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A frozen world.
Winter arrives with teeth and claws, sinking its fangs into the city amid a flurry of snowy tears and icy blood, its baited breath chilling the waters to freeze, its irises grey with hail and sleet. Windows slam shut, doors lock themselves closed, the denizens of the concrete forest preparing to sleep until the feathery throats of birds herald a coming spring, their mighty fortresses well-stocked with caches of food, moats of yellowed grass or cracked cement separating them from the rest. But here and there, in the rivers between the towering skyscrapers and groaning metal reams, there come stirrings borne of the colour red.
Cardinals, crimson against the white.
Yue Bay bids its waves to continue, fighting valiantly against the frost biting at the edges, and amid waters dominated by fishermen's prides, cruise-liners, and giant trading vessels of plumes of soaring smoke and hulls of tempered steel there gently rocks a tiny canoe, an island unto itself, the three inhabitants forming a bubble through which nothing else can come. Mako folds himself into the tiniest space possible at one side of the canoe and observes the world. The days of stealing winter fruit, rationing the triad supplies, and watching Bolin and Pabu frolic together roll into each other, punctuated merely by the necessity of sleep.
He realises, slowly, that this is the easiest winter he has ever been through. For once, he has food, and plenty of it, and that in turn fuels his inner fire to heat himself and Bolin through the frigid nights. Heatbending sparks a curious feeling in his chest somewhere between regret and longing, the blue of Miza's eyes filling his dreams and awakening him with sensations he doesn't recognise and doesn't entirely understand.
Miza . . .
But she's gone now. A symbol of the triads he left and never wishes to return to again, his life a step up above them. And as much as he misses her and wants almost nothing more than to see her again and hear her breaths and wonder at the oceans captured in her irises—so utterly contradictory to the overwhelming fires captured in her palms—that little almost is the key keeping him from going back.
And there's nothing he can do about the fact that she didn't go with him. She made her decision.
Yet he wants to see her again badly enough to make his chest ache and his hands ball involuntarily into fists at the thought of the triad doing anything, anything to harm her.
For now, there's no point in thinking about her or imagining her silent ecstasy if he were to return in a blazing glory. Instead, he turns his thoughts to the newest addition to their little family.
The fire ferret.
Mako can't say he ever expected to pick up a pet on the street, but that pet is something to both brothers. To Bolin, the firebender guesses, Pabu is a distraction, a plaything, an activity to carry on and stave off boredom while the older brother is off lurking in the shadows of the market or waiting patiently in the bowels of Watertown for a chance to bring home dinner. But to him, the fire ferret is different, far different.
One step closer to getting off of the street and returning to how things were. No, they never had a pet, but if he can just prove that he can take care of one—that he can find enough food and heatbend them all to keep them warm until the sun decides to return.
Because it will return. It has to, doesn't it?
But how can he put faith in something he doesn't know is out there? Maybe the world has been plunged into an eternal winter, or maybe the spring will be late and arrive only after their dwindling food supplies run out and force them back onto the street, like those last days in their old house. He ponders what became of it. It's passed into legend, Mako decides. It doesn't exist any longer, having sunk into the ground with the sickening noise of wrenching boards and shattering windows, the last memories of his past life swallowed whole by the merciless mud.
He can't imagine anything else.
Though he avoids the streets whenever he can, Mako finds his routes through the city leading him dangerously close to the statue of Fire Lord Zuko, his feet taking him along familiar sidewalks no matter what his mind says. Children more shadow than substance watch him with sunken eyes, their ribs like keyboards running down their sides, the winter itself playing a melody with long white fingers, whispering its name in their ears, reminding them that soon, ever so soon, death will come to collect. Still others clutch their swollen bellies, crying out for the innards pressing against the taut skin, their rags soiled with the stench of their disease, tears trickling down their faces and wails tearing from their throats, begging the agony to stop. Worms. Mako shudders and moves on, stepping out of the way of the watery brown left behind to stain the snow, a disturbing memento of the pain.
A few are much better off, their stomachs not bulging outwards but filled with enough food to keep the Hunger at bay. And in a twisted spiral these few retain their strength and use to better themselves all the more, pushing down the weak, trampling them beneath bare feet and falling snow.
He's one of them.
And though he's never pushed aside or fought anyone, he's stolen. He's taken food, and what he's taken, no one else can. What heat he infuses into himself will never warm the freezing street rats.
He doesn't want to know how many people he's hurt.
Maybe he's not the good guy after all.
But on the street, there are no heroes, no villains.
There are only those who survive.
And those who don't.
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