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"What do you think you are doing?"

She is short, round, dark-skinned, more serpent than woman, and her nails dig into the skin of his wrist with a grip too powerful to be human. Her half-cooked fish caught in his hand, Mako stares at her with hollowed eyes, his cheeks pale as the snow swirling around in flurries simultaneously beautiful and deadly. From the corner of his vision he can see the top of the statue of Fire Lord Zuko in the distance, where Bolin awaits dinner.

"Food," he answers. "Please. My brother's six; he's hungry."

He initially assumed her eyes were black as night, checking her off as a villain of his daily struggle, but with a start he sees a flash of brightest blue instead. "On the street, huh? So you had to take my spiritdamned fish?" She snags it back, wrenching it out of his grasp. "Get your own."

His stomach growls. Desperately, Mako slumps to the ground, the gravel digging into his knees, a motley pattern of raw flesh and scab. "We haven't eaten in three days," he pleads. Although he despises begging, his brother falling asleep on a full stomach is more vital than anything else to him. "I can do a favour for you. I'm a firebender, and my brother is—"

In an instant the woman's fierce expression softens. "Both of you are benders?" she inquires kindly. "Both?"

The sudden change in mood scares him more than the threat of starvation. Earnestly he swallows his apprehension and nods cautiously, his fingers enclosing around the scales. "Like this." The fish heats under his touch, the aroma wafting through the heavy autumn-winter air. "See?"

The woman smiles widely, but her eyes remain the same. "I'm always in need of new benders." Her voice is sincere; her gaze isn't. "Where is your brother? You said he was six? How about I help both of you out? Benders are . . . special, after all."

"Help?" Mako repeats dubiously. Several children and a feral viper cat rush by, their spindly legs and jutting bones betraying the fact that they will not last to see spring. "You're not going to try to separate my brother and me, are you?"

Quickly, almost too quickly, the woman shakes her head. "Of course not, darling," she gushes, her arms folding across her chest. "I only want to help. Help is all. A warm bed, safety, and hot food's what I could get you, at least until you get back on your feet and are ready to move on to real work."

His first instinct is to shout no and sprint away as rapidly as possible. But the past few nights have been cold enough that he wasn't able to keep both himself and Bolin from the chill, and he's worried that his brother's slight cough could turn into something much more serious. The offer might save their lives; he's heard the stories of the world-weary and ravenous children walking into the snowdrifts and snoozing as their spirits froze away, including the benders.

He promised Bolin he would protect him. Brothers forever.

"And you won't ask anything in return?"

The woman beams, holding up the fish with a hint of a compromise: Return to me, and you get it. "Only that you listen to me. And, in a few years, perhaps you could help me out. If you don't run away before then like morons." Morons doesn't pass her lips, but he blocks out what she truly says, his mind flagging it as a phrase not to be repeated.

Trust is not the word to use here. Honestly he trusts her about as much as he trusts the scarred lizard crow. Yet the streets and the incoming frigid weather spell certain death. If she turns out to lying, Mako always has his firebending, and Bolin's earthbending would prove useful as well.

"Bo, come on." His hand cupped hovers over his mouth. The earthbender stops his game of street pro, the handful of other children playing scattering as elephant mice before the koala wolf.

"Hi brother." Bolin grins and races to hug his brother tightly around the midsection. "Did you find dinner?"

Mako hopes Bolin can't count the rapid thrum of his heartbeat. "Kind of. A friend of Mommy and Daddy's is going to help us. She said that she couldn't stand to see two kids live off the street."

"What friend?" He cocks his head, his eyebrows raised questioningly.

The firebender inhales to calm his jolting nerves. "She's nice." He doesn't remember her name, or if she gave him one. "I think she's a waterbender. Come on Bo. It's the best chance we've got."

His little brother tugs Mako closer. "You're warm," he murmurs into the scarf. "I don't want to leave. Everything is fine."

"No, Bo. Winter is coming." Mako frowns and feels Bolin's stomach with his palm, tears welling behind his eyelids for the sharpness of the ribs. "We have to. It's the only way. The only way." He lowers himself until their gazes are equal. "Don't you trust me?"

"Forever and always." The reply comes without a moment's hesitation; trust is the word to use here. And love. That too.

"Always and forever," the firebender adds. His hand squeezes his brother's. "Now come on. I promise that tomorrow will look a lot better."

The woman is in the same spot, and she has two steaming bowls of noodles for them. The glow in Bolin's cheeks at the purest form of happiness is more than Mako could ever want. Her thick fingers chain them to her when she leads them through the dark streets, away from the strange familiarity of the statue and towards an unknown future.

Watching his brother's simple joy, Mako knows he has made the right decision.

Yet he glances back at the final instant and sees the lizard crow with the missing foot, once more cawing at him.

This time, however, it sounds like an alarm.

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