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The Quiet Game and a promise of cookies keep Bolin silent while Mako opens the entrance, not quite trusting his own gut even though after part of him says he should.

His hand is sweaty when he pulls on the handle, standing on tiptoe to reach it, and for some reason his heart isn't crushed when the two at the door aren't Mommy and Daddy. A week, he reminds himself. One of them is the teacher at the school, Miss Sho. The other is the sort of tall and dark man his mind immediately labels stranger danger. But if his teacher trusts him, Mako supposes he should be trusting, too.

"Good evening, Mako," Miss Sho offers. Her voice is submerged in an emotion he cannot name. "May I come in? Do you know where your parents are?"

He shakes his head, then nods vigorously. "They're out getting cake."

Her eyebrows slant. "Where's your brother, Mako?" The stranger danger man glares at her. "Mako? How long have your parents been gone?"

The stranger danger man interjects, his timbre that of sandpaper. "Get your brother," he growls impatiently. "We're leaving."

Mako stares at him but finds no comfort in the folds of the black coat or the hardened café eyes. "Where are we going? Will Bo—my brother and I come back?" He doesn't feel comfortable telling the stranger danger man his brother's name.

"Yes, of course," Miss Sho says. He knows it's a lie, but a comforting lie nonetheless. "We'll come back, I promise."

Bolin is struggling at the Quiet Game when Mako finds him. He shakes the earthbender, who flails his arms until Mako whispers, "You win the Game. You can get all of the cookies left in the jar." He doesn't say that there are no more cookies left in the jar. "My teacher is here. She's going to take us somewhere for dinner, and then we'll come back."

His little brother pouts. "Promise we'll come back?"

"I promise." More empty words, as empty as Mako's insides. Everything feels unreal, moving sluggishly as if in a dream. There is no way he actually pulls Bolin into the kitchen, no way he crosses the boundary of the doorway, no way he gets into his teacher's Satomobile, the stranger danger man taking the front.

There is no way in the world, unless he's died and now finds himself in the Spirit World.

Fortunately a fidgety Bolin is soothed by the vehicle's constant motion, and soon he is snoring softly, his tiny body bumping up and down slightly with each movement of the Satomobile. For Mako, the same movement keeps him awake long enough to hear Miss Sho and the stranger danger man speaking quietly.

"I wish we didn't have to do this."

"There's a cereal killer on the loose. What are we supposed to do?"

Mako wonders what cereal has to do with the situation. It must be code for something.

The teacher sounds fretful. "Do we have to separate the two? They're brothers."

His pulse stops for a moment; then he understand that separate must be coding for something, too. Not separate as in to set apart. Never that.

"It's cruel."

"Life is cruel, ma'am. Always cruel."

The Satomobile pulls up in front of a looming building with columns in the front that appear more like bars. He's reminded of the storybooks with pictures of jails, the windows covered with similar bars, a feature he doesn't understand. Windows are freedom. Why mar them with bars? The stranger danger man opens the vehicle door roughly.

"You, earthbender, go with me," the stranger danger man barks. "Ma'am, take the nonbender." The word leaves his mouth as if it were poison. He grabs Bolin, who bites the man's hand.

"Stranger danger!" he squeals. The stranger danger man's beady eyes narrow, and he almost lifts a hand, but he puts it down.

Mako squeezes Bolin's shoulder. "You're not really going to se-pa-rate us, are you?" His question comes off more meekly than expected.

"Do we have to?" Miss Sho frowns. "They're so young."

"City rules, ma'am. No one wants to pick through nonbenders to find the benders they want." The man's claws tighten around Bolin's collarbone. The young boy whimpers, his expression one of terror. "You, nonbender. Take off that ratty thing about your neck. It looks diseased."

His blood turned to ice, Mako stops cold, gazing at the stranger danger man with an odd feeling in his centre, a sudden flame threatening to burn him away, and he pushes it down. His skin crawls. "No, you don't understand. This was D-daddy's."

"Take it off." The stranger danger man advances, reaching for the scarf.

Bolin cries out abruptly, wrenching away from the man and falling to the ground. The sound breaks the ice in Mako's veins, replacing it with a blazing heat. His hand is on fire. Warmth. Flame. Inferno. Smoke. Ash. His eyes burn, and he kneels on the broken ground disorientated, but his brother's hand slides into his. Cursing fills the air; the stone under him shakes; and he flashes to the earthquake when he was two and a half, his brother yet in Mommy's tummy, the following morning finding furrows in the street and the flowerbeds destroyed. "It's the spirits' way of spring cleaning," Daddy told him. "Giving us a chance to push out the old and make ourselves anew."

So is this. He pushes out the old and makes himself anew, screaming for Bolin to run. Nothing exists but Bolin's palm, the pain in his legs, the shivering that never ends, the yells of he's a bender, the beat of bare feet on rock. No, not of bare feet, the beat of his heart roaring in his ears.

He runs until he can't remember his own name, runs until his brother collapses next to him and sobs, runs until all he can taste is metal.

And the darkness cloaks him in its sweet relief, his brother safe in his arms.

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