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The shadows part, a half-opened window on the opposite side of the apartment letting through a thin current of light, an unrolled carpet on which particles of dust dance and spin. Beyond the window, the courtyard tree grows strong, roots still pushing up the cobblestones.

Outside, the world is frozen.

And inside, so is he.

His breath is caught somewhere at the base of his throat, his tongue an immotile lump in his mouth. The blood running through his veins alternates hot and cold, fire and ice, desire and fear.

"Dad," Mako says again, but this time his voice rises on the final note. A question. The floorboards creak quietly when he walks across them, his gaze riveted on the photograph, on Dad's face, on the one person he thought he would never see again. As he nears it, he stoops slightly, surprised at the height he didn't know he had. The muscles in his right arm twinge; gently he grasps the frame between his thumb and index finger, his other fingers slowly coming to rest on the painted wood as though not quite believing.

The man in the photograph smiles widely at him, his black hair somewhat spiked at the front, his jawline sharp. Like an older version of Mako, but different in ways he can't name. The image he memorises, branding it into his mind, terrified of the fact that for a moment he couldn't remember what Dad looked like. He's dressed in some sort of uniform, one that Mako has never seen him. With his arm around a beautiful young woman. But not Mom. Her face is too angular, the hair too dark, make-up plastered on her face in ways Mom never does. "Never did," he reminds himself softly, wondering at the woman in the photograph, a faint familiarity striking him. But—

"So you found out."

His sudden inhalation burns his lungs. Swivelling about on his heel, Mako stares, his grip tightening on the picture frame, ready to protect it with his life if he has to.

Folding her arms across her chest, her tight shirt revealing the scars across her stomach, Jira smirks, but he notices the corners of her mouth twitching downwards. "So now. You. Know." Each word is punctuated by a step towards him. "Now give me the photo back."

No. He hasn't seen Dad in so long, and now he finally has Dad's photograph in his grasp, has it, has it, has it, and he's not going to lose it. No. He can't.

"It's Dad." The frame presses into his chest, the sharp corner sinking in to leave a mark on the skin above his heart. "It's my dad." Mako glances up at her, tears prickling somewhere behind his eyes, his heartbeat slowed to almost nothing. Emotions flicker across her face: Anger, disbelief, concern, longing, grief, back to concern. Emotions he has never imagined Jira as having in her entire life. "Please, Jira. It's the only thing I have of him. This and . . . my scarf." Wetness streaks down his cheeks now. He hates himself, hates himself for the weakness, for breaking down in front of the woman who whipped him and caused him to cry out and made him suffer like nothing else.

She throws her head back and laughs, a sound dry and empty as the shell of a rotten fruit. "You think you're the only person who wants something of him?" Somewhere behind the terror of having to let go of Dad all over again, Mako distantly hears the change in her voice, the street accent slipping. "You don't even know who your father was, do you?"

Fear gives way, just barely, to confusion and to the curiosity. He lowers his arms, his grip still tight enough on the frame to hurt his fingers. "Who he was?" the firebender echoes, blinking in confusion.

Jira's mouth quirks, her eyes dulling; she looks away, for once her menacing power over him drained down to her soles. "He was an officer in the United Forces, kid." Her voice softens into that tone grown-ups so often take to talk about the past. Mom and her stories, whispered in the stillness of the night, the timbre speaking what mere words couldn't. Her love. "But his heart wasn't in it. He never wanted to fight, more to travel the world, and the Forces were the only way he could." Her expression hardens, something sharp and cruel glittering in the amber-brown. "And then he met your dear mother, such a lovely young girl." She glares at Mako now, her lips forming silent curses directed at him. "Oh, but she wanted to travel too, and he loved to spin a tale of his journeys across the globe, and la-di-da wasn't she simply the viper cat's pajamas? So he went and deserted the Forces." Jira pauses. He can sense her hesitation. "Went and deserted me. Guess it doesn't matter, 'cause it's not like he ever gave two—" Jira swallows, closing her eyes for a moment. For a fleeting moment, Mako sees a haunting echo of a younger woman, of a beautiful woman, with an angular and dark hair.

The woman in the photograph.

Suddenly the frame, far from being something warm and sturdy and solid, a memory that will never, ever leave him, has become something full of ashes and regret and questions of what could have been.

And then her peaceful face is ruined by a grimace. "Now give me the photo."

This time, Mako does. "H-how do you know him?"

Returning the photograph to the nightstand without looking at it, Jira laughs again, bitter and jaded and fraught with ice. "Ya cert'nly didden get 'is brains, did ya now?" She shakes her head. "It doesn't matter. I'll fix the kitchen. You get the Spirit World out of here, a'ight kid?"

He blinks, his heart squeezing, his voice betraying his incredulity. "You're helping me?"

A half-moon smile curved her lips.

"He would've wanted me to."

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