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The instant Mako hits the street, he wishes there were a way he could somehow make sure Bolin's safely in the canoe—for once listening to instructions—but he knows the only thing he can do is get to the market, figure out what's going on, and return as quickly as possible. Beyond the harbour, the massive dome of the golden Pro-bending Arena rises high above him, curving almost into the clouds themselves, impossibly large, impossibly expensive. It could be the home of the spirits, if he believed in them.

After all this time, it's hard to believe in anything that isn't food.

By high noon, the sky is a mottled grey, the bellies of the clouds swollen like overripe fruit about to burst. The midst of winter will be soon, but he can't show how scared he is. Not here. Not on the street, where the only thing more vicious than the lizard crows are the people, the shark rats waiting in the shadows of the alleyways, all smiles until the time to strike.

He can't trust anyone anymore, not if he wants to keep his life.

Keeping his footsteps light as possible, Mako shoves his hands into the pockets of his jacket, grateful for the triad's semi-generosity. He forces his gaze down to the ground, stepping over the cracks in the sidewalk, the cement fracturing with feathery spider fly webs in places, the gashes racing through the land in front of him and reminding him of a map of some kind. To his right, a man dressed in rags sits in front of a sign reading, Need yuans for martial arts lessons to avenge father. The man smiles toothlessly at the firebender when he passes, gesturing wildly towards the empty cup by his side, but by now Mako knows enough to be aware of the cache of yuans somewhere in the man's coat or hat, the donations cup only vacant to cause more to take pity on him.

But who is going to give yuans to someone who wants martial—

A clink makes Mako glance up to see a young man putting his wallet back into his trouser pocket, sniggering at the sign. The homeless one lets out a whoop of joy. "Daddy, here I come!" he croak-sings while the donator walks away, shaking his head and laughing to himself.

Mako blinks.


Maybe that's the key.

He'll do anything he can.

The firebender knows this place in his very bones, the crumbling foundation of the city. Dancing flames erupt from trash cans overflowing with waste that no one in the city will ever pick up, the dull orange and red casting dim light onto the ashen faces of street rats huddling together for warmth, their ribs jutting like rungs of a ladder through their worn clothing. A handful shake violently, coughing into their hands until their fists are coated in mucus or blood, the yearly flu beginning to take its toll. A lone Satomobile roars through the road, the windows tinted black, the rimmed tires sending up a wave of winter slush to drench the sidewalk. Mako jerks backwards and watches the edge of the wave pass by before him, his amber eyes temporarily reflected in the sullen water. A hiss behind him prompts a bolt of fire in his palm, and the shark rat slinks back into the alley, its scaly tail flicking in annoyance at losing the meal. Bracing his hand against his chest to feel his heart hammering against his sternum, the firebender takes a moment to catch his breath.

It could have been over.

He pauses by a face-down corpse to check for shoes. Bare feet. Mako frowns and ponders momentarily if the person—he can't tell the gender—had shoes that were stolen or gnawed away by street rats or if he simply never had shoes at all. It's easier to think of the dead as he. A she could be a mother or pregnant or anything else. A kid can survive without his dad. But without Mom?

He doesn't know if he'll ever be able to forgive her for leaving.

The buildings grow steadily less dilapidated, the greys and browns at last being replaced with the colour and the hubbub of the market. With Watertown to the north and lively settlements of refugees and newcomers to the east and west, the market is a jumble, halfway between a tent city and a wild bazaar.

With a start Mako understands why Mom and Dad must've gone to this market all of this time. Because Dad, at least, was a newcomer, too.

The merchants hawk their wares at the top of their lungs, screaming offerings of fresh ocean kumquats, crisp falcon bass, delectable hippo cow steaks wet with juices and shiny with sauce. Mako inhales the scents, his mouth watering, but he hasn't been here in years. Nervously he grasps the end of his scarf, slightly surprised when he realises that it no longer hangs low on his body as it did before.

He's getting taller. And the protection the scarf can afford is getting smaller.

He isn't sure whether to laugh or cry.

So he does neither. Mako is shocked at how easy it is for the blood oranges and ash bananas to appear in his grasp, the merchants never once glancing down to see the young thief. It's not really stealing, he rationalises, not when the alternative is giving his life up to the triad.

Carefully he wraps them in his scarf, tucking the parcel into his pocket, pretending to ignore the obvious bulge under his jacket. There's a great chance someone will attack him for it, but, deciding nothing can be done, Mako sets out back. But then motion at the corner of his vision alerts him, a rustle of sable feathers and beady black eyes.

A lizard crow, perched on a bench.

A lizard crow with a skin-pink V scarring its chest.

A lizard crow with a missing foot.

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