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The first signs of summer's coming heat drive the brothers into the river. Bolin kicks off the ratty remains of shoes into the grass and doesn't bother to return them, diving instead into the cool water. Thinking of wet clothing, he looks at the shadow of his brother beneath the stream.

Bolin bursts from the river, grabbing the leg of Mako's pants, and the firebender feels himself titling, falling into the water. He welcomes the coolness that surrounds him suddenly, cleansing him temporarily of hunger and hate, of fear and fire, of sorrow and stars, unreachable overhead yet reminding him of what he could have had. The frothing waves roll over his head, the current taking him downstream, his brother's hands clenching tightly to his shoulders as they ride the wild water until it empties them into a pond. Bolin laughs gleefully, his unkempt hair spreading out, and with a start Mako realises how long his brother's hair is now, a sign of the time they have been together on the street.

Almost a year.

Almost a year.

He hides his tears by ducking his head into the pool. "Mako?" Bolin's voice brings him up again. "Mako? I wanted to tell you something."

Mako blinks, treading water with as little motion as he can, his toes not quite reaching the pebbly bottom of the pond. "What is it?"

His brother grins, a reed stuck haphazardly in his hair. "Thanks for being here." His emerald eyes twinkle with the light from the dawn, golden flecks highlighted as though set aflame. "For me." He embraces Mako without warning.

"Bo . . ." His heart squeezes as he plucks the reed from Bolin's head, twirling it between his fingers. "I'm always going to be here for you, I promise. You're wise beyond your years."

When Bolin sees the reed, he giggles and starts to hiccup, a sound that buoys both of them, and Mako begins to laugh as well, a nervous chuckle that gives in to the true laughter kept inside of him for so long, loud and clear and bubbling with brightness.

"Thank you," he manages to say between fits of mad laughing. "Thank you for that Bolin. See, I take care of you, and you remind me why."

Beaming, Bolin splashes Mako's face. They splash each other for a few minutes, until Mako shakes his head, creating a spark of fire on the tip of his finger. "What are you doing?" the earthbender inquires, pausing the game. "Brother? Heh heh, you look like Mommy. Or like you're wearing a wig! Mommy Mako! Mommy Mako!" He drops back, floating on his back. "Now I'm a sea starfish. Brother?"

"Watch." The firebender touches the hair where he wishes to cut it and rapidly turns a circle around the spot, setting it on fire. Immediately he dunks his head into the pool, dark brown strands swirling around him. Surfacing, he gasps deeply and waits for the waves to settle.

Bolin can't seem to stop giggling. "Brother, what did you do to yourself? Look!" The water clears, and Mako is greeted with a singed and uneven cut, bits of the front sticking up in spikes from the treatment, not lying down neatly as before. Even further away from Mommy and Daddy now. Instinctively, he brushes his scarf.

He feels bare skin.


He's drowning.

His jacket and pants are on, but his scarf is missing, no longer around his neck or his waist. His blood isn't moving; he's cold as ice, no matter the heat of the day. Leaving his brother, he paddles, panicking, up against the current, hoping he will find it soon, soon, soon. He has to. That scarf is the last thing he has. The last thing.

Other than his brother's green eyes, the same as Mommy's.

He has that.

But he needs the scarf. He needs to keep Daddy close, even if Daddy is too far away to know.

A flash of red on the side of the bank causes him to pause, throwing himself onto the ground with an inhuman strength born of sheer desperation, a cloud of upraised dirt blinding him. He grasps at the whatever it is. His hands meet not wet fabric but warm flesh.

Recoiling instantly, he wipes his face with the sleeve of the jacket and opens his eyes to see two sockets staring back at him. Stifling a scream, he edges backwards, his gaze travelling over his find: The corpse of a young girl, perhaps five or six years old, her skeleton visible through her taut, stretched-out skin, her body collapsed in on itself, her hollow cheeks betraying the way she died: Starvation.

Bile floods his throat. He swallows several times, but it jets abruptly from his mouth, scorching his tongue and lips with its acidity. The rank smell of fish scents the air now, the contents of his stomach staining the soil, an offering to the deceased, to the dead, to those beyond the pains and perils of the earth.

Devoid of everything, Mako kneels there in front of the corpse for a time, shooing off the carrion birds that come to peck at the remnants of her eyes in the vacant sockets or start on her meat. Somehow, the girl, framed in the lilies and the tall grasses, is beautiful.

Death is beautiful in its simplicity.

Life is ugly.

But he has to keep living.

Turning away from the body, he feels something slide inside his shirt: His scarf fell in without him noticing.

Yet he knows the spirits sent him here to find this, to pay his respects to the girl who died here.

Erasing the horror from his memory and transforming it into respect, Mako pads down the riverbank, mud squishing between his toes. "Bo! I found it!" His thoughts race: Should he tell Bolin about the girl? "Bo?"

He has come to the rim of the pond.

But shattered expectations follow in his wake.

His brother is no longer there.

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