AN: Naturally I don't own this. Warnings for mental illness, murder, suicide attempts, suicidal tendencies, horror, and otherwise a lot of Very Dark And Upsetting Things.
Water is drawn from his lungs in a stream. When Tarrlok inhales again the air grates, sticks down his throat. His back arches. He can't breathe properly, struggles to escape his own ribs, knows something must have snapped already but can't identify what.
His shoulders are being held together. He gasps, tries to cough as everything burns his face burns. He tilts, off-balance in his own skull. The grip does not lessen even though he can't feel his right side at all, it's numb and the breath drives into him harder, irregular, uneven like a saw. Something else bubbles out through his lips—hot and wet and thick. He can't see. There are dark shapes flaring in front of his eyes. Spirits, his face is burning his eyes are BURNING the vice around him remains let me breathe I can't, I can't—
A hand presses, cold, into his chest. He tries to blink, barely recognizing at the back of his mind that his body is sagging into someone else while the edge of reality blurs. He's sinking, and he keeps sinking until everything around him is black and empty and there is nothing left of him to think at all.
As people speak, their words bleed together. Tarrlok has a sense of being submerged and unable to surface. The world is slow. Muted. Heavy.
He looks up. Only one eye opens.
Half of his face is bound in cloth. There's a solid surface beneath him. His legs are covered by blankets. Sunlight smears amber across the ceiling, which is otherwise white and plain.
He tries to raise a hand to his eye.
He makes no such connection.
"Councilman," Tarrlok starts to turn, hisses, stills. An arm slides under his back, eases him into a sitting position. Everything wavers—he has to lean. The uniform beside him is light blue. Behind that sits a pitcher of water, an open doorway, a cabinet of gauze and blades. Some figures beyond seem familiar, others don't. They stand in shadow.
It has been silent for some time.
"What…" He doesn't recognize his own voice. He's not sure if the hoarseness is due to damage or lack of use.
"It's been several weeks now," he knows Councilwoman Nao by ear before she steps into view—defined by red dresses and traditional jewelry. If there is any emotion in her it doesn't register. "You were found floating at sea after the explosion. Amon's body has been recovered, the revolution…" She stops, as if unsure how much information he needs.
Tarrlok's mouth parts. He has no answer.
On some level he understands this is a hospital room, that there are healers and politicians present, that the press want to be informed, that people will be demanding explanations for everything he's done. The information has no relevance.
He thinks of a mask looming over him, his senses stripped away, his legs buckling. He thinks of his brother's smile, his hand extended as if they can pretend this is all a bad dream. He thinks of snow and ice and being left, of telling his mother alone because Yakone wanted to believe the capable son would come back.
Noatak, who of course knew what he was doing and understood that there was no place for them, didn't even turn around when his brother decided to burn them both alive.
Tarrlok doesn't hear the words coming out of his mouth, notices only in an abstract sense that his hand is shaking violently. For all their concern, the others might as well be speaking in tongues. He doesn't realize when he starts screaming, or when attempts are made to restrain him and he hits, claws, twists to get anywhere else. He doesn't know where to go, so it doesn't matter that he ends up on the floor, face down, tangled in sheets without the strength to even get up.
Nobody approaches. As he spasms again, again, Tarrlok forces his mouth to his wrist and holds it there. The sound doesn't stop.
They explain to him, as if he were an infant, that he's only being put away for a short while. That it's for his own benefit. That he will have the best help money can buy. His lips twitch when their footsteps quicken on the way out.
He doesn't want his face bare, even after the damage has healed enough to make bandages unnecessary. They've been redressing them for weeks, and on the day they start to lead him out without finishing he stops in his tracks. One of the orderlies tries to tell him this is part of his recovery. Tarrlok ignores them and, almost mechanically, finishes the job himself. There is no intervention. He doesn't comment.
He finds himself with little to say, lately.
The first time he saw his reflection was under careful supervision. The skin there was twisted, raw pink like sinews exposed. What's left of his eye made him stop looking. When he staggered back he was guided to a chair. He held his head in his hand, shuddering as he inhaled once, twice, on as he caught himself wishing for his brother.
Tarrlok can't think about the man Noatak became. He can't think about whether choosing differently might have changed anything.
The mask is what he sees first.
His room is small, bleak, barely furnished. The floors are wooden and clearly haven't been cleaned for some time. His door is barred.
It is a moment of white passing by, red pouring down its forehead like a wound. There is no pause, no hesitation.
He doesn't move from his seat for a long time after that.
When it whispers his name, the voice a slit-throat rasp, Tarrlok cannot think to reply.
Silence unfolds in darkness.
He begs it to return.
There is rarely an answer. He finds that ironic.
He begins seeing things out of the corner of his eye. The hooded figure, porcelain closer to bone picked clean. It is unfocused, fleeting as a shadow. When Tarrlok looks directly he finds nothing there.
