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In the midst of the frozen world, there is a flash of fire.

In the midst of the howling winter, Mako's birthday whispers past.

In the last snowfall of the season, he realises that he now is nine and must be even stronger for his still six-year-old brother, currently asleep in his embrace.

Mako's left arm is trapped in the hollow of Bolin's neck, but his right is free to stroke his brother's hair. With the thunderstorm raging outside, he knows he, too, would curl and go to sleep in his parents' arms if he could. At least Hai is with them, perched on a cushion, her hand following the curve of her belly. "Another week or two," she replied when the earthbender became curious. "But it could be today." Not today today. Today she is unusually quiet, devoid of her snark, her normally piping-hot breakfast reduced to some cold white rice. Neither Mako nor Bolin remembers how to complain, so none does. Yet the atmosphere of unease hangs over them, the electric charge of the lightning outside spinning webs of blue and gold behind his eyelids, transforming into the white of a blizzard, the frost upon a lake, the pale shade of Daddy's skin just before—

Gritting his teeth, he forces the memory to slide back into the poisoned pool beneath his mind and stay there, roiling with the others in a never-ending story to see which one will surface. Hai makes a noise, the first she has all morning. "I'm tired of lying to you. They told me to keep my mouth shut. But you need to know. Today," she announces suddenly. For a moment, Mako assumes she means the baby, but it's a different sort of emotion on her harsh features. "Today, you two need to run. He is going to get you, mark my words. It's closing in on spring, and the spring runs will start."

"I keep hearing that word." Mako is surprised at how composed he is, as though a year in age has abruptly turned him a thousand times wiser. "But I do not know what it means."

"Don't you know why you're here?" She fixes her cold gaze on him; he feels it burrowing through his spirit when he glances away. "Of course they didn't say." He shakes his head. "The Agni Kais work with prostitution. Every winter, they collect children from the streets who are pretty enough to attract the attention of certain trash." Mako's eyes widen, his heart sinking into his stomach. The words have yet to click, but Hai's tone murmurs of dangerous beasts lurking in the shadows, waiting for the fire to extinguish for an instant, attacking without warning and devouring without mercy. "Take benders, which are prestigious. Sell them to the rich men who can buy their own laws. Those men? They're going to rape you. I should have warned you earlier." Her fingers press into the fabric of her dress as though the wrinkled lines were bands of platinum protecting her child. "I can't do anything. They would take all I have away from me."

The ground is no longer beneath him, a pit of darkness roiling instead. Truthfully Mako believes he has passed out again, because there is no way their chance of reclaiming their lives has been a sham. Stranger danger. The phrase echoes in his mind, bounding and rebounding on the edges of his conscious. "They're going to sell us?" His breathing moves more quickly, his heart a sun-maddened ostrich horse with a river always out of reach. "Why didn't you stop us from coming here? Why aren't you stopping all of this?"

"She can't." The beast's roar awakens Bolin, who snaps from Mako's arms, his expression one of indignant annoyance. Yet the firebender's heart has ceased to beat, swapped with a body made of immotile ice. "I thought better of you, Hai. Looks like a break from whoring has made you soft. Slut." His red mouth curves into a smirk. "Nani, restrain her."

The formerly kind woman has been transformed into a terrible monster of smoke and ash. "With pleasure," she grunts, flames spilling from her palms. Everything moves quickly, too quickly, and Hai falls back, Nani's claws about her wrists, her amber eyes cast down, glazed over, as if the Spirit World has come all too soon for her.

"What are you doing?" Bolin steps forward, and Mako's name returns to him. A fire springs into life; he stares at the beast, his emotions sunk into a vortex, his every muscle quivering and trained to protect his brother should anything happen. "Why are you hurting Hai? Get away from her!"

The beast sniggers icily, a sound not unlike that of the lizard crow's caws. "I'm testing my wares for my dear clients. Come here, bitch." He raises his hand, a whip of flame snaking from his fingers, and cracks it at the earthbender, who throws up a wall of rock, evading the inferno for seconds prior to being caught between the wall and the evil thing's hip. "So you want to play? All the better."

Time freezes into place, the final word of the beast's drawn out. An otherworldly darkness seeps through Mako's chest and limbs, and though he almost fights it, his brother's yelp of pain and panic is enough to send him over the edge. The heat in his cupped palm blazes forth with all of his strength, collapsing him to the floor, slicing through the air, about to incinerate the beast, but the evil thing coolly lifts his arm, and the fires disappear as though they never were.

Getting cake.

Bolin screams—the beast leans in, hunger splayed across his face—and a flame arcs across the room, knocking the evil thing aside. As the earthbender leaps for Mako's embrace, Hai, an unconscious Nani at her feet, coughs from the smoke surrounding her.

Pure malice darkens the beast's eyes. "You traitorous whore!"

She gazes calmly at Mako.


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