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The man licks his lips.
Mako doesn't like him at all, and his fingers protectively latch onto Bolin's collarbone.
His nostrils burn from the incensed air; his ears ring from the loud music. "Well, well, well, what have we here?" the dark-haired beast purrs. "You've done well this time, Nani."
"One's six, the other's eight." The woman crosses her arms and snorts smoke; Mako is surprised it isn't water vapour. "The Agni Kais can't go wrong with some fresh blood to slake your spiritdamned lust."
Unfolding himself from his position, the man, his hair bobbing at his shoulders, slides up towards the brothers, a vicious smirk on his crimson mouth. The beast's erect shoulders and twined muscles remind Mako of a leopard shark about to spring onto his prey, and he edges backwards, pulling his brother behind him. Bolin's nose wrinkles. The firebender can feel the question forming on the earthbender's lips. "Why do you smell like a girl?"
The man laughs coldly. "Because I can afford to." Without fully knowing why, Mako squirms uncomfortably as the beast openly inspects him before moving on to Bolin. Finally he turns back to the woman. Nani. "Six and eight, did you say?"
"Yes, six and eight. Give them the winter to adjust. They can be put to service in the spring, when the junkies clamour." The firebender isn't sure what junkies means; nonetheless, he is thankful they will be grant several months' reprieve, and he is certain he will be able to retake to the street after a stretch here.
"Not only the junkies." Some of the sleaze is gone from the beast's timbre, swapped with a menacing business-like apathy. "The older one looks like he'd be popular with our most valued customers. The younger one would be pleasing to the—"
Bolin breaks in. "I can do lots of stuff!" he bursts out. In a flash the screw appears from his pocket. He tosses it and catches it in his other hand, trading it for a handful of smooth pebbles selected from the rubble on the roads. Using earthbending, he levitates the stones in a circle between his palms, peeking up at the beast to gauge any reaction. "I got lots of food and stuff like this. People loved it! If you let me stay I'll give you everything that's not tasty."
His head thrown back, the beast shudders as spasms of snorting rack his body. The mirth unnerves Mako. "An earthbender? As long as he doesn't show it, he's cute," the man growls, dipping his head. "They'll all want him. Take them away and make sure they're fattened for the spring run." Too quickly to be opposed, the man prods the brothers' ribs, the contact leaving a vaguely white stain on Mako's shirt. "I don't want to see them until they're ready for business. But when they are—" He makes a circle with the thumb and middle finger of his left hand and running the forefinger of his right several times through it as though threading a needle. "—I'll decide if they're hot or not. Go!"
The firebender isn't sure what to do: Bolin seems unusually at-ease and the steaming bowls of rice and, for the first time in weeks, well-done slices of meat clinch the deal for him. The tiny room in which they feast does not reveal much about their new temporary housing. Still, his stomach gurgles contently. His brother can't stop smiling, the grin crinkling the skin around his vibrant eyes. Nani watches them wolf down their dinners, not caring to make any noise whatsoever when they eat. Upon finishing, the brothers are led through a mostly empty warehouse, passing boxes and boxes of unlabelled goods, the overhead lights flickering as they swing heavily from side to side, the pale shadows pooling in the crevices. Muscular men glare at them every so often, their faces blank masks of unreal anger, as if they were born of the same mould copied in multiple colours. The first few are made the butt of Bolin's jests, his clever mind finding a way to lighten the mood—"Hey, it's a waterbender. Bet he's pretty cool."—but by the time the main chamber is traversed, his little brother, too, has fallen silent.
Nani kicks a door open. A wave of dust washes over him, but he stumbles forward into the little "bedroom" complete with a pair of cots and blankets galore. Although he knows he should not trust the world with the cruelty it has shown him on his time on the streets, it's the pillows, fluffy and brightly tinted, that cause him to cry out in delete, and within moments he and his brother have fallen upon them.
The light has never been so soft.
"Stay here tonight. I'll wake you up tomorrow." He hears the words but not the meaning. His entire consciousness is centred on the colour and the softness and the warmth of his brother next to him and beside him and on top of him and below him and in his arms, now, cocooned in the safety of the cushions, his eyelids fluttering, heavy with sleep.
Bolin tucks his head under Mako's chin, curling up at the firebender's side, his hands winding themselves anywhere they can reach, desperate to be as close to his older brother as possible. "Things are going to be better, right brother?" he murmurs drowsily.
Mako strokes Bolin's hair, the constant motion comforting him. "Yes, Bo, they are. I love you."
"I love you too."
For the first time in weeks, he falls asleep without wondering if he will see the sunrise.
Instead, he falls asleep wondering if he will wake up early enough.
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