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Miza never speaks a word, yet Mako understands perfectly. With the weeping tree above them, hints of winter drifting in a sparse snow-shower from the skies, he adjusts his stance and curves his arms upwards, feeling the heat from his inhalation travel up his arm, blazing through his muscles, and concentrate in his palm, the red-orange tongues flickering from his fingertips, his firebending by now tightly controlled. No more random flames or infernos: He knows what he wants to do, and his bending will take him there, if he can let it. A metre or two away, Bolin is practising his earthbending as well, his feet light. "I'm an airbender!" he announces, laughing.

Mako smiles to himself but also says nothing, preferring to listen to the silence.

And then Bolin's laugh changes slightly. "Hey, hello! Who are you?"

The firebender spins around, his previously slow heartbeat abruptly quickening, his fear of being discovered here in his joy—in his short, small little joy—unbearably great, threatening to consume him whole, his pupils swallowing his amber irises in their sable darkness.

The young man who steps from the shadows, however, is familiar. Green eyes. Black hair. "Wulin!" Mako cries out, remembering how he helped the firebender find Bolin when all seemed lost, the help as needed as Hai's was the two times she rescued the brothers. "I haven't seen you since you saved my brother's life." He gestures for Bolin to say something to Wulin, but the earthbender has run behind Mako's back and is hiding there, trembling. "Bo? What's wrong?"

Wulin dips his head towards Miza, who has an uncharacteristic frown on her face, the warm and glowing smile vanished, her blue eyes the colour of water frozen to hard ice. Bolin's whisper is quiet yet urgent, his eyes moist. "He said he would take me to you but he knocked me and he hurt me bad." He is shaking like a leaf in the wind; Mako's heart has dropped somewhere below his knees.

"Bo?" The firebender kneels down on one knee next to his brother, a hand on his shoulder, gazing into Bolin's eyes, brimming on the verge of tears. "He's not going to hurt us. Trust me. If he tries, I'll protect you, and so will Miza. Okay Bo?"

Bolin sniffles and holds Mako's gaze, his terror mounting at first, but as Mako continues to hold his shoulder, channelling his strength into his little brother, Bolin relaxes. "Okay bro."

Wulin smiles and nods. "Thank you, kid. So, I wanted to talk to you about something, eh, special let's say. For the triad." Miza narrows her eyes, and he raises his arms defensively. "No need to get on me. I'm here on official Triple Threat business. Kid, come here. No one's in trouble, don't worry."

Mako glances Miza and Bolin, neither of whom looks too keen on whatever Wulin has to say, but the firebender, inspiring a breath of cool air, follows Bolin's former saviour to the other side of the courtyard. He steps on a twig, the crack unnaturally noisy, cleaving the night, and he winces.

Wulin turns about. "So, kid, how's it been? Hope Jira's treating you well."

The healing scars on his back twinge, and he unconsciously grasps his left arm, feeling the puckered rise of skin from the deal with Zolt. "Fine." He forces the lie out of him.

"Good, good to hear that. So I've been, eh, observing you and Miza do your practise, shall we say." Wulin's teeth flash as he speaks. "You're a fantastic firebender, did you know that?" Slowly Mako nods, his uneasiness clear. "So the big boss wants to see you."

"Zolt?" His breath puffs out on the t, the fingers of his right hand tightening over his arm. "Why does he want to see me?"

Shrugging, Wulin nudges him in the stomach. "You've done good, kid. First eight-year-old Zolt ever saw so much potential in, I'll say."

"Nine." Almost ten. Though he isn't sure when his birthday is. In the winter is all he knows.

Wulin waves a dismissive hand. "You're young is what I know, and Zolt likes that. You, kid, could become the best of the best. Just look at that firebending of yours." He clucks his tongue appreciatively. "You've got a control over heatbending like none I've ever seen. You know warmth, don't you? Always on the street, fighting for the barest scraps . . . you know it." He snickers, though Mako isn't certain why. "Zolt wants to see you, Mr Prodigy." Mako doesn't know what to respond, but he's well aware that he has to. Wulin coughs delicately. "Not waiting for a reply, kid. It's not a choice. The question is: When do you want to see him? Tomorrow morning, or tomorrow morning?"

"Tomorrow morning," Mako replies quietly.

Wulin smiles and claps him on the shoulder. "Well then, kid, keep on your little training . . . thing. Don't let me stop you, huh?"

The firebender almost says nothing. "Thank you," he allows at last, his voice even.

"Don't sweat it, kid." Wulin gives him a jerky half-bow and withdraws, leaving Mako in the shadows, the pads of his feet cooling on the cobblestones, a leaf falling from the weeping tree and landing softly next to him. He shifts the position of his hand, pointing his index and middle fingers at the leaf, and a spark of fire arcs from the tips to the shrivelled leaf, still green at the edges, the red and yellow settling in only at the base. Silently he watches while the ember takes hold and eats the leaf, turning it brown as the flames rise, curling it in on itself until it caves into a pile of ash staining the snow a light grey.


He turns to see Bolin and Miza gazing at him, identical expressions of concern and worry on their faces.

He turns back to the ashen leaf.

When the sun rises, so will the stakes.

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