gone to see Mako and Bolin off, taking Sitka with her, so this is the best chance she'll have to get out and not have everyone fussing over her.
Naga is waiting for her inside the stables, curled up with an enormous eel-shark bone that Tonraq had left behind. As soon as the door creaks open, Naga rises, wagging her tail anxiously. Korra walks straight to her, reaching up and wrapping her arms around her companion's neck, hugging her tight and burying her face in her fur.
Naga whines, and instead of shaking her free, leans down and licks her hair. Ever since she was a puppy, she always had this amazing ability to pick up on her moods, and Korra swallows over her tight throat, determined not to break down. "Come on," she says instead, scratching her friend underneath the neck, and her voice almost sounds normal. "Did you eat today? Let's go for a swim."
They walk to the beach together, and just the sight of it makes bile rise in her chest. The ocean had been her and Tarrlok's playground, and-
She can't imagine it. She can't imagine it not calling out to her, and having her body remain unresponsive to the water. The fact that Amon had done that to Tarrlok...
Naga nudges her arm gently, her nose cool and wet, and Korra forces the thoughts away. It takes a painstaking effort, but as they wade into the cool water together, she makes herself remember the Water Tribe spiritual music recordings that Master Katara would play during their lessons. The mournful, haunting notes of the flute, and the rhythmic, echoing sound of the bone mallets hitting the shells. Water cleanses, Katara had reminded her, the last time they had waterbended together. It had been two weeks before her departure from the South Pole. She had been filled with tension over her impending firebending exam, and railing against the Order of the White Lotus's latest restriction on her freedom. Let it wash away your troubles, your stress, your pain.
Naga dives into the depths of Yue Bay in search of fish, and Korra follows her. She focuses on the pull and glide of her arms through the water; the smooth movements of her legs. The draw of the powerful currents around them, making the seaweed sway in one direction or another, and the way the water plasters Naga's thick coat to her body. Nothing else. Down here, they're safe, the masters of their natural environment. Nobody can touch them. Nobody can find them and take this away from them. The polar bear-dog swims with surprising grace, and Korra feels herself smile for the first time in what feels like forever, as she watches those massive paws tread water.
Naga catches a massive lamprey after a while, and then an even larger starfish-flounder. Clutching her prey in her jaws, she heads for the surface, Korra following behind her. She blinks the saltwater from her eyes as they surface, Naga shaking her head violently and splattering water everywhere. It's only then that she recognizes the two familiar figures waiting for them on the shore - Sitka sniffs around in the sand, while Asami stands in the shallows, the gentle waves lapping over her feet.
She smiles at them as they make their way up to the beach. "I thought you would be out here."
Korra bends the saltwater off her body, drying her clothes and hair in an instant. She carefully redirects it back into the ocean, so none of it splashes Asami. "Yeah, there's nothing like a good swim to clear your mind." Except that the only thing that's changed is now her mind just feels weighed down in a quiet way, as opposed to the anxious, screaming way.
Naga and Sitka keep walking down the beach, Naga still holding her night's catch. Asami gestures after them, her uncertainty obvious. "Do you want to walk? Or sit? We don't have to talk if you don't want to, we can just hang out for a while."
"Let's walk," Korra says hastily, grateful for the suggestion. If she sits, she feels like she might just curl up into a fetal position in the sand, unable to move or do anything beyond trying to force herself into the Avatar State so she can find and confront Amon.
They hold their shoes in their hands and walk down the beach in silence, feet sinking into the sand. The pressure inside her builds more with every step, and after a while, Asami clears her throat. "Korra, I - I know this is a stupid question, but are you okay?" she asks quietly.
It's an easy question with an easy answer. No, Asami, I'm not okay - would you be okay if Amon took Mako's bending away and then held him prisoner?
But the words stick in her throat and don't come out. It's just that...this is the first time since all of this has started, that she has had the chance to talk to anyone honestly about anything. Emi and Roumei never knew the truth about her identity, and she couldn't possibly tell them. Tenzin, Mako, Bolin, and her parents, have no idea about the real nature of her relationship with Tarrlok.
For so long, she had longed for the opportunity to open up to someone. All of this - it's a lot to lock away inside herself. But at the same time, the prospect of finally telling the truth, confiding in someone like this, is frightening. Now that the opportunity is here, it's even more scary than she had imagined it would be.
Korra bends and picks up a pebble, before tossing it out to sea. She can look anywhere but at Asami. "No. I miss Tarrlok," she begins, hating the unsteadiness in her voice. "I…it would be one thing if he just went away for whatever reason, but I have no idea what Amon's doing to him. I mean, I don't think his life is in danger-"
"No," Asami says quickly. "The Equalists have never killed a bender."