At first he apologizes, tries to explain himself only to have the words die on the tip of his tongue. It doesn't make any difference, because like everything else the damage is done and Noatak is gone and innocent people went to prison because of him and he's bloodbent the Avatar, the council, the chief of police. Three children. In the end he couldn't protect anybody. History will remember him as a corrupt, dangerous official and history will be right.
The doctors are watching him more closely now. They've found him hunched at the edge of his bed more than once having quiet, one-sided conversations with a ghost.
He wishes he could be angry.
As is, when he shouts at Noatak (lingering at the back of his mind, a dead thing) it just hurts.
Pacing, he demands explanations in a stream—one trailing into another and another still. Tarrlok needs to know why he was left alone, if he wasn't good enough, if their mother wasn't good enough, if they deserved Yakone. He starts to ask about weakness then catches himself because they both know that answer. He stops. Looks to the floor.
He continues, softer. Amon has hurt so many people over the years in the name of justice. In the name of equality. Ultimately he was a hypocrite who used bending to destroy. He wielded fear better than their father ever did.
And this power, this lie he repeated to himself as a mantra, became more important than anything else.
They aren't so different. But Tarrlok still wants to know if it was easy to cripple him, to lock him away, to force the truth about them both to the surface. He wonders if he would have been able to do the same.
"Answer me. Please."
Noatak says nothing.
One day he wakes up to find his brother, his brother as the child he remembers, standing over him. At first, neither of them moves or speaks.
"This is about revenge, isn't it?"
Noatak's expression doesn't even flicker. In a blink he's gone. Tarrlok is left feeling hollow, as if somebody has carved his insides out with a knife.
He considers that he might be truly sick, then decides he doesn't care.
They don't try to make him talk anymore.
The first thing he notices is the smell, which is like seawater and rancid meat and smoke dragging down his throat so he has to get back, has to get as far away as he can because he still remembers what this feels like.
The second thing he notices is the sound, a crack that draws his gaze to the entrance where Noatak stands, a puddle forming around his feet. Tarrlok looks higher and watches the mask, Amon's face splitting open like an eggshell. Pieces fall away one at a time. Clattering fills his ears when they hit the floor.
He finds bloated flesh, skin shredded-slick, nose twisted, teeth broken, eyes that are horribly familiar and horribly conscious watching him.
You're all I have left in the world.
When he wakes up his breath is ragged, his body soaked, the room empty. He buries his face into his knees and tries not to make any noise.
Knowing it was a dream doesn't help.
The door opens. He's in the chair now, holding a book he's not reading. He isn't sure how long he's been doing this.
He looks up.
Tenzin stands in the middle of the room, unblinking, jaw slack. Nothing new about him.
"Why would you be here?" he asks before the question has fully registered.
Like the politician he is, Tenzin rearranges himself in moments. His arms are at his side, his shoulders are stiff, and his gaze goes just over Tarrlok's shoulder. "I heard you were having trouble. I wanted to check in."
He chuckles. It's unnerving even to him, high and stuck in his throat. "And here I thought you hated me."
"I never hated you," The councilman rolls his eyes, grimaces half a moment later (at himself?), takes a step closer. His fingers weave together awkwardly. "Wanted to strangle you on occasion, but not…"
He waves him off. "It's fine." A beat "I might have done that on purpose. You always were an easy target." The smile doesn't sit right on his face.
Tenzin continues forward until he's beside him, rests a palm on his shoulder. The pressure is light, tentative, but it's there. "Tarrlok. What happened to you?"
Something that isn't quite amusement creeps over him. His lips contort to form a wrier expression while his eyebrow lifts of its own accord. "Well, I might have exploded. Slightly." He could roll his shoulder to free himself, but he doesn't. "Among other things."
Tenzin sighs. There is a period where neither of them speaks. Then, "Korra regrets leaving you."
He snorts, tosses his head back to examine the ceiling, doesn't comment.
"She wanted me to tell you that she can restore your bending."
This time Tarrlok does pull away. "Tell her not to bother."
Now, Tenzin blinks. "Why not?"
His eye slides shut. "Because I don't know what I would do."
He thinks he must be mistaken at first. Shadows moving, walls dripping, strange undulations over the floorboards that mostly go away if he shakes his head.
It's a temporary solution.
He can sense the water as it whispers below. When he looks more closely (his head hurts, he's exhausted but he can't sleep when this keeps happening he can't let himself sleep when he doesn't know what he'll dream) Tarrlok sees ripples forming, a mirrored pool before him.
The reflection is not his own.
Noatak always resembled their father when he was young. It's horrifying, how much he's grown to take after their mother instead. He has the shape of her jaw, her nose, her eyes. Of course she's dead too. Tarrlok has watched his own features become sharper over the years, harder, knows the contours of his very skull betray him as the bloodbender's son and can only pray that nobody notices the similarity.
But everyone knows now.
He kneels, and Noatak kneels with him.
"Whatever you want. Just… just take it already. Take it."
His brother's arms rise from the water, burns crawling over his fingers, his elbows, his collarbone, his head. A pair of hands wrap behind Tarrlok's neck.
He goes under.
