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Step. Step. Step. Light. Step. Step. Breathe. Step. Ahead. Run.

Up a ladder, through an opening, and bright light. Light. Fresh air. Air.

Bolin is the first one out, his hands pulling up out of the trapdoor in moments, and Mako follows: Night-time, a full moon lighting with a silvery shine the path through the shadows of the street, a lone street lamp pooling warming yellow light in the road where they stand. The earthbender starts to laugh, lifting his arms, be engulfed by the freedom swirling around him, the late hour wind whipping through his hair, kissing his bare skin, welcoming him back from the choking, air-less world. His hands shiver with the memory of being so scared he wasn't able to earthbend, but he laughs all the more loudly, shattering the still silence, to make up for it.

His brother shushes him; Bolin sees the reason clouding his golden eyes: Fear of being caught. He watches Mako scour their whereabouts, and at last he bobs his head. "Yes," his brother says to Hai, her outline stark and foreign against the light of the street lamp. "I know where we are."

"Good. I can't get tangled up with the triads a second time." Her fingers flutter by her belly for a moment like sparrowkeets alighting on a newly leafed branch. It tenses into a fist, her fingernails jabbing into her flesh, a thin vein on her arm bulging in her barely contained anger.

"Why were you in the sewers?" Mako asks quietly.

Bolin grins at her, eager for the answer, and moves to touch her arm encouragingly. Hai steps backwards, an expression he cannot name sweeping over her sharpened features for a moment. "Don't worry about it. Ignorance is bliss."

His brother begins to speak, but Bolin interjects: "Are you leaving, Hai?"

"I have to. Take care of yourselves." Her amber eyes become moist, then harden to glowing coals. "Keep your noses clean. I can't rescue you every time."

Mako nods. "Thank you."

"May the spirits watch over you," Bolin offers, the wind whispering the words through him without him wondering what they speak.

Hai turns around, a strand of raven hair snapping in the night-time wind; passing from light to shadow, she becomes a silhouette in the dark, her form mingling naturally with the black. "They don't exist." Dumbfounded, Bolin dashes forward half a metre, desperate to wave her down and question the meaning behind the seemingly unbelievable sentence, but she has melted into her surroundings, disappeared perhaps forever, and he pitches forward, the road rushing up to meet him. A hard grip on his wrist, a dribble of wetness sliding down his arm. Mako pulls him up, and Bolin notices the blood still trickling from his brother's wounds.

"Come on. They'll be expecting us. We can't be late, Bo."

Half in light, half in dark, caught straddling the line at the crossroads, Mako looks, to Bolin, like a spirit himself, otherworldly, inhuman, with wisdom beyond his nine years. More thousands of years. "Brother? Hai said the spirits . . . don't exist." Mommy's nightly prayers echo in his ears.

Clearly troubled by the question, Mako closes his eyes, the line of his mouth tightening. "Maybe they don't."

The world crashes into itself, the ground dropping out from beneath him, his heart vanishing into the star-jewelled skies. "No way!" Bolin responds fiercely, hugging himself and recalling Mommy's embrace. "Mommy told me the spirits are real. They listen to us if we try hard enough." Raising his head, he looks up at the moon, watching protectively from overhead, the eye of the spirits gazing over everything. "Mommy says that the spirits help us in any way they can, if we're good people. I think we're good people. Maybe that's why we're okay: I think the spirits sent Hai to us. The spirits led us out of the sewer!"

Mako wipes his palms on his shirt. "No. I did that. Hai did that. You did that. If the spirits exist, they don't listen to us. We're just a couple of poor kids on a street somewhere." His voice drops. "No one cares about us, Bo."

Bolin shakes his head and stumbles backwards, his breaths fast, his pulse faster. Backing away as if Mako were a monster, he trips and falls, the jarring pain flitting up his spine and soaring into his skull, shaking it as though it were in the midst of a tempest. "Brother? What are you saying? I care about us! You care about us!"

"The spirits don't." His brother lowers his hand, and Bolin takes it uncertainly, drawing himself up. "It doesn't matter, Bo. I love you." He pulls the earthbender into a hug, lifting him up from the ground.

"Love you back." Bolin sniffles, the night no longer so comforting or free, but Mako tilts him over his shoulder and starts to carry him, and the warmth returns. "Where are we going?"

He can sense his brother's smile, even if he can't see it. "It doesn't matter. We're going together."

The walk is forever. Bolin watches the footsteps take shape in scarlet, a trail of blood, droplets scattered like crumbs, on the stone. Mako never falters, never shakes, never hesitates, until the environment becomes one that Bolin can recognise: The Fire Lord Zuko statue, flame burning strongly. As long as that flame burns, they are safe. The spirits will see to that. He knows they're out there.

Mommy says they're out there.

He touches the screw in his pocket, fingering the thin threads. One day, he'll be able to metalbend it. One day, he and Mako will go back to their real house, and he'll put his hand in the cookie jar, and there will be cookies in it. And the old drawing he did on the wall will be there.

And maybe, if he prays hard enough, Mommy and Daddy will be there, too. With cake.

But they don't have to be.

Mako is here.

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