"Still, knowing that he lost his bending - I know I shouldn't care about it, after everything that he did," Korra adds abruptly. "I know that everyone thinks he deserved it. But I can't, okay?" The words come out too loud, and she struggles to lower her voice. "I can't just...let it go and be okay with it, after everything that we've been through together."
"I know. You care about him." Asami glances at her out of the corner of her eye.
Korra feels her shoulders slump. "Yeah. I do."
The silence that falls over them now is even more awkward than the last one had been. "If you don't mind my asking," Asami begins delicately. "I - uh - are you guys together? Or was the kiss in the hallway the first time anything happened? You don't have to say anything," she adds, after a moment. "You can just ignore me if you want. I know it's not really any of my business."
"No," Korra sighs, rubbing the back of her aching neck. "It's fine. Just-" she glares at the other girl fiercely, hoping that this won't come back to bite her, and stabs a finger in her direction. "You have to promise me that you won't say a word to anybody, okay? Ever. Not Bolin, not even Mako. This stays between us."
Asami hesitates for a second before nodding, looking more than a little apprehensive. "I promise."
"It's been going on for a while. The hallway definitely wasn't the first time we've kissed." Korra shoves her hands in her pockets, feeling her face burn. She isn't ready to discuss the details just yet, especially because she's still not sure how Asami is going to react to this. If there's one look of horror or disgust or condemnation, she's going to turn around, walk back to the infirmary, and lock herself in there.
"Oh," Asami says, after a heartbeat. She tucks a lock of hair behind her ear with hands that shake slightly. "That was what I thought. Tarrlok brought you back because he loved you…not because he suddenly wanted to save the city from Amon. That story always sounded a little suspicious to me."
"Yeah, pretty much." The shore ends, and Korra sits on one of the boulders, glancing at her friend curiously. "You're taking this better than I expected. I thought you would freak out and make that face you made when you ate beet-and-mushroom stew for the first time."
Asami laughs shakily, taking a seat on an adjacent rock. "I think I'm still in shock. See?" She reaches out, showing her the half-moon circles where her fingernails had bitten into her palms.
"I know it may seem weird to you-"
"Yeah, but not for the reasons you think," Asami replies absentmindedly. "I hate Equalist ideals and everything they stand for, and I'm sure they would hate me if they knew what my true loyalties are. But if I were locked up in seclusion for months with - like - Amon or Liu, like you were with Tarrlok, I think we could resolve our differences to some extent and become friends, just like you and Tarrlok did. I feel like that's human nature."
A pained look slides over her face, then. "I get that, Korra. I really do. I get why you don't still hate him, like a lot of people expected you to. It's just that - for the dating thing - he's so old. I don't know how…"
Asami trails off, and there's the beet-and-mushroom stew expression, and Korra has to bite her lip to hold back a totally inappropriate laugh. "Look, before all of this happened, I would have felt the same way. All I can say is…" She shrugs, at a brief loss. "It's just really not as weird as I thought it would be. There are a lot of issues that have caused more problems than that one."
"Yeah, I bet." Asami hesitates, before looking into her eyes. "Don't get mad at me for this, but all I want to know is that Tarrlok never…you know."
Korra raises an eyebrow. "No, I don't know."
Her friend fidgets, looking uncomfortable. "Never, you know, forced you into anything while you guys were in the Earth Kingdom. Alone. That's all I've been worried about."
"No!" Korra says hastily. "No way. Of course not. I mean, forced is a strong word. I really don't think so, and I would know, right?"
Asami smiles, visibly relieved. "All right."
They lapse into a silence that is considerably more comfortable. "…You know, I was actually about to break it off, on the day before the raid," Korra confesses softly, looking down at her hands.
Asami looks at her sharply. "Really?"
"Yeah. I mean…like you said, it's so complicated. The hardest thing is knowing what my mom and dad would say about this, and Tenzin and his family, and you guys. I couldn't deal with the fact that nobody I care about would ever accept our relationship." Korra blinks hard. "But when I was actually talking to Tarrlok, I couldn't do it. I told myself I would wait until after everything with Amon and the Equalists got figured out." She drums her fingers against the rock.
"…Do you love him?" Asami asks, without looking back at her.
Korra closes her eyes for a second, feeling her ponytails sway in the sea breeze. "Yeah," she acknowledges, her voice barely audible. "I do."
The cell is windowless, and the only way Tarrlok can judge the passage of time is through the meals that appear from him. They are always his favorites, from Republic City restaurants he used to frequent, and it can't be a coincidence. Noatak had been keeping tabs on him, for all these years. More often than not, the knowledge makes him cry into the takeout cartons, until the food tastes more like saltwater than food.
Tarrlok cries more in those days-that-turn-into-weeks than he has in twenty years, and the worst part is that he has no control over it. It is a nervous breakdown like the one he had in the aftermath of his parents' death; a spiral into depression like he hasn't experienced in years.
