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With the food from the triad bag gone, they are eating less, but the rags around their bodies give no indication of their frames. As long as Mako can't see ribs, they're not there, are they?
No, no they can't be.
To make up for the difference, then, is to play a game of hide and seek, stalking the market, snatching, scurrying away to squirrel away the goods in whatever spot he can, hiding it, hiding—always hiding it, now, all of his actions hidden from everyone, even Bolin. He doubts his brother will understand what stealing, sometimes, is necessary. It's not as though he's doing it for benefit or for profit. If Bolin ever asks, Mako will tell him the truth:
"I'm doing it for you."
A long ago he wouldn't dared have filched a thing. Mom's words drift lazily across the sea of his mind, a memory floating easily along the waves, scooped up and down by the motion coursing through the water, the sights, sounds and smells returning to him in that faint ambiguous veil so customary to dreams. He remembers: The set of pencils, resting then against a storefront, their tips shiny-black, their sides perfectly divided in six. His hands pressed against the pane of glass, his breath fogging the window, his deft fingers twitching from the almost-prophecy of being able to flip open a crisp sketchbook page and begin anew to craft a world from lines of solid black, but now, now with these pencils, magic pencils.
In the store itself, then an easy task to knock the set down with a sweep of the hand and look away, the pencils landing neatly in his pocket. Mom's hand, a powerful grip on his shoulder, her nails digging into the skin on his collarbone. "Put those back." Her timbre, quiet in her worry. "Put those back, Mako." A feeling of ice trickling down his arm, indignity whispering through him, asking him why he should listen. His own surprise at himself. The pencils, back in their position of rest, their tips shiny-black, their sides perfectly divided in six.
"We never steal, Pabu." Her old nickname for him, the word resting easy on her lips, the joke sprung from the upwards spiky sworl of his hair. Mom smiling, her light brown hair falling over one shoulder in its long braid. "We might not have everything, but we have plenty. Promise me you'll never steal."
Promising. Considering spitting, even, into his palm like in school. The pencils would do nicely for his art, the art Dad praises, the art Mom hangs up, but not like this.
But here, in the real world, in the not-a-gift present Mako slides steadily over past a stall, the merchant a teenaged girl with dark hair swept back into two loose hair drops. The ash banana drops into his pocket easily as the pencils did those years ago, the weight burdening him yet reminding him that he will not starve, that Bolin will not starve, that even the fire ferret will not starve.
Besides, that promise—that guilt-spewing turn-of-phrase—wasn't made by him, was made by another boy who has a mother and a father, who sleeps in a soft bed beneath a quilted blanket, who wakes up in the morning and races downstairs to sneak a cookie or two from the jar on the counter only to be slapped away by a barking command of breakfast first. No, he never made that promise.
So Mako takes a second ash banana for good measure, the peel coming away in his palms to reveal the tender off-white fruit within, the food. Ground between his molars, squished to the roof of his mouth by his tongue, swallowed nearly whole to sink into the depths of his belly. Dropping the peel to the muddy ground marked with paths of the crowds milling about the market, most here to purchase and to barter, some here, like him, to rattle the sticks and roll the dice and see if they might be caught, Mako glances down at its ashen-yellow colouration.
He hasn't thought of it in a while, hasn't thought of it since the day the smoke and ash cleared and there lay—
And there lay his life, crumbling around him—
But he hasn't thought of it. The old sketchbooks must still be in a dusty corner of the old house somewhere, gathering dust all the more, waiting for him to return. He can recall Dad's loping handwriting, the characters seeming to melt into one another with tiny swerves and miniscule strokes giving the illusion, somehow, of ink running and changing and shifting even while he watched, the brush darkening the page with his name: Mako. Like Dad himself, though Dad's sketchbook was full of the night sky. Mako's was shaded, bent, scrawled within. Not sullied, nor dirtied, his dedication and cautiousness too great to allow for it. Within the confines of the two broad covers: Pages of childish drawings and simple figures melding, over the years, into trees, birds, people. No mastery, never. But the glimmers of emergent talent, rising up from the deeps.
Mako swallows both the ash banana and the memory. "No," he whispers to himself, his hands closing upon the scarf. That was that other boy, the boy with Mom and Dad. Not him. No. It couldn't be.
Instead, then, he kicks the peel between two stalls and lifts his head to glance at the heat of the sun, summer's arrival imminent with a blaze of fire and a rush of lightning, the air crackling with the static of coming thunderstorms, nights short and days long.
This time, they'll have water, no matter if he has to travel to Central Park to dunk container after container into the river for it.
They will survive.
Mako will see to that.
Just as he will see to Bolin's dinner, tonight, one fit for a pair of street rats and a red-furred friend.
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