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Mornings pass the most rapidly. Bolin is asleep when Mako seeks breakfast, rooting in dumpsters, nicking from the bazaar, stealing abandoned items. He never thinks of himself as a thief, and he knows he won't be caught: The spirits are looking out for them. Still, he prefers to take what has been left, not what will be used.
By the time his little brother is awake, fruit or leftovers or—on rare occasion—heated meat greets him on some days. On others, his stomach rumbles until lunch or even dinner, and on a few he returns to slumber without a bite at all.
Even though Bolin is six, he rarely complains. A scary stillness has settled over him. No, not stillness. Optimism. An optimism that blinds him to the bad and opens his eyes to the good. Warm, hug, delicious, play, brother. Words that pepper his dialogue like a virus, spreading through his entire body, burying his hurts, fears, and aches in another terror.
Mako isn't sure if his brother truly is this optimistic or if he is merely afraid of provoking the firebender's rage. He hopes it is the former.
Afternoons are sluggish. Bolin practices his bending, his every accomplishment buoyed by words of encouragement and shouts of success. A pebble. Two. Three. Rocks that zoom around. Careful constructions of soil.
Once, he finds a glimmering black screw from a Satomobile, the thread thin and winding but broad enough to be traced with a fingernail. In the darkness, Mako feels Bolin remove it from his pocket and marvel at the construction, often trying to bend it and failing, sometimes pressing it into his brother's hand and begging him to admire its simplicity, its basic design, and its power.
The nights are the worst. They shelter under the statue of Fire Lord Zuko, the fire constantly burning in his outstretched hand a needed beacon of light and hope. Mako learns to ignore the stench of lizard crow droppings and their own dirty clothing, pretends not to hear the stinging remarks of those older and more fortunate than he—even if he only understands the message by the tone and the tautness of the jawline—and refuses to believe that he once had a life outside of this one.
It becomes less of a lie and more of a legend. Maybe if he says it enough times, it will come true.
But it doesn't.
It never will.
Protected from the chill and the wet by his brother's form around him, the earthbender misses being rocked by Mommy, and he wishes he could ride in a Satomobile. "It feels almost the same," he explains, his face tucked into Mako's armpit to hide from the monsters of the night, his words lost in the folds of the scarf wound around them both. "Mako, can you rock me?"
His arms hurt, but he gently sways, stopping after he hears Bolin's snoring, the sweetest sound he has ever heard. A fire dances in his hand, the shadows blurring the filth of their new home into smooth.
Time passes, the day melting into each other. The clouds weep bitters tears of a grief alien to his heart, a grief he will not comprehend for years down the path, a grief that leaves scars in his spirit and rips him in half. Worse than the rainfall is the old, the never-ending cold. At least his firebending offers them some consolation. The others, children as lost as the brothers, slip away in the darkness, their eyes—the first to defrost—pecked out by morn, the lizard crows starting on the soft flesh of the cheeks and throat once the thin barrier of cold is gone.
The scarf shields Bolin from the worst, but Mako forces himself to look at the rivulets blood trickling from the mouths, listen to the moans of those sickened with fever, smell the decay on their bodies before they perish, a smell not unlike that lingering on the brothers' rotting, loose clothes. All of the dead are sad, but the saddest are the littlest ones, their skins pale as the spirits departed from this world, their gazes frozen to the sky, their swollen lips slightly parted as if in prayer or calling out to loved ones, to Mommies and Daddies waiting for their precious flowers to join them. Fingers curl around stalks of grass peeking through the snow and cement or claw at throats tinged blue with bruises brought of desperation in dehydration.
On the street, he muses, one bends, or one dies.
Water is easy to come by. If it does not rain, dew covers the grass, and if that fails, the snow comes with increasing frequency, and heat funnelled from flame brings cool liquid to the dryness in their mouths. He worries of summer, but he is certain he will find a way.
He will find a way, for his brother.
Bolin helps. With his angelic face, innocent eyes, and cattish smile, he attracts offerings of coin and cooking, cautiously set down by kindly women. It aids him to wear the scarf, absurdly long for his stature, short for his age of merely six, and to take on earthbending stances or make overtly cute observations befitting a toddler of two. Anything works, and the rags hide the ribs, ruining the picture painstakingly perfected to please the passers-by.
The lizard crow with the missing foot mocks Mako, morning or midnight. Obviously, he is the leader of the murder, his caws commands for his kin to heed, the V-like pink across his otherwise black-feathered chest an easy marker for identification. He takes Bolin's charity with gusto—Mako is sure the bird's nest is lined with glittering gold—and swipes meals about to be collected by the firebender.
After a time Mako reverts to stealing from others. It's easier and quicker for him, and it finds them food that fills.
He does not believe that he will be caught until he is.
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