There a few things, in particular, that trigger it. One is bathing. The first time he stepped into the water and felt it surround him and not respond to him, he had rested his head against the wall and cried, and stood there, unmoving, until the water changed from hot to cold.
The second thing is waiting for his hair to dry, instead of bending the water out. It takes several hours. Then there's shaving with a razor, instead of blades of ice, as he's been doing for his entire life.
Tarrlok spends his time sitting in the isolated cell, slumped against the wall, unable to keep the flashbacks at bay. All the memories of life with Noatak that he had suppressed, and done his best to put to rest, return - except horribly interspersed with every news story and intelligence about Amon that he's heard over the past five years.
After leaving him with that - piece of information, that threat, about Korra, Noatak doesn't return. Tarrlok paces back and forth in his cell until his legs ache, and as much as he tries to reassure himself that it can't be true, that Korra is too adept a fighter to allow anybody to take her, he still worries. When they come to deliver and take away his food, he asks the Equalist guards, as brusquely as he can, if there were any other prisoners taken during the raid.
They remain silent, and it's all Tarrlok can do to restrain his temper, to keep himself from snarling at them and delivering useless threats. They would have feared him, once. They would have respected him. Now, it's all too clear that the only thing they regard him with is contempt, and if only he had his bloodbending back - no, if only they ventured within arm's reach of the bars - then he would show them-
But they don't come within arm's reach of the bars, and they continue to ignore his questions, and it becomes too much. One day, Tarrlok swallows his pride, and demands that he be allowed to speak to Amon.
Noatak arrives the next day. He goes through the same routine, sitting in front of the cell and removing his mask - but only after he makes sure that the guards have cleaned Tarrlok's cell of all leftover food and water - and finally, he smiles blandly. "You wanted to talk to me, little brother?"
Tarrlok lets that pass. "Is Korra a prisoner?"
The second the words come out of his mouth, he realizes that he had misspoken. He should have followed Noatak's lead, and referred to her as the Avatar. Cool and composed had been what he had been aiming for, and angry and desperate is what had come out instead. To think that he had once mocked Korra for being an open book, and wearing her feelings on her sleeve…
Noatak watches him carefully. Of course he had picked up on the slip. "You seem oddly concerned about the possibility."
Tarrlok grits his teeth. "We are allies," he says. "She is the Avatar, and the best chance we have of defeating you and your terrorist movement. Of course I am concerned."
He can tell that his brother hasn't quite bought it. Noatak leans close, narrowing his eyes. "Really. Are the rumors true?"
Tarrlok feels his heartbeat accelerate at the non sequitur, and he curses himself for no longer being able to regulate it - in the presence of a man who is now the most skilled bloodbender in the world, no less. "What rumors?"
"Ludicrous ones," Noatak replies slowly. He doesn't blink. "Typical of cheap gossip magazines. Most sensible people pay no mind to them…" He pauses. "But there are some who suggest that the former Councilman Tarrlok fell in love with the Avatar, during their prolonged absence from Republic City. Some even say that he had feelings for her before then. Supposedly, that was why you allowed her to come back, you see. You couldn't bear to see her unhappy."
After the initial panic, for a second, all Tarrlok feels is confusion. A wild possibility occurs to him, that if he acknowledges the truth, any affection that Noatak has for him might affect his intentions toward Korra. Yes, I care for her, please don't hurt her-
"No," he says flatly. "Of course not. She's almost half my age, for the spirits' sake."
"Liar," Noatak says, without missing a beat, and the expression that slides over his face is both fascinated and disgusted. "I didn't believe it. The Avatar?" He laughs suddenly, short and sharp. "You're pathetic."
Tarrlok bristles at the insult, opening his mouth to retort, but Noatak cuts him off. "How do you put up with her? As misguided as you are, you're as intelligent as she is dense. The Avatar is just a foolish child. I don't know what you see in her."
"No," he says, narrowing his eyes. "I don't expect you to."
Noatak looks him over, shaking his head, as if really seeing him for the first time. "You're more foolish than I thought," he says, voice dripping derision. "I wondered why you had left the safety of wherever you were, to return to an active war zone where you would be prosecuted for your crimes. You were always about self-preservation, and then this. It seemed so out of character."
"I'm not selfish," Tarrlok replies coldly. "Her well-being was important to me. I made some sacrifices - I put her needs ahead of my own - because I care for her."
He had meant for the words to sting, and Noatak's shoulders tense, letting him know that they had hit home. "I-" he begins, his voice rising, and then he stops abruptly. When he speaks again, his tone is deliberate and carefully controlled, as Amon's always is. "And that is exactly what she wanted you to do. You played right into her hands. I see now that I might have underestimated the Avatar's intelligence."
Tarrlok blinks, unable to restrain the honest reaction. "What?"
