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He remembers the children.
The children on their corners, chipped cups rattling with change or shivering in illness-weakened hands, calling out to the passers-by.
The children with their hollowed cheeks and sunken eyes speaking of a world beyond this one, a world of hunger and of skin tight over ribs.
The children with tissues splitting to reveal gleaming white bone, dry froth filling their lipless mouths, the soft jelly of the eye pecked away clean.
Just the same as the fall before, but for one difference.
This time, when he steps onto the uneven sidewalk, Bolin's hand clenched tightly in his, he does not walk among them, but above them.
Far along the dusty, desolate road ripping through the city—he finds it interesting that the statue of one of the great heroes of the Hundred Year War overlooks the deepest underbelly of the city the former Fire Lord helped create—the same death is happening. The same starvation. The same damning of the city's children.
The same thief slitting open the throat of the naked child with a scrap of dumpling in her mouth. The same Satomobile swerving past, an elephant rat squeaking as it is crushed under the wheel along with the wrist of a young boy attempting to catch it in a last desperate effort to eat dinner. The same heat driving the crowds into the gutter, tongues lapping at the water splashing up from the sewers, mixed with Satomobile exhaust and faeces, one of the jostling throng pushing another into the sewer itself, the victim's leg caught, her face contorted in her unnatural torment, another of the crowd jerking her out and forcing her against the sidewalk and himself into her.
The same everything.
But the brothers have managed out of the cycle. Somehow.
With bending, he supposes. And with determination. And . . . and with a need to protect his brother.
Suddenly, Mako recalls something. His hand slips into his pocket, and he finds the metal screw still comfortably waiting there with its thin threads. "Bo?"
His brother glances at him. "Hi Mako." He grins and pats the satchel containing the map; Mako doesn't understand how Bolin can ignore the skeleton-with-skin that rushes up behind him, only to fall over, the handful of rice spilling like blood onto the street, and it might as well be, the way the denizens of the underworld attack it, every grain rushed underfoot another life passed sometime in the night.
But somehow the children survive. Some of them. And new ones are born every day or are abandoned. It is a vortex of death sucking away the life of the city. And one day the city will be nothing but a boulevard of broken dreams.
He remembers someone saying it, but he doesn't quite know who, the recollection just out of his reach, the tip of his tongue caught in the newt cat's claw.
The firebender snaps to with a start: Bolin's eyes have remained as bright a green as the day before their lives rearranged like marbles in a shaken jar. He can't get lost in these reveries. He can't. The moment he loses sight of—
He's doing it again.
"Here, Bo, I wanted to give you something." The screw leaves a red mark in his palm when he uncurls his fingers, and his brother lets out a squeal of delight.
"My screw!" The earthbender snatches it from Mako's hand, turning it over in his, his entire face lit up like a fire. He looks up at the firebender, his gaze filled with more love than Mako thought existed on the earth.
A flame blazes not two metres away, his bending alerting him to the inferno that springs into life, and in an instant he has spun Bolin behind him and is facing a man with a hat pulled low over his face. "What's that in the bag?" With a hand bearing the tattoo of a snarling dragon, he points to the satchel, his dull eyes hinting at a secret fury. "What's that? What's that?"
"It's nothing." He notices the fire burning in own palm, a seed of flame about to burst from his need to protect Bolin. "Maybe you should step away, sir."
"Sir." The man cackles and snaps his head left and right. "Now where do you see a sir, you ragamuffin?"
Mako sees the to-be-thief's arc of attack begin, and he instantly raises his arm, a semicircle of fire exploding outwards, the infernos mingling in the middle. The man leaps back and moves in to strike again; Mako reacts with a kick to head, but he hesitates for a moment, whispers of murderer in the back of his mind: The jet of fire misses the opponent by a centimetre, and his side crunches agonisingly. The man punches an uppercut, but Mako catches his wrist and twists his shoulder, kneeing him in the stomach with strength pulled from he doesn't even think about where. Abruptly the world spins, his shoulder blades scream, fire slashes down his spine like a razor blade. The sidewalk meets him, his elbows and knees scraped across the unforgiving stone, but he twists about, flaming at everything to keep the man away from his brother.
Through his vision filmed with the tears of pain, he watches the man fly backwards through the air and crash into a dumpster. Hands close around him, dragging him up; every time the skin on his spine is stretched, the agony burns him more deeply. Bolin shakes him. "Mako? Mako, are you okay? Mako?"
Slowly, he blinks, trickles of wetness sliding down his cheeks. "Bo, what just—?" Bolin shrugs, but the firebender notices a brief flicker of darkness in the emerald irises. He glances at the satchel. "Never mind. We should go." He makes to walk, but the pain in his spine casts him o the ground, convulsing from the deadened weight.
The burn races his heart.
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