There are so many people. A healer is asking what happened. He can't speak.
I should have drowned.
He watches the road through window grating. It's foggy out. Not many cars today.
"You should have said something."
Tarrlok turns. Tenzin is moving toward him, leans on the bedpost near his seat. The airbender's beard is frazzled, and if he was in a better mood he might have made a snide comment about it.
As is, he has no answer.
Tenzin exhales, slowly, as if he is very tired. "I'm sorry."
Why? You have absolutely nothing to do with this. You have never had anything to do with this, there's no point in you apologizing and I don't need your apologies anyway. Do you really think you can fix this by… by pitying me? Do you?
None of this seems to translate, and Tenzin doesn't shift posture or expression—eyes down, mouth pressed thin, back sloped.
He continues. "I can't say whether it would have made a difference if someone knew before everything started. It probably wouldn't have helped." Tarrlok waits. He doesn't point out the irony involved between their rivalry and their parents and the decisions they both made. "People are worried about you, you know."
The laugh escapes before he can stop it then continues because Tenzin is obviously startled and this entire situation is absurd and he's starting to sound a little hysterical but honestly who gives a damn at this point? This is ridiculous—he's become one of those depressing conversation pieces like the slums of Ba Sing Se and clubbing baby tigerseals because lets be honest, between his attempts to contain the revolution and pitting himself against the Avatar his public image has seen better days so unless they're still broadcasting his life story across the city people who have every reason to hate him are trying to be generous now but lets be realistic, he has done nothing to benefit this city nothing to benefit anyone he has done NOTHING but tear away at an unstable social structure for his own benefit when Yakone did it and Noatak did it and it was a mistake to think he could be, that he could—
Tenzin is kneeling beside him, holding him firmly (steadily) so that his forehead is about level with his shoulder. Tarrlok doesn't realize he's been speaking until he stops, and it doesn't sound very much like he's laughing anymore.
"Oh," he says, once, and his face has been wet for a while and it occurs to him that he should feel embarrassed about this but Tenzin already knows he can't tell thought from reality anymore and he sees his brother's death in his mind over and over again and nothing he will ever do can fix this.
So Tarrlok lets himself cry until he doesn't have the energy to keep going, and it isn't for some time afterward that Tenzin releases him.
His confession pours into the air. Nobody listens.
He still misses him. He misses the boy who closed his parka against the cold, who taught him to fish, who would whisper terrible stories at night when their parents thought them asleep. Who was willing to stand against their father but in the next moment abandoned him to the storm.
Tarrlok is not a child anymore. It shouldn't serve as a constant reminder that he is and has always been unworthy, unwelcome.
Amon no longer knew him, loved only the idea of his brother as a last resort. If the Equalists had succeeded he still might be rotting away in that cell, a different cell. They became strangers to each other standing on opposite sides of a war. Of course it mattered. He will never understand how Noatak could imagine otherwise.
He wants to hate him.
He wants to plead for forgiveness.
He wants to see him again and never see him again.
He wants to be free.
And yet, like a caged animal, he's afraid of what freedom will cost.
"You need to stop looking back." Tenzin watches him carefully. He's been visiting more often, offering news of events beyond this institution. The topics are uniformly positive and trivial. "You're only destroying yourself."
His smile is brief, like a match going out. No words escape.
Tenzin frowns, creasing his forehead. "I'm serious, Tarrlok."
"I never doubted you were." He sighs, and his shoulders fall. The chair creaks. "…It isn't as simple as you want it to be."
He thinks, absently, that Tenzin isn't much older than him. Fifteen years at the most. Somehow the difference always seems larger, and he wonders what kind of father Avatar Aang must have been to shape his son this way.
Or maybe it's just him.
"Of course not. But that doesn't mean it's impossible."
Turning away, he doesn't mention that he's tried this already. He doesn't mention dedicating his life to escaping his father's influence. He doesn't mention the sense that his innards are being gnawed, torn, twisted because he's failed and failed so thoroughly without realizing until it was too late. He doesn't mention being afraid.
"Why are you doing this?" Asks Tarrlok. His voice is low. For a moment he wonders if Tenzin even heard him.
The answer he receives is calm, as ordinary as discussing the weather.
"Because you're a better man than you give yourself credit."
There are a thousand arguments for this. They sit, trapped behind his teeth, and are swallowed back into him. He can't think.
When Tenzin continues, it is more subdued. "He didn't want this for you." Tarrlok lifts his gaze. "Why do you think you're still here?"
Before the explosion he remembers wind, a glove heavy on his hand, cold metal, the whir of a motor and scent of the ocean. Seeing Noatak go still over the steering wheel.
His brother has always been such a talented waterbender.
"Was it a mistake?" He hears himself ask. He's not sure whose choice he refers to and decides it doesn't make any difference.
"That isn't our place to know," says Tenzin.
They match eyes. A decision is reached.
Years later Tarrlok is leaving Republic City by ship. He stands alone, suspended under an overcast sky and looks down.
The water beckons.
He makes his farewell.