"You don't honestly believe that the Avatar genuinely returns whatever feelings you have for her, do you?" There's amusement and pity on Noatak's face, and it makes Tarrlok want to reach out and do something, anything, to make it go away. "Returning her to Republic City is clearly all that she wanted from you."
The transparent attempt at manipulation makes him scoff. Amateur. Noatak has no finesse whatsoever; he's too obvious about it. "You have absolutely no idea what you're talking about," he says dismissively.
The shadow of a smile fades from Noatak's face. "It seems that you are as blindly arrogant when it comes to your personal life as you were your political dealings. You held the Avatar captive for the better part of a year," he snaps. "Aside from a few things, the two of you are as dissimilar as night and day. For the spirits' sake, you're old enough to be her father, and you think she still wants you?"
"Let me guess," Noatak interrupts, his features twisting with contempt. "The two of you were inseparable in the Earth Kingdom. The Avatar adored you as somebody can only adore their very first love, and that just made you feel very important, didn't it?"
Tarrlok forces himself to look away, to keep silent. When they had been children, Noatak knew him better than anybody else - sometimes it even seemed like he knew him better than he knew himself. He had thought that would have faded, over time. He's not supposed to be this easy to read.
"And…" Noatak trails off for a few moments. "You felt like, to deserve that love, to deserve her, you had to look out for her, and protect her. I'm sure you hated to see her hurt. That must have been why you decided to come back here, and of course, the Avatar must have been so grateful."
It's terrible, how truthful it is. "But now that you're back in Republic City, she seems distant, somehow," Noatak says sharply, and against his better judgement, Tarrlok looks back at him, into his eyes. "She doesn't make much of an effort to see you, does she? You can tell that she's doubtful; that she's having second thoughts. That she's being the fickle teenager you were afraid she would be."
A tense silence settles over them. "Your wits may have been addled, but you're a smart person, essentially," Noatak says, his eyes boring into him. "Surely you can see how you've been used."
It's the most juvenile of responses, something that he would have expected from one of Korra's friends, but Tarrlok snarls, reaching out and grabbing one of the bars uselessly. "Shut up! That was not at all how it was, and you don't know Korra at all!"
"You're clearly in denial," Noatak replies colorlessly, and something inside Tarrlok clenches up at how uncanny this is; how disconcerting it is to have someone reaching inside him and ruthlessly exposing all of his most private feelings and doubts. He leans forward, brushing his fingers across his mask. "As it happens, unfortunately, I do not have the Avatar."
All the breath leaves Tarrlok's body in a short, harsh gasp of relief, and he glares at Noatak wordlessly. His older brother returns the look, appearing utterly unaffected. "I thought you should know that nobody is looking for you," he says shortly. "Nobody has even made the slightest effort to find you. It looks as if moving you to to this special location was a waste of my time. My lieutenant did advise me that this cell should perhaps be saved for a more valuable prisoner than a disgraced ex-councilman under house arrest for his crimes…"
"Really," Tarrlok responds, not allowing the slightest bit of emotion to show on his face. "After that, how can I trust anything that you have to say?"
For a split second, Noatak's perpetual composure seems rattled, but the veneer is in place again soon enough. "I'm not sure." He shrugs. "I've told you what I know. You should trust your own instincts. Listen to what they tell you."
"I will, thank you."
The coldness and contempt in his voice rivals Yakone at his worst, and once again, Noatak blinks, the veneer cracking. "You've always enjoyed poetry," he says calmly. "I'm sure that you read the classic Tang piece from Yangchen's era."
He had. He owned all three volumes of Tang's complete collection of poems. Seventy poems in all. Five classics, only one of which was written during Yangchen's era.
"He mentioned that in every life, the Avatar - the chosen one, so to speak - has their own chosen one, the great love of their life." Noatak rolls his eyes slightly, making it clear what he thinks of this concept. "The next part was rather striking, if dramatic. The Avatar alone can move mountains, part seas, walk through fire, and into the most savage windstorms to be reunited with their love. They alone can surmount all obstacles."
He doesn't need to say anything more. The words hang over them clearly enough. And here you are, days, maybe weeks later, still in your windowless cell.
Tarrlok remains stubbornly silent, staring at a fixed spot in the wall behind Noatak's head. He repeats the words in his head like a mantra, and the fact that he has to attach them to a once-beloved older brother makes them unbearably bitter in his mouth. He is a liar. He cannot be trusted.
Shortly afterward, Noatak slides his mask on, becoming Amon again. He stands. "I'll be back tomorrow," he tells him, almost gently.
Tarrlok watches him go. The door shuts with a firm click-
-leaving him alone with his thoughts.
to be continued
As always, thank you so much to everybody who left their feedback on the last chapter, and thank you to everybody who's still following this story, for your patience. :) I truly appreciate it.