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The brownish-red scars, fresh on his back, heal slowly, steadily, agonisingly, blurring as they do, fading from a russet of sickness and death to a dull crimson to a light pink feathering across his back. As they fade, Mako gains other things, more useful things. A map of the city, no longer hidden in a satchel but imprinted in his mind, the hideouts of rapists and nests of thieves filed away. He doesn't understand the phrases that float through his ears, not quite: The girl with the ribbons of scars on her stomach, Jira, whispers of words he struggles to block out but knows he can't. Rape, she hisses under the darkness of night, her deft fingers working with a lock-pick to pop open a crude safe. Not desiring the skill but needing to please her, he takes the pick and inserts it carefully into the lock, threading it into the tumblers inside and cautiously opening each, one ear tuned to her coarse timbre.

He doesn't understand the meanings, but he understands the urgency. Whatever it is, it's not good, and the places where the rapists lurk should be avoided at all costs.

The muggers he can comprehend a bit better. The thieves. The jumpers. He sees the reason, understands what they do, doesn't leap into that fray.

Mako has to focus on protecting himself, on protecting Bolin, on protecting his brother's innocence. That word, too, he doesn't know. But it's important. And it has to be protected.

He isn't sure why.

Over several weeks he realises the safest route through the city to the corners and boroughs where the numbers for the lottery are collected on tiny strips of paper. They shuffle in the satchel when he brings them back to the triad, and the man in charge of the lottery picks out tiles and writes the day's numbers scrawled on the board. Then comes the difficult part: Rummaging through the proffered numbers, checking to see which ones are actually winners and which are not. And, of course, at the end of the day, a few winners go up in smoke, the papers 'lost' on accident, Jira's smirk widening each time the ash falls to the floor. No one sweeps it, not yet. At the end of the day everything is swept under the rug.

Bolin preoccupies himself with learning the inner workings of the triad, his cattish smile, innocent eyes, and naturally round body, although malnourished, make him welcome most everywhere. Mako isn't certain what he feels about his brother making friends with the triad members, and he makes a note to tell Bolin to stick close.

There's something the firebender can't trust about the triad.

But at least now they are eating. Not too well. Bowls of steamed white rice and scraps of meat so few and far between his mouth waters for fish again. But he eats everything, every grain, every droplet of soup, every lick of gruel. His body fights against it, bile rising in his throat, but he forces it down with hints of tears in his eyes.

His brother isn't like that. Bolin eats as much as he can, more and more quickly, his jutting ribs starting to be hidden beneath muscle and fat once more. But he doesn't stop there. He continues to eat unless the food is taken away, continues to armadillo wolf it down until it comes back out again. Mako never stops him but holds him when the earthbender pushes the chair away roughly from the table and collapses to the floor, his shoulders jerking back and forth, his throat almost bubbling with the vomit, his entire body spasming as he retches, pools of multi-coloured fluid soaking the ground.

Mako cleans up, wiping the remains from his brother's face and from the floor. He knows why Bolin is doing this, knows that the hunger of the street can never be forgotten, knows that there were too many times they could have starved.

Too many.

Jira never speaks on it either, her nose wrinkling from the stench, her only comment a warning of the waste of food. Mako merely continues to hold Bolin, keeping him tethered to the world, promising to never, ever let go.

"You can eat what you want," he says softly. "I'll clean it up."

His brother's response is a grin. "I love you, bro."

"I love you back, Bo."

More running, more numbers, more lessons in how to steal and how to lie, the days melting into each other. For a time Mako comes to expect the sunrise, but when he realises it, he stops. He takes nothing for granted. Not himself. Not his brother. Not his scarf.

Daddy's scent lingers in legend, but by now the scarf carries only Mako's: Sweat, tears, blood, rain, vomit. A mixture that is somehow comforting, a memory of what he has escaped on virtue of being a bender.

The scars on his palms, too, have started to fade, the memories of the trauma receding further and further. Life with the triad is not ideal. Never ideal.

But it is better than the street. Better than the hunger burning knives into their feet at every step, better than the cold settling like death about them when they curled up together in an alleyway, better than the fear that something would take them in the night, that they would never awaken again, that the mockingly shiny moon hiding in the dirty grey clouds would be the final image they saw.

But they're safe now, as the nights roll by.

On occasion he stills wakes up in the midst of the night, a scream in his throat and a fire in his palm, forgotten when he feels Bolin cradled in his lap, snoring gently, his head pressed against Mako's chest, the tip of his hair bobbing up and down with each breath. His hair is growing out again. Soon, he will have to cut it once more.

For now, he sleeps.

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