Following up from the art conglomeration, finally putting my Rule 63!Tarrlok fragments into a fic. This is just the first part, since it’s a perpetual, self-indulgent, id-satisying WIP (I mostly plug away at it when I can’t sleep). Also, I remembered why I’d first used Takara instead of the more obvious Taroka/Taraka - it was originally a double genderswap, and Nataka/Taraka was way too cutesy. So the Rule 63 Tarrlok/Noatak/Lieutenant has Takara, not this one.
title: the edge of darkness (1/?)
Noatak was three years old when his sister was born. He could never remember anything about those first few years, though, and as a small boy refused to believe they had ever occurred.
Taraka was younger, yes. His little sister, always his little sister, needing him to guide and protect her. However, some part of him could never accept the logical conclusion, that there had once been a time without Taraka, that he had lived for three years in a world where she simply did not exist. Even much later, when everything was different, Taraka never entirely left his thoughts. How could she? He had abandoned her to save himself, and so spent the rest of his life trying to save everyone else. Fighting for the oppressed of Republic City might begin to make up for failing his own sister.
It was almost funny. He looked down at hundreds of rapt faces and saw only Taraka, gazing at him in adoration, or cringing under their father’s iron hand. Meanwhile, Taraka herself sat in her office and plotted his destruction.
He didn’t blame her. Not as such. He had left her to Yakone’s tender mercies, left her to bear their father’s vengeance and cruelty alone until she broke. He would have turned out no better had he stayed: probably rather worse.
He collected every scrap of information he could find about her. She was thirty-six now, a tall woman with a sly smile and cold eyes, her girlish prettiness long since replaced by a hard, arrogant beauty. No more than a few traces of his sister remained in Councilwoman Taraka; when he initially stumbled across her photograph in the paper, he recognized her more by her beaded tails, still swinging over her shoulders, then her features. Had he first encountered her in person and not in print, he would not have known her but for her blood.
She had become another Yakone, he concluded regretfully, though smoother than their father could ever have dreamed of being. Over the radio, her speeches were articulate and eloquent, each word falling precisely into place, her voice warm, rich, persuasive. In fact, she sounded more like Amon than Yakone, and he didn’t know whether to be amused or horrified by it.
Also like Amon, and unlike Yakone, she used her bending as a tool and not the sole foundation of her influence. It had undoubtedly been necessary to her initial rise to power; of course it would have been necessary, here. However, he had no doubt that her control over the Council and, through it, the city, owed far more to her personal charisma and ambition than to waterbending.
Behind his mask, his lips twitched into a small, painful smile. She was a monster, his baby sister, but at least she was a magnificent one.
Then he looked at his hands, his waterbender’s hands.
At least they both were.
He thought they had been pleasant children, as children went. Taraka was, certainly: a good-natured girl, always looking up to him. She burst into tears or gales of laughter with about equal ease, ran after him on her short chubby legs, clung to his hand or his leggings. She could be a little petulant; she’d been a sickly baby and was always rather delicate - though perhaps he’d only thought so. As a brother, Noatak was not just bossy but fussy; his parents laughingly called him little mother.
Before. Before waterbending. Nobody had laughed much afterwards.
But he fussed over her then, too, helped her with her bending, felt more protective of her than ever. He couldn’t understand why he got so jittery when their parents separated them, their mother pulling Taraka aside to teach her healing. It was one of the few things she ever insisted on: there’d been a loud argument, full of words like custom and tradition and culture, but Yakone had finally agreed, as long as it didn’t slow her progress in her other lessons. Noatak made sure it didn’t.
Noatak hadn’t been able to understand, either, why he kept feeling an urge to place himself between Taraka and their father. At waterbending, of course, but also at dinner, out walking, any time the three of them occupied the same area. More and more often, he gave in to it. In retrospect, he’d been ridiculously obtuse, but then, he’d only been—he counted back—eight. Taraka, therefore, would have been five.
Within two years, they advanced far enough that their father revealed his identity and began to teach them bloodbending. Taraka hated it from the start, with a violent, unreasoning passion that Noatak couldn’t talk her out of.
And I - I enjoyed it.
He felt more sickened by the remembered pleasure in bending than what he’d done with it. Taraka’s instincts had been better than his own by far. Did she still hate her bending? She’d grown into a domineering, power-hungry woman, but no whiff of scandal had ever touched her. If she was bloodbending, nobody had the slightest suspicion. But then, she already had the city in the palm of her hand. She didn’t need it, did she?
