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Cold on his skin, the tiny hairs like down on his arms and legs lifting, gooseflesh covering him softly as a blanket.
When the snowflake alights delicately on the tip of his tongue, spreading more of the same unbidden cold through the heat of his body, he decides that he is ten years old.
By the time he has crossed the courtyard, the cobblestones wet and sticky with snow melting the moment it touches the ground, he no longer feels like a child of nine.
Ten. A solid number. Solid as the ground beneath his feet.
A fifth of his life spent waiting for the cake that will never show.
The bag slung around his shoulders is uncomfortably heavy, the strap digging into the flesh of his chest and curving diagonally to rest against his left side, reminding him of the ribs barely hidden by the thinnest layer of fat garnered from these months of eating well with the triad. He knows that he is betraying the trust of Miza's mother, first by stealing her bag from the quarters he knows all too well from his time spent with Miza, and now by taking the food from the kitchen.
Lifted from the kind woman's bedside, the key presses into the creases of his palm, the metal ice in his grip. More snowflakes alight, in his hair, on his eyelashes, as if whispering to him that he is being watched, that his action will not go unseen.
The right leg of his pants has curled inwards on itself, exposing his ankle to the frigid weather. He shivers, though he doesn't quite know if it's from the cold or from the fact that he is about to break into the kitchen of the Triple Threat Triad. One of the kitchens at least. He's never been entirely certain how or why it works, but he doesn't need to. It exists.
And that's all he needs to know.
His hands are shaking, the key slipping out of them as dust through his fingers, and he glances left and right. Out of fear that someone will see. Out of a wild desperate hope that someone will see and somehow save him, and Bolin.
But there's nothing but the silence and the darkness and the shadows. The same as there has ever been.
His gaze slowly returns to rest on the lock upon the door, a dull black with faded golden highlights around the outline. Somehow the lock takes in the key like a hungry mouth, swallowing it whole; for a moment, the key doesn't turn, and his blood is ice.
Then it does.
With his weight he pushes the door open, and the warm air whispers over him, a blessing, a promise. He winces at how loud his footsteps are on the floor of the kitchen.
His throat vibrates with words threatening to pour out into the stillness, but he quiets them, leaves them in the bottom of his mouth. They taste of copper. Raising his arm slightly, he cups the fingers of his right hand.
A flicker of fire dances gracefully in the centre of his palm.
Empty trays glitter grey and silver, strewn across a countertop. White jetted with black forms a washbasin, a serpent's head of a faucet watching menacingly over its domain. Cabinet handles call to him, spiralling patterns of knots in the treated wood a code to reveal the food hidden inside.
His fingers soar to the scarf around his neck, the fabric unusually warm even in the chill of the winter's night, drawing it over his mouth and nose until the words fighting to be spoken are free.
"I'm sorry, Miza."
The bag drops to the floor. Hooking his thumb and forefinger over the metal zipper, he opens it, his mouth a thin line. More quickly than any motion he has ever achieved before, cabinets are flung open, boxes of food—food—tipped over and spilled into the bag, anything that could stave off the Hunger waiting for them again on the street. He imagines it smirking, a cruel wolfbat from a nightmare with pointed fangs and scaly wings, prowling the night. For the briefest time he escaped it. But it knew he would return at some point or another to its sharp claws and deadly bite.
He doesn't care if the Hunger creeps into him and settles into his bones. It already has. And once it has nestled so deeply, it will never leave.
But Bolin . . .
He can't stand the thought of his brother going hungry again.
The bag fills rapidly, and at last he is left poking in a few wrapped strips of dried meat. One last sweep of the kitchen: Empty cabinets, tell-tale rows of boxes missing amid them, the cans no longer in the same organised order that they were. He bites his lower lip. "They'll know." The destruction he has wrought, the disorder, all to save himself and his little brother.
"Bolin, I'm coming." He pictures his brother now, slumbering peacefully in their room, unaware of what is about to occur. Keeping that image affixed in his mind, he steals for the door, his footsteps muffled on the floor tiles. It opens, a thin slit of light coming through it, but no cold air, the room beyond instead an apartment of some kind, a couch and a nightstand materialising in front of him, his eyes adjusting to the dark. His breath hitches; he makes to close the door quietly as possible, but then something shimmers in the corner of his vision.
On the nightstand.
A picture frame.
Red, though streaks of the wood underneath show through.
Black and white.
A man, a smile, a sepia scarf knotted at his throat.
Yet Mako knows the scarf was red.
His lips form the sound, his tongue touching the roof of his mouth, but he doesn't believe it until he hears it, whispered into that same scarf.
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