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In the flood of darkness, no one can swim forward. Drowning under the deluge he paddles onwards, though the current pulls him downstream. But up is where he must go, until another wave sends him down, down into the barren surf, the sky overhead black and barren as a field of ash, the moon swept beneath a tide of bloodied stone.

Swimming for so long in the darkness, he cannot remember why. Why must be push forward? Why must he struggle and strain? Why?

Flame springs to his hands, ignites his fingers, reminds him of the power he controls, to bring light to the shadows. But it isn't an answer.

Why swim against the current?

Mommy and Daddy aren't there to tell him to swim anymore.

Why swim?

And then he remembers.


Bolin's voice, high and sweet in the night-time. From the bed, Mako raises his head, extinguishing the fires in his palms: His brother's silhouette is framed in the doorway, the light from the lanterns behind him granting him a halo of gold.

"Mako, I'm hungry." Bolin sniffles and walks across the room, his footsteps familiar and oddly comforting in Mako's ears, and he climbs into the cot, curling up in the firebender's lap. "I went out to get a midnight snack and couldn't find anything."

Something melts in Mako, a shard of ice around a hardened heart that forget how to be a brother, and knew nothing but how to survive. It's not about surviving on the street. It's about living. "Oh, Bo . . ." he whispers. "I'm sorry. Come on, maybe I can find something tasty."

His fingers curl around Bolin's, and he slips from the bed, carrying his brother across the room. Bolin wriggles out of his embrace at the threshold. "I have feet!" the earthbender chirps. "I can walk."

The smile on Mako's face is the first in forever, his last caught in an ancient past so long ago his muscles twitch and try to recall the movements. Immediately the frown snaps it back into shape, yet he swims against the current. He doesn't remember. Doesn't remember how to smile. But Bolin's easy grin remind shim, and he smiles, a simple joy flooding his body, the pain and grief and anger coiled in his innards draining to the ground, his brother's hand in his and arms around his waist and the smile on his face forcing the hurt built up over the months to subside.

For a moment, he is horrified.

Not in himself, but in what he might have been.

But Bolin is always there. Why didn't Mako see it before?

Though the hallway is shadowy and foreboding, the endless black stretching in front of him, punctuated by sickly yellow lanterns casting shallow pools, oases of dim glow amidst the desert of darkness, but somewhere beyond the edge is the true light. At the end of the horizon, at the end of the world, at the end of the line.

He'll swim there. Against the current. And when it makes it, he will never have to fear again. Now the true struggle is remembering why he swims.


They swim together.

That's why he swims.

Because they can swim together.

Faint noise at the bottom of the well and scents of cooking meat and stewing gruel greet him, his mouth watering, his stomach curling in on itself in anticipation of a meal, and Mako inhales to steady himself, the fumes of food making him lightheaded. The door to the makeshift kitchen is ajar, a radio playing a curious type of music that calms him, the soft notes a different calibre than he's ever heard. Bolin beams and moves closer to the door, but Mako holds him back with a careful hand. He peeks over the frame of the door, his body curving protectively around his brother's. But Bolin pokes his head out from under the firebender's arm and glances past, his eyes widening.

"It's a lady." He giggles. "She's kind of fat."

"Ssh." Mako checks for himself, and Bolin is right: There is a woman in the kitchen, humming tunelessly as she makes a meal, the ladle in her grip mixing something that smells like ocean kumquats. Few in the triad are given food; he's already understood that much from his time here. But some are. Himself and Bolin, and some of the other children. Run numbers, receive food. Watching the woman languidly stir the pot, Mako calculates the best way to grab some food.

Then Bolin squirms out of his reach and lands heavily on the floor, springing up at a moment's notice. Gasping, the woman swings about, brandishing the ladle like a weapon, droplets of scalding liquid spraying. The earthbender grins at her. Mako watches her expression soften, her hard green eyes turn liquid. "Oh, and who might you be?"

Bolin laughs. "I'm Bolin, and I'm only seven and a half years old. That's my brother, Mako. He's the best brother ever."

"Mah-koh?" The woman's brow furrows. "Where is he?"

His brother points to the entrance. Mako hesitates, his nails digging into the wood of the door, but at last he steps forward, trusting Bolin to make the right decision. "Hello, Mako here."

She beams broadly, showing orange-tinted teeth, and taps the ladle to the rim of the pot, the brownish-purple mass roiling within not something he wants to try. "What can I do you for, then?"

Mako doesn't know how to respond to this kindness, this faith, this willingness to help. There has to be a trick, a trap, a secret motive or hidden reason. Something. He can't be lulled by the music, can't lower his guard, can't do anything that would put Bolin in danger.

"My brother and I are hungry," he starts, his gaze snapping from the ocean kumquats to trays of smoked bird he identifies as eel pigeon to a chocolate cake.

The woman chuckles warmly. "Take all you want. Can't say no to hungry boys."

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