He almost envied her.
Their childhood did not end with their initiation into torture. Noatak was nine, Taraka six. They were children still, however brutalized. No: bending, rather than cutting childhood short, stretched it out, turned it into a vast wasteland with no end in sight. The children’s days continued on, all ice and blood and misery, and achingly slow.
The next year they were eleven and eight, moving from rodents to small predators. Then twelve and nine - that was the year they bloodbent under half and crescent moons, conquering the new moon a few months later. Thirteen and ten. Fourteen and eleven. By then, each could bend entire herds at any time, Noatak with his mind alone.
They hadn’t drifted apart, exactly. If anything, they were more constantly together than before. Without any dependency on the moon, the “hunting trips” had grown more and more frequent; the siblings were now full-fledged bloodbenders and very little short of master waterbenders. Their five years of secrecy and power seemed to ring about them, binding them together and dividing them from everyone else. The other children in the village were positively alien to them; they wouldn’t have associated with them even had Yakone not forbidden it.
At the same time, there was little of their old laughing camaraderie. Noatak had retreated so deep within himself that only bloodbending and danger - especially danger to Taraka - could make him feel more than half-alive. He felt a confused distaste for their once awe-inspiring father, and only mildly affectionate contempt for their mother, too weak and blind to see what was happening right under her nose. She’d even stopped fighting for Taraka’s healing lessons, destroying the last scrap of respect he’d had for her. As for Taraka herself -
That was more complicated. Taraka alone understood, had endured something of what he had. Not all. From the first, Noatak had done everything he could to distract their father from her. Though he relished his power, it was for Taraka that he constantly pushed himself towards perfection, drawing the full weight of Yakone’s expectations onto his own shoulders.
Yakone still terrorized her, of course. At eleven, Taraka was somber-eyed and highly-strung, thoroughly cowed by their father. But with Noatak taking up so much of his attention, Yakone inflicted far less on her than he would have otherwise.
Noatak loved her. Yet he resented her, too. Yakone’s vengeance pressed down on him, day and night, occupying his thoughts and haunting his dreams. He slept poorly, often leaving the tent he and his sister shared to crouch at the edge of the nearby cliff, wrestling with the reality of their purpose. It was up to him. Yakone said so often enough, and Noatak would have known without being told.
How could Taraka exact vengeance on an unsuspecting city when she still needed her brother to protect her? She was a bloodbender, the greatest in the world after him. She should have been more than able to look after herself. And if she had, they could have shared the burden between them. If only she were stronger: less fragile, he thought, and a chilly, remote part of him added, less weak -
He pushed the thought away. It wasn’t fair, and he prided himself on always, always being fair. The three years between them had never been wider. He was fourteen, almost a man. Taraka was a little girl. And he was her older brother. It was his job to look after her. His duty, more than any vengeance of their father’s.
Besides, while she didn’t have the stomach for revenge, and had to be prodded even into bloodbending, he knew she did what she could. He couldn’t get a cut on his fingertip without Taraka rushing over to heal it, and - well, he still said the wrong thing to their father, sometimes. The pain never lasted long, with Taraka there.
She’d fuss over him even after he was healed. He … he didn’t need her or anything, and it was his own fault for being so stupid, but after something like that happened, it was a comfort to have someone completely on hisside. Their mother never even noticed; Taraka healed his bruises and fixed his hair and clothes, saying little even at her most indignant. Occasionally, he had to keep her from confronting their father - Taraka, who could scarcely confront her own reflection. More often, she just wrapped her arms around him and pressed her face into his shoulder.
If it happened during the day, Takara spent the rest of that day marching determinedly after him, following him everywhere he went, while he said he supposed he didn’t mind that much. When it happened late at night, she stayed curled up against him, and Noatak just gave a long-suffering sigh and made sure his blankets were properly tucked around her, then let his hand rest on her shoulder or hair. He slept a little better that way.
She never cried. Neither of them did, any more than they laughed.
He couldn’t do nearly as much for her, when it happened the other way around. He stayed with her while she healed herself, his silence awkward rather than soothing, and finally reminded her that she was three years younger, and so far beyond anyone her age that it was almost funny. Undoubtedly she would master psychic bloodbending by the time she was eighteen or nineteen - well before Yakone had. She didn’t seem particularly reassured.
Noatak continued to slip off by himself, leaning his chin on his knees while his thoughts chased each other around his brain. Taraka was never far behind. Sometimes, he truly longed to be alone, and then she kept her distance. Most of the time, he just wanted to get away, and she simply watched over him, the flow of water in her body thrumming a low, soothing beat inside his skull. She didn’t say anything, though, and walked so softly that he couldn’t even hear the tread of her boots.
He never said so, but he liked having her there. She might not be able to help much when it came to avenging their father, but her devotion calmed his frantic brain a little. He would never be alone; Taraka would follow him anywhere. He even, rather guiltily, liked the way she looked at him when he turned to go back home, her eyes wide and anxious.
On one of the occasions when he actually did want solitude, he hurried away, past his usual cliff. He felt no hint of Taraka. He was tired of her nervous solicitude and impatient with her frailty: it was better to stay away when he was like this. He leaned against a tall rock, so distracted by his own thoughts that he didn’t notice an approaching pack of wolves - hungry wolves - until he heard their growls. In his alarm, he tripped over a half-buried boulder, scraping his face on the rough edges. That didn’t prevent him from smashing their bodies into the ground, of course, but it wasn’t very impressive. He was glad nobody had been there to see it.
He revised his opinion when he tried to stand. He could, but pain darted through his right ankle and up his leg. He sat down, slumping back against the standing rock, and wishing very much that he had brought Taraka with him, humiliation or no humiliation. However, before he’d done anything but think wistfully of cool healing water and worried eyes, she was there: first blood and heart and lungs, then a distant figure running towards him.
Taraka, usually soft-hearted, didn’t spare a glance for the dead wolves. “Noatak! Noatak, are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” he muttered.
Her panicked expression faded.
“Don’t be stupid.” Taraka knelt beside him. She drew a strand of water from the snow, cupped it in her hand, then held it against his face. The stinging faded. “Where else?”
Noatak sighed and pointed to his ankle. “I don’t know if you can - ” She was already laying her hand over the injured joints, the pain sharpening. He caught his breath; then it, too, vanished. Taraka rocked back on her heels and considered him with that measuring look she got sometimes. Noatak didn’t much like it.
“I didn’t hear you,” he said, collapsing all his powers of observation into the word. “How’d you know I was here?”
Taraka smoothly shifted to sitting cross-legged, her hands neatly folded. She stared down at them. “I followed you.”
“Yeah, I’d figured that out,” he said sharply. “Why didn’t I hear you?”
She didn’t look up. “If I don’t get too close, you can’t.”
It was the quiet assurance in her voice that gave her away. She’d done this before. She had a very clear idea of what constituted too close.
Noatak narrowed his eyes at her. “How close is that?”
“I don’t know. Further than I can see,” mumbled Taraka. She tangled her fingers together. “I have to follow your tracks to find you.”
Noatak didn’t know whether he should be outraged, or impressed at his own range, and at the sheer amount of effort she must have put into measuring it without giving herself away. How many times through the years had he called out irritably, I know you’re there, Taraka - ? How many times hadn’t he?
“You’ve been experimenting on me?”
At that, she finally lifted her eyes. “No! I mean - I had a sort of idea of it - I just - I didn’t want you to get mad at me, but I have to make sure you’re okay!”
“Why wouldn’t I be okay?” He waved at the wolves.
Taraka let out an exasperated puff of air. “It’s not about bending. It’s - look, you get these weird moods sometimes. You just run off without thinking, or … you don’t think things through when you’re like that, you know you don’t. If I’m around, I can talk to you, but I can tell when you don’t want me there. I get worried, okay? It’s not a big deal.”
“You’re … trying to protect me?” He struggled just to wrap his mind around it.
She looked sheepish.
“That’s my job, little sister,” he said, but without any heat. He got to his feet, helping her up and dusting the snow off her clothes, then looked at her thoughtfully. “How can you tell?”
“When I want to be alone.”
Taraka shrugged. “I don’t know.” Her lips curved into a small, unconvincing smile, her eyes as somber as ever. “Mom says I’m a people person.”
I didn’t want you to get mad at me, she’d said. He wasn’t, very often, but their father - she’d had plenty of practice at tiptoeing around Yakone’s moods, figuring out when to try and talk him down, when to stay away, when there was nothing to do but fall into obedience. She said the wrong thing a lot less than Noatak did, for all that it was so much worse when she did.
People person. Right.
“Come on,” he said, flicking more snow off her shoulder. He had to fight the urge to keep his hand there. She was little, but not that little. “Let’s go home.”
He strode past her, back towards the village, and Taraka trudged after him.